Amid Lockdowns, Universities' Actor Showcases Go Online: "Change Needed to Happen Anyway"

Courtesy of Subjects
Images from USC's MFA and BFA program online showcase in 2020. Clockwise from left: Brent Grimes, Chelsea Sik, Matt Gomez Hidaka, Benjamin Hirschhorn, Deja Thompson, Abigail Coryell

Students are self-taping their performances for year-ending theatrical productions, which are geared toward talent rep audiences, in childhood bedrooms and dorms: "I think actually we're going to get the students in front of more people than we would have before."

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student Brian Seungheon Kim passionately recites a monologue about Asian American typecasting that he wrote himself as he stands in front of a white sheet hung beneath an exposed pipe. After a brief cut, his classmate Emma L. Anderson performs a rendition of a Manson girl's speech from Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from inside a dark parked car. Dane Brandon follows with dialogue from Jordan Seavey's 2017 play Homos, or Everyone in America, which he performs while sitting on a couch in front of plants, string Christmas lights and windows exposing a cloudy day.

In 2020, UIUC's B.F.A. Acting students — like so many other drama students across the U.S. this spring — had to self-tape their year-ending showcase presentations from dorms, childhood homes and neighborhoods for the first time, rather than perform them onstage, in front of a live audience. Showcases, year-ending theatrical productions that highlight graduating students' achievements, typically take place at venues in New York and Los Angeles in order to attract those cities' population of agents, managers and casting directors to watch, take meetings with and potential sign graduating students. This spring, within a manner of weeks, however, institutions including the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles, New York University Tisch, the Juilliard School, Loyola Marymount University, University of California Irvine, Savannah School of Art & Design and Temple University, among many others, had to convert these traditional events to online performances. Students filmed themselves with their own equipment, made their own sets and costumes, and sought scenes that would convey their skills onscreen, while industry members were sent links to watch live or on-demand.

While the ensuing presentations haven't been ideal for graduating students who lack professional equipment or professors accustomed to directing for the stage, some say the transformation has accelerated changes already occurring to the annual tradition. Talent representatives say they were already advocating for schools to add video components to annual showcases so that they could watch performances on their own time, return to them and see students' work onscreen. "Sometimes change happens out of necessity, but the change needed to happen anyway," says USC director of the MFA acting program David Warshofsky. "This area that we're discussing may fall into that category. We're about to find out."

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University acting showcases, once exclusive events reserved for students enrolled in select schools, have proliferated over the last few decades. The genesis for today's programs started in 1979, when the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs Actor Presentations began annually spotlighting graduating talent at League-affiliated schools including Carnegie Mellon University and Yale School of Drama for an industry audience in New York. In recent decades, many more schools have created their own iterations of these events by annually traveling to New York and L.A., renting out theaters and inviting industry types to view their students' work. Thirty-five to 40 schools present in Los Angeles alone each year, Prestige Talent Agency vp Mark Scroggs estimates. Despite the rise in popularity of these events, however, "the actual showcase presentation hasn't changed much in a quarter century — until now," Warshofsky says.

In March, schools facing the impossibility of gathering a theatrical audience together in the coming months had to move quickly to transform the format. Professors at the Yale Drama School, the alma mater of Lupita Nyong'o, decided to uphold its tradition of pairing actors together for showcase scenes. Most students didn't end up performing the original scenes they'd begun preparing before the pandemic: "Some of the [scenes] are from plays, but most of them are from television and film, which we felt would show off the actors [over Zoom]," Yale Acting Department chair Walton Wilson says. Paired actors performing from divergent locations tried to match lighting and décor in the background, to the best of their abilities. (Still hopeful the Class of 2020 can gather eventually, Wilson reserved room in his department's budget to stage a theatrical showcase when COVID-19 restrictions eventually lift.)

Juilliard's actor presentations, which screened for viewers live on May 18, also presented two actors per scene over video chat. While students didn't change the material they had begun preparing pre-COVID-19 for the new medium, "we found ways to bring the [scenes] to life" over the computer screen, the school's Richard Rodgers director of the drama division, Evan Yionoulis, says. Actors used backdrops in their personal spaces or made use of their home's kitchens or walls for performances, she explains. Paired students even played with the side-by-side nature of the video-chat medium by seemingly throwing objects at each other or clinking glasses.

In the past, USC undergraduates have also primarily performed two-person scenes at their showcase; this year, however, all were advised to perform a monologue to suit the new video format. Most students used their iPhones to shoot their scenes in natural light, says Dan Shaner, an assistant professor of theater practice at USC and the head of the School of Dramatic Arts Career Center. "I encouraged them to go outside or find a nice room in their home, something that was visually interesting and pleasing," he adds. "I'm very, very pleased and excited by the way that it turned out." (Warshofsky, who oversees the graduate student showcase, also instructed his students to perform monologues for their video.)

Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama managed to squeeze in the school's actor showcase in New York in early March, though May dates in Los Angeles were canceled. In its place, the school is updating actors' individual webpages with examples of their work and converted a separate annual showcase, which brings all School of Drama students together with industry figures, to take place exclusively online. "I think actually we're going to get the students in front of more people than we would have before," Anne Mundell, an associate professor of scene design at the school says of the "E-Showcase," which took place from May 18-20, "but we have to be very programmatic about it, rather than relying on chance meetings during a party." Organizers of the event created separate chat rooms during that students could mill in and out of in order to speak with industry figures.

One group of talent representatives, meanwhile, has been helping students' work circulate more widely within the industry. In mid-March, Scroggs posed the question, "Is there anything we can do for these kids?" to a Facebook group of industry reps that he is a part of. A few members of the group began participating in conference calls to discuss and, by late March, they had gotten in contact with the founder of Breakdown Services, the ubiquitous end-to-end casting services system. Breakdown's Gary Marsh, it turned out, had already been working to present and distribute school showcases online via his company's Eco Cast audition system. Marsh arranged a demo, which impressed Scroggs' group so much that joined Marsh in recommending to schools that they submit their video showcases to the platform for added visibility. UCLA, Pace University and the University of Texas are among the around 40 schools have since signed on. Each showcase has been getting about one thousand click-throughs each from members of his service, per Marsh. (The arts network Acceptd is also distributing senior showcases.)

Some representatives believe that, even after social distancing measures fade, schools will begin to incorporate video into at least part of their showcase models. On-demand video allows agents and managers to avoid the hassle of attending a live event, to choose the time when they view the showcase, to take meetings with students over a longer period and to see actors who they are considering for television or film projects onscreen. Some, like Scroggs, also argue that the online model democratizes showcases by introducing reps to schools whose presentations they otherwise wouldn't attend and by allowing schools that aren't local to save money on travel and accommodations. "Three-quarters of the auditions now are self-tapes, at least, even before all this happened," he adds.

Though he's enthusiastic about online showcases, the head of DDO's theatrical division, Anthony Boyer, whose agency previously signed Dynasty's Jade Payton and Joshua Andrés Rivera from Steven Spielberg's upcoming West Side Story after meeting both in university showcases, notes one downside: "The truth is it still is going to favor people," he says of online showcases. "If you're in a bad housing situation or you don't have a lot of money and you can't afford good recording equipment, that is really difficult." He adds that video showcases allow representatives to select candidates rather than watch all of them, so he is making a point of viewing every performance that a school offers.

Drama department professors themselves are, for the most part, considering working with video again for their showcases in the future. "If it's something that you can do well, I think it could be of great use to the actors, potentially," Yale's Wilson says. "This has been a good lesson for [students] to help them market themselves in the right way," USC's Shaner adds. "It's really forced them in a lot of ways to be more resourceful than they normally would be."

Boyer notes that schools that are interested in combining in-person and video performances for their showcases might look to one peer institution that has already pioneered one dual format: Azusa Pacific University. The Azusa, California-based school has, over the last few years, created a webseries of graduating students for reps to view while also performing live monologues at the American Film Institute in the spring. "It just answers a lot of questions: It gives you a sense of [students'] personality but also a sense of their on-camera work," Boyer says. "Those are things I would love to see schools lean into."