Lessons Learned at Drama School: US Edition

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As you transition from the world of High School Theater to Collegiate Intensives, Conservatories, and College Performance Programs, some things stay the same… Your hopes and dreams to grace the Broadway stage or the big screen will remain intact, but you’ll also begin to notice some major changes. All those times your high school teachers said, “It won’t be like this in college!” well, they were correct. Training at a collegiate level can be an exceptionally worthwhile experience, but it can also be incredibly grueling and push you to your limits. For this blog, I’ve interviewed a series of students and recent graduates who attended drama school in the US. The goal is to highlight some of their most important lessons and give you a few ways to prepare for the experience yourself.

Go with your gut

The first major decision a student has to make when transitioning into a drama school in the US is where they want to go in the first place. Which degree are you looking for? What is your ideal location? What kind of programs are you interested in? All of these are essential considerations when making that final decision. What is less helpful are the opinions of others regarding the program you feel passionate about. Don’t get caught up in the statistics or the rankings you see online. Yes, a reputable program may have lots to offer, but you can thrive anywhere you feel supported and at home. Go with your gut because it may become the most important factor in making sure you’re happy wherever you end up.

Pro tip: Try our programs quiz to discover what could be your new dream school. You can also use the programs database to explore our extensive list of drama schools in the US and start narrowing down your options.

Preparation is key

Not all students are provided the resources to get involved in theater early in their lives. As someone fortunate enough to find the love of acting in elementary school and chase my dream to a performing arts high school, I felt secure in my acting foundation when arriving at university. When interviewing these students, I discovered this was not a universal experience. Arriving at a drama school in the US without a wide range of experience in performance or the theater world can certainly be discouraging, but don’t let that deter you from embracing the conversations happening around you! Instead, soak it all in. Write it all down. Then be a part of the next conversation. You can’t be held responsible for your past experience, but you are in control of where you go from here, so take charge!

It’s not a competition

The audition process for drama school in the US can feel quite competitive, but what you might not know is that it doesn’t end there. Sure, some programs foster a competitive environment that pits you against your peers, but in looking back at my interviews, I realized that people mainly felt “in competition” with themselves. Throughout the years, you will often look your shortcomings in the eye. You’ll walk out of an audition room beating yourself up, feeling like you have no control over your career, but this is not the case at all. A friend of mine told me, “You’d be surprised to realize how many things you are in charge of in the audition room.” I think this is true for all rooms. Instead of beating yourself up, you can think of each performance as a learning opportunity for the next. Don’t become your own worst enemy.

You better work

The most exciting part of beginning the college experience away from home is the freedom and autonomy that comes with it. But, what can be the most enjoyable part of college can quickly become one of the easiest pitfalls for students. Holding yourself accountable for your work and growth throughout your time is vital to your progress, especially in that first year. Nobody else is going to do it. Your parents aren’t around to hover over your development. You are becoming an adult who must rely on yourself to do well, not just in school but in life. Don’t shy away from that responsibility. Do the work because you will see it pay off.

Protect your body and mind

Although I emphasized the importance of working your hardest throughout your years in the program, acknowledging your limitations and setting your own boundaries is just as important. There will be times when you are doing great, and the work will feel easy, but there will also be times when you are pushed towards your emotional breaking point, inside and outside of the classroom. That is when it is most important to prioritize your personal needs. Do what you need to feel safe in your space, in your classroom, and with yourself.

The gift of wisdom

The experiences we go through and the hardships we face are fundamental to the people we become by the end of our time in college. Even though we cannot nor should not want to erase any of this experience, it is easy to look back at our past selves and know what we would have done differently. I asked those interviewed what gift of wisdom they would share with their past self if they could.

Some answers were what you’d expect… Let go of your ego, go to classes and do your homework, write more down, listen more than you speak, but nearly everyone mentioned they’d like to embrace their imperfections, to let go of the voice telling them they had to do everything right and just allow the work they were putting in to carry them through. Imperfections are what make each and every performer different. Programs that focus on creating distinctive artists instead of archetypes will embrace those imperfections with you instead of trying to suppress them.

We are the world

This year has, without a doubt, been an unprecedented time in the performing arts industry and the world as a whole, between the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the acts of accountability in the Broadway community. The final question I asked my peers was how this has affected their creative work both inside and outside of the classroom. This time was different for everyone, and that was reflected in the answers I received. Many just felt thankful for their health and the opportunity to go forward, changing the world with art. It is easy to take things for granted when you are surrounded by a world full of art.

Still, this past year, while performance has been scarce, we can be grateful for each and every potential opportunity. Many have taken this period of retribution to assess the importance of change-making in the industry, doing something when you see injustice happening. There is a feeling that we should be taking part in the projects we consider important and tell stories worth telling. We can only hope that we carry these major lessons into the future as we return to “life as we know it.” The changes we are seeing should only be the beginning of what a new generation of artists will define!

Gabbie Pisapia

Hi, my name is Gabbie Pisapia! I’m a New York-based actor, singer, and songwriter. After an eventful childhood full of singing and dancing, I continued my theater education in Manhattan, attending the Professional Performing Arts High School as a drama major. In my senior year, I made the decision to continue that theater education moving from PPAS to PPA at Pace University, working to receive my BFA in Acting.

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