Graduation: A Light at the End of the Tunnel—A Note to Theatre Students

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

Dear theatre students:

 My name is Chris, and I am a theatre professor.  Though I may not be YOUR theatre professor, and though I don’t mean to imply that I speak for ALL theatre professors, I wanted to reach out as the year winds down and share some thoughts and wise words with you.  I hope you’ll find this useful whether this you are graduating college along with some of my students, graduating from high school and looking forward, or looking back on a lifetime of theatre.

Graduation is upon us.  For some of you this is the culmination of years of training, classes, productions, and living.  Those graduating with degrees in theatre have written dozens of papers; memorized countless lines; plotted hundreds of lighting fixtures; given (and received) many line-notes; scribbled more blocking notes, acting notes, design notes, course notes, cue-sheets, ground-plans, beats, and ideas than anyone would ever care to count.  Some are going on to graduate schools or into the industry, some from graduate schools into the industry or into teaching, some have no clearly-defined next-step.  All of these are okay—we, your faculty, love you and will miss you…and regardless of your next destination, we are VERY proud of you.  Here are some things I’d like you to remember.

It’s not what you know…it’s WHO you know

This old adage is true—in more ways than you might realize now.  Yes, it’s true that the well-connected have more access to opportunities than those who lack those connections.  But here’s the thing about college…by virtue of having been in a theatre program, you are now better connected than you might think you are.  Those who are graduating with you, who have graduated ahead of you, and who will graduate behind you will become a wide network of theatre professionals.  They will spin off, meet people, do shows, land jobs, meet other people, and make art.  STAY IN TOUCH WITH THEM. 

If you haven’t already, create some sort of alumni social-media page—not just the official one your program might keep, but one driven by students past and present.  Then, USE IT.  Tell each other about your successes, about your failures, about shows you are doing that NEED a person just like your friend to take a role, or design a set, or hang a light.  Having been to a couple of schools myself, I am still a member of groups like this from my undergrad institution, and from my graduate institution.  Though I am not a lighting designer, I am on a lighting design-specific board from my grad school…and have found amazing help there…and provided some opportunities myself.  Become your own network. Cultivate it. You never know when your next paycheck will come straight from this network (pro-tip: it can happen more often than you think).

Celebrate the success of others

Theatre, as we all know all too well, is dog-eat-dog.  We battle each-other for opportunities: for roles, for design gigs, for jobs.  Too often this leads to bitterness, to jealousy, and to a feeling of competition with those around us…even (maybe especially) those with whom we went to school.  STOP IT.  Just cut it right out.  There is no sense in wasting your energy begrudging others their successes. 

A great arts administrator I know (Steven C. Anderson, Artistic Director of CATCO in Columbus, OH) shared with me an idea that I’ve made my mantra—there is NO SUCH THING as competition in the arts.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  Art breeds art.  When we all work together to create an audience in a city, then to help that audience grow, the larger audience will spread their wealth to other organizations.  I’ve seen this happen. A performance space in an area will benefit the galleries in that area.  A theatre company in a city, by working with another theatre company, will double their audience…and that larger audience will continue to support BOTH companies.  This idea works for individual artists, too.  By becoming our colleagues’ loudest cheerleaders, we all benefit.  Go see your friends in shows, congratulate them for a job well-done.  Do it because they are great—not because you want something from them.  But then watch as they come to your shows, and congratulate you—and as they introduce you to their friends, and invite you into their projects. Stop treating your colleagues as competition.  Instead treat them as artists—and learn from them, as you should learn from every artist with whom you come into contact.

Never stop learning

Just because you have a degree in theatre, or 3, don’t assume you know everything.  You don’t.  Neither, certainly, do I.  Nobody likes a know-it-all, and if you present yourself with that kind of attitude—argumentative, superior, arrogant—word about you will quickly spread.  I read a recent article in Stage Directions magazine (do you subscribe?  It’s free…you should subscribe) that indicated that there is some resentment of MFA-holding stage managers within the industry.  See, the reputation is that these individuals, though HIGHLY competent and very well trained, have a tendency to be arrogant and to act as though they have nothing left to learn…and that’s unfortunate.  You never have to pretend to know less than you do, but there is a huge difference between being competent and being cocky.

Treat every theatrical opportunity as a chance to learn a new skill…to work with a different directorial style, or with actors from different schools of theatre.  Treat each chance to design a set or lights or costumes for a new director as a chance to learn a new theatrical language, and to broaden your voice and vision—while bringing your training and skills and artistry to bear on the production.  You will have opportunities you love, and those you hate…both are chances to learn and to grow.

Allow yourself to fail

You will have tremendous successes.  That’s my hope for your career.  You will also, undoubtedly, have failures.  You’ll have shows that don’t sell, that the critics hate, that YOU hate, that you’ll be totally relieved when they are over.  You’ll have performances that are flat, you’ll go up.  Your actors will go up.  Costumes will rip.  Props will break. Sets will look nothing like your designs.  Lighting cues will misfire.  Everything will go PERFECTLY and the critics will hate your show.  The critics won’t even show up. You’ll hate your stage manager, they’ll hate you right back.  Sometimes you won’t even get the gig at all. You’ll totally fall right off the stage.  How do I know?  Been there…all of there. Do not ever be discouraged by failure.  These are times when you learn what not to do, what to do differently, and how to persevere. What defines great theatre artists is their ability to move on…to have a bad show, a bad year, a bad decade, and to move past that.  The ability to wake up in the morning broken and sore and tired and go to the next audition, the next dance class, the next voice lesson, the next rehearsal, and to keep fighting is what should define you…not your failures.

The light at the end of the tunnel

You have worked hard.  You have earned the right to graduate.  You have endured years of stuff, learned tons more stuff, and you are ready for the next adventure.  But, dear students, what I want you to know is that the light at the end of the tunnel is YOU.  You are an artist and a scholar.  You have to manage your own brand now—where do you want to go?  Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make art (though make sure you have the rights to perform what and where you are trying to perform).  Hard work alone will not make you a success…but neither will sheer talent.  You need both. And a bit of luck. We are here when you need us—your teachers, your friends, your parents.  We are ready to cheer you on, to be your advocates, and to applaud your successes.

Break a leg.