Checking in with John Simpkins, Head of Penn State Musical Theatre

John Simpkins

How is it going so far in your first year? What are you thinking about for the future? What projects or changes within the program are you most excited about/feel will add the most value?

The easy answer is that all is going really well! It was terrific to have a full semester last fall to be able to work with Cary Libkin. Cary leaves behind such a successful, healthy, and thriving program, and I was really able to download his brain on the history, training, systems, students, and faculty. It was invaluable information. 

As we chart a course for the future of the program, I find that I have been talking about it like the structure of a musical. The first 20+ years of Penn State Musical Theatre were a terrific “Act One.” And now we find ourselves this year around “Intermission.” This year has been a time for me to learn, observe, and also provide a fresh perspective and series of conversations on how we can move forward into an even better future. 

Our “Act Two” will include all of the wonderful things that Penn State Musical Theatre has achieved—world-class training, a spirit of positive and collaborative art making, and a community of humans that together can achieve great success in the field. Our “Act Two” also includes some changes, some new ideas, some different ways of thinking about musical theatre training. I’m excited about so many of these possibilities. Below are just a few…

  • We will heavily increase our focus on new musicals (see the separate article in this newsletter for more information). 
  • We will look to diversify our student body so we represent the latest industry trends regarding casting, styles of musicals, and the things that an evolving musical theatre landscape is requiring. 
  • We will revamp our “Spotlight” yearly event to modernize the way we are thinking about providing digital material to our graduates as they enter the field. 
  • We will seek to connect our students to the Broadway and industry community in a more specific way so our students are in the very best position possible to leave Penn State and gain meaningful employment in a field that is crowded with increasing numbers of people. 
  • We will seek to realize the creation and formation of an Institute for Musical Theatre—something that would make Penn State a truly unique place where training, research on the American musical theatre, and the creation/development of new musicals can come together in one artistic center.


What has surprised you most about this job?

I can’t possibly boil that question down to one thing! The easiest way to answer it is that every single day brings a myriad of surprises and an incredible amount of learning. I’m very much looking forward to September when I will have seen a full year cycle! 

I will say that one of the things that has surprised me so far is the extraordinary number of people that support Penn State Musical Theatre. It is a very unique thing going on here—and nothing like anything I’ve observed elsewhere. The amount of support, generosity, participation, and passion has been surprising and humbling to see. From alumni who remain engaged in ways to support and promote the program….to a group of faculty and staff that work tirelessly on behalf of each student’s artistic pursuit…to a wide group of people who so generously support the program and its aspirations to be the finest musical theatre training center in the country.


What trends are most impacting musical theatre training right now?

One of the things that is happening is the explosion of college programs that offer musical theatre as a degree or component of the collegiate curriculum. There are so many schools that are competing for the top students that it begins to feel like how athletic programs have traditionally operated (in terms of recruitment throughout the high school careers of prospective students). This really forces us to differentiate ourselves from other institutions as we try to “sell Penn State” as a destination for training. This has had some terrific “up side” for us—it means we have constant conversation about our training philosophy, our program goals, our facilities and opportunities, and our recruiting energies. It does, however, require a much broader lens for recruiting and adjudicating young talent—and the resources that process can sometimes require.

The other thing I might identify as a trend (in the training itself) is the continual push from many new musicals to move away from “musical theatre singing.” More and more, audition notices are asking for pop/rock material from a community of artists in New York City who may not have had adequate training in those styles. It’s something that everyone in musical theatre training must respond to quickly—and we are certainly trying to expand that area of our program at Penn State. Our job, as I see it, is to train young artists in the skills they need—but also to react to these kinds of trends in our industry. This “non-musical theatre” repertoire for musical theatre performers is, I think, here to stay. Part of that brings up a challenging way of thinking about our training in this area (sometimes young singers aren’t as ready for that kind of material), but it also gives us a tremendous opportunity to focus our training toward what is being asked for in the business right now.


What can prospective students or recent grads do right now to best prepare for a career in musical theatre?

I believe that prospective students can best prepare for a career in two ways: 

  1. Get to as many lessons and classes as possible. Learn how to play the piano and the guitar. Dance better than you do right now. Take voice lessons. Be a good student and be as open to learning about non-musical theatre things as you are about musical theatre. It will help you develop your own opinion on the world—something every actor has to have.
  2. Slow down and take time to think. Explore. Read. Make sure your imagination is alive and active. Too many times I see young people who are skill machines in musical theatre. That only matters up to a point. Then it’s your outlook and point of view on things that matters most—and if you have only been in training situations for musical theatre, you won’t have those other experiences to draw from in a powerful way.

Hopefully our recent grads are already well prepared for a career in musical theatre! But my best suggestions to them are to never stop learning. In other fields of study, it may be possible to learn your skills and then leave college and simply find a job where you can apply those skills. Our business doesn’t offer that as a possibility—we must always be on a quest to study human behavior, to continue learning our skill-based things (dance, voice, etc.), and to become the most powerful actor and artist we can be. Stay in class, keep learning, keep reading, expand your network as wide as you can with people who respond to you and might help you. Most importantly, take care of yourself and your reputation. Those are things you can control in a business full of things that you can’t control! 


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