While it's only been a couple of years, find myself already waxing nostalgically about my freshman year as a theatre major. That year was a great growing experience but also incredibly difficult, so this one is for all you baby theatre students wandering wide-eyed into the world of university theatre.
Study the business side of show business
Especially if your focus is acting, it’s easy to get caught up in the art side of theatre because, well, that’s mostly what you’ll be doing. But I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is that everyone in theatre understand the practical business side. In my program, I studied acting along with a bit of history, costuming, and tech. Fortunately, I was able to take an audition prep class my very last quarter, and that class gave me a wealth of information which I simply had no idea about before. So, even though your program may not prioritize the nuts-and-bolts of theatre business, find ways to learn about topics such as unions and agents, tax deductions, proper headshots and resumes, managing personal finances, and how theatres are run from a business perspective. Actors are responsible for marketing themselves, and a solid understanding of the reality of life as a theatre artist is an essential tool you may not necessarily learn in your classes. Also, asking professors directly for advice on these issues is a great alternative when theatre business is not directly being taught.
Find things outside of theatre to love
Theatre tends to be an all-consuming passion. As a student, you may have theatre classes all day, rehearse in the evenings, finish theatre homework in the gaps between, and attend theatre performances in your rare free time. It’s great to get so involved in your craft, but everyone needs a space in which they can step away and clear their mind for a moment. Even something as simple as spending a day exploring hiking trails or curling up with a novel which has no relation to theatre can be the refreshing change needed to avoid burn-out.
Learn to say “no”
Theatre demands constant work and, with no clear career path, it feels like the only option is to do as much as possible in hopes it will somehow put you on top. Hard work is essential for theatre artists, but if you push too hard you will end up feeling like Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder; you try and try but the only result is greater exhaustion. At this point, it’s time to accept that you can’t do everything or please everybody. Sometimes you will have to turn projects down, and there is no shame in that. After all, it is better to put in quality work on one production than poor work in five.
Take responsibility for your own health, both mental and physical
Along with learning to say “no” comes the need to be realistic about your own health. Some people act as if theatre was an easy major, but the truth is that it is taxing on your body, mind, and emotions. Your teachers and classmates will probably want to support you, but ultimately only you can determine your precise limits. Be honest with yourself and your teachers, know when to step out or take a break, and put your health first.
Don’t get trapped on campus
University productions and student led shows provide a rich array of opportunities for the burgeoning theatre artist, but remember that there is more to the world than your theatre department. Doing shows at local community theatres is a great way to add more shows to your resume while getting the opportunity to learn from some other directors and more experienced actors. Likewise, make time to see shows happening off-campus, especially if there is a professional theatre nearby. You can learn something from everyone, so let yourself explore the larger theatre community as well.
Think long-term sooner rather than later
There is no clear career path for a theatre artist, so it can be very difficult to know where you will be a few years down the road. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be researching options while still in college. For me, I didn’t plan much regarding location. By my senior year, I started to panic because I had no idea where I wanted to live or where would be best for me. I’m have figured out temporary plans, but I still do not have enough information to know where I really want to live and do theatre. Topics such as cities for theatre artists are things you can be researching while still in college. It may not give you a solid plan per say, but it will get you started thinking long-term soon enough that maybe you will experience less panic than I did.
Do not procrastinate on auditions
We young people tend to feel like we can conquer anything if we have enough caffeine and gumption. And while most of the time students are remarkably gifted at pulling things off at the last minute, it just isn’t a good habit to be in. I procrastinated on far too many auditions in college, not because I didn’t care but because I just ran out of time due to poor planning. Some last-minute auditions went very well; others did not. Whenever possible, just give yourself sufficient time to properly prepare for an audition, especially if you have to find a monologue or song.
Focus on what’s right for you instead of trying to please everybody
I’m a perfectionist; I don’t want to my work to be okay, I want it to be spot-on. As a result, I spent way too much psychoanalyzing directors and teachers to try to figure out what they wanted from me. There is certainly value in learning to decipher feedback and understand what your directors want, but obsessing over getting it perfect before they’ve even had time for notes is only asking for trouble. I used to find a new monologue for almost every audition, and I spent hours trying to find the perfect fit for the show. And, as a result, I bombed a lot of auditions because I was using material that wasn’t actually right for me. It is better to audition with a piece you feel great about than a piece you aren’t confident on but feel sure the director will love. You can’t read their minds, and that is okay. Soak up whatever feedback you get, but focus on doing what is right for you rather than attempting to please everyone.
The world is not fair
Let me say it one more time for those in the back row: the world is not fair. Do not expect it to be. People who do not work as hard as you will get the role you wanted. A feature of yourself you cannot change will be used as a reason to not cast you. People will treat you like shit for choosing a path they do not understand. You will be rejected, and it will hurt. But, once you understand that this is the reality of the field you love, you can start learning to let each heartbreak roll off you like water from a duck’s back. Accept feedback without taking it personally, build a strong support system, and just keep your head high and keep trucking on. You will survive, I promise.
Accept that you will need help
These last two points may sound pessimistic, but it is actually incredibly freeing to first accept that you will fail (even if you have done nothing wrong!) and, second, to accept that you will need help. I have always been a self-sufficient person, believing so firmly that I can do everything myself that the idea of asking for help felt like giving up. I was hesitant to let my peers see what I was working on for fear of them disliking it, afraid to talk to my professors in case their opinion of me lowered, and reluctant to admit when I was struggling. So, let me tell you right now: everyone needs help. And, if you are honest and open, you will receive the help you need. Theatre is tough, so never feel weak for needing support.
College is an exciting and terrifying time. My journey as a theatre major most definitely had its ups and downs but it was all worth it. To quote Wicked, because of my theatre major, “I have been changed for good.”