How to Succeed in Theatre- Without Higher Education

  • Isabella Mirza

Colleges and conservatories are expensive. There’s no other way to say it, they just are. Unless your family has set aside money for you to do so, pursuing higher education means you’ll likely spend your senior year, and the next four years in a formal education program struggling to get loans, scholarships, and side hustles, often requiring you put yourself in some extreme cases of exhaustion and stress. A social life will be difficult to maintain, Saturdays will be spent at work, mornings before class shared with coffee and overdue homework, afternoons will be taken up by running from class only to miss your bus to work and mean you have to beg someone for a ride, and after all of that you’ll still trudge need to the library at 2 AM to photocopy the textbook you can’t afford. If that sounds like a lot to handle, you can find an alternative route. That’s also terrifying. It really is- I know. I’m following that alternative route.

Some brief background: I got into and attended a college for theatre for a year, but after living under extreme financial pressure, I walked away from college, signing my first professional contract within the hour of signing my college’s withdrawal paperwork. You can have a career in theatre without training through higher education.

Theatre is a trade, an art, and doesn’t require any form of degree to get jobs and get into the industry. Whether you’re pursuing a technical career or one performing, you need training and practice. Luckily, there are many ways to get that practice and training that may better suit you and your needs. Firstly, if you’re pursuing theatre you have likely gotten experience in your community or school theatres. Reach out to current or former directors, mentors, and influential people who’ve had a hand in developing your craft. If you’re in tech theatre, they will likely have connections at other theatres or with similar live events companies that are hiring apprentices, interns, or assistants. This is a great way to begin building a resume outside of a small school community. If you’re a performer, they may have connections to other directors, choreographers, etc. who are casting, or know of others who are. This can get you an audition! They may also have connections to agents if you’re ready to pursue that direction.

Fellowships and apprenticeships are another option for both technicians and performers. Some are as a short as the summer, others can last a year. By taking on a fellowship, you are putting yourself into a safe environment for learning and practicing your craft. There will be times for you to watch, and times for you to lead, developing other necessary skills for the theatre- like teaching and communication skills. Fellowships can at times offer pay and/or housing, and some may leave room for another job if that’s necessary. Usually, a fellowship pays enough to live on and the work you do is in an assistant or ensemble role. The work may be a lot at times, but it will be highly personalized between you, the people you work with, and the theatre company, giving you more room to grow as an artist and practice your skills than some other opportunities. The connections you can make over the course of a year will also likely be extremely valuable in finding your next job.

If you have a background in tech work, you can also work with your local theatres and union to get some more experience in a variety of areas. This is less of a learning opportunity, but for those who are ready to get to work, this is a way to do so in the theatre. Even if costume design is your end goal, it is great to have a solid knowledge of all of theatre, so working with lights may help you get to know what the colors in your costumes will actually look like under different gels. Working on a theatre’s technical crew can also give you the chance to learn more about the company and, again, make new connections that can send you more work.

Non-equity tours are another way to break in as an actor or technician. Many of these are TYA or regional. Some tours are one van and one bus with a company of only eight people, but others can be significantly larger. This will take away your need to pay rent while you’re on the road, saving money, but also can give you the chance to put some cash aside for when you’re off tour. If you’re a technician considering shifting into the music industry, this is a good way to see if you like the touring lifestyle. Similarly, cruise ships and amusement parks employ many technicians and performers for contracts of varying length. Most of these are 6-12 months long, with option to renew. Cruise ships can give you the chance to travel as well, something that is also very expensive.

Facebook is another great job searching tool. Many cities have local groups for their theatre community, and there are a number of national/international Facebook groups for people in the theatre industry as well. In these groups, you’ll likely find job openings, even for temporary work that can tide you over until your next gig. You can post looking for work, or find listings already made. I’ve gotten many jobs on Facebook, whether they last a week or a year.

Not going to college can be hard; I won’t sugar coat it. You may want to go and not be able to, you may have never thought of it. At some point when you leave college, it will hit you that you never have to take a math class again, and that will feel amazing, but you’’ eventually feel the fall out from the emotional stress, like friends leaving, pressure from family about if this is the right decision or not, and more. Make sure you have a community of theatre-makers to rely on- they get it. They’ve all missed out on things or made life-changing decisions for the sake of the theatre. The rewards of working in theatre are beautiful, they far outweigh any of the negatives, and when you receive those rewards, not pursuing higher education can quickly feel like exactly the right decision.

Ultimately, if you want to work in theatre and you can’t reasonably see yourself in any other field, you can make it in theatre if you work hard and hone your skills. College is simply not a viable option for many people, and until that changes, developing your craft in any area of the entertainment field- touring, cruises, or performing at weddings- is worthwhile and can bring you the same opportunity and success taking on higher education could without the back-breaking debt.

Your schedule may be patchy at times, your next few years may be a string of temporary gigs until something more permanent lands, but in the end, you’ll still be working in theatre and doing what you love. For those of us in theatre, we know that that’s worth more than gold.