Graduating seniors transition from academic to professional work with the help of BYU’s faculty-mentored audition showcase
When it comes to the performing arts, an academic setting can only get you so far. Each student must ultimately make the leap from faculty-mentored shows and assignments to the professional world. The BYU New York Showcase helps BFA acting and Music Dance Theatre (MDT) majors navigate this challenging, but exciting, transition from campus to career.
2018 marks the 17th year in which BYU theatre faculty members have taken graduating seniors to New York City to guide and support them through their daunting first auditions and help them build a network.
“The purpose of the New York Showcase is to take BFA acting and MDT students to New York to perform for and potentially meet with casting directors and agents, so that if and when they move to New York, they will have a connection already made that we help foster through the university,” explained Stephanie Breinholt, the BFA acting faculty head who works alongside MDT faculty head Tim Threlfall to put the showcase together.
Students prepare throughout the fall and winter semesters leading up to the spring showcase. They take classes covering various aspects of the audition process and professional life, talk with BYU alumni who made the transition to New York and meet with agents and industry professionals.
One such industry professional is casting director Rachel Hoffman, who travels to BYU every March to help students polish their material for the showcase. “The relationship we’ve fostered with Rachel Hoffman has been the single most significant development with the showcase,” said Threlfall. “Rachel is a major casting director in New York City working for the famed Telsey and Company Casting. She is our ‘sponsor’ in New York—Rachel only works with a few universities around the country on their showcase, and BYU is glad to be one of them!’
Hoffman, Threlfall and Breinholt hope to give graduating seniors an informed and realistic view of the world to come after BYU. “We work on preparing students for that transition from university life to professional or pre-graduate program auditions,” said Breinholt. “We work on their skills as a performer, but we also cover ethics, systems and business—all the things that prepare them for the outside world.”
“Preparing for the showcase was incredibly daunting,” said Madison Hall, an MDT graduate who took part in the showcase this last spring and made the move to New York shortly after. “It was the culmination of everything I’d learned during my four years as a music dance theatre student. The pressure was intense.”
“The best things that I did for myself to prepare was to get involved with as much as I could on and off campus,” Hall continued. “I tried to take advantage of all of the training opportunities I could while they were still available to me. I also reached out to multiple alumni asking for advice on the showcase and moving to the city.”
Because auditions require performers to convey their abilities and personality in a short period of time, students prepare a three-minute package, typically consisting of two contrasting short songs or scenes. From there, the individual auditions are crafted into a cohesive show that is presented to talent agents and casting directors when the group arrives in New York.
“The showcase includes musical solos, monologues, group numbers and transitions. It is a curated package for not only the students to showcase their abilities, but for BYU to showcase the caliber of talent that comes from our school,” said Breinholt.
“The experience was both exhilarating and nerve-racking at the same time,” said Hall on performing for the agents. “It was hard to not let thoughts like ‘this is the most important performance of my life’ or ‘how well I do right now will literally dictate my success in the industry’ take over. I was pleasantly surprised by how kind everyone was. I felt very supported.”
“The showcase is a really nice transition,” added Breinholt. “It allows students to prepare for this oftentimes very scary first performance in New York, but it also allows us to mentor and guide them through that process and introduce them to various professionals that they probably wouldn’t be meeting on their own.”
After successfully making it through their first New York auditions, students in recent years have also had the chance to perform alongside BYU alumni in Broadway Sessions, a weekly cabaret frequented by Broadway patrons and industry professionals.
“It is quite prestigious for BYU to be asked to join the lineup for Broadway Sessions,” said Tim Threlfall. “Most of the Broadway Sessions are performed by the cast of currently-running Broadway musicals. A few select BFA musical theatre training programs are also invited to participate.”
Breinholt was able to attend Broadway Sessions this last year to cheer on her students. “The venue was not as pressurized as performing in front of the agents, so the students could sing anything that they really wanted to,” she said. “They were mainly surrounded by fellow artists and performers, and it was a nice chance to see them let go of the fear and the pressure from the more high stakes auditions. We got to see another side of the students.”
“The experience was a fun way to relax and let go of the stress that had culminated from the rest of the week,” said Hall of the cabaret. “We were able to celebrate how far we had all come and reunite with BYU alumni.”
For many of the students who participate in the New York Showcase, the stress of auditions pays off in a big way. “Many students had immediate callback auditions for several Broadway productions,” said Threlfall. “Several graduating seniors planning on relocating to New York City were able to sign contracts with top-tier agents to represent them for theatre, film and television work. This creates a wonderful bridge from the academic to professional world.”
Hall is one such success story to come out of the program. “Without the showcase, I would not have had the opportunity to audition for so many credible theatrical and TV agents,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to sign with my current agent who has made it possible for me to get into important rooms and auditions during my first few months in the city. I wouldn’t have been able to book my first professional job. It has meant everything to my career!”
“My hope for the students is that they find within them the courage and confidence to break out of the expectations they’ve set for themselves,” said Breinholt. “They are doing things they probably didn’t think they could do. After this past April, I got updates almost every week from those students who moved to New York. It’s great to see the success that can come from it, especially because it’s a lot of work.”
“Many university programs don’t offer showcases like BYU does,” added Hall. “It is the best way to successfully jumpstart a professional career in New York City. Everyone who is serious about making it in the industry needs to take advantage of the showcase—the potential connections you will make through it will be priceless. I am so grateful to BYU, to all of the donors and to all of my professors for making the showcase possible.”
In addition to networking with agents and casting directors, one of the most valuable offerings of the showcase is the connection it fosters between graduating students and alumni. “A lot of alumni come to their performances and create a network for them as they’re considering moving to the city,” said Breinholt. “Students join the alumni group before they even become alumni, and they have this support system that they take with them. It’s really lovely to be a part of.”
Hall, now part of the alumni network herself, offered advice to those future acting and MDT students who choose to take advantage of this career-shaping program. “As cliché as it is, you have to show you,” she said. “Don’t get too caught up in what you think agents want to see or what the industry is ‘looking for.’ You just have to stay true to you. That can be the hardest part.”
“Trust in the training you’ve received and go in with as much confidence as you can,” she continued. “Agents are attracted to passion and commitment. The hardest thing about the showcase is you cannot predict what is going to happen—the only thing you can do is choose material that shows you off the best, work hard and show up.”
Photos courtesy of Tim Threlfall.