How Educational Elitism is Hurting Theatre

Anthony J. Piccione

As we near the holidays, many students across the nation are about to end the Fall semester at the college or university that they currently attend. I am reminded of something that I’m sure many other college theatre students in America have faced at one point or another, and if they haven’t, probably will eventually. It is a problem that I believe is very unfortunate not just for us, but for the entire theatre community.

Whenever I tell someone that I went to a local state university as opposed to one of the larger and more well-known universities in the country – I get very similar reactions from various people. Sometimes it appears in the form of a “Well, why do you go there? Why not [insert school here]?” as if they believe that I am not as smart or talented as someone else might be, while in other cases it appears in the form of either a “Huh” or “Oh, okay” as they nod their heads, heavily indicating that they don’t think much of the college education I have received. In a few other cases, the reaction is merely complete silence.

This appears to be reflective of a larger sentiment held within certain parts of the theatre community: That the school you go to is a top indicator of how naturally gifted someone is. It seems that according to these people, unless you attended one of the top schools in the entire country, you aren’t worth their time and have no meaningful future in the industry, and it is this form of educational elitism that affects how some people perceive their peers in the theatre community, and also can sometimes affect certain casting or hiring decisions that are made by certain people.

This belief that they have could not be further from the truth.

If you ask me, real talent has very little to do – in many cases – with the level of education that one has received from the college or university they attended. There are many talented artists – whether they be performers or writers or anything else – that are naturally gifted, but for some reason did not attend any of the prominent schools in the country that are often cited as among the “best” theatre programs in the country. This could be because they didn’t have the money, which is possibly the most likely reason for most people, as the past decade or so has been very difficult for the finances of many families. It could also be because while they performed strongly in the subjects they chose to study, their grades in other subjects (i.e. math, science, etc.) might have prevented them from getting accepted into a school with a low-acceptance rate. Or maybe it was simply because they preferred to go to the school they are attending now, and that really was their first choice when they were looking at what schools they might want to attend. Whatever the case may be, there are many talented artists out there who attend different schools, and to dismiss or look down on them based on what school they attended – as many people seem to do – is a very ignorant decision.

Furthermore, the fact that you go to a lesser-known college doesn’t necessarily mean you’re receiving a bad or lesser education. After all, no matter what college program you are attending, shouldn’t all theatre students be learning the same things about theatre in their classes? Sure, some professors at some certain colleges might be better or worse at actually teaching this material than others are. But with some particular examples aside, I think it would be unfair to suggest that those who attend state and local colleges aren’t learning as sufficiently from their professors as they would at other universities.

It is true that there are indeed some benefits to attending a school such as Yale Drama School or New York University or Michigan State University or Carnegie Mellon University, which you might not get from attending a state college or university. The people who point that out are correct to do so. But what exactly is the biggest and most meaningful of those benefits? The answer is simple: That you are able to put on a resume that you attended that school. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some phenomenal performers out there who attended some of the top schools in the country and plenty of bad performers at other schools. But the fact of the matter is that it seems as if the best reason to go to one of these top schools in the country is to simply be able to tell future directors, producers or employers that you went there.

So unless you have seen an actor in an audition and are able to judge them purely on that, or have seen portfolios of their work as directors, playwrights, stage managers or theatre technicians, there is no fair reason to judge someone in theatre purely based on what school they attended or currently attend. It is this form of elitism that I consider to be one of the many things that is helping to enforce the false stereotype that all theatre people are judgmental, egotistical snobs, which ultimately undermines the name and reputation of ourselves and our art form. At the end of the day, I don’t think that’s something that any of us want, and it’s a reason why this attitude that some people have ought to stop in the theatre community.

If you ask me, there’s already plenty of snobbishness in the world outside of the arts community, so let’s try our best to keep it outside of the world of theatre