Students in the performing arts face a challenging task when it comes to applying to colleges and universities to pursue their education and arts training. There’s a lot of competition and seemingly few slots.Halley Shefler, the founder and CEO of the consulting company ArtsBridge (formerly known as Arts Edge), seeks to demystify the admissions process and connect students with educational and growth opportunities in the performing arts by helping them to find the school that is their best possible match.
Among its programs is a two-week intensive workshop, which will be held later this summer in New York, running August 5-17 at Chelsea Studios. Past offerings have included a scholarship competition for musical theater students that had as judges Tony Award nominees Chad Kimball and Constantine Maroulis.
Shefler recently spoke with TheaterMania to discuss the origins of ArtsBridge and the unique ways in which the organization helps to guide students.
THEATERMANIA: What made you decide to found ArtsBridge?
HALLEY SHEFLER: I had been head of admissions at the College for the Arts at Boston University and Dean of Admissions at Boston Conservatory, and I was seeing more and more students not getting in. Not only not getting into the conservatory but not getting in anywhere. And it made me realize that there’s something very very wrong here.
People would call me and say why did I not get in? So I would read them their comments. It was basic stuff that really could be fixed, but the preparation wasn’t there.
Then I realized they’re all applying to the same schools. If you have hundreds of thousands of kids applying to the same schools, they’re not going to get in. So I started working with kids to make them realize that there are 4,000 colleges in this country and there are probably about 150 that have decent programs in theater. There is a place for everybody.
TM: How does ArtsBridge connect students to the school and training?
HS: We have them upload their materials. We hide their name and information and then I work with faculty all over the country who tell me where this student is compared to their typical freshman. From that point, we look at grades and scores and I and some faculty I work with come up with a list of schools that I think that the student should consider. There will be schools that may be on the top of the heap and other ones that may not. I’m a big fan right now, for instance, of Shenandoah. But it’s not going to be on people’s lists. So I would say to somebody, “Go visit Shenandoah. Talk to this person that I’ve met there.” Because the schools that ArtsBridge is interested in are those that would love to have a visit from somebody who thinks that, “Hey, we may not have looked at you before but we’re going to look at you now.”
TM: What are some of your success stories?
HS: My success stories are having somebody come to me with a list of schools like NYU, Boston Conservatory, Carnegie, CCM, and Michigan and I say, “You can apply there if you want, but these are the schools that I think are going to be more appropriate for you right now.”But I don’t get people in anywhere. These kids are doing it for themselves.
TM: Do you stay connected with these kids throughout their experience?
HS: I do. I have a student who’s a former client working in my office with me right now. She went to Montclair and went to the BA program but did not have a successful run with the school, and then we really worked together, and I started to hook her up a little bit with somebody at Shenandoah. And she’s going there in the BFA program, one of 20 kids. She’s somebody who is not your typical blonde hair, blue-eyed girl. She did an audition workshop with us and sang for the faculty and came out of that a little bummed out. But we realized that she was a certain type. She needed to go for that type. And she did and she completely rocked it. That kind of thing means more to me than anything. And she’s going to do great now, I know that.
TM: What do you think is the most important thing to communicate to kids who are starting this process?
HS: Start early. We do this summer program, ArtsBridge Summer. The faculty are the decision makers at the schools. So Amy Rogers from Pace University is the artistic director. And then we have Gary Kline and Ingrid Sonnichsen from Carnegie Mellon. We have Michelle Chasse, who’s head of dance at Boston Conservatory for musical theater. Robin Lewis from Rider and David Krasner from Emerson.
Then on the weekend we have nine additional schools coming to do master classes. And I don’t pay them to come! They come because they know that they want access to these kids.
So I think we’re on to something here. It’s not just about getting into the best program; it’s about getting into the best program for them. I don’t know a whole lot of other people who are doing this now in that way.