Dear Theatre Students, Don't Throw Away Your Shot!

C. Austin Hill

Dear theatre students,

We’ve met before, but as a reminder, my name is Chris and I am a theatre professor.  While I might not be YOUR theatre professor, and while I don’t claim to speak for ALL theatre professors, I wanted to take just a moment to talk about your futures.  I think what I have to say is important to those of you in college theatre programs, and also those of you who are hoping to go into a college theatre program—but perhaps other theatre artists, in various stages in their careers, might find some utility in my advice.

So here’s the deal.  If you are in a college theatre program, your job is to prepare yourself for a life in the theatre outside of college.  Likewise, if you are a high school theatre student wanting placement in a college theatre program, your job is to prepare yourself for a life past high school drama (literally and figuratively). 

A HUGE part of this job is your school work—both in your theatre classes and outside of them.  You have the responsibility to go to class, to get good grades, and to make an effort...EVERY day.  In the lovely film Larry Crowne, Julia Roberts’ character promises her public speaking students that in her class—above all else—they will learn to care.  Friends—your job is to care.  What you might not know is just how important your academic work really is.  You never know when that teeny bit of information you picked up in a class on “Earthquakes and Volcanoes,” that you took just to earn a Gen Ed science credit, might be crucial to unlocking a scenic design.  If you are doing it right, you will use everything you learn in “Psych 101” every single day as a theatre artist.  Physics, geometry, and trigonometry are ESSENTIAL to designers.  Do you plan to make a living in the theatre? Your business, economics, graphic design, public speaking, and health classes will help you manage your brand (you), plan your money, run your website, interview for jobs, and stay alive (respectively).  And if that isn’t enough to keep you engaged and your grades up, MANY programs have eligibility requirements in order to participate in productions—if you don’t make the grade, you don’t do the shows.

This brings me to my next point.  If you are going to school for theatre—that is, if theatre is going to be on your transcript as a major or a minor, ESPECIALLY if you plan to do grad school or go into the industry, then you need to stay involved…ALL OF THE TIME.  You are paying for (or hoping to pay for) a degree in theatre.  That fact alone should NEVER be the deciding factor on whether you get the lead roles or the major design assignments.  But what it SHOULD dictate is your willingness to fight to develop your resume.  My job, as a professor and the head of my program, is to create opportunities for you to learn and grow and develop a resume that will take you into the post-college world.  But I can only do so much.  I can’t program enough shows to ensure that everyone gets a lead role or a first-hand design job.  I can’t promise you are going to love each and every production we do (I hope you do, but make no guarantees).  I can’t go to class for you, take your tests, and make sure your grades are strong enough to participate.  But there are plenty of opportunities to get involved…if you have enough drive to find them.  Too often, however, theatre students lose opportunities to build their resumes for the silliest of reasons…they, to paraphrase Hamilton, throw away their shot.

If a show comes along and you don’t audition, you’ve thrown away your shot.  If a semester happens and you don’t help on build days or work in the shop (if you are able—and in my program ALL are welcome and encouraged), you have thrown away your shot.  If you get so upset at not getting the role you want, or about your boyfriend not getting cast, that you decline a role, you have thrown away your shot.  If you “don’t do musicals,” or “hate that play,” or “just don’t want to audition,” that’s perfectly fine—but you have thrown away your shot.  If you don’t work crew, hang and focus lights, sew costumes, help strike the set, play an ensemble role, or be in the chorus, then you have lost an opportunity to make theatre—and every opportunity lost is an experience missed…and it’s your own fault.  In most programs there is ALWAYS something you can do to get involved.

You are only in college for four years (5? 6?).  You have a limited time to gain as much experience as you can.  In my small program, we do 2-4 productions a year—and, of course, larger programs do more.  You can put a BUNCH of shows on your resume if you try.  But if you “sit one out” by choice, or because you aren’t eligible, then you have wasted your valuable time and money.  A degree in theatre is worth a great deal less without productions on your resume…because they are how you prove that you know what you are doing.  The shows on your resume are a HUGE part of what will get you theatre jobs, grad school admissions, internships, and even gigs at the local community theatre company.  And if you find yourself lacking in the opportunity category at school, you can ALWAYS make your own theatre—write a show and perform it, find a company and volunteer your time, usher, build a set at the area middle-school.

And if I’m going to be completely honest, if you don’t have the gung-ho drive to fight your way into every single opportunity that you can…you DO NOT have the drive to make a living in the theatre.  This industry takes constant work and steadfast tenacity.  There is little room for those who don’t know how to apply themselves…because there are dozens of others always waiting in the wings—to take your shot.

Photo: Adrian College