Careers in the Arts | Artist Spotlight: Matt Wolfe (Otterbein University, Columbus, OH)
By: Kelley Lauginiger
Matt Wolfe Q&A: Administrative Assistant and Coordinator of Recruiting and Advising at Otterbein Theatre and Dance, and Higher Education Liaison for the Ohio Thespians State Board
To understand a bit more about the art school admissions process, we talked to Matt Wolfe, Administrative Assistant and Coordinator of Recruiting and Advising at Otterbein Theatre and Dance. Matt also acts as the Higher Education Liaison for the Ohio Thespians State Board, and is an all-around wealth of information when it comes to studying musical theatre, dance, or anything related.
Kelley Lauginiger: Thanks for talking with me today, Matt! What does your Theatre and Dance department include?
Matt Wolfe: Sure, happy to be here. Our department includes Musical Theatre, Acting, both BFA’s, a BFA in Design Technology, and a BA Theatre major which is more generalistic career not focused on performing. Like Directors, play writes, stage managers, that kind of thing.
Kelley: So, behind the curtain type roles.
Matt: Yes, more or less.
Kelley: Did you start out involved in musical theatre or dance yourself?
Matt: I did. I was a graduate of Otterbein. I went through their BA Theatre program, earning my dual degrees in English and Theatre, as well as my certification to teach high school English. I was also involved in some of the media and broadcast/communications things at Otterbein. When I graduated, I went and started teaching public school for three to four years, and went and got my Masters degree in Educational Administration. Then I found my way back into the collegiate sphere, and have been back at Otterbein for the last five years.
Kelley: Oh, wow, congratulations, that’s quite a list of accomplishments! Did you study in Columbus for your Masters as well?
Matt: Yes, that was at The Ohio State University.
Kelley: So is it safe to say you always knew you wanted to work in education?
Matt: For sure.
Kelley: Did you ever think this, specifically, would be your job?
Matt: No. I have always been passionate about directing, and I direct a lot. I did the pretty typical thing where I graduated with my degrees, and moved to New York. I worked for awhile, and enjoyed some successes, but ultimately I didn’t like the lifestyle. It just wasn’t for me, and wasn’t the right fit. After a couple times of getting hired for jobs, then get on unemployment, then get hired for jobs again, I ultimately wanted to be somewhere more steady. That’s the life I wanted. So, I came back to Ohio and became a teacher. I always knew I wanted to be a theatre teacher, and that’s where my passion lies.
I also enjoy the administrative part of theatre. When I got my Administration license, I was excited to do all the paperwork and keep the machine rolling, believe it or not. I enjoy the creative, too, but the organization is something I enjoy and I have fun with. My involvement with the public high schools and The Ohio Thespian Organization, it made me a natural fit for the recruitment duties. My title kept evolving as I got more and more involved. This past school year, I ran the program, in terms of organization. For the past three years, I’ve run the events and the special days with students, and I also facilitate our faculty to make sure they’re doing their interviews, and that kind of thing.
Kelley: That’s amazing! Congratulations. That’s a very important job. So let’s back up real quickly for our readers considering something similar: when you say you went to New York to work, you’re talking hands-on theatre work, and not theatre organization, right?
Matt: I was working as a Director.
Kelley: Ok. You mentioned you always thought that was your path. I just want readers who are on the precipice of the decision, “is the arts for them?” to see that there are lots of different options out there. Even if the thing you thought you ALWAYS wanted turns out to be different than you expected. You went for Directing, it didn’t fit your needs, and you’ve pivoted to something you love and are fulfilled with in the same field. I think that’s a great lesson.
Matt: Right, absolutely. Just because you try one thing and it’s not for you, doesn’t mean the whole field isn’t for you. That’s very true. I think it’s natural that growing up in a traditional public high school, you’re either on stage, or you’re back stage. It’s “A” or “B.” Making that cross over to college, knowing that you love the arts, knowing that you love theatre, it’s natural that you’re either signing on to be a performer, or a non-performer.
The performance aspect of theatre is still pretty cut and dry. Students should still think, “do I really have a voice good enough for musical theatre?” “Should I audition on stage to be an actor?” You’re signing up to perform. It’s clear-cut.
However, the Design Technology and the BA degrees that we offer have such a unique set of skills that students come in with an interest, but they have never even touched the technology before. Maybe they had to find their own ways and own opportunities to do it in the past, as most high schools don’t offer that. College then becomes a time to not only learn and use the current technology, but figure out what it means to be a Director, or any other type of role besides acting. You can’t just show up in New York and say, “who wants to put on a play” you know? It’s learning the whole craft. There has to be a way to be introduced to this stuff. Our degrees help to do that.
Admissions Advice from an Expert
Kelley: Absolutely. Great explanation, and something many readers can identify with, I think. As someone who sees infinite applications and meets infinite potential students, what advice do you have for students on successful application techniques? Is there anything that you think makes someone stand out as a great candidate, or something people do that isn’t that great you’d suggest avoiding?
Matt: I think my biggest advice to kids applying to schools is simply to go into it with an open heart. It’s very competitive. Sometimes your perfect fit, and your perfect school, isn’t going to be the one that came up on your Google search first.
And while some people are ready to move to New York or LA at 18, some people aren’t. And that doesn’t put you at any more or less of an advantage in this field, despite what people think. Always go visit with schools, interface with alumni if you can, talk with current students while you’re there, and figure out the place that when you get out of the car, you feel like, “I could live here for four years.” Because as a Theatre Arts student, if you’re not comfortable in your surroundings, and you don’t feel like it’s a place you can trust to take care of you, you’re not going to flourish as an artist.
Kelley: That is such a great point, Matt. Now, when it comes to visiting schools, Acceptd applicants apply almost entirely digitally, at least at the beginning of the process. Because it’s convenient to apply to many programs on the Acceptd platform using your uploaded application materials, it’s normal and encouraged for applicants to apply to five to ten programs, or even more. How should they choose and prioritize which programs to visit? Should they narrow it down to their top 3?
Matt: That has to be a family decision. It’s tough, too, we get it. We know the challenges students face. For them to wait to do their visits until they get acceptd, means they’re going to try do to them all in March and April. And guess what happens in March and April for high school theatre students? They have Spring Musical. So, these students who get into the elite, big programs, are probably the leads in their productions in high school, or have major roles. So, regardless of money, sometimes time is just too much. You really have to figure out your time management, and it is partly so difficult because no one can really tell you that. You have to find what works for you and your family. That’s part of the process.
But here’s the thing. Use technology. Figure out how to Skype with professor or a counselor if you can’t make it to a campus to visit. Find a current student willing to put you on FaceTime during a class, with the instructor’s permission, of course. There’s a million different ways now that we can connect.
I also think Acceptd has done a great job of giving artists a place to focus on their applications. There are so many programs, and there are so many decisions to make now-a-days, so doing things like pre-screening with Acceptd helps prepare students better and allows them to come in knowing what we’re expecting from them for their short and crucial face-to-face meetings. Acceptd is a great tool to use.
My biggest piece of advice to students applying in this field is: figure out if you really want to do it. We have a lot of students who try to wait ’til the very last minute to throw everything together, and while these students are talented and it’s undeniable that they have gifts, it’s like, “If you’re not willing to put in the time to make sure that this is going well for you, are you going to be able to manage your own career? Are you gonna be able to get up every morning and hit the pavement? Do auditions, and call back agents, and check your emails?” And obviously there is stuff they learn to manage this when they’re in a good program. There is no doubt that the students who are able to manage themselves are the easiest to talk to as adults, and are serious competitors in this very competitive audition-based field.
Kelley: That’s great advice. Do you see students doing particularly well because of a specific skill or ability, or does it come down to general, well-roundedness and talent combined with time-management, as you just discussed?
Matt: In my opinion, the idea of a triple threat is sort of out the window now. What is happening in theatre, movies, film, and the arts, is that whatever you bring to the table, people will make a show out of it. So, in turn, people are turning into quadruple threats.
Yes, a strong foundation in singing, dancing, and acting if you’re a performer is huge. Finding ways to mentor with people who set-design or costume-design before you interview and audition at school, those are things you want to seek out as a high school student. You want to make sure to know the lingo, know the paperwork, and those students do well.
If they show up to an interview, and say, “here’s all my programs, here’s all the spots that I filled, I ran backstage, and I love theatre,” they may be the future of American theatre, but we don’t know that at their interview, though. But if they take that time to find a mentor, and find someone in their community, who works at community theatre who’s done that in school, that says a lot. I find that those quick five-to-ten minute conversations that we have with applicants before they start their actual audition or the interview part, really explain so much about how they can articulate their passions.
Kelley: So, it’s important to have a short elevator pitch about yourself, and what you can offer, instead of just, “here’s my accolades.”
Matt: Yes. Exactly. For Design Tech and BA, you want to be able to talk about the process. Pictures are great, we love seeing the end result and how proud you are of that set. But, you didn’t build that whole set by yourself. We want to see what you built, and how you built it. And why you’re proud of that piece. Students can get a leg-up in their junior and senior years of high school by becoming more process-oriented, then being able to talk about their processes to us when they come to audition.
Kelley: That’s so insightful and helpful, Matt. Thank you. In closing, why do you love the arts?
Matt: I love it because of what it does for students. I love arts because as a student, they saved me. I was not an athlete, I was not interested in that, but I was a student who was involved and wanted to be a part of my school. Theatre was my outlet that I found, or that found me. And as a teacher, I love being part of the process for students to be able to find that, too. Whether it’s at Otterbein or not, or with Ohio Thespians, I’m looking to help students find their best fit. To see what it does for their self-esteem, their ability to communicate, and really, to get on in the world, is everything.