Archive | September, 2011

The Coast Guard is Calling

30 Sep

The powerful beams of spotlight swept across the black churning water and revealed the yacht bobbing on the waves.  The sound of thumping helicopter rotors could be heard above the roar of the ocean waves.  A stentorian and authoritative voice boomed out over the loudspeaker, announcing clearly to all on board,

“This is the United States Coast Guard.  Do not attempt to move your vessel.  Repeat.  Do not…”

I smile at the memory.  When we first watched X-Men: First Class (out on DVD, highly recommended) in the movie theater, I had burst out laughing at this point, which was an incongruous response because the scene was tense and suspenseful.  I had nudged my daughter in the elbow and in the dark of the movie theater I could see her smile at our shared inside joke.  Meanwhile, the action on screen continued.  Were the bad guys going to escape?  Is this where Magneeto and Professor X finally meet?

Weeks before seeing X-Men, the Coast Guard had called.  The caller ID flashed “College Admissi” and I recognized the area code to be from the Philadelphia area.  My heart skipped a beat as I thought wildly, was it the University of Pennsylvania calling to recruit her?  Hey, I’m allowed to dream.  I was up to my elbows washing dishes and so I yelled for my husband to pick up.  My daughter was still eating her dinner.

“Yes…who shall I say is calling?” he asked.  After listening, he handed the phone over to her.

“It’s the Coast Guard,” he said.  He could have said that she was not available but it seemed bad form to lie to the Coast Guard.  My daughter shot us a quizzical frown and took the phone.

“Hello?” she tentatively inquired, her usual high pitch voice went up a higher notch.  After a brief pause, she said,

“I haven’t really thought about it.”  Meanwhile my husband and I started to giggle.

“Okay…you can…” she replied to another question and proceeded to give her email address.

“Okay, bye,” she said and hung up.  The three of us collapsed with mirth.

We laughed not at the idea of serving our country.  We laughed because we couldn’t imagine her going through the grueling physical training required at the Coast Guard Academy or other service academies.  My daughter is singularly athletically ungifted, having the misfortune of inheriting my lack of athletic ability (there are incriminating home movies of me coming in last in school races).  As a baby, she was perfectly content to sit and play with her toys while other babies were eagerly crawling, scooting, and exploring their surroundings.  She was also a late walker.  Why walk when you can be carried everywhere?

The Coast Guard Academy requires a recommendation from the gym teacher in addition to two academic recommendations (yes, she checked).  Admission is highly competitive with a low 17% admissions rate but unlike West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, or the Merchant Marine Academy, applicants do not need a nomination from their Senator.  Tuition for all four years of education and training is free, courtesy of the federal government and upon graduation cadets have to serve five years.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to obtain a first class education and to be assured of a job upon graduation.

Too bad she can’t take advantage of it.


The Bronx is Up and My Battery is Run Down – Part 1

27 Sep

Hi all, I’m grateful to Ann Thurlow for providing this blog with reviews of college visits since I have been much occupied with my fiction writing class.  It appears that in a fiction writing class they expect you to write fiction.  Who knew?  Hope you enjoy this one.

I loved Manhattan in the summer when I lived there in my 20s, and I still do.  I refused to consider commuting when circumstances (i.e. marriage) drew me to New Jersey and have never understood how so many people travel in and out of town daily for decades.  Monkey Son and I were exhausted from making the trip three days in a single week.  Fortunately, each day was rewarding and revealing.

Our first stop was Pace University, sandwiched between City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan.  Pace is not a college with a sparkling personality; it is an unapologetic diploma mill with a relentless focus on pre-professional training.  Its very location, across from City Hall, within shouting distance of Wall Street, reinforces the university’s businesslike approach to higher education.  The university  has five undergraduate colleges, but its business, communications, and performing arts programs are its strongest undergraduate magnets.  Pace’s Pforzheimer Honors College also offers attractive scholarship packages and preferential course placement for students who might otherwise attend more selective colleges but whose grades and test scores would not earn them admission to Manhattan’s premier universities.  Pace’s overall undergraduate acceptance rate is about 80%.

To qualify for the Acting B.F.A. program, the student must first submit a general application to the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences at Pace’s New York City campus.  If the student is accepted, he or she will be invited to audition for a place in the far more selective (25 to 30 students per year) conservatory training program.  Pace students have access to the Actors Studio and many prominent theater professionals are adjunct faculty members.  The College also has a strong track record for placing students in internships locally.  Pace also has a strong Musical Theater B.F.A. program.

Housing, unsurprisingly, is cramped and expensive, in a high-rise setting (they refer to it as a “vertical campus.”)  The immediate neighborhood is very lively during the day but less so at night.  Students can travel easily to Tribeca, Little Italy, the East Village, and Chinatown, for culinary and recreational diversions.  Several luxurious private residences stand near Pace’s tower, and our student guide pointed to a Google co-founder’s penthouse during our tour.  Pace provides rigorous on-campus security, and One Police Plaza is nearby.

Monkey Mama and Monkey Son barely discussed the visit to Pace over their lunch in Chinatown, but immediately concurred that Pace held no attraction apart from its Acting program and Manhattan location.  Monkey Son will probably apply, but has little interest in attending should he not be accepted into the Acting B.F.A. program.  After lunch, we moved a little further uptown, to another “vertical campus” to visit one of the few colleges we are considering that does not offer an auditioned acting or performance major.

Monkeys Dip Their Toes Into the Water – The University of the Arts

20 Sep

Monkey Mama has decreed that her son apply to at least one school with rolling admissions, and we found the perfect candidate in our first campus visit: Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Its acceptance rate is higher than many conservatory programs, and they conduct auditions in Philadelphia ahead of the frenzied “Unified” auditions in New York City (which will undoubtedly be the topic of at least one future post).  The University of the Arts is small, with no campus to speak of.  The closest thing to a “quad” is an alley between a residence hall and the main office building.  It has an unmistakable vibe to it, nevertheless, which Monkey Son cottoned to immediately.

The University draws distinct divisions between visual and performing arts, with some overlap in areas like film and stage design.  The performing arts majors include dance, acting, directing, musical theater, jazz studies, and playwriting.  All students are required to fulfill a liberal arts requirement of at least 42 credits, roughly one-third of their undergraduate course load.  UArts offers an attractive selection of courses that might appeal to the artistically inclined – literature, art history, anthropology, history, psychology, along with opportunities for minors and electives in other disciplines.  Students are also invited to cross register in “hard” subjects at the University of the Sciences Philadelphia for up to 18 credits, no more than one class per semester, up to six classes in total.

Most upperclassmen prefer to live off campus, and so the scarcity of student housing isn’t considered a problem.  Freshmen are practically assured campus housing.  All dormitories are apartment-style.  We visited a unit with two small bedrooms, a common sitting area, a bathroom, and a kitchenette.

We toured with a young woman who hopes to pursue a B.F.A. in dance and although Monkey Son remained aloof while she spoke with some current dance majors outside the airy studios, he cannot have been oblivious to the lissome young women in the corridors.  Not surprisingly, women outnumber men in the dance department but the overal gender ratio at UArts is 58% women and 42% men.

UArts is located in the artistic and cultural center of Philadelphia, adjacent to the Kimmel Center, and within walking distance from City Hall.  The University actually owns the Merriam Theater, an ornate, 1,800-seat hall which it leases at a profit to touring shows and concerts.  Monkey Son was duly impressed by this facility, having expected to see only basic rehearsal spaces, or “black boxes.”  Monkey Mama was thrilled to hear The Sound of Philadelphia and Satin Soul piped out to the sidewalk from the Philadelphia Records store on the site of the great Gamble and Huff recording studio nearby.

Monkey Mama Learns the Lay of the Land

13 Sep

Monkey Mama has picked up the new language pretty quickly.  She can now drop terms like “unifieds,” and discuss “audition vs. non-audition” programs as if she were a native speaker.  It is a little more difficult to persuade Monkey Son to stop somersaulting and walk upright though.

An aspiring actor has to decide between pure “conservatory” programs that lead to the bachelor of fine arts degree (B.F.A.) or academic theater departments that offer a bachelor of arts degree (B.A.) within their general liberal arts faculties.  Yale University’s undergraduate theater studies department is probably the most prestigious B.A. program but many other traditional colleges have strong performing arts divisions.

Some of the most desirable programs are combinations: B.F.A. conservatory programs under the aegis of larger colleges or universities, often within their own schools.  Leading examples of this include Tisch School of the Arts at New York University; Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University; The Theatre School at DePaul University; the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University; and the University of North Carolina’s School of the ArtsThe University of Minnesota hosts a unique conservatory program with Minneapolis’ legendary Guthrie Theater.  Some large universities offer B.F.A. programs within the general college, with an audition required: Brooklyn College, Pace University, and Montclair State University fall into that category.  Northwestern University has a highly regarded theater program within its School of Communications.

The Juilliard School is probably the most illustrious conservatory but many of the lesser known programs admit just as small a group of actors each year.  Brooklyn College, for example, has a moderately competitive selection rate for freshmen admissions but only accepts eleven students into its Acting B.F.A. program each year.  Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts has a very high acceptance rate and provides college opportunities to urban students whose prospects might not be very strong otherwise.  The Chicago College of Performing Arts is not an open admissions school, however, and auditions many more students than it accepts.

Montclair State, Pace, and numerous others operate on a rolling admissions basis for general applicants but once accepted as regular undergraduates, aspiring actors will have to wait until March at least to know whether they have been admitted into the Theater B.F.A. program.  Acceptance rates for individual students are usually higher for men than for women but they still compare roughly with ratios at the most selective colleges.

Monkey Mama soon learns that the smorgasbord of prospective schools is only one labyrinth to negotiate.  Many, if not most, Acting or Theater B.F.A. programs have another ugly surprise awaiting their applicants: they “cut” up to one-third of the class from the program after the first or second year.  Ouch.  Those students can still remain at the school, but will be unable to participate in the more intensive acting workshops, and are unlikely to be cast in leading roles in department productions.

Monkey Mama Takes the Stage

8 Sep

I am delighted to introduce my friend, Ann Thurlow, as a guest blogger.  She has been busy taking her son to visit various colleges for theater and performing arts programs and she will be blogging about them.  It is an area that is not often covered in college guidebooks so I hope you will enjoy reading about their experiences.


My friend has magnanimously invited me to provide an occasional byline in this blog.  Our children are the same age, but our experiences and perspectives are radically different.  Although she would probably prefer to be called something other than Tiger Mother, I feel she deserves a feline moniker nevertheless, an ocelot or a puma, perhaps.  If the exacting parent of a high achieving student is a Tiger Mom, I am an unapologetic – well, slightly apologetic – Monkey Mama.

I was born in the year of the monkey and prefer chattering, arguing, and leaping from one attraction to the next to focusing on discrete tasks.  Where my hostess has carefully planned and organized her daughter’s college search for more than a year, I have blithely hoped that every day I postpone initiating the dreadful enterprise, might yield an additional day of wisdom and maturity for my cherished firstborn son.  Today might just be the day where he arrives to class on time, homework assignment in hand, and equipped with all necessary materials.

The hospital sent the right baby home in 1994 and he will – God willing and the creek don’t rise – graduate high school next year.  The one subject where he has consistently excelled at and exerted himself is theater, and he wants to be an actor.

A theater major might not be as practical as engineering or accounting, but this boy is never going to be an engineer or accountant.  Monkey Mama (and her silent partner) acknowledge this, and realize that the alternatives like art history, creative writing, or anthropology, offer no more promising long term career prospects than a degree in the performing arts.  So Monkey Mama is now a stage mother for Number One Monkey Son (aka Monkey Son).

Perhaps I should not have checked the statistics, just as I should not have peeked at the long term prognosis for stage III lung cancer when my husband was first diagnosed.  I might have been a calmer helpmate had I not seen that he had, at best, a 15% to 20% likelihood of ever being as healthy as he is now.  I apologize to all who think an analogy between cancer and college is unseemly, but the latter threatens to consume the next year of Monkey Mama’s fragmentary attention as much as the former claimed 2009.

I knew that an aspiring actor’s prospects for steady, remunerative employment were dismal, but I didn’t realize how low the odds were for admission to the undergraduate programs which will train my future Starbucks barista.  The big picture for theater applicants is that they will all almost certainly be accepted into an acting program somewhere, but the process is exhausting and heartbreaking for students and parents alike.  Nevertheless, Monkey Mama will seize the vine and swing up that learning curve quickly.

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