Advice for College Freshmen: An Interview With Madelyne Forrester

This week I am posting my interview with recent Columbia College graduate, Madelyne Forrester.  She is an incredibly talented performer and in this interview she addresses the harsh realities of dealing with rejection.  I'm inspired by her honesty and hope that you all find her advice as refreshing and helpful as I have.   

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What were your expectations about your college/program prior to attending college?  How have those expectations been met or changed?

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. All I had known my whole life was San Jose, CA and just like that I was in Chicago, a new and exciting city. I do, however, know that I was incredibly excited. Here I was, out of high school, finally studying something I loved more than anything. Columbia’s program allows a lot of freedom to create a unique college experience and I was anxious but ready to start that journey. For the musical theatre major, I had the choice between getting a BA or a BFA; both options equally incredible and filled with opportunity. I chose the BFA track and it ended up being the most rewarding element of my college experience. Ultimately, I left Columbia with more friends and connections then I ever could’ve expected.

What surprised you the most about your college experience?

The friends I made. I was told before my freshman year that I would meet my lifelong friends in college. I really didn’t believe that until the last day of my senior year when I realized I wouldn’t be seeing these faces at the crack of dawn everyday any more. I stayed with the people in my program for all four years and each of them has had a huge impact on my life. I cannot stress enough just how great it feels to find your corner and to know that that corner is filled with so many people just like you. Having those strong friendships made my college experience so full and rewarding.

If you had to redo your college experience, would you do anything differently?

I wouldn't take back anything! If anything, I would want to explore more parts of myself. One thing specifically is I wish I created more opportunity for myself in different fields/ roles. Being at a liberal arts college, there are so many different kinds of art forms constantly surrounding you. Even within the theatre department, most directing projects were overseen by teachers but the work, (the casting, directing, stage managing, lights, sound, choreography, music direction, etc), was all done by students. I wish I had put myself out there as a choreographer because that’s something I always wanted to try. Getting my hands on my own project or choreographing a student run show was something I never did and I wish I had. I loved my time at Columbia and I wouldn’t take back the mistakes I made or the projects I did get to work on. However, I wish I explored more. Consider any and all opportunities and don’t be afraid to try something different.

What was the hardest lesson you learned during your college career?  What was the best lesson?

The hardest lesson was learning what rejection felt like. It hurts, a lot; honestly, more than you’d expect. It’s 100% the deepest and darkest part of this business. Not feeling talented enough, smart enough or strong enough as an artist can really hinder a person if they’ve never had to deal with it. I experienced a lot of this in school. Not going to a conservatory was my choice, and a choice I am so glad I made for myself. However, that came with a few catches. There are a ton of productions that go on throughout the year (usually 75+), so obviously a ton of opportunity was out there. However, very few were musical productions, which is something I wanted to focus on initially, (although I did plays as well). I was rejected left and right by majority of the mainstage musicals throughout the years and I honestly believed there was something wrong with me. I found myself fearing opportunity because I didn’t want to be rejected again.

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It took me majority of my college career to understand that there are so many things that happen behind closed doors that have absolutely nothing to do with you as an artist and are usually completely out of your control. I know that sounds insane but being rejected so many times ignited a fire under me; it made me work harder and fight harder than I ever had before. If anything, I came out stronger and more humble about the work I was doing. In the words of Bo Bennett, “A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success.” So, don’t fear it. Let it fuel you, let it teach you about yourself and know that, no matter what, you are enough.

Madelyne on "rejection".

Madelyne on "rejection".

The greatest lesson I learned was to plant seeds. My final year at Columbia, I was cast in Sweet Charity, my first mainstage production. If you know the show, you know that Charity is a woman searching for love. Yes, specifically with a man, however she ultimately wants to be loved by all. On the first day of rehearsal my director said that Charity plants seeds. She plants them in other people, waters them and cares for them, in the hopes they will grow into something beautiful. Now it doesn’t always work out for her, but the real world, it can work. Making connections with teachers, students, mentors, and people in general, collaborating on new projects, taking good care of yourself and your relationships, etc., is the best thing you can do for yourself. These teachers or friends could be casting you or directing you in a project years from now and if you took the time when you first met to plant a seed, water it and nurture that relationship, it will benefit you in the future.  People will not only want to work with you but will enjoy you, the person. So, plant those seeds, nourish them, and you will cultivate relationships that will blossom for you in the long run, I promise.

What are the essential items to pack for college?

That 100% depends on where you’re going! First most important thing, if you’re going to a place where it snows invest in a good coat! I cannot stress that enough. It’ll be pricey but you won’t regret the purchase; Seriously, I wouldn’t have survived without one so go to REI and get a real coat! Being fashionable in a tiny, “winter” coat is not worth frostbite, trust me. The second most important thing, bring some mementos from home. I decided my first move ever would be over 2,000 miles away and to say I was homesick after the move would be an understatement. Pictures, postcards, small things to put on your desk, something from your favorite city back home, etc. All of these will make your space feel safe and connected to the people you miss the most. Best advice I can give about moving, if you’re going out of state, wait to go to Bed Bath and Beyond or Target until you get to campus. It’ll make traveling easier and cheaper, especially if you’re flying.

Any other advice for incoming Freshmen who want to study theatre or performance?

Don’t have an ego. I know that might sound harsh but it’s so much more important than you think and no one talks about it. Let me elaborate. When I was a freshmen, one of the first things our coordinator asked us was if we were the leads in our high school productions, and of course everyone’s hands shot up. Once you’re in college, you’re no longer the token actor, dancer or singer. The quicker you understand that, the more generous, open and accessible of an actor, performer and person you’ll be. I say this because I know people in school who never stepped aside from themselves and it caused them to not only never take any opportunities but it also made them negative and closed off towards everyone, teachers included. Their college experience was hindered because they couldn’t recognize the ego within themselves. Thank god I had the teachers/ mentors I did because, once I stepped away from my high school resume, I grew in more ways than I ever thought possible. So, step aside from yourself, be open to criticism and invite change into your life. If you allow yourself to grow, you will. At the end of the day, your work ethic, determination and the positive attitude you offer are so much more important than being “the best freshmen”.

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No matter what, go before you’re ready, enjoy the process and not just the outcome, fall down and don’t be afraid of failing because you will, a lot. Last, but not least, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. There will be so many obstacles in your way but the only one that really affects you is you. Do NOT stand in your own way and definitely don’t stop yourself from being the best version of yourself. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.”

Ah, Sondheim.

Ah, Sondheim.

Thank you, Madelyne!  I can't wait to get coffee when you're in town but in the meantime, enjoy your upcoming production of A Chorus Line and Dream Big, baby!

Until next time,