In 2002, recent college graduates Michael Ingersoll and his girlfriend Angela Groeschen, who were interning with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, traveled to Memphis to audition for the city’s Unified Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA).
Organized every February since 1995 by Playhouse on the Square, the only theater in Memphis with a resident company of professional actors, UPTA offers thespians an opportunity to audition for paid positions with quality theaters from around the country.
Through that audition process, they became part of the Playhouse family, where they first served as interns before becoming Playhouse on the Square company members for two years.
“We were so impressed with the operation, and the theater community there in Memphis,” says Ingersoll. He and Angela married in Memphis in 2005, and are now based in Chicago.
Less than a year after leaving Memphis, Michael was cast in the first national tour of Jersey Boys, playing Nick Massi of The Four Seasons 1,300 times over a three-year period. The show opened in San Francisco and ran for two years in the Windy City, and it led to appearances on Oprah and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Michael is now busy creating original projects, such as his group, “Under the Street Lamp,” which sings rock-and-roll, Motown, and classic hits and has appeared on multiple national public television specials. He also produces PBS specials for other artists, including Angela, who in 2017 won Chicago’s prestigious Jeff Award for Best Leading Actress for her role as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.
The former Jersey Boy attributes much of his success to his three years in the Memphis theater community and his experience with UPTA — a hectic but highly organized event that’s been coordinated since its inception in 1995 by Playhouse on the Square associate producer Michael Detroit.
“To pull off something like UPTA is incredibly difficult,” Michael Ingersoll says. “A lot of people try, and a lot of people fail. It’s directly a result of Mike Detroit’s and [Playhouse Executive Producer] Jackie Nichols’ vision, and their tenacity and perseverance and the way that they create community. They draw people from all over the country and sustain it. I’ve never seen anything like what they pull off there. It’s unique, they should be incredibly proud, and it’s one of the greatest artistic accomplishments that the Mid-South has produced.”
Detroit relocated from Northern Michigan to Memphis in 1989 to become a resident company member, and remains so after nearly three decades.
Conferences like UPTA are what’s known in theater-speak as “combined auditions,” and although they take place in cities across the country, others primarily cater to summer-only actors. That wasn’t cutting it for Playhouse on the Square, which needed actors for contracts lasting eight to 12 months.
“If they were going back to school in the fall, it didn’t do us any good,” Detroit said.
He said Nichols, with the idea of creating a Memphis-based combined audition event, met with a handful of theater companies from different parts of the country that, like Playhouse on the Square, had a need for year-round professional company actors.
Since Detroit had gained some convention experience during the time he spent organizing a college theater festival in California, Nichols called on him to harness that experience and fuse it with a new concept that would match professional actors seeking steady work with companies seeking steady professional actors.
In the summer and fall of 1994, Detroit reached out to his network — locally and nationally — to begin gathering more concrete ideas to bring the concept to fruition.
One barrier that posed a formidable financial burden for both the theater companies and the actors attending other conferences was the numerous associated fees and expense to travel to cities with higher costs of living.
“We wanted to make sure it was affordable,” he says. “As a not-for-profit theater company who has never run a deficit in 48 years, we were fully aware of what it would take to make sure we could keep costs low but cover our expenses.”
UPTA offered lower registration fees, found sponsors to provide complimentary food and snacks for actors, and struck deals with local hotels, transportation companies, and other businesses — also injecting money into the local economy.
“We have good partnerships, so there’s a sense of familiarity with each other to anticipate needs, overcome problems and keep costs low,” Detroit says. “It’s doing a lot for Memphis on the business side, as well. We pay attention to economic impact, and it’s nearly a million dollars of economic impact over a four-day period from folks from all over the country coming to Memphis. It’s new money coming in during a month that’s traditionally been somewhat slow for convention business.”
The first UPTA convention in February of 1995 attracted 200 auditioning actors and 25 theater companies. Today it averages more than 1,000 actors over a four-day period, and last year companies came from about 40 states. In the past, companies have come from as far away as Argentina, Japan, and South Korea seeking talent.
Over the years, Detroit has received a great deal of feedback from companies and actors, which he’s used to streamline the event and improve the audition and callback process. Today UPTA is the country’s largest convention for professional actors.
“All of that is due to us paying very close attention to what people want. If we can afford it, we’ve got the manpower, and if it makes sense, we’ll do it,” he says.
This year, UPTA happens February 2-5 at Playhouse on the Square, with companies from Alaska to Colorado, Minnesota to Maine descending on Memphis in search of top-notch professional thespians.
“It’s truly a national event — not just a regional event,” Detroit said.
Companies this year include the American Shakespeare Center of Staunton, Virginia; Disney Parks Live Entertainment in Buena Vista, Florida; Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Princess Cruise Lines of Santa Clarita, California; Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre in Grand Lake, Colorado; and Memphis’ own Hattiloo — the region’s only freestanding Black repertory theater.
“It’s extremely diverse in terms of the types of companies that come, which is great for the actors and the designers,” Detroit says. “Some people are built to do cruise ships, but other people are not. Some people do Shakespeare, other people don’t.”
Auditions are open to pre-professional actors who have or will receive an undergraduate theater degree by fall of 2018, but they must be pre-screened through an audition video and available for year-round work. Regular auditions are open to actors who have or will have a minimum of a master’s degree in theater by fall of 2018, are current members of Actors’ Equity Association, or have attended previous UPTA auditions. Interviews are also held for technical, administrative, and artistic positions.
Actors get just 90 seconds on stage to impress company representatives from across the country in what Detroit described as American Idol meets a job fair. They spend a lot of time, effort and money to work on a 90-second job interview, so hopefully they get jobs from that.”
Heather Zurowski, a 23-year-old Illinois native and current intern at Playhouse on the Square, is among those vying for a professional job through UPTA.
“It’s a pretty packed day of callbacks and auditions, and we’re all going for the same thing and have the same goal,” she says. “But it’s one of the most organized auditions. On some auditions you’re kind of blinded by what’s going on and you’re not really sure, but they [UPTA] do a really good job of keeping us informed.”