By Julane Havens
Last month, seven Walden Theatre seniors and one alum hoping to change their college major travelled from Louisville to Chicago to participate in the National Unified Auditions and the Consortium of Conservatory Theatre Training Programs Auditions (over 50 colleges and other programs attend collectively). Together they performed more than 100 auditions in three days. Walden Theatre’s Artistic Director Charlie Sexton has led this trip every year for the last seventeen years. Charlie and his colleagues have guided many of Walden’s students through the audition process and on to the nation’s top theatre schools, including Julliard, Carnegie Mellon, New York University, Boston University, and the University of Minnesota/ Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. Three of this year’s seniors were invited to a callback weekend at Minnesota that included attending the opening night performance of Michael Kahn’s The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound at the Guthrie.
“We have had the pleasure of auditioning a number of Walden students over the past few years,” says Joe Price, Program Director of the University of Minnesota/ Guthrie Theater Program. “We have found them to be incredibly prepared, extremely talented, and among the top students that we audition each year. Walden alum Chloe Bell is excelling in our rigorous program and will be studying in London next year at Shakespeare’s Globe. Walden has become an important program as we recruit for students each year.”
What makes the Walden program so successful in training young actors to excel in college and beyond? “A solid foundation in the classics,” says Artistic Director Charlie Sexton. “We also treat our students like the professionals they aspire to be. The rigor of our Conservatory program prepares them for the rigor of college level training programs.”
Walden’s commitment to the classics is evident in the audition room, “We count ourselves lucky at NIU when we can entice one of these gifted young artists to join our acting program,” says Stanton Davis, Head of BFA Performance at Northern Illinois University. “They especially have a foot up on most of our recruits when it comes to classical theatre. Walden is unique in its ability to train young people in complex text and period styles.”
While many students rely on the No Fear Shakespeare series to understand the Bard, Walden students learn how to truly engage with Shakespeare fearlessly. Over the summer they study Shakespeare’s First Folio and how to interpret and perform text, and they work on scenes from his less popular plays throughout the school year. During the process, they develop dynamic vocabularies and the confidence to perform both classic and new works. It is a process with a huge pay-off, according to Tom Huston Orr, Director of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Drama. “I am always thoroughly impressed with the talent and passion Walden Theatre students bring to their auditions. It is clearly evident that Walden has invested a lot of time and effort into their training – they have the best handling of Shakespearean text in the nation!”
This reputation is a great motivator for each year’s senior class, who strive to keep the bar set high, “Walden has an incredible reputation at the Chicago auditions. The schools know that you will be well-trained, and they are very impressed by the work Walden does,” says senior Zoe Greenwald, who is currently rehearsing the role of King Henry VI for this year’s Young American Shakespeare Festival. Zoe plans to attend NIU’s program in the fall.
This year’s Shakespeare festival is producing all three parts of Henry VI, and will be Louisville’s last chance to see these home-grown talents before they set off for college. Emma Pfitzer Price, who has been a Walden Theatre student for 10 years, joins Walden alums Jon Patrick O’Brien (Kentucky Shakespeare), Jess Weixler (The Good Wife), Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Wes Ramsey (Charmed), and Melody Combs (original Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses) in her acceptance into the prestigious Julliard School in New York City. Reflecting on her accomplishment, Emma said, “Being a Walden student helped so much. I would walk into an audition and they would get excited by my resume and say, ‘You’re a Walden Theatre kid!’ Our instructors were amazing about being there for us in Chicago, signing us up for walk-up auditions, and keeping us focused and healthy.” Emma’s last role as a Walden student will be Joan of Arc in the first part of Henry VI.
While Emma’s many years of training at Walden certainly gave her an advantage in Chicago, newer students also benefit from joining Walden in their junior and senior years. “I joined Walden the beginning of my senior year and had been in classes for a few months before the Chicago trip,” said student Kerri Edens, who has been accepted into a number of schools including the Savannah College of Art and Design and Sante Fe University, “I learned more in that time frame than I have anywhere else.”
Walden students planning to go on the annual Chicago trip are required to take Saturday morning classes that guide them through selecting monologues, preparing resumes, and walking confidently into auditions. They are encouraged to read a variety of plays and to bring active, engaging monologues to class for anyone to use. This community effort eases the pressure off an already high-stakes task, “Because of all the immersion to Shakespeare we’ve had, and all of the resources at Walden, finding my classical monologues was the easiest part. I looked for contemporary pieces in Walden’s play library and on Saturdays when lots of people brought in cool new plays that we were able to share with each other,” said senior Rebecca Willenbrink, who’s been offered acceptance into DePaul University, Fordham University, and Ithaca College.
The camaraderie among Walden students is a special part of how they prepare for and conquer college auditions, “Through Walden, I have surrounded myself with passionate young people that have fostered my need to create theatre,” shared senior Catherine Young, who has been accepted into Southern Methodist University, Charlie Sexton’s alma mater. “I am hoping that some of the Walden students end up at SMU next year,” said Jim Crawford, Head of Acting at SMU, “I look forward to seeing more students like this.”
If you are a high school junior or senior considering a major in theatre, Walden Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Intensive is an excellent opportunity to jump-start your audition preparations. For more information on the Intensive and the Conservatory program, please visit waldentheatre.org or call (502)-589-0084 and ask for Charlie.