Like many of us who decide to study Acting or Musical Theater in college, I’ve known
that I wanted to pursue this path from a very young age. In sixth grade, my dad asked me if I wanted to audition for the musical Pippin at Indiana University in my hometown of
Bloomington, Indiana. I had already been acting a bit locally, so I was excited at the opportunity, but more than anything I thought, “There’s a musical about Scottie Pippen?!” I quickly learned, to my initial disappointment, that the show was not about a former Chicago Bulls professional basketball player, but I did book the small role of Theo, the little boy Pippin meets in Act Two. Spending late night hours with those college kids, watching them warm-up, being backstage, hearing jokes (that I didn’t understand) in the dressing rooms… my fate was sealed. I’d sneak into the wings to watch the show when I wasn’t onstage and made a deal with myself: this is what I’m going to do with my life.
I’d sneak into the wings to watch the show when I wasn’t onstage and made a deal with myself: this is what I’m going to do with my life.
Knowing what you want to be is a blessing. Many of my friends in high school didn’t
know what they wanted to study in college. I felt ahead of the game. I went to a small liberal arts school in southern Indiana called the University of Evansville to study Theater Performance, and then straight to New York City where I received my MFA in Acting from NYU. After I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles, ready to grace the silver screen (I might’ve already even written my Oscar acceptance speech!) There I was, 25 years old, having been in school my whole life, ready to conquer the world, and never more unprepared for what was to come.
I thought that simply knowing what I wanted was enough. “I want to be an actor, and therefore, I will act.” What I did not know was all the hoops one must eventually jump through in order to actually get to do what they want to do. The beauty and luxury of college is that you get to devote yourself solely to the study of your chosen passion. Oftentimes, it’s a bit shocking once you graduate, as you are faced with a number of unforeseen challenges. Below are all the things I wish I’d known or had done to prepare myself to enter “the real world.” These are things you can get started on now, even before college starts, that will set you apart from the pack and prepare you for school and entering the industry.
The beauty and luxury of college is that you get to devote yourself solely to the study of your chosen passion. Oftentimes, it’s a bit shocking once you graduate, as you are faced with a number of unforeseen challenges.
What kind of work do you want to be a part of? If you’re planning to major in Musical Theater, what kind of musicals do you want to be in? Do you love classical shows, or are you interested in new work? If you’re majoring in Acting, do you want to be on stage, television, or film? Do you like comedy or drama? What kind of roles do you want to play? It never hurts to get extremely specific about what your goals are. Write them down. ‘I want to sing on Broadway in a brand new play by a BIPOC writer.’ ‘I want to act in uplifting indie films.’ ‘I want to work regionally or go on tour with a big musical.’ Having something specific to work towards is always helpful. Visualize it. Say it out loud. Allow your goal to grow and change. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you can accomplish what you want by getting specific.
Having something specific to work towards is always helpful. Visualize it. Say it out loud. Allow your goal to grow and change. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you can accomplish what you want by getting specific.
Make Your Own Work
In today’s digital world where we are inundated with technology, casting directors are eager to see who you are and will often ask you for a reel. You don’t have to wait for someone to cast you on an episode of Law and Order to make your reel. Pick a scene from your favorite movie or tv show. Find a friend. Grab your iPhone and shoot that scene. Three great scenes with start to finish acting will make a great reel to show to casting directors or anyone else who asks to see what you look like on-camera. But better yet, write your own story. One of the mistakes I made was waiting for someone to tell me when I could or could not act. I’d wait for auditions, and then if I got one, I’d wait around to see if I booked it, which most of the time you don’t. All of this waiting was a huge waste of time. Finally, I got tired of waiting. When I was in LA, I got together with friends and we started producing our own work. We’d put on plays, we’d make short films, we’d have Monday night readings of new plays. Anything and everything to make ourselves feel like we were involved and moving our careers forward. It was important then, and it’s even more important now. Making your own content is a great way to get yourself noticed.
One of the mistakes I made was waiting for someone to tell me when I could or could not act.
Getting Into Those Unions
It’s not something you necessarily have to think about before college, but it can’t hurt. Once you graduate, if you want to work professionally in theater, you have to be part of Equity. If you want to be in TV & Film, you have to be part of SAG/AFTRA. But don’t let that deter you. It’s actually easier than it ever has been to join Equity, and once you’re in one union, you can oftentimes pay an initiation fee to join the other. Some schools are connected to regional theaters where you can understudy or play small roles in professional shows that can help you join Equity. Look into summer theater productions that will give you points toward your Equity card or look into the Open Access program that Equity has recently implemented. If you’re interested in getting into SAG/AFTRA, look into doing extra work and getting a voucher so you can become SAG Eligible. Simply being on set is an amazing learning experience. It’s a whole new vocabulary to learn and there’s so much to observe. Also, look into being a reader for casting directors. It’s a great way to learn the Dos and Don’ts of auditioning. Finally, if you’re in NYC, check out places like One on One, where you can pay to take casting director workshops or meet agents. Be relentless about getting your foot in the door.
Look into summer theater productions that will give you points toward your Equity card or look into the Open Access program that Equity has recently implemented.
There is a large part of this career path that is out of our control. You are at the beginning of the process. Being prepared is a big part of auditioning for Musical Theater or Acting training programs. But there are several aspects of your career post college that you can control and get ahead on now. Start getting specific. Make your own work. Jump through a few of those hoops before you graduate to make your life simpler. You’ll be grateful that you did.
About the Author
Nick Mills has appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award winning play ‘The Humans’ as well as in ‘1984.’ Off- Broadway, he has worked as an actor at Roundabout Theatre Company, BAM, and The Public Theater. Regionally he has appeared at Center Theatre Group, Cleveland Playhouse, The Denver Center, and The Old Globe. Nick’s television credits include Guest Star appearances on the Emmy Award winning shows ‘Succession’ and ‘Mr. Robot,’ as well as ‘The Good Fight,’ ‘Blacklist,’ ‘Person of Interest,’ & ‘Law and Order: SVU.’ As an educator, Nick has taught Acting with the Waterwell Drama Program at the Professional Performing Arts School, Rosie’s Theater Kids, and ACTeen. This Fall, he will be teaching second year acting at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts. Most recently, Nick produced the short film “Dark Moon” for Sunnyside Films, featuring Tony Award winner Reed Birney and Marin Ireland.