Junior Allison O’Brien had hoped to attend graduate school for acting starting in the spring 2022 term after graduating from Boston College next fall, but when she found out some programs were no longer accepting applicants because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she realized she must put her plans on pause.
“Theatre has always been such a huge part of my life,” O’Brien, MCAS ’22, said. “I knew that if I was going to continue doing theatre and acting after college … I wanted to at least try to be the best that I possibly could, and going into a grad program would definitely help me do that.”
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many graduate theatre programs to halt their admissions until at least next fall, disrupting many current students’ post-graduation plans.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the acting programs that I was interested in aren’t taking applicants for a class of 2021 because they don’t know when the pandemic will end,” O’Brien said.
The combined Brown University and Trinity Repertory Acting and Directing program and the Yale School of Drama, two programs O’Brien was interested in applying to, are not accepting applicants for next year.
Brown University decided to not to take applications for the 2021-22 academic year so that it could focus on better supporting its current students through the pandemic, according to a statement on its website.
A lot of theatre strongly depends on being able to be in a room with other people and being close.Allison O’Brien, MCAS ’22
The Yale School of Drama said on its website that practical production work is integral to conservatory training, but the national public health protocols in place to protect the public from the pandemic have made this work impossible this year.
With many in-person performances canceled, the school is unable to provide students with a quality education and the theatrical opportunities required to fulfill these master’s of fine arts programs, the website reads.
“A lot of theatre strongly depends on being able to be in a room with other people and being close,” O’Brien said.
Cassie Chapados, BC ’17, also planned to apply to graduate school to pursue a master’s in directing. After noticing that several graduate programs changed their admissions procedures this year, she emailed a Northwestern University theatre department representative in October to ask if the school was still accepting applications. When she received an email back, she was notified that admissions were stalled—she would have to wait another year to apply to her top graduate program.
“I’m a planner. I mean my whole job is planning,” Chapados said. “So it really threw me …. But initially I had this idea of the next 10 years of my life, what was going to happen. And now, that’s pushed back at least a year, if not more.”
Chapados was also looking into directing programs at Yale and Brown, along with the University of California San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin, two programs that are still accepting applications for the fall 2021 academic year. Although some schools are still accepting students for the next academic year, Chapados said since she can’t apply to her number one program, she won’t be applying this year.
As with most graduate programs, spots are granted to a limited number of applicants. For theatre programs specifically, Chapados said only a handful of students are accepted out of hundreds of applications, granting those selected a personalized education.
Programs that will continue to run next year, including the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, the University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, and the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, will likely have to train individuals in a masked, socially distanced, or entirely virtual environment, according to their websites. This altered environment is one that Chapados said won’t give her the training she needs to excel in an industry rooted in live engagement.
“With a theatre grad program, it’s all practical learning,” Chapados said. “You can’t really learn how to do theatre without doing it, and while we’re living in a world right now where we’re having to learn how to do virtual theatre, that’s not what it’s going to be for the rest of time.”
After working on professional theatre productions and even directing a few—including female-centered shows such as Every Girl Should Know during her senior year at BC, She Kills Monsters, and her nearly three-year-long project Snow Girl—Chapados was ready to return to the classroom to hone her skills as a director. Instead, this year she will continue working as production manager and technical director at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, as she has for the past three years.
But even in the professional theatre industry, Chapados said work opportunities have changed in response to the pandemic, as productions are limited in scope and scale or are canceled entirely.
At Central Square Theater this past summer, Chapados said all performances, including dance performances, drag shows, live music, poetry slams, and storytelling, were exclusively one-person shows in order to allow for social distancing. The theater also held free shows in its outdoor Starlight Square in front of a small crowd of distanced audience members.
While these limitations have given her time to focus on gaining different experience, Chapados still feels like she is missing out.
“[The pandemic] gives me more opportunity to direct, to do more work professionally,” Chapados said. “But also, we’re in a pandemic. So there’s only so much professional work that I could do, even though I have more time. There aren’t necessarily a lot of opportunities—it’s just nobody’s producing anything, so it’s sort of a double-edged sword.”
Chapados also said she is worried about how theaters will continue to monetize productions and retain actors, staff, and audience members. She said the company is currently closing its offices for the winter season since the actors cannot perform indoors. In the meantime, she said she will be prepping for a virtual festival hosted by Central Square Theater in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The festival will feature theatrical readings and panel discussions about women in science in April.
While some individuals pursuing graduate school stepped away from the application process this year, Natalie Marsan, MCAS ’21, is moving forward with her plans to attend graduate school for acting next fall. She is balancing her coursework with applying to 10 programs and prepping around eight monologues and three songs. Marsan said she is still adjusting to the necessary changes the pandemic has brought, such as practicing with instructors while socially distanced and wearing masks.
“Acting as a career is going to have its ups and downs,” Marsan said. “In general, the entire COVID pandemic has given me a lot of perspective as to how to continue to participate in theatre and make acting and creativity a big part of my life, in any capacity, even if it’s not in the capacity that I thought it would be in.”
In preparation for her graduate school auditions, Marsan has been working over Zoom with Theatre Department Chair Luke Jorgensen on her monologues and vocal exercises. She has also been virtually auditioning for BC theatre performances this year, an activity that has helped keep her acting skills sharp and helped her grow accustomed to auditioning over Zoom. Marsan said she believes that performing in person and on screen require two different skill sets—both of which she will have to master for her graduate school auditions.
“When you’re auditioning in person, you’re getting the energy from the director and your panel of judges, and you can kind of base how you feel about how you’re doing off of the reactions you’re getting from them,” Marsan said. “Over Zoom the biggest challenge is being able to maintain your energy and maintain your focus, because you are not in person with your auditioners, and you need to be able to get your artistic vision across a screen.”
This is my passion. This is my chosen career, and I just can’t wait to get started.Natalie Marsan, MCAS ’21
If all goes according to plan, Marsan will be performing up to three auditions per school. In the past, Marsan said schools required only two auditions—a preliminary audition and a callback. But she said some schools are asking for taped pre-screened auditions this year, which Marsan said she believes schools added to limit travel during the pandemic. Marsan said these pre-screened auditions will determine whether or not she will be invited to perform in person or over Zoom. She said she hopes that all her preparation will earn her admission and eventually help her gain access to the theatre industry.
“I’m hoping that I can be in the entertainment industry in as many different facets as possible … in live theatre, in film and television, possibly in voiceover theatre—in any capacity,” Marsan said. “This is my passion. This is my chosen career, and I just can’t wait to get started.”
With fewer graduate programs accepting students for the next academic year, Jorgensen, who has been collaborating with Marsan for the past five weeks on her monologues, expects it to be an especially difficult year to earn admittance to graduate schools for the performing arts. He said five BC students have expressed an interest to him in graduate school for theatre education and acting. The pandemic has forced many students such as O’Brien, who has participated in over 40 productions since she was 9 years old, to reconsider their initial plans. These students will have to make adjustments and find other outlets to practice their craft.
After O’Brien finishes her last semester at BC next fall, she plans to audition for virtual productions and work a part-time job. Currently, O’Brien said, there are not a lot of theatre opportunities available, but she said she is going to be patient and wait for more to arise.
“I’ll work locally, I’ll either get a part-time job, or I’ll take more classes just to get ready,” O’Brien said. “And then hopefully go to grad school by fall of 2022—if that is still even a possibility.”
Photos by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor