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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

Ensemblist Training at Point Park University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady
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Point Park University

School of Theatre

BFA in Musical Theatre

Founded in ?

 

“We don’t prepare our students any differently for the ensemble than we do for principal work,” says Zeva Barzell, M.F.A., Associate Professor and Head of Musical Theatre at Point Park University. “They are able to build and create character whether they are a principal or in the ensemble.”

Situated in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, the B.F.A. in musical theatre degree is “a triple threat program in that we give all areas of training equal emphasis.” This broad focus on acting, singing and dancing is reflected in the degree course requirements. In addition to taking private voice lessons, Musical Theatre majors are required to take two courses in ensemble singing. PPU also offers a 400-level course called Theatre Professional Seminar, with weekly seminars on a variety of topics from acting unions to taxes for the performer.

“My jazz classes at Point Park focused on being specific with style,” says Megan Sikora, PPU graduate and Chita Rivera Award winner. “My instructor, Ron Tassone, taught a new combination everyday so you had to be a fast learner. I definitely had a leg up because of him.”

"From the beginning of my time there I knew that I was going to focus on ensemble work and that meant taking my dance training to the forefront and really taking advantage of the dance classes," says Amy Van Nostrand of Broadway's Holiday Inn: The Irving Berlin Musical. "I just knew that in order to compete in New York I needed a higher level of dance ability. My jazz teacher Kiesha Llama White was a critical part of that training. Her class combined technique, story telling, and a fearlessness to push myself that fully prepared me for a professional career."

“Kiesha Lalama's dance class was great blend of traditional jazz and contemporary dance,” continues Jeff Kuhr, a long time swing with Kinky Boots on Broadway and tour. “We would even learn iconic choreography from different shows like ‘Dance at the Gym’ from West Side Story.”

Thanks to this intensive and comprehensive training, PPU alumni are often found in Broadway’s most dance-heavy productions or in dance-focused roles. Last season on Broadway, former Point Park students were seen in 11 different Broadway musicals, from Hamilton to The Great Comet. The original Broadway revival cast of Cats included three Point Park grads: Callan Bergmann, Shonica Gooden and Ahmed Simmons.

“Our hope is that our graduates walk away feeling confident, ready to work, competitive in their field and knowledgeable and curious artists with integrity, strong work ethic,” continues Barzell. “We don’t just train the students to have the skill to get work, but also create artists who have a passion and respect their craft and a taste for excellence in their work.”

PPU’s cultivation of students’ passion for success is based on the philosophy that it takes tenacity to succeed as a musical theatre performer. “You have to have discipline and drive to survive in this business,” says Sikora. “At Point Park, sometimes I took four technique classes a day!”

However, this intense focus on ability is not taught in a way that pits students against each other. Barzell notes, “We strive to create an environment in which, although competitive, the students work as an ensemble so they are competitive with themselves and not at the expense of each other.”

Mike Cannon, dance captain of Broadway’s Aladdin and veteran of five additional Broadway ensembles remembers one specific class that inspired collaboration: “In our freshman Rehearsal and Performance course, we were asked to group up to perform a piece.  That helped us to think less selfishly. Instead of us all thinking what solo would show us off, it made us think of how we could come together to perform the most exciting numbers.”

“Outside of class, I would say the support of my fellow students and faculty helped me feel confident as a professional artist,” says Sikora. “When I was there everyone was rooting for each other and it felt like you couldn't lose.”