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Spotlight on CMU's School of Drama

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When I talked to Carnegie Mellon University alumnus and Waitress star Drew Gehling, I asked him what advice he would give to incoming and newly-admitted acting and musical theatre majors.

“The hardest part about being a first-year and a second-year at Carnegie Mellon University for me,” he mused, “was not being able to be on stage.”

Gehling referenced the fact that first-year and sophomore acting and musical theatre majors are not allowed to act in Carnegie Mellon School of Drama productions: on the main stage or otherwise. From an outsider’s perspective, this limitation seemed a little strange.

“It seems barbaric and counterproductive for a training program to not allow its performing arts students to get on stage and do the thing that they came to school to do,” Gehling said, “And it’s only been time away that I’ve realized the utter brilliance of that tenet of the school curriculum.”

“It all comes down to the motto of the school,” he continued. “Andrew Carnegie said, ‘my heart is in the work.’ And what I think is that everyone who’s coming here is a gifted performer. They’re good on stage. That has become clear over the 18-or-so plus years of your life up until this point.” Here, he shifts briefly to the School of Drama’s perspective. “What we’re gonna train you to do when you get here is to look beyond the glory of being on stage and find — in your work — something to be passionate about other than the prestige and applause that come with performance. Because if there’s nothing else about the profession besides the prestige and the applause that you’re aspiring to, you’ll never be fulfilled in your work.”

“The most important part of your work is loving the work itself,” he said. “And if you love the work itself, then everything else will just be like the gravy — and that’ll be just the goodies. Because the show that you’re in will not always be great; the TV shows you’re on will not always be renewed; the films that you devote large chunks of your life, and personal sacrifices for and to, might not be successful. But, if you love going to work each day and striving to become better at what you do, then every day will be rewarded.”

“To spend two years not being on stage forces you to come ... to come to terms with what else about the profession that you love. And so,” he concludes, “my only advice would be to stick through the two years. It’s for a reason that may not seem immediately clear — and it might not even be clear for several years after that — but it does exist for a reason and it is tested and true in time and time again, which is why it’s the oldest degree-granting [drama] program in the country … it’s difficult, but it’s worth it.’

I wanted to get some input from current drama students. Senior Georgia Mendes, who recently starred in the School of Drama’s production of Or,, shared her thoughts on the policy.

“I actually think it is invaluable that we wait two years to perform,” she stated. “Freshman and sophomore year is solely focused on the training and the individual. And by the time performing comes around we are ready to perform. It also eliminates competition amongst classmates. By the time everyone is a junior or [a] senior, the talent pool is small enough that everyone is guaranteed large roles at least three times. We have plenty of opportunities to perform between Playground and Dancelight.”

Though it may appear that not casting first-years and sophomores is tedious and detrimental to their development, it appears to be, in fact, vital. This process allows acting and musical theatre students to develop a more rounded perspective on their chosen path, and helps prepare them to confront industry challenges they may face in the future.