- Great News for Parents! Majoring in Theater isn’t a Complete Waste of Time
Great News for Parents! Majoring in Theater isn’t a Complete Waste of Time
BY RICH PROCTER
SEPTEMBER 18, 2020
One day in the BRC lunchroom, a bunch of us started talking about our college experience. I was surprised: just about everyone, including company executives and team leads, spent their college years and the majority of their twenties working in the theater.
Many majored in performance, others in production. All of them had parents who were horrified: who makes a living as an actor? What a waste of time and money! Something else they had in common: everyone at the table looked back fondly on those years. Although none went on to have a career in theater, they were surprised to discover that through theater they had acquired the life skills they needed to succeed in our business and out in the so-called “real world.” I happened to be an English Major in college, another “useless” liberal arts path that has served me well in life.
Intrigued by the lunchroom discussion, I decided to interview these BRC leaders, and I am pleased to have discovered the secret set of skills that theater majors learn that serve them so well. Here’s my list:
Collaboration and project development
Putting on a play in college is a clinic in the skills people need to succeed in the world. Here people co-create a small enterprise that must attract patrons to succeed. They learn disciplines like memorization, punctuality, and empathetic listening. They learn that cooperation is a key to success and that by helping others succeed, they help themselves.
Problem-solving (and failing well)
A play is a project with a simple, yet very abstract goal: to take audience members on an emotional journey that produces a life-changing revelation. This is a fiendishly difficult task. Each day is a cascade of problems that must be solved to make way for the next day’s cascade of problems.
Most of the time, these endeavors will fail in big and small ways, with each failure illuminating the way forward. Ambition is tempered by humility. Rainer Maria Rilke said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” Here, in school, attentive students begin to appreciate this concept and will discover that this understanding will serve them their entire working lives.
There’s a brutal truism that everyone learns the hard way: “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” You may be the greatest actor in the world, but unless you can convince the director and producer that you’ll help them realize their vision you’re just another eager barista. And even if you get cast in the play, you’ve got to sell people on the idea of coming to see it. All theater majors must learn this art of active persuasion.
Telling Stories That Engage, Move and Change People
This may be the most important skill of all. Theater is storytelling and acting is the art of channeling emotion in service of the playwright’s story. Theater majors quickly learn which stories work, and which don’t. They learn how to read an audience and adapt their skills to give people a life-changing experience. This is a process that works both ways. To produce this kind of emotional change in an audience, actors must be willing to transform themselves: to go through the same kind of change they want to produce in theatergoers.
Put simply: Theatre majors learn fortitude, empathy, and emotional intelligence. They learn how to read a room, and how to sell. Most importantly, they learn what kind of stories bring people together and leave them better than they were before.
So parents! When your child tells you, “I’m going to major in theater,” don’t melt into a puddle of despair. There are a number of lucrative, fun, rewarding careers for people who come from a theatrical background. Your child will be just fine.