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Is an MFA in Acting Right for You? An Interview with Actor & Coach Brian McManamon

Brian McManamon is an actor, teacher and acting coach based in New York City. He has an MFA in acting from the Yale School of Drama and a BFA in acting from the School for Theater at Boston University. Brian received a 2010 New York Innovative Theatre Award nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance in It or Her, part of terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA Arts Festival. In New York, Brian has also performed with MCC Theater, The Ensemble Studio Theater,Youngblood, P.S. 122, Target Margin Theater, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, and the BE Company and regionally at The Yale Rep, Capital Rep and The New Repertory Theatre, among others.  He has served or is currently serving on the acting faculties of The National Theater Institute (NTI) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Vassar College’s Powerhouse Apprentice Training Program in association with New York Stage and Film, Manhattanville College, the NYSF/Public Theater, The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts (formerly The School for Film and Television), Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, The Academy of Cinema and Television, Yale University’s Dwight-Edgewood Project and The Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement. As an acting coach, Brian specializes in preparing actors for graduate and undergraduate school auditions. His clients have gone on to attend the top graduate acting schools in the country including The Yale School of Drama and New York University.

You’ve seen many of your students through the whole grad school process, from choosing which schools to audition for through graduation and starting (or re-starting) their professional careers. Can you share with us some characteristics/habits/choices that students who are most satisfied with the grad school experience seem to share?

Actors who have a good sense of themselves, where they are at in their lives, and a clear idea of where they want to go next, are, I believe, in a good place to pursue a graduate degree in acting. In addition to that, preparation is key. I know from personal experience that just showing up to the audition and hoping for the best is not a good way to go! I tell the actors that I work with that by simply seeking out a coach, they have already taken a huge step ahead of most actors auditioning for graduate school.  It simply speaks to their commitment, their interest in doing the best work they can and honestly puts them in a place to succeed.

The number of applicants and the “slim” odds of securing a place in a program are deceiving. When I watched the auditions as a student at Yale, I was shocked to see who was walking through the door. There is no screening process for these auditions. Anyone can fill out the application, pay the application fee and show up – and they do! Most have not put the time into the work. Confidence is huge. Having put in the work and feeling prepared is a great way to build confidence. On the other side, being “fixed” is dangerous. Ultimately you want to have a balance. I like to encourage my clients to think of going in to “rehearse” the monologue in the audition rather than “perform” the piece. It is liberating to be in process with the work. It is also incredibly important to love the pieces you choose. They must be pieces that you are hot for and that offer those in the room a glimpse into your work, your process and yourself as an artist. Subtle differences in an actor’s approach to the experience can take the pressure off and allow the actor to share their work with those capable of offering the training they seek.

The actors I have seen really succeed in this process have allowed themselves permission to be themselves in rooms they audition in. It may sound simple but one of the most important things you can do is be yourself. They want to see you. An actor must reveal him/herself in their work and really allow themselves to be present in the room. Each program is looking for people –  actors they want to work with and be in the room with several hours a week for several years.

It seems that so many of the highest profile acting grad programs offer curriculum/experiences with very different strengths and emphases. Can you give us a brief overview of the types of programs out there and what a prospective student should start thinking about when choosing which schools to apply for?

Things to consider when deciding on which program to attend can be as simple as the geographic location of the school or which program you felt the best connection with. Clients of mine have been married and/or own homes in New York and did not want to leave New York for school, some clients want to be in New York and only New York because of the networking opportunities and relationships that result from being in the place they want to spend their career, some want to get out of New York and be somewhere warm, some feel being out of New York will help them focus on the training rather than becoming distracted by the city. Other considerations might be: Is there a relationship to a professional theater company? Will I be working with student directors or professional directors or a combination of both? How many production opportunities are there each year of the program? Will I be developing relationships with student playwrights, directors and designers? Do I work exclusively with the actors in my class for all years of the program or do I work with all of the actors at the school? Is the school a part of a larger university and campus? Do graduates have a showcase for industry professionals in New York and L.A. upon graduation? What are the alumni of the school up to? What is the school’s reputation among casting directors and industry professionals? Will I have the opportunity to have extracurricular outlets to direct or write as well as act? How many years is the program? What is the classroom time to performance ratio? Is teaching to be part of my training? How many actors are in each class? Are there international opportunities? What is the day-to-day schedule? The answers to these questions will help you determine your priorities and decide which schools might be the best fit.

What are some of the best tools and resources for finding out about acting grad programs?

Finding out what each program offers and from that which program is a good fit for you is probably one of the most challenging aspects of the entire grad school process. For this reason I host an MFA Grad Panel in New  York offering the chance to hear first hand from very recent graduates of several popular MFA programs. The 2010 panel included graduates of the following programs: A.C.T., A.R.T., Brown/Trinity, NYU, Rutgers, UCSD and Yale Drama. There is no substitute for first-hand experience and although each graduate’s experience is unique to them, you can learn a lot by hearing from someone who has been through a program. The MFA programs change often as do the programs’ faculty, the dean of the school, and the artistic director of the theater associated with the program, which makes it very important to gather information from current students or very recent alumni.

The websites of each program offer great information on curriculum, faculty and mission statements but are limited beyond that. The auditions themselves are the best resources for finding out if a program is the right one for you. Just as the faculty and department heads are getting a feel for you and your work in the audition, you want to be getting a feel for them. Looking at Playbills and for actors whose work you are drawn to and discovering if they went to a grad school and where they went can also be a useful jumping off point.

The admissions office of a school will often put you in touch with a current student and/or alumni to be of help answering questions. A few schools have information sessions and/or visitors days that offer prospective students the opportunity to meet the Dean, talk with faculty and students, see a production, tour the campus and get answers to any questions. Seeing productions at a school is also a great way to get a taste of the program and the work of the students. However, it is important to remember when seeing the work of students in a program that they are actors in training and are likely working on roles that offer them something of a challenge.

When is the audition “season” for acting grad schools and how far in advance do you suggest students start researching schools and preparing their auditions?

The auditions for most programs begin in New York in January and go through the end of February. Many programs audition in several cities around the country – typically, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. I have worked with actors who begin coaching with me as early as up to a year before the auditions begin. The bulk of my clients begin working in the early Fall and continue through the end of their auditions.

What does the typical grad school application and audition entail?

Every MFA grad acting program has their own application, audition requirements and unique audition structure, which can become overwhelming if you are applying to many schools. The components of the application (typically filled out and submitted online) require a personal statement, an application fee and several recommendations submitted by faculty or industry professionals who can speak to your work as an actor and a person. The personal statement is an applicant’s chance to articulate who they are, why they are seeking training at the graduate level and how that school’s program would uniquely serve them.

The audition itself typically consists of sharing from two to four monologues, (classical and contemporary pieces) and an interview. In my coaching sessions with clients, I do my best to prepare each actor for what they can expect based on the schools they are applying to. Many schools (Yale, NYU/Tisch, UCSD and A.C.T.) have a series of different kinds of callbacks (“end of the hour” callbacks, “end of the day” callbacks, “group callbacks” etc.) to narrow down the search whereas other programs have only a single audition from which they will ultimately make their decisions (Brown/Trinity, A.R.T.). Yale, NYU and UCSD also have “callback weekends” typically at the beginning of March when the final applicants (approximately 50 for NYU, 30 for Yale and 16 for UCSD) are brought to the school to participate in classes, meet the faculty and get a feel for whether the school is a good fit them and whether they are a good fit for the school. It is from this weekend that the final class is chosen. Knowing how your audition will go down in advance and actually “rehearsing” it has proven hugely helpful. Each year I offer my clients a series of Mock Auditions in which I replicate the experience you can expect to have at the schools you are auditioning for — including a waiting area, an initial audition, a callback, a song, and interview.

At Yale, current students are allowed to watch the auditions for students for the upcoming year. You said you started your work coaching people through the process because of many of the mistakes you saw people making over and over. Could you share some of them and how auditioning students can make better choices?

The experiences I personally had auditioning for grad schools, the incredible time I had as a student in grad school, and the fact that while I was at Yale I was invited to sit in on the prospective students auditions led me want to help others achieve their own dreams of going to grad school. Having been through the experience myself, with varying successes (I auditioned for my top choice school three years in a row) as well as witnessing the process from the inside while a student at Yale Drama, I knew I could offer help to those who wanted it. One of the biggest things I discovered watching people audition for Yale was how much actors appeared to be working to prove themselves in their audition, or wow the auditors with their work. I remember Ron [Van Lieu, Chair of Acting at Yale Drama], saying he would much prefer an actor come in and simply do good work than worry about being great! The pressure of the situation can feel terrifying and the stakes seem incredibly high but this is not American Idol. There is no prize to get or contest to win, what you are seeking is training. I love working with an actor to making sure he/she is bringing all of him/herself to the work. If this happens the school can see the person revealed through the work, not just the effort behind the work. This hugely important. I saw one actor after another make this mistake. More often than not, an actor would come into the room and introduce him/herself with warmth and openness and then when the monologue would begin, rather than reveal themselves through their work they would completely disappear. It seemed they were working to show you who they wanted you to think they were rather than the person they are.

Ultimately one of the things I believe applicants have the hardest time grasping, is that each program is looking for people. They are not looking for the best actors. Not young people or old people. Not the most good looking people. Not someone who has it all figured out. Not the most experienced actor. But generous, committed, imaginative, bright people who have a desire to grow and expand within the art form. One of the things I work with actors most on is making sure they are bringing themselves into the room and into the work. They have very little time to get to know you and your work, so bringing generous amounts of you and that can help you help them learn about you.

Many actors I talk with automatically discount the idea of going to grad school because of the financial investment, especially in this economy and with such uncertain prospects upon graduation. Can you give us some insight into how your students have found ways to finance their education, tips on doing so and/or mistakes to avoid?

I find that if the interest in furthering your training is there, it should be worth the expense. It can be dangerous for actors to limit where they apply based on what they believe to be the cost of the program. I recommend actors apply to the schools they are interested in and not let money be a deterrent. When you get accepted to a program then the conversation of how to afford it can begin. Because many of the schools are incredibly competitive there is often opportunity to request scholarship or grants when they have invited you to their school. I do not know of any situation where a student was not able to attend school because of money. And most schools subsidize the cost of the training with stipends, workstudy, scholarships, financial aid and/or paid teaching opportunities.

Are there any “wrong reasons” to go to grad school?

Because you are scared of real life. Because you think it will guarantee you success.

One of your panel guests said she didn’t know “what a big family grad school would be” and really benefited from the sense of community. I know when I went I was totally focused on how it would improve my craft, but, I think the biggest benefits were actually in my personal development. Can you talk about some of the non-acting benefits the process has had for your and you students?

One of the greatest gifts grad school offers beyond the actual training is strong personal and professional relationships – a community that carries into the professional world and beyond. Many clients who have gone on to MFA programs were surprised to find out how much they loved having the opportunity to teach undergraduates as part of their MFA requirements. Other benefits include extracurricular opportunities to direct and write and having the chance to explore another city. The collaborations with professional theaters and institutions affiliated with your program often give you professional homes after you complete the program and a network that enriches your professional and personal life for decades.

In the last MFA Panel discussion you hosted, one of the grads, who I believe had been acting in LA before going to Yale, said she looked at her time in grad school as “a chance to get back to the purity of acting” for 3 years. What kind of payoff can that investment have for an actor later in their career? How has it shaped your career?

It’s almost impossible to speak to how much my graduate training has influenced my career.  The three years I spent at Yale were the most fulfilling of my life.  All of my expectations were met and exceeded by many more gifts that I could have never expected.  The most significant of these was, of course, the training itself.  The class time with Ron Van Lieu and Evan Yiounoulis, Beth McGuire and Waltson Wilson, James Bundy, Peter Francis James and all of the faculty, helped me to find a technique I could stand behind and the confidence to become the artist I am.  I have also been fortunate to take the excellent training I received and pass it on to the next generation of actors as I serve on the acting faculties of the National Theater Institute (NTI) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Powerhouse Apprentice Training Program at Vassar College.

The second biggest assets from my time at Yale were the relationships I formed with the other students at the Drama School. Yale benefits from being the only school where all of the disciplines of the theater are represented with a degree program.  Many of the playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers, technical designers, theater managers, dramaturgs and the other actors I met at Yale are now some of closest friends and all together we have developed into a kind of extended family.  Playwrights I had worked with while at Yale have since written roles for me in their work.  Directors I had worked with while at Yale call me up and cast me without an audition.  And the actors I had worked with at Yale are now not simply former ensemble members of mine, but true family.  The ongoing support, inspiration and love I receive from those who I spent those three years with has been worth the cost of tuition and then some.  By coaching, I strive to help others have the experience I feel so fortunate to have had.

Photo by Buck Lewis

  1. Michael Hammond on Tuesday 26, 2011

    I’m so glad Brian’s work has moved across the country to LA! Working with Brian is unlike any experience I’ve ever had with an acting coach. His energy, enthusiasm, and concise advice is invaluable. I always leave the room energized and confident about my work. He makes you feel welcome the minute you walk in the room. He’s not solely focused on the work; he wants to know who you are, what you like, and how you live your life. It’s amazing how he can relate to exactly what you’re going through and is completely supportive along the way. He checks in, sends texts, writes emails, and makes sure that he’s thinking of you and how to improve your material. There are some coaches you meet and immediately ask, “So what are we going to do?”, whereas Brian’s first words are: “How are you doing?” It’s amazing how much of a difference that can make when you start a session. One of the most important things that Brian does is that he always checks in to see how you feel about your work and what is driving you with your material.

  2. Kat Primeau on Tuesday 26, 2011

    Really good questions, guys! This was a really honest, informative read. Thank you :)

  3. Risa on Tuesday 26, 2011

    Very insightful. And applies to anyone doing their work in any room…