About a year ago, the big discussion in the world of college auditions was the Class of 2020’s immeasurable loss. So much had been taken from them in an instant. Proms, graduations, their final months with friends in high school were all robbed away from them because of COVID-19. Luckily, the pandemic grew after audition season was finished, though now the Class of 2020 had the unimaginable pressure of selecting their school without the ability to visit their schools. This was unheard of. The horror! No class has ever had to bear such a burden during the college audition process in the history of musical theatre college programs.

Then the Class of 2021 walked into the room and said “Hold my beer.”

Tim with some of his Class of 2021 at on-campus auditions.

As guinea pigs in a completely virtual college audition season, 2021 had to wade their way through a process that, in many cases, was being written as it was happening. After a blissful year in 2020 where the “Common Prescreen” streamlined the audition process, the Class of 2021 submitted prescreens that, in some cases, it was determined after they submitted that it wouldbe their final audition. Once you passed the prescreen (yay!) then came the requests for each school’s dance call – something we didn’t know was going to be a thing. In some cases, students had only a couple of days to learn the dance call combination, record it, and return it. And how about the school that only allowed the students to watch the videos twice during that time? Yowza! How do we prepare them for this? Yes, I think that it is an incredible skill to teach them to be readyat a moment’s notice to film and submit a video submission at the drop of a hat because “that’s show business,” but is the most stressful time of their lives really the time to be teaching them this lesson? It’s not their fault. We were all figuring it out together.

Some schools decided that they would only interview you after having seen your audition tapes. Some schools had a waiting room with current students to chat with while you waited. Some schools did not, and when you logged into Zoom – BAM – you were in the audition. Some schools that required sight reading would share their screen with you, or hold their wobbly camera up to a piece of paper and ask the student to sight read from that. Some schools were running almost an hour ahead of schedule and sent you an email asking you to be ready in 10 minutes. Some schools had the technology down and it was smooth sailing. Some schools needed students to remind them to unmute their mics when they wanted to talk to you. Some schools sent the link for the wrong day to you so when you logged into Zoom, the meeting already happened last week. Is any of this their fault? No. We were all figuring it out together.

Tim with some of his Class of 2020 students at the Palmer House Hotel, on the final night of Unifieds in February 2020.

Some students were able to audition for these programs this year because the economic barrier of travel was removed from the equation. Some students had the luxury of asking their family to leave the house while they were having their audition. Some students had slow internet connections because both of their parents and their three siblings were all at home working or attending school. Some students bought a photography backdrop and lighting to set up a dedicated audition area in their home. Some students auditioned in their bathroom. Some students had to deal with the fed ex guy ringing the doorbell during their audition. Some students didn’t have adequate microphones, cameras, or lighting that misrepresented their talents that wouldn’t have otherwise been an issue in person. Some students had use of a dance studio to film their dance auditions, while some students had to film their auditions outside because there wasn’t adequate room in their small, cramped apartment.  Is any of this their fault? No. We were figuring it out together.

I am asked repeatedly whether or not the virtual auditions are here to stay. To this I reply “I hope so, and I hope not.” As I said, it made the audition process more accessible to students who wouldn’t normally have the luxury of paying for plane tickets and hotels for 2-3 trips across the country to audition for schools, and for that I’m grateful for the virtual auditions. But the Class of 2021 was robbed of the personal connections that are made inside the audition room. Dr. Peter Cooke at Carnegie Mellon once told me “I can overlook the fact that they haven’t been taking dance since they were three years old if they’re a good person that is a joy to be around.” This is a good reminder that I constantly try to impart on my students: you are not just auditioning for a program. You are auditioning for the role of “student they can stand to be around for four years.” I’m just not sure how effectively you can judge the warmth and humility of a student through a computer screen while they’re trying to navigate zoom and playing their accompaniment tracks all while remembering to smile and be pleasant.

I am anxious to see if any schools have any surprises when they meet their classes in person for the first time. It will be interesting to see if any of them realize they accepted students that they normally wouldn’t have – for whatever reason – because they didn’t meet them in person. I think that will be a deciding factor as to the longevity of the virtual audition during this process.

Though we are afraid to talk about it, the prospect of another completely virtual audition season for the Class of 2022 is starting to poke its head into conversations. Vaccine rollouts are slow, and there is still no vaccine for people under 18. It would be impossible to find spaces large enough to accommodate socially-distanced audition rooms, and you really couldn’t appropriately hold auditions with students wearing masks, could you? Several summer programs are already going online for the summer of 2021 because it will still be unsafe. I just don’t see everything magically getting better just two months later when audition season begins in late October, early November. Some universities are already preparing for virtual performances of their shows for the 2021-2022 school year. I think it’s time we prepare for another virtual audition season – the good news is, we’re really good at it now.

And we have the Class of 2021 to thank for that. 

As I’m sitting here now writing this, I’m struck by the fact that through all these changes and unknowns, one thing has not changed. These kids still have the same sense of determination, and wonder, and excitement that I have experienced since I started preparing students for college with the Class of 2005. Maybe it’s because they didn’t know any different. Did they miss in person auditions? If they did, it didn’t break their spirits. Acceptances are really starting to come in now, and through this ridiculous and wonderful process of auditioning for college, the payoff of an acceptance letter is just as sweet, and the smiles are just as big. Was it stressful? You bet. But I’d argue that it was no more stressful than having your flight canceled or delayed because there was (yet another!) blizzard hitting Chicago during Unifieds.

The Class of 2021 dealt with this year with class, dignity, excitement, smiles, and determination. Even though these guinea pigs went through uncharted territory this year, they are wrapping up this process just the same as all my classes before them. They still have smiles on their faces, and they are ready to step into the next chapter of their life as college students. They’re a little bruised around the edges, but the process has taught them that they possess the maturity, grit, flexibility, knowledge, confidence, and skillset to make it in this crazy business of Theatre.

Go make magic, 2021.

And 2022…hold on tight, it’s time to get started.

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