Healing After Higher Education

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Shea King

Writer, Elizabeth Gilbert said, “A vocation is a calling. A vocation is a divine invitation. A vocation is a voice of the universe in your ear saying we want you to do this thing, use your talents and gifts and make this thing.” That is what the theatre is to me. I received my invitation to this wonderful vocation at a very young age. I’ve kept my invitation close to my heart, and I will continue to show up as long as I live. I know this to be true. I even went and earned two degrees in theatre to show how “serious” I am about my craft and creativity. But, at what cost did my studies have on my relationship with the universe and my creativity?

As I am now on the other side of my time in higher education, I am starting to come to terms with all that I gained and all that I might have suffered to get my two pieces of paper. My thinking of going to college was that it would help me start a career and give me some sense of “worth” in the arts. It did not, I had to do those things on my own. I come from a family that does not hold many if any at all, higher ed degrees. For sure none of which are graduate level or higher, and certainly none of them are in the arts. Getting my degrees also put a high financial strain on me personally. With my Mom helping me in some ways, phone bill and most of the time my car insurance, tuition, and living expenses were up to me. Loans, scholarships, and some small grants paid tuition, and I kept unsteady employment throughout undergrad and graduate school.

If only that were the single outside force taking action to stunt me, I think I wouldn’t be feeling this postgraduate scarring that is now taking place. Creativity is not something that can be taught like science or mathematics. There is rarely a “right” answer to something and in my experience, the word “should” is more problematic than illuminative when it comes to theatrical creation. So, how come so many professors of the theatre find it their duty to preach of their certainty of the theatre and make it a point to shame you if you don’t make your work fit a mold of their crafting? Not even just me but I see it in friends at other programs and with colleagues who had similar struggles that I did.

Before I continue let me just say, I had some life changing mentors. What I learned from some of these incredibly vulnerable, giving, and challenging professors have given me the language to make the work of my dreams. These people know who they are and this letter is not about them. This letter is to those who ignored me and ignore others when they are upset. This letter is for those who yell and puff up when they are disagreed with. Sadly, this letter is for the professors who know that these bullies exist and stay silent while more and more people shut up and push through to graduation, only to stop creating afterward because of shame and fear. This letter is for the faculty that takes our money without giving us anything in return, besides the creative shame wounds we now have to mend.

Why do we go to college when it comes to creativity? My own goals for pursuing my training were to have studio space to risk and try new ideas for storytelling, to be exposed to ideas and ways of creating outside my own knowledge, and to be mentored by people that inspired me so I can learn to make the kind of work I want to make. These are very selfish goals but, I think that is why I left with less damage than others I know of. It was also how I got myself into more conflict than most, but ultimately I achieved my goals.

Through my schools and the schools of friends, my awareness of each programs harboring of some bad eggs grew to a nauseating acuity. These faculty members are frustrated middle-aged bullies who compromised at one point in their lives and “wound up” teaching. To those people, you did it to yourselves so don’t take it out on us. Just because we still remain hopeful that our dreams will come to fruition does not mean you should take it upon yourself to trick us into thinking you are a gatekeeper to success. You are not, because, in reality, your classes end up being nothing more than a burden of creative soul-sucking. It probably makes it worse that you are next door to professors who host laboratories of artistic enrichment, but that is not the point. You stand out in the faculty lineup not because your intellectual prowess is so much greater than the others but because your ego has manifested itself as a hurt child screaming into the void of your own shame wounds.

Your students are not your punching bags, and the classroom is not a place for your rage therapy. Your shouts and hyperbole about dead white men are not inspiring us. They make us afraid of you because you are unwell. When you choose your own personal projects over ours it is not taken as a sign of your success, it feels like a cry for help. The fact that you will take our tuition money and soak up the crucial time we are paying to train and explore this medium is feckless. When you frequently ignore emails or miss scheduled meetings we seeth knowing we have to take it upon ourselves to seek you out again because you are our teacher and nobody else can speak to what we need at the moment.

All those times you did not remember what we talked about previously or the times you “forgot” that we had asked for you to comment on our work, causes in many of us a resentment, not just for you but the entire department. You represent to so many people and me what is wrong with the arts in America. Knowing you makes it more and more obvious why enrollment is so difficult to achieve. Somewhere inside you lives an ego so shamed by what you perceive to be your own failings that you are becoming the people who hurt you. You have taken in the criticisms and rejections of your youth so deeply that they have become a real part of who you are. That has led you to shaming your pupils and sabotaging your colleagues. It maybe makes you feel better to see others fail in the way that you feel you have. Other people's success is your failure, but when nobody is succeeding, you maybe feel you are not alone.

Professor, I resent you, and I also feel so sorry for you. You bullied my classmates and me in studios, classrooms, and offices all around the country. You tried to bury me in your intellect and shame my emotions when they rose up in me. You are not a failure, however. You taught me something very valuable, and this lesson has been widely learned because of you.

I learned how to persist. I learned how to be kinder. I learned patience. I learned grace under fire. And because of you, I learned about the kind of artist I want to be, and it is not you. You are a professor of theatre. That is nothing. Own that, and then do the duties you have agreed to do. Maybe in this lifetime, you will not find peace. But please consider something for yourself and for your students past, present and future. Get well.

Get well so that you can teach us in a way that is not hostile but maybe hospitable. Challenge us, yes, please make the work challenging, but don’t make everything impossible. Do not see us as adversaries when we join your programs. We are not going to be up for the same jobs in the profession. You have made sure of that all on your own. So accept your role as a mentor or go pursue the dreams you feel you failed at and leave us to pursue our own. The persistence you taught me is how I can begin to heal from the semesters I spent navigating the battle mazes that are your classes.

My creativity is thriving now and it not in spite of you. It is merely because my journey with creativity is patient. My work is still challenging, and my processes are always different, but I work with kindness. I work with trust and towards beauty with my collaborators. My work feels fresh and fiery with no sign of burning out. Also, my work is made with joy for getting to create. It is not easy living a creative life but it is joyful. I like what I do. I am healing after what we went through together, now maybe it is time for you to heal as well.