Tuesday, August 20

How they made it into the MFA theater directing program


Zero. That’s how many applicants the UCLA theater
directing graduate program admitted this year.

Even though this year’s magic number is only two less than
last year, zero does send a loud and clear message that the
graduate directing program is not an easy fortress to breach.

Zero also means Max Snyder, Brian Kite, Thomas Burmester, Aaron
Feinstein and Jonathan Gellert remain the only students in the
program.

The 2001-2002 class of Snyder, Burmester and Feinstein was a
bumper crop for the department, and with Kite and Gellert entering
the following year, the need to admit additional students
isn’t exactly pressing.

“We found more good students in the last couple of years
than we normally admit, and we had too many students,
actually,” said Bill Ward, chair of the theater department.
“But we didn’t see anyone that was really compelling
(this year).”

Theater directing Professor Michael McLain, who serves as the
head of the MFA selection committee, echoes Ward’s
sentiments.

“There wasn’t a strong sense of a very strong
candidate,” said McLain. “We’re always hoping for
the best … hoping we’ll have someone who can revolutionize
American theater.”

The current crop of graduate students, in McLain’s eyes,
has exactly the kind of potential the department is looking
for.

“They’re very careful about who they bring in. They
want to bring in people who show true professional
potential,” said Kite, who returned to UCLA after 10 years of
acting and directing in Los Angeles. “I wanted to come back
here and figure out how to be a better director, to go from being a
good director to a great one.”

For Snyder, getting into UCLA was far from a sure thing, despite
the fact he had just graduated from the highly regarded theater
conservatory program at California Institute of the Arts.

“It’s possible that coming from CalArts helped, but
I don’t know for sure,” said Snyder. “I certainly
had an extensive acting background, but had only directed one show
previously. They did, however, tell me that I was their third
choice, and that if they did select me, they would be taking a
chance. So I didn’t keep my hopes too high, and I was very
surprised to be even called back for the second
interview.”

Tony Award-winning director John Rando, who graduated from the
program in 1990, had plenty of options before deciding on UCLA.
Fresh from a theater fellowship in Germany, Rando had also applied
to Columbia. He was surprised that he actually made the interview
round, during which he was particularly impressed by the faculty at
UCLA.

“Most of the people I knew were applying to Yale and NYU,
but I recognized UCLA as providing a very specific (and
individualized) kind of training,” said Rando.
“Professor McLain really seemed to know where I was in my
career and where I was heading.”

The place Rando was heading was Broadway, where he promptly put
his UCLA training to use, culminating in the critical success that
was “Urinetown.” Rando is making a homecoming of sorts
when he directs Steve Martin’s “The Underpants”
at the Geffen Playhouse, opening March 9.

“There are lots of people who want to come to our program,
but the ones we want are that very top level of the very best
students. And those are students that are desired by our competing
schools, which are Juilliard, NYU and Yale,” said Ward.
“We’ve been fortunate in the past in getting our first
choices.”

In the case of Kite, UCLA was his first and only choice. His two
concerns were having access to the best faculty and the fact that
he was familiar with the bureaucratic ins and outs at UCLA, having
done his undergraduate work here.

“I had an existing theater company here called Buffalo
Nights, and I feel very strongly about Los Angeles as an arts
center. So I didn’t apply all over the place. I took my
chances and put all my energy into trying to get into UCLA. It
wasn’t a matter of whether I would get into grad school or
not; it was a matter of whether I would get into UCLA or
not.”

Both Kite and Snyder agree with Rando that one of the major plus
points of UCLA’s directing program is that it is highly
flexible and tailored to each student.

“(The program) caters to the director’s
aesthetic,” said Snyder. “There’s no one
aesthetic that’s imposed upon the individual. They really try
to work with our unique needs and qualities.”

The department must meet its graduate directors’
production needs by deploying considerable resources in the form of
undergraduate students, rehearsal spaces, etc.

“If we wanted to admit one more director, we would need so
many more designers, so many more actors, another theater space,
more rehearsal rooms, all of those things,” Ward said.
“It’s quite a management job to correlate the number of
directors you admit and the number of (students in other parts of
the program).”

It’s these resource needs that directly affect the number
of students admitted, a fact that can be further complicated by
budget cuts. According to the chair, the department has already
been hit by cuts totaling close to three-quarters of $1 million
over the last three years.

“If you have a big budget cut, you have basically three
choices: one is to diminish the quality of the program, the other
is to charge more for it and the third is to offer admission points
less frequently,” said Ward. “The scary thing this year
is that we’re admitting students without knowing what the
situation is going to be next year.”

The department has been advised to stick to its normal
admittance standards for the coming class year. As of right now,
graduate applicants are in the middle of second-round
interviews.

“The budget cuts are not a direct cause of (a low
acceptance rate),” said McLain. “But if they continue
to spiral further they might become a bigger factor.”

Even given the current situation, it remains unlikely that
budget cuts will dampen demand for a place in the prestigious
program.

“I think having a master’s degree gives producers a
bit of calm about hiring you,” said Kite. “I think it
really makes a difference. They feel a little better, like:
“˜Somebody must think he’s good because he has a
master’s from UCLA.’”

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