A college degree simply isn’t the best choice for everyone.
I’m not in the business of discouraging anyone to go to school for theatre. I always stand in support of theatre majors. However, in education, the phrase “one size fits all” is a harmful myth. For many, a college education just doesn’t make sense. Besides the obvious (and woefully often overlooked) point that the traditional higher education setting isn’t the best learning environment for everyone, college is expensive, and theatre majors are too often reminded of the fact that all the money spent for tuition still can’t guarantee future employment.
Many agree that the degree itself is not the most important outcome of a college education in theatre. Rather, what you receive in return for all that tuition is valuable training and professional connections. As the official degree is the only thing a traditional college path can boast over independent study and on-the-job experience, some are more suited to seek training outside of a college setting, preferably at a much lower price point.
So what exactly should one get from their theatre degree program? And how could they go about getting those without pursuing the degree at all?
I should mention before I leap in that I have not attended school for theatre, and so my understanding of a theatre degree program is limited to what I can glean from friends and university websites. Not being a theatre professional, either, I fully admit I’m no expert on the subject of important skills for professional performers. Thus, I sought a lot of feedback on this article during the writing process. I’m confident that despite my lacking background, the quantity of research conducted and feedback taken into consideration nonetheless make this article complete and accurate.
In order to understand how one might go about replicating the education of a degree program, one needs to understand what the education of a degree program entails. We’ll call these our “learning objectives.”
After reviewing the mission statements and objectives of some of the most acclaimed theatre schools in the world, I’ve boiled down five “education objectives” that manage to roughly encapsulate those things every theatre program worth its salt considers important. Basically, these are the things schools believe its students should achieve by the end of the degree program. Here are our learning objectives:
- Explore Personal Performance Practices, Style, and Voice: Explore diverse schools of thought on performance and practice many performing styles and methods in the service of developing your own unique performing “voice.”
- Build Repertoire, Understand Theatre Industry in Historical and Social Context: Read, experience, and perform a variety of theatrical works, from many periods, cultures, and perspectives. Establish a baseline for a complete, multicultural understanding of theatre arts throughout history, as well as a diverse performing repertoire. Recognize landmark productions, composers, and creatives, and understand their social impact and significance in the industry’s history. Further, explore new works, new voices, and new perspectives on classic works.
- Hone Skills in Collaborative, Feedback-Rich Environments: Alongside diverse students, educators, and theatre professionals within safe, encouraging environments that inspire creative exploration, receive quality group instruction and one-on-one feedback in the areas of voice, music, acting, dance, and all relevant fundamental skills.
- Cultivate a Holistic Theatrical Skillset: Build experience in a variety of theatrical roles, including but not limited to theatre business, technology, production, direction, pedagogy, critique, and design.
- Note: Theatre schools actually seem a little split on this one. Although I believe many educators would say it can only be beneficial to diversify yourself and your theatre experiences, many schools encourage students to choose a “focus” and stick with it rather than explore many roles. I assume this owes itself to the fact that it’s difficult to meaningfully explore many different paths in only 4 years of study.
- Build a Network: Perhaps most important— Cultivate a wide professional network that will help starting actors get a foot in the door. Alongside peers, educators, and industry professionals, develop collaborative problem-solving abilities, professional decorum, and an understanding of contemporary industry attitudes, expectations, and controversies.
That’s a lot. However, I believe it’s possible to find ways to achieve all of these things even outside of academia. Let’s analyze how.
Breaking Down These Objectives
For the purpose of clarity, let me explain and break down these objectives into smaller, more succinct goals. By nature of being so broad and far-reaching, some of those learning objectives read like nothing more than educational word salad.
1: Explore Personal Performance Practices, Style, and Voice: Explore diverse schools of thought on performance and practice many performing styles and methods in the service of developing your own unique performing “voice.”
The main takeaway here is to develop a diverse toolbox of performance skills and styles so that actors may identify the methods that work for them. By finding a distinctive conglomerate of preferred practices, students will develop a unique personal acting style that serves them best.
Essentially, this learning objective has students do the following:
- Familiarize oneself with a variety of schools of thought on performance.
- Familiarize oneself with a variety of acting methods and styles.
- Synthesize a unique performing routine and worldview informed by learning.
- Discover a compelling personal style.
2: Build Repertoire, Understand Theatre Industry in Historical and Social Context: Read, experience, and perform a variety of theatrical works, from many periods, cultures, and perspectives. Establish a baseline for a complete, multicultural understanding of theatre arts throughout history, as well as a diverse performing repertoire. Recognize landmark productions, composers, and creatives, and understand their social impact and significance in the industry’s history. Further, explore new works, new voices, and new perspectives on classic works.
The sheer length of this one makes it seem like a doozy, but this objective is actually rather uniform in purpose: Explore a variety of works from many sources. This objective expresses that meaningful engagement with the modern theatre industry requires understanding of where it came from, as well as how it has impacted and been impacted by the world around it.
It may be distilled as the following points:
- Familiarize oneself with, engage with, and perform a wide variety of theatrical works.
- Explore works from diverse genres, styles, time periods, cultures, ethnic groups, and ideologies.
- Familiarize oneself with the general form of theatrical history and understand how it connects to worldwide political and social history.
- Recognize and identify landmark productions, creatives, composers, etc, and understand why and how they were important.
- Familiarize oneself with contemporary works and creatives, and understand the significance of their new perspectives in relation to historical contexts.
3: Hone Skills in Collaborative, Feedback-Rich Environments: Alongside diverse students, educators, and theatre professionals within safe, encouraging environments that inspire creative exploration, receive quality group instruction and one-on-one feedback in the areas of voice, music, acting, dance, and all relevant fundamental skills.
Many would likely consider this objective the most fundamental for growing performers. It could basically be summarized as learn, practice, listen, and then practice some more. Although the development of performance skills is mandatory for any performer, the rich and varied nature of instruction described in this objective is important to note. A meaningful facet of this objective is the necessity to cultivate skills in safe, encouraging environments that inspire creative exploration. The laboratory setting of a college classroom workshop dedicated to honing specific skills can’t quite be replicated in an ordinary production setting. Further, college classes have a tendency to be a melting pot of backgrounds and experiences in ways some local theatre organizations will never be. Suggestions for cultivating such diverse environments and sources of feedback will be in the next section.
This objective sees students do the following:
- Strategically learn, in varied settings, the fundamentals of performance, and hone higher-level performance skills.
- Practice and receive feedback in non-threatening, creatively-charged, open-ended settings, not just in the deadline-based setting of a rehearsal process wherein resources for focussed development of independent skills are limited.
- Receive feedback from variegated sources of diverse backgrounds, including peers, mentors, and working professionals.
4: Cultivate a Holistic Theatrical Skillset: Build experience in a variety of theatrical roles, including but not limited to theatre business, technology, production, direction, pedagogy, critique, and design.
Exploring diverse positions in theatre not only cultivates a well-rounded resume and an impressive job applicant. It also gives performers unique, informed perspectives and allows them to reflect upon their onstage choices and actions through a more educated lens. For example, understanding how lighting designers use color and light to draw attention to specific focus points might help actors understand how to use these to their own advantage. It also provides performers with an understanding of what putting on a show really takes, in every respect, which can only serve to strengthen the performer overall.
To sum up, students will:
- Experience theatre from the viewpoints of varied theatrical roles.
- Learn to apply principles learned in non-performance positions to improve performance skills.
- Become well-rounded creatives able to flourish in a variety of environments.
5: Build a Network: Cultivate a wide professional network that will help starting actors get a foot in the door. Alongside peers, educators, and industry professionals, develop collaborative problem-solving abilities, professional decorum, and an understanding of contemporary industry attitudes, expectations, and controversies.
Many consider this the definitive reason to attend college for theatre, especially if the college is highly acclaimed or well-recognized in the industry. The professional connections one makes as a student often prove invaluable for starting actors. Simply being able to say you trained with or under the right people can provide an instant advantage in an audition setting. This objective also involves developing good “bedside manner” as a creative– no one wants to cast actors that are lousy to work with!
In summary, students should:
- Establish and maintain positive relationships with a diverse network of creatives and mentors.
- Develop informed, modern professional decorum that will keep a performer in good standing in the theatrical community.
Now that we are clear on the exact meaning of these objectives and their many facets, we are able to explore options for pursuing them outside of a school setting.
Suggestions for Independent Learning
To Explore Personal Performance Practices, Style, and Voice…
- Use the many resources available to you: YouTube videos, documentaries, books, articles, blogs, webinars, podcasts, etc to research popular acting styles and their core tenants. A quick internet search should offer a lot of material. When in search of books, don’t forget about local libraries, or try using sites like Scribd or Perlego to save money on reading several books in one space rather than purchasing them all separately.
- Learn about the founders, developers, and proponents of various acting styles and methods and seek out biographies and explanations of their method in their own words.
- Consider seeking classes or one-on-one training sessions with experts in various acting styles.
- Experiment with different techniques and practices in rehearsal or in private study. Continually try new things, keep what works, and throw out what doesn’t. When seeking fresh insights or inspiration for a character or scene, consider returning to some of those methods you threw out.
- Look for “behind the scenes” views into your favorite performers’ rehearsal or creative processes. What could you take from these?
- See performances by a variety of creatives of diverse backgrounds. Engage with their performances critically: What do you like? What do you not like? What might you be inspired to try for yourself?
- Talk to trusted performers around you. Discuss personal practices and consider swapping feedback.
- Perform often and mindfully. How would you describe your personal style? How do others describe your style? What do you think works for you, and what do you think doesn’t work?
- Consider your own personal philosophy on performing. What are your goals? How do your methods help you achieve those goals? If any of your methods aren’t aligning with your philosophy, how might you replace them?
- Continually look for the things that you believe set you apart as a performer. Find ways to highlight and make stronger use of these.
To Build Repertoire and Understand Theatre Industry in Historical and Social Context…
- Again, use the many resources available to you. There are tons of books, documentaries, YouTube videos and podcasts about theatre history, and a quick Google search could no doubt yield plentiful more educational material.
- Consider attending classes or lectures on theatre history, or on world political and social history as a whole.
- See as many shows as you can, even and especially if you’ve never heard of the title or composer.
- Keep an eye out for the names of unfamiliar shows or theatre celebrities. Listen to original cast recordings or look for scripts or filmed productions online. Try to familiarize yourself with as many shows and names as possible.
- Develop recognition of popular and important (note these are not necessarily the same!) creatives and productions. Look for shows and composers you hear a lot about, or whose names continually seem to come up in the wild.
- Consider setting up something like a book club with a group of friends and fellow performers. Instead of books, read plays and discuss, or perform table reads for fun.
- Develop a sense of where important shows fit into the history of theatre and the world. Try to understand how the culture of the time influenced the works, and how the works influenced the culture of the time. Consider how shows produced during the same periods of theatre history might relate to and influence each other.
- Expand your knowledge of world political, social, and art history. This way, you’ll have greater context for learning about theatre history. Attending museums can make this into a fun date or day trip with the family.
- Continually check yourself to ensure you are learning about history from perspectives other than those of people like yourself. If you are white and affluent, seek perspectives from poor POC. Learn about cultures outside your own. Challenge yourself to consume media by those unlike you even more often than you consume media by those similar to you.
- Likewise, continually check yourself to ensure you are learning about theatre from perspectives other than those of people like yourself. Explore theatrical traditions from other countries, cultures, and ethnic groups. Attend shows, read works, and follow creatives that are unlike those in your cultural lexicon.
- Keep your ear to the pulse of contemporary theatre. Watch for what new works become popular, and challenge yourself to especially seek out those that stay niche. Consider how these new works speak to the state and attitudes of the modern theatre industry.
- If possible, travel. Consume as much theatre of other cultures while in other countries, states, and even cities as you can.
To Hone Skills in Collaborative, Feedback-Rich Environments:
- Say it with me: use the many resources available to you! Learn about ways you may improve your skills.
- See performances by a variety of creatives of diverse backgrounds. Engage with their performances critically: What do you like? What do you not like? What might you be inspired to try for yourself?
- Audition often and perform often, in any way you can and in varied company. Branch out: don’t pigeonhole yourself into one organization or theatrical community.
- Take classes in group settings, or sign up for private lessons. Look for lectures or seminars on theatre, dance, or music. Try to get in on masterclasses with professionals, either in person or online.
- Organize a group of trusted friends and theatrical peers to get together for practice and critique sessions. This could be a formal or informal gathering of any number of people.
- Record yourself singing or otherwise performing and post online in communities where you may receive constructive criticism and feedback.
- Join online communities where people commonly exchange feedback on performance. Even if you don’t share your own recordings, simply listening to others and looking at the feedback they receive can be informative. Practice giving your own constructive criticism.
To Cultivate a Holistic Theatrical Skillset:
- Again, perform as often as you can, but this time be mindful of what is going on around you. What kind of work are the staff, technical, and other creative people doing? Can you volunteer yourself to help them and learn more?
- Research the many professional titles associated with theatre besides acting. You may find some more interesting to you than you expect.
- Make it a personal mission to attend as many set builds, strikes, and other tech events as possible and learn as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re lost or confused.
- Play to your strengths and know who you are. While it’s good to explore new skills you have absolutely no experience with, you’ll probably be more helpful if you offer to assist with tasks already within or adjacent to your skillsets. Don’t stress yourself out by always swimming in the deep end of the pool if there’s a perfectly fine shallow end to explore!
- And again: use the many resources available to you! Books, podcasts, YouTube videos and more can help you explore other roles in theatre in a safe, non-threatening way.
- Try stepping into some roles besides your usual. Start small, and only offer yourself for that which you are reasonably qualified. Experiment with directing, designing, writing, teaching, or stage managing, to name a few. If you want to learn more about roles you’re not yet equipped to tackle alone, consider asking if you could shadow or assist a veteran.
- Consider how your non-acting theatrical skillsets (like those of a stage manager) might help inform and strengthen your performance skills. What lessons can you take from one and apply to the other?
- Attend classes, lectures, workshops, and classes. These don’t strictly have to be about theatre, either. For example, you could take a carpentry class at a local community college in order to develop skills you might use as a theatre technician.
- Lean into your non-theatre hobbies and look for ways they could be useful to your theatre life. Some, such as sewing or playing an instrument, may translate directly to theatre; others may be harder to connect. Remember that being educated on a large variety of topics besides theatre can only ever be beneficial for your performing life.
- Remember to include any and all non-acting credits on your theatre resume!
To Build a Network:
- Work with many different local theatre companies and pay attention to every person involved. Make connections with the production staff, technical team, cast, and any and everyone else possible.
- Keep your name clean. Be a friendly, positive person to work with. Avoid allying yourself with those who may tarnish your reputation. Always do your best work possible.
- Pay attention to actors or other creatives you love to work with and examine their habits. What makes them so enjoyable to be around? What makes you not want to work with certain performers or creatives? Try to emulate or eliminate personal habits as you see fit.
- Join local, regional, and international theatre Facebook groups or other online communities and participate. If you struggle to remain active in these communities, at least pay attention to the most frequent names and posters.
- Attend events and classes ready to put yourself and your name out there! Remember that any connection could potentially be a meaningful professional connection.
- Master the art of self-marketing, especially in the digital world. Build a website, YouTube channel, blog, etc— whatever you can do put your best foot forward and get seen.
- Jump at the chance to work or volunteer with professional theatre groups (or any theatre group you simply want to get your foot in the door with) in any capacity. This provides an opportunity to get your name and face on their radar– which they may remember in audition or job interview settings later.
A college degree isn’t for everyone. Luckily, as long as you’re willing to take strides to learn, develop your skills, and make some meaningful personal connections, the benefits of a degree in theatre may be replicable for a fraction of the price and stress.
Theatre is undoubtedly an industry wherein your prestigious training and degree matters significantly less than your ability to perform and your professional network. For some, a college education in theatre may be the perfect fit. However, if you don’t feel that college is the right path for you, don’t be afraid to pursue a non-traditional method of education. Learning on the job is a perfectly valid path to success in the performing world.
Hopefully, this article has helped show you how.