Monday, March 07, 2011

Advice to a Theatre Major About to Graduate from College

Dear Abby/Scott/Scoot,

I feel like I am forever asking your advice- and here I am again. I hope you'll forgive me, but it's difficult to talk big life decisions (about things like theatre careers) through with my folks, who just don't have a frame of reference for this kind of stuff.

Scott, I'm terrified of moving to Chicago. I like college. I like being in a safe spot. I like knowing that I don't need to worry about depending on acting financially. Thinking about turning this thing I love into a business- it just makes my stomach turn. I'm not a good businesswoman.

That said, I know that if I were working a 9-5 without theatre, I would go bonkers. I'm not adverse to hard work- I've had a job consistently (through school and productions) since I was sixteen. I just can't get over the feeling that Chicago- and the hunt for acting jobs there- will not be the fulfilling experience everyone promises it will be.

What am I missing? Is there a blatantly obvious answer for how to "make it"? If I don't "go for it" in Chicago theatre, will I regret it the rest of my life?

And how the hell do you keep your spirit up when you're worried about whether or not you've booked an industrial shoot? They don't teach us that between iambic pentameter and Meisner.

Nervous in Normal


Dear Nervous in Normal -- You are right to be nervous, of course. Everyone who is getting ready to graduate from college ought to be nervous. The entry into the BBW (Big Bad World) -- especially THIS BBW -- is scary stuff. So give yourself permission to be scared as hell.

But this is about more than Chicago -- it is about your own happiness. You're fortunate: you're young and without a lot of financial responsibilities, so you have the ability to try things out. No decisions are permanent at this point.

Let's start with what you have going for you. This has nothing to do with theatre:

1. You're smart.
2. You're articulate.
3. You're likable.
4. You're educated. (you have a BA)
5. You can work as part of a team. (that's what shows are based on)
6. You are self-disciplined. (or else you wouldn't learn your lines and show up for rehearsal when scheduled)
7. You can present yourself in front of people. (acting)
8. You can manage people. (directing)

So you have all the tools to be successful in whatever you do. Remember that -- the conventional wisdom that a degree in theatre isn't useful in "real life" is stupid. Don't accept the fallacious idea that your options are waiting tables or working temp.

Now: watch this video:

Then spend some time thinking, journaling, and/or talking over wine about what your "why" is. What gets you up in the morning, what is your purpose. Your "what" may be "theatre." Your "how" is all the things you've been taught. But dig deeper: what does theatre allow you to do that makes it worthwhile. (Hint: if the answer resembles anything like "I just get so buzzed when I get to be in front of people and they loooovvvveee me," then don't go into theatre, go into therapy: we have enough narcissists in the business already.) DON'T SKIP THIS STEP. You may be surprised at how your "why" may be able to be realized in many different ways.

Why is that important? Because discovering your "why" may help you look for a day job that can also be fulfilling while you're looking for theatre work. There is no reason why your day job has to be unsatisfying and underpaid. (See numbers 1 - 8 above.)

Now read this: Don't let your inner cynic get in the way. Money quote from post: This is why you must not work for the approval of cynics; you must have a higher motivation that is yours alone. You must work for what is noble and right, and for what is true to your own self.
Because you, not being a cynic or a naysayer or a charlatan, have already tipped the odds in your favor simply by daring to believe in something. "

Now comes the hard part: first, ask yourself this question: is it necessary that theatre be my primary income source? Could I be happy doing theatre avocationally if my day job was satisfying? This is an important question to ask yourself, because if you don't need to, as you say, book an industrial in order to pay the rent this month, then you have the freedom to do only what interests you. 

Second, ask yourself this question: does it matter to me WHERE I do theatre? Is it important to me that I be reviewed in the Chicago Tribune? If I were doing theatre that I love in, say, Bloomington IN would it be less satisfying than doing theatre in, say, Chicago? If the answer to this is "yes," be sure to revisit your "why" to see where that fits in, because what you are saying is that the quest for fame is part of the equation, and it needs to be in the "why." For some people, that is very important; for others, it is something they've been brainwashed to believe. This is about YOU, not your teachers or your fellow students. You are trying to find YOUR life.

If what you're asking me is whether going to Chicago to pursue theatre is "sensible," I'm not going to answer it, because that's not the important question -- in fact, it is entirely irrelevant, not just for you as a theatre artist, but for anyone. The important question is: what is my why, what gets me out of bed in the morning, what would make me fulfilled? Once you've answered that question, then you can move out to "how" and "what." But start with why.

Your answer needs to be honest, your self-examination needs to be thorough, and at the same time you need to revisit the question periodically throughout your life, because it may change over time. 

Once you can answer the "why" question to your satisfaction, then email me and we can go to the next step. Sound good?


Kate said...

I ended up very glad that I stopped to examine the why - turns out that what I really love is doing creative work in a team setting, and having my theater be an "after hours" gig is great for me. Doing it that way made theater fun for me again, when by the end of my BA it was starting to drive me a little insane.

D said...

This is a great post - both the question and answer! I remember going through this a few years ago, when I was about to graduate. I wasn't the only one who felt a bit lost, and was perhaps expecting some sort of advice or direction from the lecturers, but none was given. And then we were all on our own and clueless! I think every graduate feels like this at the moment...

I definitely agree with you about figuring out what's important. Since graduating I've still not really settled on what it is I want to do, but I've tried a lot of things, in different combinations, locations, and at different levels. At first I was worrying all the time but then I figured I might as well spend this time exploring my options! And even if you do have to wait tables/temp for a while, it doesn't have to be forever, and it might even be enjoyable. :)

Those are my thoughts! Thanks for the post and good luck to 'Nervous and Normal' :)

Nicole LaBonde said...

This is such a great conversation. 2AMt has had a similar discussion in the previous week, where bloggers describe their arts work set up- full-time, part-time, freelance. It prompted me to examine my own.

One of the terrifying, yet rewarding aspects, of a life in the arts, is that your life is part of the creation! There really is no one path, one size, one answer. There is an opportunity to do anything- pursue the arts as a career, or find a day job that supports you habit. And then everything in between.

But answering the why and the how tells you what's a good fit for you. Great advice!

Matt Beresford said...

Wonderful. Thank you.

Shelby said...

This wonderful post appealed to me, as a sophomore studying theatre: seeing so many of my classes dropping the major and transferring to a different school can be disheartening, but reading this made me realize that they never knew WHY they were majoring in theatre. This sparked a blog post of my own, partially in response to yours:

So thank you, for helping me acknowledge why it is that I'm going to graduate a theatre major in a few years!

Andrew Hamm said...

This is beautifully written.

I'm a 40-year-old theatre professional who has managed to do work regionally and in New York, and I've even had several years where theatre was my full-time pay-the-rent job. And as I look back on my career I find that the time I'm happiest is right now, when I'm working as a full time optical dispensary manager and doing work on evenings and weekends, choosing projects that are important and challenging to me--and skipping most auditions.

It's not just the actor in me that hears this advice ring true. As a director, I find myself often frustrated with actors, particularly young ones, who only know acting. Real-world work experience, life experience, is every bit as valuable as actor training. I am immediately suspicious of the artistic honesty of actors who only know how to pretend to be a "real" person with a "normal" job. And I worry about the personal growth of actors who have to audition for every show in town and who are miserable if they're not in a rehearsal room or in the run of a show. There is so much more to life than being in a play all the time.

Learn how to live life, young artists. It will help your art and, as a bonus, will actually give you a life. Learn to cook. Learn a trade. Go to church. Fall in love with someone who isn't another actor. Cheer on a sports team. Meet some people who know about something other than theatre. Volunteer for a charity organization. Expand your circle of friends outside the rehearsal hall.

Developing yourself as a person will impact your art in ways that the reverse cannot.

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