Participating in the New York senior showcase is a prestigious tradition for theatre majors – a tradition that can often lead to the immediate launching of post-graduation careers, even on Broadway. Some success stories include former Miss America Kate Shindle (C98), who is still represented by the agency who signed her at her senior showcase, and Nancy Braun (C07), who scored a role in Gypsy on Broadway, while her classmate Rachel Frankenthal (C07) secured a role in the national tour of MAMMA MIA as a result of agents seeing their talents in the 2007 showcase.
"Many of the alums who are appearing on Broadway–like Jim Weitzer (C96), Raymond Lee (C04), Lily Rabe (C04), Mamie Gummer (C05), Carrington Vilmont (MUS00)–and many others–have gotten their opportunities from the agents who saw them in the showcase," says theatre professor and director of the American Music Theatre Project Dominic Missimi. "Jenny Powers is currently in Happiness directed by Susan Stroman, and she has also appeared on Broadway as Rizzo in Grease and in Little Women."
The New York showcase is held each spring at a New York theatre. The showcase features a group of theatre and music theatre students who auditioned for a spot on the program in the fall of their senior year.
The auditions are divided into separate sessions for students interested in music theatre and theatre; students can try out for both tracks if they wish. This was the case for senior Starr Busby, an ad hoc major in voice studies with a certificate in the music theatre program.
Senior Starr Busby
While Busby says the auditions can be understandably stressful, they are "a real way to draw the community together," including both music and theatre students as well as their professors.
The theatre auditions involve students preparing two minutes of material, and if the student is called back, he or she prepares two minutes of a scene with a partner.
"It's a scramble to find a scene partner for call backs," says senior theatre major Jake Cohen who participated solely in the theatre showcase.
Busby took a fall quarter class designed to help students prepare specifically for the music theatre auditions. Taught by Amanda Dehnert, the class prepares students to deal with cold readings, learn auditioning techniques and develop "half a book" of music theatre material.
A group of 20 students – a combination of strictly theatre and music theatre – are ultimately selected for the New York showcase.
The process is by nature selective, but Cohen says the theatre department does a great job of stressing to seniors that while the showcase is "A door, it is not THE door" to opportunity.
"It's important to know they (theatre department) really believe that when they say that to their students," Cohen says.
Senior Jake Cohen
The students selected for the showcase take winter quarter preparation classes — one for acting and the other for music theatre, if the student is on that track.
Associate professor David Bell directs the showcase and finds a common thread between the music theatre students' songs and decides where to place each of the theatre students' scenes, ultimately producing a cohesive showcase performance.
An invited audience of New York talent agents and casting directors attend the two-day showcase in New York. The agents and directors can request to set up meetings with or simply receive resumes from the various students who perform. The students who are called back for meetings spend the following week in New York setting up and attending those meetings. Both Busby and Cohen said they took advantage of the kindness of friends, crashing at their New York apartments the following week as a way to make the showcase experience more affordable.
"It's a great opportunity that Northwestern has created," says Busby, who met with six agents as a result of the showcase. "It works for some people, and doesn't for others… You have the Northwestern name behind you, and you never know what can happen for that. It's a strange experience, but I am definitely grateful for it."
Busby says she plans to move to New York after graduation to sign with one of the agents she met as a result of the showcase. Cohen says he plans to do the same.
"Northwestern really hands it over to you in a really generous way, getting industry there and supporting you through the process, and creating a room of people who want to support you through the process," Cohen says. "I was really proud of the school while I was there, I have to say."
Theatre professor Cindy Gold, who directs the showcase along with Bell, says throughout the process she and the rest of the involved faculty spend time preparing the students for the emotional rigors of the audition process.
"Agents can say destructive things to students," Gold says, citing an example of an agent who once told a student to "get his ears pinned back."
Faculty members advise the students to "take it all with a grain of salt."
"We know how to counsel the students to put things in perspective, " Gold says. "It takes a giant dose of perspective to figure out this insanity."
Theatre professors Daniel Cantor and Dawn Mora direct the Chicago showcase, at the Josephine Louis Theatre June 5 for industry and 6 for friends and family. The annual Chicago showcase is open to all students who have completed Northwestern's acting sequence and/or the Music Theatre Certificate program.