For those who want to study performing arts, the competition for acceptance at the better institutions of higher learning is increasingly stiff.
“In the old days, you would just apply to a school, and then you would get an audition date. Then you’d turn up at that school to audition,” Peters Township resident Judy Nowe Gelman said. “Now, there are so many people.”
As a result, she explained, colleges have instituted prescreening auditions in which prospective students “have to put together a video of themselves and send it in to the schools, in order to even be considered for a live audition.”
What they must submit is specific, according to Gelman: “two contrasting vocal selections, not to exceed 90 seconds each; two contrasting monologues, not to exceed 90 seconds each; and a one minute video of dance.”
To help students through the process, Gelman has joined with Carnegie Mellon University faculty member Betsy Lawrence to present the Audition Series, online preparatory classes offered through Pittsburgh Music Masters, an organization founded by Lawrence to educate young performers.
“She was working with voice with the students but needed somebody to help with monologues,” Gelman said. “So I started working with these kids on their monologues, live. And then coronavirus hit.”
The timing of social-distancing restrictions brought on by COVID-19 was particularly inopportune for high school juniors looking to submit their audition videos well in advance of starting college in the fall of 2021. Recognizing the need to keep the ball rolling, Lawrence suggested taking further instruction online.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve got to see these kids,’” Gelman recalled. “And Betsy said, ‘I think it’ll work. I think it’ll work.’”
The optimism of Lawrence, a Mt. Lebanon resident, turned out to be prescient. The virtual Audition Series has drawn participants from Western Pennsylvania and far beyond, including students tuning in from the likes of Ohio, Illinois, Florida and Oklahoma.
“I had them each tell me three schools they were interested in,” Gelman said. “They could change their mind next week, but we want to look at what those three schools require.”
The exercise is beneficial for other family members, too.
“So many parents have no clue what to do with these college auditions now,” Gelman said. “If you’re a parent who has a kid who wants to go on, you have a lot of research to do.”
A Washington, D.C., native, she moved with her parents to Mt. Lebanon when she was 16, bringing quite a bit of experience in performing at a high level.
“I loved ballet and was a very serious student at the National Ballet Company in Washington,” she said. “I mean, like four-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week serious.”
In her new hometown, she performed with the Pittsburgh Civic Playhouse community theater company and eventually she began instructing performance arts through such organizations as the YMCA and Boys Clubs.
“I found that I had such a high from teaching,” she said, “and I saw all these communities come together when their kids were working on a show.”
One of those communities was Mt. Lebanon.
“In the spring of 1981, I rounded up some people and we put together a program. I wrote a basic script, and the kids were divided into groups. And they had to write their portion of the script,” Gelman said. “After three weeks, we did the show, and even I was astounded by the talent.”
Shortly afterward, and with the full backing of then-Allegheny International Inc. vice president Clayton Sweeney, served as the founding artistic and managing director for the Center for Theatre Arts. Billy Hartung, who was among the center’s first group of students, now serves as its executive director.
Later, Gelman joined with another benefactor – Jimmy Petrinos, who at the time owned Primanti Brothers – to start the Kids Theatre Project, overseeing the renovation of a Strip District building into three large dance/acting studios, a voice studio, office space and student lounge.
Over the years, her former students have performed in numerous Broadway productions, from “The Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Kinky Boots” and “Spamalot.” And with regard to higher education, some of her protégés went on to study at such prestigious schools as Juilliard, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, the British American Academy of Dramatic Arts and, of course, Carnegie Mellon.
Recent circumstances have left her undeterred in her continuing efforts to foster young talent.
“The arts will survive coronavirus,” she said. “It’s just trying to work it in unusual ways.”