Paige Smallwood couldn't eat breakfast. Too close to audition time.
"The most nervous part comes right when you're about to go in," said the Temple University musical theater major, sitting with classmates outside the performance room.
When it was her turn, she sang "Warrior," by Demi Lovato, a song with deeply personal meaning - it helped her overcome an attempted sexual assault.
Smallwood and her classmates, all seniors in adjunct professor Jennie Eisenhower's "Music Theater: Dress Rehearsal" class, weren't just showing off their talent to the teacher. Matthew Decker, associate artistic director of the Arden Theatre in Old City, and Sarah Scafidi, artistic assistant, were in the room, too.
Five times during the semester, Eisenhower invites other professionals in to critique her students, something they won't get after a real audition. They'll just get the part, or not.
For Tuesday's class, students were asked to sing a pop tune that would show off who they are.
"I'm a warrior," Smallwood belted out in a rich, high voice. "I'm stronger than I've ever been . . ."
"That was beautiful," Scafidi told her. "But I think you can take it a little further."
Scafidi advises a stronger shift from the somber beginning of the song to the triumphant warrior.
"It's really activating that moment of decision, or choice or realization," Scafidi said.
Smallwood tried again.
"Yeah! That was great," Scafidi said.
Seconds later, a relieved Smallwood was eating her mix of apple sauce, prunes, and almonds in the hall.
"When she was explaining that I could dive deeper into it, it helped me relax," said Smallwood, who dreams of a career on Broadway or the movies. "I felt like she was really connecting with me and wanted to help."
Students said they value the exposure to and feedback from the directors. Earlier in the semester, they heard from professionals at the Walnut Street Theatre, Bristol Riverside Theatre, 11th Hour Theatre Company, and the Media Theatre.
"You can never really experience an audition unless you have the stress of what an audition is actually like," said Eisenhower, 38, a full-time actor/director who teaches one class.
And directors can scout budding talent.
"They are casting some of my students," she said.
She currently is in A Christmas Story at Media Theatre with two of her former students.
The judges rate students on a scale of one to 10, with 10 signifying cast-ready and one meaning switch to a mechanic, Eisenhower said. She encourages judges to be honest and tells students to take critiques in stride.
"This is a chance for you to learn," she tells them. "It's OK if you mess up."
There were no mechanics on Tuesday.
About a third of the 15 students, including Smallwood, scored high, a nine or 10. Most of the others were a point or two below.
Eisenhower gushed after hearing Jared Rosenberg's revised performance of "Mr. Curiosity" by Jason Mraz.
"Ahhh, Jared. That was beautiful," she told him. "So grounded."
Rosenberg, 22, of Atlanta, whose dream is to perform and earn enough to be a stable dad, shook with excitement.
"It was kind of a relief that I could access what they wanted me to," Rosenberg said later. "I'm like still shaking."
Students also are graded on effort, appropriateness of their material, professionalism, dress, and resumé. Students started their auditions by giving judges a glossy headshot and resumé, similar to what they would do for a real audition.
"I felt really comfortable with the people in the room," said Madison Paige Buck, 21, a senior from Lancaster, who wowed the judges with her performance of "Glitter in the Air" by Pink.
Buck, who dreams of being cast as Glinda in Wicked on Broadway, drew on the emotion of an on-again, off-again, four-year relationship she's had.
"What I long for is more of you in it," Decker told her. "It's nicely done, but I want it to cross the threshold of nice and become like 'I want to work with this woman because I feel like she's sharing something with me.' "
On her second try, Buck teared up, her voice brimming with raw emotion.
Decker loved it.
"The way she took an adjustment and understood how to tweak and hone her performance, that's the kind of actor you want to work with," he said.
Buck said she learned not to be afraid to test her limits emotionally.
"People would rather see you break and have to recover," she said, "than play it safe."