Theatre School: The Journey and Reality


The view of Chicago from the conference room of The Theatre School at DePaul University. (Taken during my tour of the school in January.)

Hannah Manikowski, Editorials Editor

“Getting into theatre school is like getting into law school. The only differences are that acceptance rates are lower, those outside of the theatre world will not respect your acceptance on the same level that they would respect a law student’s, and you have to go through the whole process as an eighteen-year-old. This will be the most grueling year of your life to date. There will be nights you spend crying on your bedroom floor, wondering whether or not you’re cut out for this life, or maybe whether or not you want this life in the first place. You still in?”

This was the question posed to me by my college coach, director, mentor, and close friend, Christina Hoff of Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory, eight months ago, at the beginning of my senior year, when I first began my journey on the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre audition circuit. At the time, I all but disregarded her warning. Of course I was still in! After all, I had devoted my entire high school career to theatre. I knew I had talent. I knew I had drive and dedication. I knew I could interview well. I knew I was intelligent. Nothing seemed too daunting or out of my reach.

What I did not yet fully grasp was the gravity of the fact that every one of the thousands of applicants on the audition circuit had all of those skills. Every one of the kids competing for an acceptance had been praised for their talents. Every one of us had been successful up to this point. And we were all competing for the same limited number of slots in each program.

When the process started in the fall, the numbers felt like an abstract. I could have read a thousand times over about the 1,200 kids vying for one of twelve slots at one program, the 150 vying for one of four slots at another, the 950 vying for sixteen slots at another still… None of that held any weight yet. All I could focus on was my own journey.

The first hurdle was the written application process. I ultimately applied to seventeen schools – and, while I could not have predicted it at the time, that was the easy part. Next came the auditions – the more compelling factor of admissions and the true monster.

I participated in an event called “Unifieds,” a program that gathers all the major theatre schools together in a centralized location with the purpose of consolidating auditions for three separate audition periods: one in New York, one in LA, and one in Chicago. I attended the New York and Chicago Unified Auditions as well as an additional set of auditions in North Carolina shortly afterward for what would turn out to be three of the most emotionally charged weeks of my life.

For those three whirlwind weeks, my life was scheduled down to the second. Two one minute monologues and a portfolio review for one school at 9:00 a.m., one ninety second monologue and an interview for the next at 10:30, a third interview rescheduled for later in the afternoon because the representative’s flight was delayed, a tour of a top choice program that same day (assuming the rescheduled interview did not interfere), time sanctioned off in the evening to decompress by attending a show in the city and grabbing dinner with Dad, a cancelled flight home due to inclement weather… My mind was on constant overdrive, my adrenaline was high, and, although my stress levels were unprecedented, there was a certain magic present amidst the chaos. Everything felt heightened, like nothing was real, like I was floating. Even as the reality of the low acceptance rates really began to sink in, so did the knowledge that I was standing on the precipice of something incredible. Without expectations for the outcome, I knew from the process alone that what I was doing was significant. I felt wholly assured that the world of theatre was what I wanted forever.

I was lucky. When the process was all over and the letters started flowing in, one of the first I received was an acceptance from my top choice program. But I also received rejections from many, many others, and, as a theatre artist, I had to learn not to take these rejections personally. I did not apply to so many schools in order to have a wide array of options and a definite safety net; I applied to them out of necessity, with the hopes of being accepted at one. Theatre is a cutthroat industry wherein the supply of artists is greater than the demand for them. I played a number game that was stacked against me, and, in so many ways, I was successful.

I still have schools left on my list to hear from, but, if all goes as planned, next year, I will begin studying directing at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. And yes – there were nights I questioned myself. There were nights I did spend crying on my bedroom floor – more nights than I would like to admit. But, ultimately, this process only served to strengthen my resolve. I know, now more than ever, that I could do nothing else with my life and feel fulfilled.

Over the course of the past year, the words of actor and director Robert Helpmann have become my mantra: “Theatre remains the only thing I understand. It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being. In spite of jealousies and fear, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety – this is the only life I know. It is the life I love. ”

I have a passion. Attached to that passion is an appreciation for the process in its entirety – even when the process nearly breaks me. This is the only life I know. And oh – how I love it.