I don’t want to suggest that incoming Musical Theatre and Theatre Majors at colleges around the country need more guidance than any other majors; all of you freshmen are Alice lost in Wonderland, Dorothy lost in Oz, and Harry Potter lost at Hogwarts, and you will find yourselves and your journeys with the help of the strange and fantastical creatures you meet there (the professors and the other students). But I believe any advice I have to offer to new college students is best directed at those in the programs I know best, having come out of them myself. And I don’t just mean the performers, I mean the aspiring designers and directors and stage managers.
Going to college for the performing arts can seem all consuming, but it is not nor should it be treated as such. It is crucial that your training in music, dance, acting, design, etc. be accompanied by a true college experience, so you don’t end up like the characters in the musical Avenue Q, who wish they could go back.
“I can’t I have rehearsal” is a perfectly legitimate reason to turn down an activity. Especially if you’re going to college for a career in theatre, and especially if you haven’t already started, you should start “acting professionally,” and treat each show that you are not being paid to be in as though you were (also, unfortunately, good advice for early on in that career). But you are not always called for rehearsal, and, especially early in the process, everyone occasionally has the night off. Keep up with your homework, yes, but also make sure you enjoy the people and places around you. You’re probably in a new town, likely a small town. Find the pizza place, find the café, find the bar if you must (I didn’t, but I know how these things work), and find people with whom to go and enjoy yourself, maybe regularly or maybe just a few times. Have movie nights with these people, or go to performances. If you’re having trouble finding people to do things with in your first weeks or months (or year, if you’re like me), find the events being put on by the college itself to help people find each other. And these need not all be fellow theatre people; diversity of major can be as important among friends in college as other kinds of diversity. Don’t let yourself be consumed so soon in your life by one thing, even if it is what you are far and away most passionate about.
Let your studies enrich your passion and your training. Depending on your program, there may be some core requirements for you to get through in order to graduate, in addition to the classes you want to take. You can use these. Whether you are an actor or a designer or any other kind of creative, your ideas don’t just come from you and your brilliance, they come from everything you experience, everything you see and hear, everything you learn. A biology class gives you another perspective on how your body, your instrument, works. A psychology class gives you insight into the mind. If you’re a director, a literature or film studies class teaches you about perspective, if you’re a designer, about styles. If you’re a singer, you’re probably in a choir in addition to musicals, and in a choir you may sing in other languages, preparation for which is a great use of foreign language courses you may be required to take anyway. You don’t have to overdo it, but don’t hate it or think of it as a burden. It’s all part of the college package, and it can all work together for you. That’s the point.
Let your passion and your training enrich your studies. You never know what you will find useful from core requirements or other experiences if you don’t come to them with a specific project in mind, it’s just good to have them stored in your memory. But you will also be told to go looking for inspiration, whether for character development or costume ideas. I learned a lot about Japanese theatre and history to prepare for Pacific Overtures, and I read parts of John Wilkes Booth’s diary to prepare for Assassins. And I loved it. Preparing for musicals has become one of my favorite ways to learn about the world, because a musical or a play is not a self-contained thing, each is about a part of the much bigger world. This may lead you to take elective courses if you have time, or work toward some quirky, obscure little minor that you may or may not ultimately add to your degree because a musical made you curious, even a second major if you don’t already have one. Curiosity about the world is key to a creative life, so use creative life to feed that curiosity. College is the best place to do it.
I am reluctant to suggest that it would be a good idea, regardless of passion, to have a second major. To suggest that would be to suggest that a degree in Theatre or Musical Theatre would not be enough, and as someone who’s other major was English, I’m only too aware of the inferiority complex that can come from such suggestions (but at least I wasn’t Philosophy or Studio Art, am I right?). Any major is valuable, and I have always said you should major in what you can get a degree in. STEM fields are great and all, but I don’t think I could have passed enough classes in those fields to earn those degrees, that was not where my abilities were. And skills picked up in Theatre have a great track record in other areas, skills like thinking outside the box, public speaking, presentation, and empathy. That said, since I did have two areas I felt confident I could earn my degree with, and since I did find myself passionate about one of those quirky, obscure little minors (Women’s Studies), I did have the pleasure of blending them together into a senior year project that is still important to me today because it represents more than one area of interest in my life.
So my advice here is to not shy away from being ambitious about programs outside of the performing arts if you think you might want to explore them more deeply. You will have time and opportunity in college in a way you rarely will after college unless you are very, very lucky. And “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck,” to quote a wise old man. College is an opportunity to have many opportunities, so get the most out of it and break a leg.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books, culture, and politics on blogspot (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com), and has written one of the great, unpublished musical theatre novels. His writing has also been seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.