National Unified Auditions not so unified this year

COVID-19 has moved musical theater online. Photo by Holger Langmaier/Pixabay

By Nica Lasater
BU News Service

National Unified Auditions, a loose coalition of college theater programs, canceled its in-person auditions this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Advertised on their website as “one stop on the way to your theatre career,” National Unifieds annually hosts auditions in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. During three weekends in late January to mid-February, thousands of high schoolers from all over the country congregate in one building to audition for as many of the 26 participating universities as possible.  

“Unifieds is a hot, crowded, exciting mess,” according to Maura Tighe, an acting teacher at Boston Arts Academy. 

Tighe said that while chaotic, Unifieds is a great opportunity for her predominantly low-income students who can’t afford numerous travel costs and would otherwise be unable to audition for many programs.

Mary Caroline Owens, a junior at Boston Conservatory who auditioned for 18 schools at the Chicago Palmer House Hilton in Spring 2018, said she was lucky that her parents could pay for the expensive dance classes, voice lessons and theater intensives that led to her majoring in musical theater. She recognizes that not all students have the same support and that the college audition process is just another financial barrier for entry into her chosen career path. 

“There are so many hurdles for people to jump through to get to the school I’m at or any other school,” she said. “So I definitely think [Unifieds is] a positive thing because it’s more realistic for people to go to one place instead of having to travel everywhere.”

Ordinarily, a student must have a very good reason for submitting a video in lieu of auditioning live, according to Laura Duncan, the head of musical theater at Boston Conservatory. 

“There’s something that happens between human beings in a room,” Duncan explained.  

However, this year, all students will be auditioning virtually. 

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places “large in-person gatherings” in which “attendees travel from outside the local area” in the highest risk category for spreading coronavirus, Duncan said, “it’s not rational to even think about doing it this year.” 

Uncertain of conditions for the upcoming spring, Unifieds posted on its Facebook page in early August, alerting the theater community of its decision. From there, it was up to universities to decide how to proceed.

Boston Conservatory, a school that participates in Unifieds in addition to hosting live auditions on their campus, decided to follow suit and made plans to conduct all auditions online.

“I think we initially heard about a year of remote auditions and panicked,” Duncan said. “I mean, it’s so different from what we know. In theater, especially in live theater, our world doesn’t exist around video conferencing.” 

The Boston Conservatory at Berklee has had to adapt to virtual classes and auditions. Image courtesy of Berklee College of Music/Wikimedia Commons

Typically, to audition for musical theater programs, Tighe says her students prepare four monologues, two songs and participate in a dance call. Preparations are no different this year, she explained, as the requirements are essentially the same with the exception of the dance section. 

As for how these talents will translate on Zoom, Owens said that while she appreciates virtual auditions because nerves aren’t as likely to interfere with her performance, it is more difficult to convey personality via computer conversation, a very important component of the audition. 

“It’s hard to get the type of person you are through to the auditioners when it’s virtual,” Owens said. “I really did enjoy talking to the faculty after auditioning.” 

Owens also said there is more to auditioning for a conservatory program than just the audition itself, which can be hard to mimic through a virtual audition.

“It’s not just going in, belting, crying in your monologue and saying bye,” Owens said. “I wanted to make sure they vibed with me and I vibed with them.”

Duncan, however, is not worried about being able to assess each performer through the screen. 

“We’ve all had to adapt, but I think theater people in general are pretty adaptable,” she said. “I think that because we’ve been on Zoom since March, it has actually opened up ways of doing things that I never imagined.” 

One unexpected benefit of holding virtual auditions is the possibility of increased accessibility for young performers hopeful to go into theater. 

“There are hundreds, if not thousands of talented students around the world for who Unifieds was not a possibility,” Duncan explained. “It’s an extremely expensive adventure and it’s not accessible to everyone. One of the things that has been exciting for me is to [see] how many more people we might actually reach.”

Tighe is skeptical as she anticipates new issues will arise with the changed format.

“Many students may not have the tools to navigate the online portals, manage many different requirements, and create video in a home setting with no professional equipment or resources,” Tighe said.

Only by next spring, when the newest class of students is accepted, will it be clear what lasting impact this cycle’s virtual auditions will have on the industry.

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