The questions below are answered by the program director.
What do I need to include in my application materials?
In addition to the letter of intent, transcripts, deposit, three reference letters, application form, and fee, we require the submission of your current performance resume with a current photo (headshot), a professional bio, and your artistic portfolio. The portfolio might include reviews from prior productions, photos from those productions, audition reel, and reviews.
What if I don’t have a “reel” or haven’t done a lot of acting so far?
You don’t need to have done a lot of work prior to application, we just want to get a good sense of what kind of work you have done and what previous training you have had so that we can get a good sense of where you would likely stand in the final selection of this cohort. We are looking for each cohort to be balanced, so that no student feels they are not getting as much attention as those who are substantially less experienced. We might be very excited about a student, but if they don’t have as much experience as other students selected for this cohort, we might suggest that they wait until the next rotation and use that opportunity to perhaps get some additional experience in the meantime. This would not be an indication of a lack of merit, but rather a way to better prepare the student for success in the program, which we intend to run by professional standards.
When is the deadline for applications?
Because we need to have a pretty good idea of how many students will be attending each summer session before we send out contracts to visiting faculty, our posted deadline is February however we know that not everyone is able to meet that deadline. We frequently will allow applicants who are having difficulty getting their full application package together by that deadline to have as much time as they need–so long as we are aware of your intention to apply. Contact us as soon as you know you are interested and we’ll help you get started with the application and set up your file. Consider February 15 to be a “soft deadline” where you have begun the application process and March 15 to be a hard deadline for completion of that package.
If you are interested in the program and the deadline has already passed before you have gotten in touch with us the first time, don’t worry. Let us know you’re interested and we’ll discuss options.
How many performers do you accept for each cohort?
No more than 10 for each two-year cohort rotation.
When are acceptance notices sent out?
We let applicants know as soon as the decision is made, which is entirely dependent on when the completed application is submitted. We don’t begin review of an application file until everything required is in place–this includes all relevant fees, transcripts, letters, and so forth. The earlier you submit your application materials, the sooner we can make a decision and let you know if you have been accepted.
In my first summer, what classes am I allowed/required to take?
The structure of our professional training certificate programs is deliberately designed to follow a progression of courses. All students are required to take, along with our first-year M.F.A. playwrights, Narrative Theory and Practice (which covers terms and principals of playwriting) and Playscript Analysis (which provides a baseline of important dramatic works and how to approach discussing them in a dramaturgical fashion). These two courses are required the first summer so that all first years have an opportunity to form a peer group and gain a common language for all the course work to follow.
Wait a minute! I’m an actor, not a playwright! Why do I have to take a playwriting course?
For the same reason that we encourage our playwrights to take classes in acting, directing, arts management, and even design. The more you know about the other disciplines you will be working with, the more respect and understanding you bring to the collaboration. Don’t worry, we’re not trying to turn actors into playwrights (although some of the best playwrights are also actors), but instead we are dedicated to making sure that an actor knows firsthand exactly how a playwright feels about the work they have created and the process a playwright goes through before sharing that script with a production team and then ultimately with an audience.
Yes, you will have to do some writing, but you won’t be evaluated on anything but being able to demonstrate your understanding of the craft of playwriting, not how good your play is. If a playwright can become a better playwright by finding out just how hard it is to memorize lines, sit backstage waiting to go on, find their light, say their lines, adjust their delivery, go for a costume fitting, find out there are a bunch of rewrites that have to be learned the day before they open, face a live audience, and all the other incredibly difficult parts of an actor’s job, then we’re pretty certain an actor who wants to work in new plays will be well served by learning how to write a play.
OK, I get it. What are the other classes I have to take?
Your first summer you will also take a course in Viewpoints and Composition work, which will lay the groundwork for developing devised pieces and group script creation.
In your second summer, you will receive guided instruction in how to manage your professional portfolio. This course, Performance as Profession, is a practical nuts and bolts approach to being your own CEO—how to select headshots, how to evaluate audition opportunities, make a demo reel, prepare your professional resume, and make a living as a professional actor.
You will take a course in Advanced Performance Techniques, which is an intensive overview of acting styles, including mask work and improvisation. You will also take a course in performing for other media, which is done in collaboration with an advanced playwriting workshop called Writing for Other Media. Performers will be given instruction in acting for the camera and collaborate with the playwrights on the creation and filming of an original six-part web series that will be uploaded to our YouTube channel.
Each summer, the most important course you will take is a two-credit hour class called Ensembles in Collaboration. The class is built around participating as an actor in our annual Playwrights Festival. Each year we select 10 production ready plays from the full body of work of all of our M.F.A. playwriting students. Those 10 plays are given staged readings at the end of the summer in front of an audience of fellow students, faculty, the general public, and industry professionals we have flown in from all over the country. In the past we have had playwrights like Naomi Wallace, the lead drama critic for the Chicago Tribune, artistic directors, publishers, designers, actors, agents, and other theatre disciplines. It is an excellent opportunity to see and be seen! All our performance students audition for the readings and are cast by the playwright and director teams. We need to balance academic and creative work so each reading is allowed no more than seven total hours of rehearsal and actors can be in no more than two readings. Your work in those readings is part of your grade in the Ensembles in Collaboration course. At the beginning of each week, you’ll discuss with all of the other cohort performers how things are going with your director and playwright teams, problems you are having in working on the text, and how to find strategies based on best practices to solve those problems. Your instructor will give you feedback on your work and help with strategies to build a tight ensemble in rehearsal.
I’m acting in a reading? Do I have to? How is the play selected? Do I have any say in what I am cast in? Do we have to wear costumes? Where are the readings performed? Can I read the scripts ahead of time? Can I indicate a preference for a particular role or director or playwright? Can I say there are things that I won’t do on stage like swear or get naked or—
Slow down, there! That is a lot of questions! Yes. You will be REQUIRED to act in a reading if you are cast. There is a local unified audition at the very start of summer. You will be REQUIRED to audition, just like all of the other local actors. In addition to our playwrights and directing students, we also invite all of the local directors to sit in on the auditions, including Mill Mountain Theatre, Off the Rails Theatre, Showtimers Community Theatre, Attic Theatre, and other local companies. Many of our playwrights and directing students also run theatres in their home communities. You will go through the audition process and submit a headshot, resume, and so forth. You will also fill out an audition sheet that includes a place where you can indicate things you don’t feel comfortable doing on stage—like if you are afraid of heights, can’t use profanity, or don’t want to kiss anyone. You can also indicate a preference for or against any particular play, and all of that information will be taken into consideration by the casting teams. Acting in Festival is such an important part of the education you are paying for, however, we do kind of presume that most of our performers will be inclined to accept a role if offered and ALL certificate performers WILL be offered roles.
The readings are not productions and all production values are minimal. Some costumes and props are allowed, but the focus is on developing the play, not spectacle. The readings are performed on the Waldron Stage of Mill Mountain Theatre, our artistic partner.
Copies of the selected plays will be sent to all the certificate performers to read on or around May 15, so that you are familiar with the plays and the playwrights before the summer starts and you have to audition. You will also be emailed the bios of each of the directors so that you can be familiar with their backgrounds as well. Does that help?
In trying to answer, we probably only raised more questions, but some of those questions are best asked in the classroom on campus and not answered in a sheet like this. Trust us, we have a plan.
Our playwrights generate an astounding amount of work in the classroom each summer, and we’re proud to say that a pretty fair percentage of that work has been presented in readings and even produced and published. Decision Height, by M.F.A. playwright Meredith Levy even won the national award for playwriting from KCACTF and that play was then published by Samuel French and is getting productions all over the country. The Matador, by M.F.A. playwright Robert Plowman was produced at Mill Mountain Theatre and then we flew half of the cast to Los Angeles for a six-week run of the show, and The Arctic Circle and a recipe for Swedish Pancakes, by M.F.A. playwright Samantha Macher went to New York for six performances with the entire original cast after its successful run at Mill Mountain Theatre and was then published by Original Works Publishing. A lot of our students are listed in the published version of these plays as the company involved in the world premiere. That looks impressive on your resume.
Wait, just so I am sure I understand, I might have to act in a play I don’t like?
Yes. This happens all the time in the profession and one of the things we hope to teach is how to invest in a project that wasn’t your first choice. And, all our students (directors, playwrights, and actors) are new to this kind of work, or they wouldn’t be doing the program. It very well may be that how you go about selecting creative partners will change as a result of the training you get at Hollins, your areas of interest may expand and it is possible that a project that you weren’t excited about your first year might be exactly the kind of thing you want to work on by the end of your second year. We have a whole series of structured exercises to help our students find effective strategies for working together in a variety of ways under a variety of conditions.
So, are actors allowed to decline a role?
Yes and no. Actors who are in the certificate program are not allowed to decline a role, for all of the reasons we mentioned above. Local actors, over whom we have no control and who are contributing their talent and time as volunteers, are free to decline a role, but we really hope that all conflicts and reservations about casting have been sorted out prior to the auditions, so that not accepting a role is a very rare thing. There just isn’t time during the summer session to spend on lengthy negotiations over who is in what shows. And we also ask at auditions whether or not each actor would accept a role if cast. We try to cover all the bases, but surprises happen and sometimes people change their minds.
Got it. So, how does casting work?
Festival casting happens the Monday following auditions in a closed session with the program director, the directing students, and the festival playwrights while you are doing a post mortem on your auditions with the instructor of your Ensembles in Collaboration course.
In that other room, the first thing that happens is that without discussing it with each other, each production team goes up to a white board and writes down their ideal cast list. Then we look for areas of overlap and conflict. If no actor is wanted to be used in more than two shows, we are good to go and it was easy peasy. It almost never is easy peasy.
The next step, then, is to discuss those areas of conflict based on the specific requirements for each show. One play may need an accordion player who can speak with a good Russian accent, but another play might need that actor not for his accordion playing but because he is an excellent singer and dancer and a third play might need him because he really looks like the person the playwright imagined in her head. The teams dicker and horse trade and try to come up with some compromises that best serve the entire festival and the program.
(You can see what would happen if the only actor who could play accordion said, “I don’t want to be in that accordion play.” Disaster!)
If we can work it all out, then maybe not easy peasy, but all’s well that ends well.
If we can’t work it out, then we go into an NBA style draft with the order of the draft determined randomly and if you don’t get the actor you wanted before they are drafted by another team, tough luck, Charlie! So far, we’ve never had to go to the draft, though. We pride ourselves on being a collaborative community and not a cutthroat competitive one.
Casting notices WILL go up by NOON on that Monday, and then the lamentations and celebrations will commence.
Apart from Festival, what other acting opportunities will I have during the summer?
In addition to the festival, there are readings of very early drafts of plays every Wednesday night in Lab, and though you are not required to go to Lab for the readings, we really encourage you to do so in order to hear how we discuss new plays, participate in those discussions yourself, and meet the other playwrights who might not have been selected for Festival. Since these are readings, they are going to need actors. That’s you. The same rules apply to these readings as to festival readings. No more than seven hours of rehearsal. How you manage your time is one of the things we are considering in your evaluations.
Every Friday night we have a venue called No Shame Theatre, where short original performance pieces are staged. The rules are simple:
1) Pieces have to be short, no more than five minutes
2) Pieces have to be original, with no copyright violations
3) You can’t break anything, including the law
Very often these pieces are fresh out of the printer and have neither been rehearsed nor employ a director. We would love it if having access to trained directors and actors meant that some of those pieces ended up getting a little more polish.
Halfway through the summer session we partner with Mill Mountain Theatre to present our version of the 24 Hour Plays, which we call Overnight Sensations. At 8 pm on a Friday night, six playwrights are randomly paired with six directors. Then those teams are randomly paired with six pre-selected groups of six actors. Then a bunch of writing prompts are drawn and the playwrights get rushed off to the library to write a new 10-minute play based on what they got. Directors usually go to No Shame to take their mind off of worrying about the kind of play they will get in the morning. At 8 am, the playwrights meet the directors at the theatre to read the draft and discuss any changes to the text, then the scripts are printed out while we have a production meeting. Actors arrive at 11 am for lunch and rehearsals begin at noon. At 5 pm we do a cue to cue, and at 7 pm the audience starts arriving. At 8 pm the curtain goes up on six freshly baked new 10-minute plays. The directors are selected from among our certificate students as well as our faculty, guest artists, and local directors. Any certificate directors who are not selected to direct in Overnight Sensations are encouraged to participate as performers if they wish. Everyone is required to attend the performance, however.
There are also lots of other opportunities during the summer, as our playwrights are allowed to check out performance spaces in two-hour blocks for their own student initiated projects, like private or public readings. You might also like to propose a project of your own or even a devised piece with multiple collaborators.
What opportunities are there during the rest of the year?
A: We have a fund for offsetting the costs of producing plays written by our student playwrights called the New Works Initiative fund. If you are able to get a theatre you work with to include a play by a Hollins playwright in their season, whether studio or main stage, and you will be involved as an actor in that show, then the theatre can apply for production assistance of between $500 and $5,000. Additionally, since we encourage mutually beneficial relationships, it is possible that should a playwright or a director you have worked with during the summer get a production and they are asked if they have any actors they prefer to work with, you might be that actor. In that case, a request could be made by the producing theatre that NWI funds be used to help pay for your travel and accommodations, although we are prohibited by law from paying current students in order to avoid any appearance that grades are related to any kind of pay-to-play scheme.
Suppose I already got, or am getting my M.F.A. in playwriting at Hollins but also want the certificate training. Can I do that? How does that work with the classes I already took?
When a student who had graduated from the program is accepted into one of the certificate programs, they would not have to take Narrative Theory or Playscript Analysis again. Instead, they would substitute those two courses with a creative and an analytical course from the playwriting curriculum that meets at the same time as those foundational courses and is approved by the program director. The same thing is true of a certificate student who chooses to continue their studies by getting the M.F.A. in playwriting.
How quickly can I expect to graduate?
Every student in the certificate program is expected to complete their training in the two-year rotation. If for some reason you had to unexpectedly leave the program, you would have to wait until that rotation came around again and reapply in order to take those courses.
What can you tell me about letters of reference?
Letters of reference are a very important part of your application process, not just a hoop to jump through. Give serious thought to ensuring they are significant, supportive, and above all, relevant.
An artistic director, literary manager, or famous director of a major theatre looks great as a reference, but most people entering grad school are going to find those kinds of references difficult to obtain.
A lot of programs ask for three letters and not coincidentally, are looking for people who can speak directly to three specific things. Your talent as a performer, your ability to handle the academic rigor of a graduate level study, and your potential for success in the field. Our suggestion is to try to get references that can each speak in general about all three of those things but then be very specific about one of them.
Find someone who can speak about why they think you are a talented performer. If possible, a director, another actor, or even a playwright.
Find another someone who can speak to your academic ability, especially if that ability is not reflected in the grades on your transcript. A supportive teacher is better than the head of a department who hardly knows you.
Find someone who can speak to your passion and commitment to pursuing your dream, and if possible, mention how you have helped others to do so.
Where possible, make sure those someones are accomplished themselves so that their evaluation of you carries weight. You want references who know you well, will describe you favorably but not with faint praise, know something about the program you are applying to and your goals, and willing to take questions about you over the phone.
Lastly, remember that your reference is putting his or her reputation at risk by writing your recommendation. Don’t ask if you aren’t reasonably sure they’ll say yes. If they do say yes, don’t make them regret it.
What do you need in terms of a resume and transcripts?
The need for official transcripts is obvious. We need demonstrable proof that you have obtained your undergraduate degree. If your undergraduate degree is not from an accredited college or university, a special request for a waiver of that requirement must be made to the full Grad Council and approved by the vice president for academic affairs.
And, we need all transcripts from every academic institution you have attended, even if you didn’t graduate from them, your grades there weren’t good, or you don’t think the field of academic study represented by them is relevant to your Certificate Training.
Do you really look at my grades?
Will you reject me if my undergraduate grades are terrible?
Not necessarily, but we do use past performance as an indicator in determining if you are up to meeting the demands of graduate level study.
A lot of people who do extremely well in graduate school have undergraduate grades they might be less than proud of. Don’t try to hide them. Don’t decide not to submit a transcript just because it reflects progress in an unrelated field or a degree you didn’t complete. Address those issues in your letter of interest and speak to both your desire to make a stronger showing in this program and discuss some of your strategies for doing so.
Don’t obsess about past grades. The quality of your writing sample, strength of your letter of interest, and the enthusiasm of your references will likely outweigh that D– you got in calculus.
Often I hear people stressing over their resume or CV… even about what the difference between a CV and a resume is, and which one is appropriate, how long should it be, and how much not having a bunch of professional credits on it matters.
To all that, I can only say, “Relax.”
A resume is geared more toward employment and a CV (Curriculum Vitae) is geared more toward academic achievements, so for this program resume is probably more appropriate, but that doesn’t mean the academic achievements are irrelevant.
As for credits, we don’t want you to prove you don’t need the instruction in order to get into the program. What we want is an accurate idea of your background, where you’ve worked and what you’ve done and who you’ve done it with.
Be truthful. Be complete. Be concise.
What are you looking for in a statement of purpose or letter of interest? How important is that to the application as a whole?
In a lot of ways, your letter of interest is the most important thing in your application. Lots of pressure, but the only good introduction is an honest one. In short, be yourself. Trying to be anyone or anything else is more work than it is worth.
Before you pick a school, you should have been selective in that choice—you should know why you want to go there, have specific goals and a plan for how the program you are applying to can help you meet those goals. All that should be in your letter of interest.
How else are we going to know anything about your passion for theatre, how much you looked into our program, and whether your expectations of the program are realistic? Your letter of interest is the best tool we have (outside of an actual interview) to help decide whether or not the school and the student will be a good team for the next two years.
Choosing a cohort of students is like casting a play. Talent is important, but so is knowing the ensemble will work well together, be mutually supportive and be good ambassadors for the institution. And if you don’t get in, that means nothing more than the path to your success might lie in another direction.
Ask hard questions of yourself and the institution. We’ll do the same—and that is going to be a very good and useful conversation to have regardless of the outcome.
How do you select your guest speakers and visiting faculty?
One of the greatest strengths of our program is our visiting faculty and guest artists. Our unique schedule allows some of the best known names in new play development to participate in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional program. Busy working professionals can fit in six weeks of teaching much easier than five months. For the certificate program it is VERY important to us that our faculty not be academics but actual working professionals who can model best practices. Whenever possible, we look for faculty who are also playwrights, or who have extensive experience in working on new plays with playwrights.
We bring in experts representing every aspect of professional theatre—playwrights, agents, directors, artistic directors, dramaturgs, producers, composers, agents, publishers, designers, actors, and lots of other disciplines.
We invite individuals who’ve made an impact on modern theatre with their own work who also have a proven record of successful and inspirational teaching or a history of helping emerging talents find their voice and be heard by a wider audience.
A successful community shares a common philosophy and enthusiasm for the mission it embodies, so we want visiting faculty and guest artists who will be good ambassadors for the program. What our guests and faculty say about Hollins has a huge impact on who is willing to come in the future.
We look at more than resume and reputation, we look for those who are eager to join our community, and excited about helping it grow.
Often, we’ll invite someone as a guest responder for the festival of student readings. If that goes well, we might invite them back as a guest speaker, and then (if it fits our curriculum) we may invite them back for a summer of teaching.
We don’t want people who are trying to find work; we want people who will help us create new work together.