As a drama professor, I represent our department at many university Open Houses where potential students and their parents come to see what we offer. We have our brochures and production photos on display boards to dazzle the students, and of course we don't have a stack of handouts showing the latest Actors Equity employment figures -- no sense scaring people away, right? But we do have a plastic file for the parents that is filled with a hand-out called "What Can You "Do" With a Theatre Major?" This hand-out lists 25 "special advantages" that a theatre major has over other majors as far as employment in the corporate world. These run the gamut from "oral communication skills" to "self-discipline," and are designed to mollify fearful parents who worry about junior's employment fate. Junior now will have a repost when someone makes the inevitable "you want fries with that" crack. The central argument is that business leaders are looking for exactly the types of skills that drama majors develop. I have seen parental worry lines fade as they read the hand-out, because it makes a lot of sense.
Of course, once junior decides that our department is where he wants to be, and shows up all dewy-eyed on our doorstep on the first day of classes, we quickly forget about this handout and re-promote the Romantic image of the theatre artist as rebel anarchist whose imagination, Outsider Status, and ethical superiority places him above and beyond the normal corporate drudge -- indeed, above and beyond almost everybody in the world. Luisa in The Fantasticks utters the theatre person's creed: "I am special! I am special! Please, God, please -- don't let me be normal!" And over the next four years, we feed this self-image of theatre people as different than other people, better than other people, more creative than other people. People with a mission.
Except it is all a lie.
In reality, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world.
1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director's bidding. And the director does the producer's bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because no only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he's also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn't like your attitude. In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholders, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: "You can't make art by committee." We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tatooed on the psyches of every drama major that is "trained."
2. Efficiency is everything. If you don't believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after "You can't create art by committee,") is that we "don't have time" for that, we have to get the show up. We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question this value. It's too expensive to spend money on rehearsal -- better minimize the investment and hope for the best.
3. Do what you're told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don't take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it -- that'll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die. Remember Larry Tate on Bewitched? That's what you should be. See number 1 above.
4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is "Dance Ten -- Looks Three" from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with "Razzle-Dazzle" from Chicago. What does the market want right now? That's what you should be. Great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well. What's conventional wisdom about getting your second job? Play well with others. Theatre is Dale Carnegie central.
5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I'm currently working on, always say its the best thing you've ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else on the show -- you're dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill -- it's ingrained in theatre people, too.
6. Don't let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opps in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you'll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist's responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it's only theatre -- we don't actually affect anyone's ideas, right? Film filled with violence and misogyny? It's entertainment -- nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women's shelter or something.
And so truly, when junior's Dad looks me in the eye and says, "How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?," I can say, with confidence, that he is being imbued with all the values that will make him successful in the corporate world. Compliance, obedience, and patience is what we teach.
It makes for great corporate careers -- unfortunately, it makes for really boring theatre.