In Defense of a General Theatre Education

Kat Cover

OnStage Guest Columnist


So, you have found that your love of theatre is driving you to pursue it as a profession.  The next step is to look for a training program in theater to help you gain access to the professional world.  What do you look for?

Almost every major college in the country has a theater dept.  There are professional conservatories that promise to train you in your area of interest.  All of these programs (or almost all) have great glossy brochures to lure you into studying with them. These brochures and also websites highlight the graduates that are on Broadway or other nationally known theaters, or in TV/film. They will also highlight designers that have won awards and work fulltime in the industry. What about the rest of their graduates?

Theater is a highly competitive field with only a small percentage of graduates “Making it big”, So, what are you to do? Give up? Get a business degree like your parents want? No.  Look at the big picture and set good solid secondary goals.  Don’t give up on the big dream but look at a backup that keeps you in the field.

Large Class A schools demand that you specialize, you are either going to be a Designer or a Performer but neither the twain shall meet. Why?  A good solid foundation in all aspects of theater will make you a marketable commodity.  You may find that the intro to costuming class that you took as an actor will become a new passion.  So, go back to the glossy brochure and the questions to ask. 

“How many of your graduates are currently working in the field in some capacity?” Most programs will have some kind of data on that, or should. Employed in what capacity?

Example:  They graduated 20 people with degrees in set design, 2 are working as designers. What of the other 18? 4 are working as technicians on a road tour, 4 went onto grad school, 1 is a TD at a regional theatre. That covers half. What are the other half doing?

Photo: Lenaea High School Theatre Festival

Photo: Lenaea High School Theatre Festival

Example: They graduated 20 people with degrees in Acting, 1 is working full time as an actor (yes that is really the odds), 4 went to grad school, 4 are acting sporadically in regional theaters and working second job to pay rent. What are the other 15 doing?

So why get a more general theater education?  Work in theater. There are many ways to cross between areas with basic skills, skills that can grow over time.  As an actor you take a few costume classes, you learn sewing.  When a regional theater is looking for stitchers with basic skills you can apply for that job and it keeps you in theater.

Having gone to a top notch college in theater I had a struggle convincing faculty to let me train both as a performer and as a costume designer.  The college had a program, without a minor but you could take a second emphasis within your field.  Some of the faculty just did not get why I should do this.  They were even more confused when I took accounting and human resource management through the business college. When I applied for grad school in directing, that broad spectrum of undergrad work caught the attention of graduate programs. I have worked as a: director, costume designer, office manager/grant writer, actor and now own my own theater production company and theatrical rental company.  Am I rich? Am I famous? No. Have I made a living in theater my entire adult life? Yes.

There are many paths to a lifetime in theater, Community theaters have Artistic directors, set and light designers, teachers. Some expect all of those abilities in one person.  If you never did work outside your narrow area of study that could never be you.

One of the most amazing directors I know fills in between directing gigs by being a stitcher at a large regional theater and has even worked box office at a road house. It allows her to keep working without waiting tables.

Don’t let yourself be pigeon holed early on, Work hard at the area of your passion but keep a perspective on how your education is for you