Friday, November 18, 2011

All Singing, All Dancing, All Acting: Inside Illinois Wesleyan's Music Theatre Program

When I was preparing a preview for IWU's current production of "Hello Again," I also talked to director Scott Susong about Illinois Wesleyan's Music Theatre program in general. I have long been curious as to how they do it there, at a small school, with a long list of sterling productions and grads who go on to stellar careers in such a competitive field. Scott's answers were so interesting that I decided to split out the "program" stuff and give it its own post. So, for prospective students, parents, alumni, whoever might want it, here's the inside scoop on Music Theatre at IWU, direct from Scott Susong, the Degree Liaison and Head of IWU's Music Theatre progam:

How long have you been head of the program? What attracted you to IWU?

I came to IWU in the fall of 2007 as the Degree Liaison (Head) of Music Theatre. I had gone from being a working actor, working in and out of NYC and across the globe, to going back to get an MFA in Directing, to freelancing as a professional director and then teaching more and more.

In Baltimore, at my former institution, I was moving toward administration and had become a dean and decided I needed a change and wanted to get back to more theatre and away from administration. In IWU I found the best of both worlds.

I had cast a large net and was interviewing all over the country, but after two decades in large East coast cities, I was attracted to the Midwest as a place to rear our two children. When I came for my on campus interview at IWU in January/February of 2007 I got snowed in on campus and spent the weekend with the students and fell in love. Our students at IWU are amazing!

Part of Michael John LaChiusa's "First Lady Suite,"
as performed at Illinois Wesleyan University.

How many students apply every year to be part of Music Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan and how many do you accept?

We are one of the older programs in the country. CCM (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music) is the oldest MT program in the country, conferring their first BFA in Musical Theatre in 1968 and we conferred our first MT class in 1978. At IWU we see between 200 and 250 prospective students from across the country and some foreign countries annually for the BFA in Music Theatre. In the end we audition approximately half of that number on campus and shoot for a class between 6 and 12 with the average being around 8. So we average between a 5% and 10% acceptance rate depending on the number of prospective students in a particular year. BFA numbers vary year to year across the country. About every three years we have a larger class (12) followed by a small class (6). We try to keep the bar high and are selecting for quality over quantity.

Do you balance genders?
Yes, within the MT major, but not necessarily year to year. Currently we have 16 boys and 16 girls across the four years, but my freshmen class breakdown is 3 males to 5 females while my sophomore class is 6 males and only 2 females. I have only had one class that actually had 5 females and 5 males.

What are you looking for in prospective students?

It is IWU, so we want someone who has a strong academic record accompanying their performance resume. We are actor driven but we are looking for them to have strong skills in two of the three major areas in music theatre (Acting, Singing & Dancing). We would like them to show promise of being exceptional in at least one area and of course when we run across someone who is a true triple threat that is always wonderful. We are gaming potential and looking at what the industry needs and is using. We want students who have a nice grasp on who they are and what they want to get out of our training program. If after their audition and interview we feel that we can help them achieve their goals, we will accept them. We are highly selective so that we can personalize our attention so that each student gets what we feel they need to succeed in the competitive field they have chosen to pursue.

Would you say the MT program is intended to prepare students for careers as performers? Do students tend to leap right into auditions or go on to Masters programs or take some other path?

Music Theatre, much like Film/Television, is pretty youth obsessed. “Overnight Sensations” generally take between five and seven years of working regionally, touring and doing Off-Broadway to make it to the Broadway stage. This is a business still very much about relationships. One has to work with people and build a professional resume filled with good recommendations prior to most producers taking the chance on your talent when the stakes are as high as they are on Broadway; therefore, most of our students start working professionally while they are still at IWU. We prescreen every year for professional auditions and then send those selected out to pursue professional stock work in the summer. As I type this we are on a hiatus from rehearsals for “Hello Again,” even though we open Tuesday, because the majority of my cast is in Kentucky at the KTA auditions (a prescreening audition for the Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions in March -- the largest professionals auditions in the country).

Our students hit around five major regional auditions as well as several of the state auditions in the Midwest and our seniors go to UPTAs (United Professional Theatre Auditions) which are national. If you graduate at 22 from IWU and it takes six years to get to Broadway you are 28 and that is still considered young for a Broadway debut.

Of course, we always have those that get there faster like Bry and Evan but generally it looks a little more like the picture I just painted. There is only 1 MFA in Music Theatre in the country and that is San Diego State and there are a handful of MM in Music Theatre (like CCM and Boston Conservatory) but nowadays they want you to have gone out and tried before you come back for more training. This is not necessarily the case for the BA, BFA in Acting or BFA in Tech/Design students at IWU who make up the rest of The School of Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University. BAs often pursue higher degrees since many of them are seeking scholarship over practice and some BFA actors pursue competitive MFA in Acting programs like Yale after completing their time at IWU. Most BFA Tech/Design students, like the BFA Music Theatre students, jump right into the profession. We teach our IWU students that like all artists, a life in the arts means a fundamental understanding that you will be a lifelong learner and will always be in voice lessons, dance classes and working with acting coaches, so the learning never ends.

Evan Kasprzak (center) flies high in IWU's "Of Thee I Sing."

Aside from Bryonha Parham and Evan Kasprzak, whom you just mentioned, I know of a few alumni who have done very well (the ones I put in that previous “Where Are They Now?” piece). Do any other particular MT success stories stand out in your mind?

Well, the Department of Theatre at IWU was formed after WWII and graduated their first BA in Theatre students in 1949. William Duell (’49) was in the first musical they did at IWU in 1948, which was “Of Thee I Sing.” He played Throttlebottom. We celebrated 60 years of Musical Theatre at IWU with my production in 2008. Bill just did a one-night event of Sondheim’s “Evening Primrose” in NYC last year. He is a great example of the kind of graduate we have been fortunate to have over the past 60-plus years of educating theatre artists at IWU. Really, we have had a group of successful grads happening at the middle to end of each decade. We have just been more fortunate in Music Theatre that so many of our MT grads have infiltrated all aspects of the Entertainment Industry. Bill Damaschke (BFA MT ’86) is another great example

Since 2004 we have had at least one to three graduates that have grabbed the attention of top casting directors in the theatre world and have kept a nice buzz around the MT program. We have had Tony, Emmy and Oscar nominees spread evenly across the decades, but here is a (all too incomplete) list of some of the grads on our Facebook page.

Tell me a little about the program and how it’s structured. Does everyone study voice, dance and acting? What do you think is special about the program and why it’s been so successful?

It is a rigorous hybrid of conservatory style training in a liberal arts setting. Students are not allowed to audition for the McPherson and Laboratory season until they have established a good academic record and are declared sophomores (generally by May term of their first year). All BFA performers (Acting and Music Theatre) are put through their fundamentals of acting classes and movement for the stage together. The MT students are expected to also be in a minimum of two to four dances classes every semester (Ballet, Jazz, Tap and Modern), private voice lessons, along with Music Theory, keyboard, weekly repertory class (taught jointly by myself, along with my music and dance coordinators Sandy DeAthos-Meers and Jean Kerr), weekly coaching with accompanists, typical theatre literature courses, Shakespeare, combat, voice & speech, basic technical areas of theatre and their general education courses.

Upperclassmen are expected to take Audition class, Music Theatre History & Literature, Music Theatre Scene Study and Music Theatre Workshop which are all taught by me and geared toward higher integration of the three principal music theatre areas (Music, Text and Dance). It is a killer schedule and I am humbled daily that I get to work with such gifted, hardworking students and colleagues. I think what sets us apart is how selective we are and that since the only cut is the cut to get into the program you don’t have to worry about being turned out if you hit a bump along your journey.

We become a family and we all work as a team to make sure that each student is the best they can be and as prepared as possible upon graduation. We are also so fortunate to have an alumni network in NYC, Chicago and LA and across the country. They are a powerful multigenerational group of working professionals that are always willing to come back and share their journey and keep an eye out to give new graduates a leg up.

What do you want IWU Music Theatre students to learn?

I want them to learn techniques that will extend and maintain their talents. I also want them to gain a fair amount of tenacity of purpose to carry them through the challenging parts of a life in the arts. Most importantly I want them to learn who they are and what they value. You can’t build amazing characters for the stage and screen if you don’t know the foundation you are building them on.

Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" on-stage at McPherson Theatre at IWU.

I get the idea that you like challenging, provocative works, but IWU obviously balances darker, edgier pieces like “Passion” and “Urinetown” and now “Hello Again” with more traditional shows like “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Of Thee I Sing.” What gets a show on IWU’s schedule?

We have a pretty tight matrix that we follow so that a student, over the course of a generation (four years) or their time in the casting pool (three years), will get exposure to a variety of theatrical text, genres and dramaturgy. We have two Music Theatre events every season on the mainstage. Two small/medium musicals one year followed by a large musical and a dance concert the next and then over again. This is accompanied by the occasional laboratory season musical, musicals in the student theatre and concerts, cabarets and workshops.

We are not unaware of our community (both IWU and Bloomington/Normal), but our primary function is to train the students in a wide range of selections. Our casting pool is closed and only sophomore through senior IWU students may audition. Because of the rigorous nature of our rehearsal processes, we rarely get students outside of the School of Theatre Arts. Since we know our casting pool all too well we can select material that we think will challenge the current students in the way we feel they need to be challenged for maximum growth.

We never select work to be provocative, current or commercial, but always so that the students enrolled at IWU will be pushed to meet their potential as performers and exposed to a variety of situations while still in the protective environment of academia.

While “Of Thee I Sing” was certainly topical during the 2008 election and a nice way to commemorate 60 years of musicals at IWU, it was still selected to showcase the students at that time. Exposure to the first Pulitzer Prize winning musical, a Gershwin score and text and humor that was very much “of its time” were all reasons discussed when selecting the piece.

Last year’s family-friendly “Mattress” was selected to showcase students once again. We had an abundance of belting comic women and the show calls for more than one and that is rare. I have waited over 15 years to have strong enough actor/singers to handle the difficult score and subject matter that is “Hello Again” and those students presented themselves in our current population. We actually selected it prior to the recent Off-Broadway revival being announced.

IWU's Erika Lecaj did the heavy lifting in "Once Upon a Mattress" in 2010.

What do you hope each show will do?

Each show has its own lessons for the company to learn. They present themselves in the strangest ways and no matter how prepared you think you are when doing educational theatre there are always surprises. I feel I learn so many new things when I inhabit these different worlds for different productions and the same is true for the student actors and the production team. There isn’t a theatre text out there that won’t teach in the doing of it.

Thanks so much, Scott! For more information about Illinois Wesleyan's theatre programs, click here.

[Photo credits: Pete Guither, Marc Featherly and Josh Levinson. Josh Conrad and Laura Williams appear in the photo (above, right) of "Kesa and Morito," a piece that appeared in the "Lucky Nurse and other short musical plays" collection at IWU in April, 2011.]