At Seton Hall, actors find mentors

Students of theater at Seton Hall University have a unique opportunity. Its close proximity to New York City — only about 20 miles away — means these students have access to a great deal of resources not readily available to students in other parts of the country. And one local theater company is providing a chance to work with the best stars from the Broadway stage.

Partnering institutions

Seton Hall is located in South Orange, New Jersey, and was founded in 1856 by then-Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — the first American-born Catholic saint — and a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1844, the Plenary Council of American Bishops in Baltimore expressed a desire to bring Catholicism to higher education in the United States; the nascent Diocese of Newark, founded in 1853, was the breeding ground for this oldest of diocesan universities.

Seton Hall’s Catholic identity is an important facet of the university. The university declares itself committed to service in the community, theological study, being a home for people of all faiths, and developing leaders in mind, heart and spirit.

The Vanguard Theater Company was founded in 2015 and is a nonprofit arts organization “committed to producing transformational theater dedicated to diversity, community engagement, education and professional artistic mentorship.” The company works to enliven the modern theater community. “Through dynamic storytelling, Vanguard Theater Company produces works that reflect the various complexions of the 21st century artist and audience,” according to the company’s website.

Opportunity for coaching

The Vanguard Theater Broadway Buddy Mentorship Program is a program that pairs students with theater professionals who are currently working on Broadway, according to Bailey Howell, an incoming senior at Seton Hall who participated in the program last year.

According to the Vanguard Theater Company’s Facebook page, the program is open to emerging musical theater artists ages 12-24 and provides “a unique opportunity for one-on-one mentorship with some of Broadway’s most accomplished and rising performers.”

“The program gives youth and young adults the opportunity to develop supportive relationships with Broadway professionals who serve as advocates and artistic coaches,” the post continues.

The professionals become mentors to students, even coaching them in a duet or song that ultimately is performed at the cabaret show that closes each year’s program. “We worked with our mentors over the course of about six weeks to prepare for the Mentorship Cabaret,” Howell said. “As a mentee, I was able to gain insight into the theater and entertainment industry. My mentor specifically had a great deal of experience in the theater industry and was a great asset to a student pursuing a career in this industry.”

Howell got involved in the program because of the partnership that Seton Hall University has with the Vanguard Theater Broadway Buddy Mentorship Program. She was one of five Seton Hall students involved last year.

Janeece Freeman Clark, artistic director of the Vanguard Theater Company, has been involved with the theater department at Seton Hall in the past. Last spring, she directed Seton Hall’s production of the classic musical “Oklahoma!” This helped spread the word about the mentorship program, and this is how Howell first came to hear about it.

About 25 students from New York and New Jersey were selected for the program and were then paired with mentors. Meeting about a half-dozen times in preparation for the Mentorship Cabaret at the end of the year, the mentor and mentee get to know each other and develop a rapport, which allows for a more fruitful relationship for both.

Creating a career

Seven of these 25 selected mentees were Seton Hall students, including Howell, a double major in theater and public relations. The audition process was done via submitted videos, and those students who were selected were paired with a mentor for a six-week process of instruction, coaching and general mentorship.

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Danette Holden (left) and Bailey Howell. Courtesy photo

“My mentor ... gave me great advice for breaking into the theater industry and creating a career for myself. Her advice and experiences are something I greatly appreciate as I continue with my theater education and career.”

Holden has been featured in many Broadway shows, including “Shrek the Musical” and “Annie,” and she recently finished an off-Broadway run in “Cagney the Musical.” In her mentorship of Bailey Howell, Holden was able to take that experience and guide the Seton Hall student in preparation for the cabaret as well as helping Howell explore avenues for a career on stage.

“Danette has helped me discover the career possibilities I have following my graduation from Seton Hall University,” Howell said. “She has given me advice, looked over my audition book (the songs I sing in auditions) and helped me with my post-graduation plans. I could not ask for a better person to learn about the industry from — and to get the opportunity to sing with at the Mentorship Cabaret.”

For Howell, the experience has proven to be a phenomenal personal success. “Overall, I think the program gave me a clear path to figuring out the theater/entertainment industry through the advice of Danette,” she said. “Performing in the Broadway Buddy cabaret gave me confidence in my skills and abilities; it made me realize that pursuing a career in theater is an achievable goal.”

“The Vanguard Theater Broadway Buddy Mentorship Program was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was grateful to take part in,” Howell said. The success of the program in its short life so far ensures that it will continue into the future.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Read more of the articles from the Fall college section 2017 here.