Expanding to Improve

by Jacob Coakley
Tony Hagopian (left, in the blue shirt) and Rachel Friedman, URTA’s education manager, speak to apprentices at the Williamstown Theatre about how URTA can help them take the next step in their career.
Tony Hagopian (left, in the blue shirt) and Rachel Friedman, URTA’s education manager, speak to apprentices at the Williamstown Theatre about how URTA can help them take the next step in their career.

URTA pushes itself further to make sure students—and theatres—are filling their greatest potential 

Theatre is full of acronyms: SL, SR, SM, DMX, MFA and URTA. Those last two are quite a pair. Ever since it was formed in 1969, the University Resident Theatre Association has followed its mission of “supporting excellence in professional training of theatre artists,” through a variety of programs. And while its oldest event—the annual recruiting fair for grad programs—is its most popular, the truth is they offer a variety of programs that ensure universities offer the highest education opportunities possible, benefiting students, schools and the field of theatre itself. They’re not done, either, launching new programs to further their mission. If you don’t know URTA, here’s an introduction into one of the most helpful acronyms out there. 

Makenzie Vaughan’s costume design portfolio on display at the 2015 URTAs.
Makenzie Vaughan’s costume design portfolio on display at the 2015 URTAs.


URTA’s signature program is a consolidated audition process for grad schools. It happens every Jan-Feb in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco and has simply become known as “the URTAs.” 

“It’s one of the best ways for a prospective MFA candidate to meet a variety of great schools,” says Tony Hagopian, the business and communications director for URTA. “An actor can audition for two dozen MFA programs, designers have their portfolio presented to the same number of programs. Schools can come to one location and see hundreds of the top, most prepared students. It’s a win-win for everyone.” 

And these are not just simple cattle calls, either. Students receive close attention from the schools they apply to, with some schools holding classes for actors, and design programs thoroughly going through portfolios and interviewing students.  

“Part of what all of us do as faculty is sit down with the student and not sell the school but talk about what their goals and desires are, where do they see themselves in grad school and beyond? Trying to get to know them as possible working generative artists who will add to our educational communities,” says Jon Gottlieb, head of sound design at CalArts. 

Acting candidates at the 2015 URTAs.
Acting candidates at the 2015 URTAs.

Yes, And … 

Auditions aren’t where URTA’s services end, either. They offer a panoply of services to insure that colleges can continue to offer the highest level of training. With their Artists Engagement Services they can handle contracting and payment for union guest artists like Equity actors and designers affiliated with USA829. 

“Universities that want to bring in a professional union artist face so many hurdles to do that,” says Hagopian. For example, Equity requires actors to be paid weekly—that’s just the way it is. No exceptions. But most university payroll systems are not set up that way and can’t do it. So if they want to bring in professional artists to work alongside students to show them how it’s done and open up networking opportunities, they need a paymaster. URTA has working agreements with all three of major unions (More acronyms: AEA, SDC and IATSE/USA829) so they can operate as producer of record and signatory on the contract, taking care of pension payments, payroll, and the multitude of other details. “All the school has to do is find the artist to bring in, negotiate payment, and we take care of the rest,” adds Hagopian. 

UNLV and the Nevada Conservatory of the Arts uses URTA for just this purpose, regularly bringing in actors to perform alongside their students. “They make sure the actors are paid, all of the health and pension is paid into. They tell us how many hours a week we can work based on what contract tier we’re on and generally help us with anything with riders. We’re doing Macbeth this fall, and if we wanted to do a livestream and video recording they would take care of the payout for the actors for that additional contract. They have all the knowledge so I don’t have to call Equity every five minutes when I have a question. They’re great as an information headquarters,” says Chris Edwards, artistic director of the Nevada Conservatory Theatre at UNLV. “They’ve been in contracts for 50 years. It just makes it so much easier to make them a co-producer.”   

They also can do this for smaller theatres as well, working as a backstop and support team for theatres that have the ambition to put on professional shows—but may not have the staff to handle the increased logistics. “If you’re just starting out, and don’t have the administrative resources to do full payroll and tax reporting, or you’re not registered for state unemployment and worker’s comp, our paymaster service can provide all that,” says Hagopian. “We help a lot of small theatres that may not need producer of record service, but for whom a payroll master service is crucial.” 

And URTA knows training involves more than actors. They just awarded an URTA Grant to Virginia’s Barter Theatre to support the hiring of a United Scenic Artists design assistant. “The design assistant is a stage in the professional development of a theatre designer that’s important,” says Hagopian. “That time when you’ve completed your academic training, and are entering the work force under a master designer—that relationship is incredibly valuable.” But it’s also the last thing a theatre can afford when budgeting a show and is hard to give it a high priority. This new grant will enable theatres to give a new designer that invaluable experience. 

Diverse Programs, Diverse People

URTA is also helping to make the theatre landscape more accurately reflect the diverse nature of America. Responding to LORT’s diversity initiative, last year URTA created the “Candidate Awards.”  

“We realized that we wanted to take the initiative to support the industry broadly,” says Hagopian. “When we hear that demand for qualified leadership candidates outstrips the number of candidates—that’s a perfect place for us to intervene. Because we’re involved with training and getting people in the system. The one thing that URTA has some control over is the number of candidates coming through the recruitment process.” So they decided to remove as many barriers to that process. Their Arts Leadership Candidate Awards made attending URTA free for the student grantees. Their admission to the conference, all the workshops and panels was completely free. 

One person who benefited was Frank Mack, an associate professor of Arts Administration at the University of Connecticut. Mack started the Arts Admin program two years ago to address the dearth of qualified, trained candidates for theatre leadership. “When I was working as managing director we would comment that we would never a hire an actor and expect them to learn how to act in rehearsal—but we would hire entry level administrative staff and expect them to learn on the job,” His MFA program in Arts Administration is a three-year program that offers students the opportunity to take classes in law, public policy and more, and is taught by faculty across the University of Connecticut and professionals in the field brought on as adjuncts. He immediately saw the benefits of the Candidate Award in Arts Leadership at last year’s URTA’s, and recruited one of his new students there.

“We wouldn’t have gotten her without URTA,” Mack says. “They had really terrific applicants.” And they have a terrific process as well, according to Mack. “It’s tough for us to tell a recent college graduate to spend money to travel to Connecticut for an interview when we can’t guarantee anything. So it’s extremely efficient for the students to go to URTA interviews and then they can interview with wide variety of schools and we can have face to face engagement. I think my interviews were each 50 minutes long—they’re not superficial contacts like speed dating. It’s about finding people who match best with an individual program, so they can find the place that most closely matches their goals and aspirations and ways of learning. And URTA does great job of that.” 

They tripled the number of arts leadership applicants at the URTAs last year. “And just by virtue of increasing the size of that pool the diversity of that pool increased,” says Hagopian. It was so successful in fact, that this year they’re repeating the same process for leadership candidates and adding sound design. “It was another area that we determined needed that extra effort in terms of support,” says Hagopian. One of the people who pushed to have sound design included in the Candidate Award program was Gottlieb. 

“It’s always a little bit difficult to find enough sound designers in the pool,” says Gottlieb. “Without mixing too many metaphors here, you have to cast a wide net. I was interested in raising the incentive for sound designers to participate in URTA. A lot of them travel from far distances, and so I suggested URTA try to make it as economical as possible for candidates considering participation to pull the trigger and participate.” 

Gottlieb considers the URTAs especially important for sound designers because trying to convey a sound design portfolio is a hard task and mostly easily done face to face. “You have to really think outside the box to do a sound portfolio,” Gottlieb says. “Because you can’t just do an audio portfolio—even though sound is a field of aural sensitivity. You have to do a visual portfolio that attracts as well. It’s not unusual to see sound designers creating visuals to explain the aural soundscape. And when we think about it, there are so many different speaker systems available, so many different applications—it really is complicated.” Being able to be present, speak to your design, and guide someone through it is telling for Gottlieb and all the other schools recruiting in sound. Which is why Gottlieb is such a fan of the process. 

“We could do this whole thing online, have your portfolios online and do Skype interviews—but it’s about somebody’s future and it’s about relating to people and relating to people as both artists and potential colleagues, because that’s the way you should work on the grad level. And you can’t do that over the phone and you can’t do that completely through Skype. The URTAs are a wonderful resource—and as long as we can keep it in analog form, I kinda cherish the fact that it’s there.”