Marymount Manhattan College can be found on 71st Street, so its performing arts students already benefit from its prime location in relation to the Broadway theatre district.
Many of those former students now call Broadway home. Alum Andrew Rannells, a Tony nominee for The Book of Mormon, is getting ready to open in Falsettos; Jenna Ushkowitz serves up Broadway’s best baked goods over at Waitress; Jason Gotay soared over audiences in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; Adrienne Warren earned a Tony nomination last season for her star-making performance in Shuffle Along… and Annaleigh Ashford took home Tony gold last year for her comedic turn in You Can’t Take It With You.
Next, two of Marymount’s students (one former and one on a leave of absence) bring musical theatre to television audiences this fall: Laverne Cox is the “sweet transvestite” at the heart of Fox’s Rocky Horror, and Maddie Baillio will dance her way onto NBC for Hairspray Live!
“One of the great things about Marymount is that it’s in Manhattan,” says Warren, “so when I graduated from that school, I was blessed enough to already have an agent, and I had my first job before I even graduated. I was working at Encores! [in The Wiz] before I even graduated because we were in the center of everything, and people were able to come and see us perform. [Casting director Andrew Zerman] saw me as Sarah in [Marymount’s production of] Ragtime, and that’s really how I got my agent and how the ball started rolling for me because of the opportunity—performing and learning about the city and feeling acclimated to the city already before you graduate, so you don’t feel like a fish out of water. You’re already here, and it’s already home to you.”
Approximately 1,200 to 1,300 hopefuls audition and/or interview for Marymount’s Theatre department (including performance programs, design and directing programs, as well), which typically enrolls a freshman class of 200. The Dance department auditions about 600 hopefuls and takes roughly 60. The competition for acceptance is fierce, but rightfully so.
“We’re offering very intensive education and training in both dance and theatre, within the context of this liberal arts college,” explains David Mold, the chair of the Division of Fine and Performing Arts at Marymount. “I think what makes our alumni really strong performing artists is that they are really knowledgeable—they know how to think critically. … I think it’s the mix of the intensive dance and theatre training along with the well-rounded college education that helps set the alums apart.”
Mold says that what makes Marymount unique is real-world preparation. Not only are students trained technically in singing, dancing and acting, but they are taught how to get a job out of college and how to create opportunities for themselves if they aren’t immediately cast upon graduation.
“Our dance students have a senior seminar, in which they are studying about the current world of professional dance,” says Mold. “They have to learn about various dance companies that are working—not only in New York, but throughout the country—and the students are required to come up with a business plan to creating their own dance company. They have to look for spaces [as well], so the dance faculty is really getting them to think actively. In the theatre department, we have a ‘Business of Acting’ class, which is a semester-long class for our seniors, which only focuses on the business aspects of the profession. It’s not preparing audition material; it’s learning how to run your own business. In that class, we bring in representatives from Actors’ Equity [and] SAG-AFTRA. [Students] meet with casting directors; they meet with agents. We have somebody come in from Breakdown Services [and] Actors Access to talk about how [professionals] use their services. By the end of the class, [students] have to get their headshots completed, their resumes completed. Everything is about learning how to function as a business.”
Warren prides herself on being educated in multiple aspects of the industry, even the technical side of show business.
“I had the opportunity to work behind the scenes and learn how to work a light board and learn how to help build sets—things that I haven’t gotten the chance to do in my career because that wasn’t my path,” she says, “but because of that, I received such an appreciation for the entire process of creating theatre and everyone that’s involved with it. And I love joking around with someone and saying, ‘I know how to work a light board.’ Every time, the crew is like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I learned so much about all that creating new work entails—from every side of it—not just the performing side of it, which I think is really, really important before you dive into your career.”
Marymount enlists working professionals to lead classes at the college. “For example,” says Mold, “this semester, one of the courses that we’re offering is a course in cabaret that is being taught by [cabaret artist] Lennie Watts, so our students are learning how to put together a cabaret. That class actually culminates in them doing a performance at Don’t Tell Mama.”
Musical theatre students are trained in special dance classes held off-site by teachers such as Dana Moore, Jeff Shade and Ed Kresley. They also study private voice with artists such as Joyce Hall, Paul Katz and David Sisco.
The school “provided us with really incredible opportunities to work with people like Betty Buckley and Donna McKechnie, and we had guest directors from all around the city,” adds Gotay, who currently prepares for the world premiere of Freaky Friday. “You get an experience that is very up-close-and-personal with working artists, and that's really invaluable. Also, you're surrounded by the pulse of New York City, which is where you are most likely planning on pursuing your career.”
In terms of showcase—the senior-year event where students present themselves for agents, managers and casting directors—Marymount does things a little differently.
“We actually showcase through a program that we’ve developed with [educational and networking studio] Actors Connection,” explains Mold, “so instead of doing an invited showcase, where you’re sending out invitations and hoping industry will come, we actually partner with Actors Connection in what’s called a closed showcase, which means that there are specific agents and casting directors that are brought in to see our students. Our students are then seen by those people, and they are not only seen in these auditions by them, but they’re actually given feedback by the work that they’re doing in that showcase by the industry, so that the students know the kind of things they need to do to improve to be able to work in the professional world.”
For high school seniors looking to begin their college journey in the performing arts, Mold advises teenager to “do their homework. They need to read up on our program and really be sure that the kind of education and training that we offer is the kind of training and education that they are looking for.”
Colleges, such as Marymount, he says, are looking for “well-rounded” students. “Often, young dancers and young theatre artists think it’s only about the technique classes, but it’s really about all the other things that make you a knowledgeable and educated person that you bring along with that technique that makes you an exciting theatre artist to work with,” he says.
Warren reminds incoming students that “it is a marathon and not a sprint.” She advises, “Take advantage of the opportunities that you’re going to [get]—whether it is to learn something new, even if it has nothing to do with what your end goal is career-wise. Learn as much as you possibly can, and take advantage of that time to still be a kid and to still be able to soak everything in around you…because college is such a special experience.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.