MFA Audition Tour: The Yale School of Drama, Mentorship and Seeing the Silver Lining

Before I begin, I’d like to take some time to thank a special mentor and friend to me since I started acting: Professor Steven Lantz-Gefroh.  A quick correction on that, he is actually more than a mentor or friend.  He’s family.  I would not be where I am today, or on the path I am, without his guidance.  During my time in undergrad, Gef pushed me to develop my skills and improve my work ethic in order to be prepared for the arduous life of an actor.  This guidance essentially began on one particular night, after I had performed poorly in a scene.  I remember sitting outside in the theater department hallway, reading the script over and over.  I was overly tired and stressed about other events in my life, and I remember feeling absolutely lost with no direction.  Gef came out and spoke to me.  He asked me if I was going to be okay.  And all I could say was “I just don’t know which path to choose.”  Not many people, let alone a mentor whose job is to push you by any means, feel obligated to genuinely care for their students.  And I didn’t know if I should get an MFA or not.  I had begun to doubt myself and the choices I had made.  Then something miraculous happened.  Truly out of the ordinary.  He sat with me, and he just listened.  After hours conversing, Gef had comforted my fears, telling me to be afraid and “admit the fear” to myself whenever I get on stage; To welcome fear with open arms.  I knew that we are only afraid of what we don’t know and understand.  So I came to the conclusion that I needed to develop my plan.  I realized I needed to trust the process.  In probably the kindest act, or gift, a teacher can give to their student, it’s what Steven Lantz-Gefroh did for me.  He listened to me to understand.  He was not afraid to help and guide.  He welcomed the challenge and does so every day for his students.  I have never witnessed a professor that will go to such lengths to help a student achieve their potential.  He just is a man who never, ever quits on anyone.  He tries his best for his students.  And that’s more than most ever do.  So it was Gef who encouraged me to trust myself and pursue an MFA degree in acting.  Without that talk, I might be working behind a desk at a job I hate instead of writing this.  I have him to thank for why I am acting today.  He gave me something extremely special: belief in myself.  For that, I just want to say thank you, Gef.  And I love you.

You may be wondering about why I mention my mentor.  Well he actually is an alumni of the MFA program I am about to discuss.  He encouraged me to audition for grad school as he did when he was in his 20s.  And as it must have been a tough road for him, I can certainly affirm that it was also an extremely tough road for me.  Only just the beginning of a 2-year journey, here’s all I have to say about my experience auditioning at The Yale School of Drama.

Was I right to go for my MFA degree in acting?  Well, to find out, I had to experience an audition for myself.  A year after my talk with Gef, at 19 years old, I paid the audition fee and booked a slot for the New Haven auditions for YSD.  (Generally, most MFA programs hold auditions in their local city, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles) Some of you might wonder if I had any collegiate degree.  The answer is actually no, I had not graduated community college yet and received even half of a 4-year degree.  But for those of you interested, YSD does have a certificate they award to graduates of their program.  To qualify for a certificate, students who apply to YSD that are without a bachelors degree can do so if they have been out of high school for more than 5 years.  The certificate becomes an MFA if the student ever completes their bachelors degree during or after their time at Yale.  I actually did not realize the necessary requirements one needed to be applicable for a certificate, but applied anyway.  Although I didn’t officially qualify, somehow the application was accepted and I was given an audition date and time.  And I drove up to New Haven, Connecticut with my Dad (Who, by the way, is the the greatest Dad there is.  He’s been there for me my entire life and sacrifices so much to help his kids) the night before, monologues prepared.  To be honest, despite being ineligible for admission, I was no where near prepared enough, having only two solid monologues to audition with (I did have two alternate monologues, but they were not nearly as prepared as my first pair).  But before I elaborate any further, here’s the breakdown of how The Yale School of Drama conducts their audition process.

At YSD, each audition day is broken up into several hourly slots that applicants sign up for when they register for auditions on online.  (Typically, applicants can register up to several months prior to their audition scheduled date). These hourly auditions consist of usually at least 20 actors, who are subsequently split up into two separate groups.   Group A auditions for one of two audition judges.  Group B auditions for the other.  When I auditioned in 2015, the two judges were Walton Wilson, The Chair of the Acting Department, and Ron Van Lieu, The Lloyd Richards Adjunct of Acting at YSD since 2004.  Prior to each hour, both men speak to the group of actors.  (I really enjoyed this part of the process because it calmed my nerves somewhat and made me reaffirm that this is just an audition, and we are all just human beings). Ron and Walton told us the most important thing was to to breathe.  Now, years later, and having received further training, I gladly agree with that statement.  Which brings about my first tip for many of you hopeful MFA applicants reading this:  Breathe and enjoy each breath.  You cannot be connected to anything in life if you don’t breathe.  Forget doing it right.  Forget impressing others.  Forget showing all your emotion in one speech.  That’s not what we do in our daily lives.  Stop thinking about it all.  Just breathe.  Obviously, you can’t live if you stop breathing, so how can you possibly live as another character, if only for a moment, if you tighten up and strain through an entire monologue by holding your breath.  You’ll suffocate the life of the character you are playing!

I recall walking into the audition room in front of Ron Van Lieu.  And I was terrified.  I had done so much research about the program and put so much pressure on myself prior to my audition that I didn’t value the one opportunity I really was guaranteed.  Was I guaranteed to get admitted into YSD?  No.  No one is.  Was I guaranteed to do my best performance of this pair of monologues?  No.  However, I was guaranteed to get just one audition, an audition approximately 2-4 minutes in front of one other human being whom I had never met.  I was guaranteed one, and only one opportunity: to act.   There actually was a student sitting beside Ron Van Lieu, a young man and MFA actor in the YSD program.  Both men were kind to me and seemed welcoming.  As I walked in I noticed a yellow line on the classroom’s floor, drawn about 30 feet from Ron and the student.  Earlier, Ron and Walton had told us to stand behind that line when doing our pieces.  I was so nervous when I first entered the room and almost blanked about the yellow line.  The reason I was nervous was not because I was unprepared or scared of the man behind the table.  The reason I was nervous was not because I doubted my ability to play the characters in my audition pieces.  The reason I was nervous was because I was worried about impressing the judge in front of me.  I was more worried about my chances of getting into the school, than I was about actually enjoying this opportunity to act. And that’s my next tip:  Pick pieces that you want to do, that you have fun doing and that you love because of your connection to them.  I say this because my first time auditioning for Yale was like a test run, an experiment, and I was more focused on getting it right than I was on having fun.  But I learned so much from failing.  I learned you only have so much time in front of these audition monitors and judges, so enjoy that little bit of time you are lucky to have!  You may have spent money for that time.  Why not HAVE FUN!!!

Also, remember that in any audition, those behind the table are just people who share similar traits and experiences to your own.  We’re all human and breathe the same air.  So ease up a little, take over the space and have confidence in your own self-worth.  You all have something that makes you, you.  Whatever quality that is your strength, reinforce it with the pieces you love!

Obviously, I didn’t know any of this during my first MFA audition.  I actually didn’t apply this relaxed, “what do I have to lose”/have fun mentality until after my Yale School of Drama audition.  That is, after my second time auditioning.

You see, the next year, (I didn’t get in the first time) I tried again, this time prepared with 6 Shakespeare pieces and 6 contemporary.  I had prepared all of these pieces over the course of about 2 years prior to my entire audition tour.  And Yale was once again first on the list.  (It just worked out that way with flight scheduling)  This time around, I tried to breathe, relax, and have fun with my pieces.  (Side note: recently, Yale implemented an audition limit of three attempts per applicant.  To my knowledge, you can still apply to audition, but it is discouraged by the program).  Being my second experience with YSD, I knew what to expect and welcomed the fear as Gef taught me to do so very well.  I had this mentality that it’s not just about me being right for a school; The school has to be right for me.  And that mentality gave me confidence to do the pieces I wanted to do, however I wanted to do them!  I walked into the room and auditioned for Walton Wilson this time.  He was extremely kind and told me to start whenever I was ready.  Unlike Ron, Walton actually looked up and watched me while I performed my two speeches.  I remember seeing him smile and feeling much better about my audition than the year prior.  I even called my Dad to tell him I thought I had a shot at a callback…

But I still didn’t get a callback.  All that work and nothing to validate it… or so it seemed.  Only one name out of 20 hopeful actors was written on the callback sheet.  It hurt.  All rejection can hurt.  But were dreams crushed?  Eh, not for me.  If it’s your dream school, that’s one thing.  But mine was Actors Studio Drama School and I had yet to audition for it.  Watching Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and being moved by his performance; becoming inspired to pursue acting at ASDS where he had trained was the whole reason I met Gef, and started acting in college.  And Yale wasn’t for nothing.  I’m glad I didn’t get in.  It made me better.  My whole MFA audition tour was course corrected and improved because I learned what monologues didn’t work well together.  It was practice.  It was rehearsal.  And that’s another tip: Treat every audition like it’s a rehearsal.  Of course rejection hurts.  But does it mean I should pack up and switch my major?  No.  All a rejection means is “not this year.  Try again if you would like to”.  And that’s my fourth tip: Let the “no’s” roll off.  Do not worry if you don’t get in anywhere.  I mean it.  The only loss you could ever have is if you were to quit.  By applying to schools and doing your best work, you are forcing yourself to develop your auditioning skills and better your craft!  You’ll become a better actor by trying, rather than not trying at all.  And after getting my first “no” out of the way, it was like something clicked for me: I realized I have nothing to lose.  I got home, worked on my pieces for four or five hours and went to bed.  And then I got up the next day and worked on arranging my pieces in different orders.  And then my song.  And my scene.  Then once a day’s work was done you know what I did?  I filled up the little time remaining in each day by spending time with the people I love and enjoying the things I loved to do!  I read plays for fun and Shakespeare for fun.  I went swimming, hiking, played basketball, and played some Super Smash Brothers with my best friends. I worked on classes for my online college, (I really enjoyed my online college experience at Empire State College.  If you’re interested in knowing more about it, feel free to write me by hitting the ‘Contact’ button on my website’s home page) saw some new and old movies, read other books on my list, played piano (poorly) and I worked on singing.  To be successful at auditioning for these schools, you have to allow yourself to play and be creative in your approach to each monologue.  And I enjoyed playing and learning from each and every school audition, all while completing my degree and assistant directing/understudying a show.  Keeping busy and allowing yourself to play will not only help you achieve more, but it will leave you having fun and staying relaxed in the process.  And by being relaxed and having fun, you won’t obsess if you are right for a school…you’ll be able to take a step back and assess if the school is right for you.  If you surround yourself with things to do that you love and people you love, these auditions will feel like a piece of cake.  They can be so fun as long as you allow them to be!  Think about it: You get to travel.  You get to meet new people.  You get to learn!  I know I did.  So stay tuned, because even though Yale didn’t work out for me, it helped me learn so much for auditions going forward.    I am proud to be on this path.  And I am proud to be an actor.

Next stop?   I’m going to dive into the audition process of The Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University: First Round.

-Dan Pavacic

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