Can majoring in theatre improve your chances in the current job market?

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Answered by: Jan, An Expert in the Careers in Theater Category

by Jan Mary Nelson

“Majoring in philosophy is considered a dead-end choice,” said my professor. To prove his point, he asked one student, “What would your parents say if you called and said, ‘Hey Mom and Dad, I’m changing my major to philosophy?” “They’d be relieved,” said a classmate. “I’m a theatre major.”

I came across this anecdote some time ago in an issue of Reader’s Digest. It made me laugh yet, at the same time, dismayed me. After all, I am a theatre professor who encourages students to major in this perceivably “dead-end” profession. How in good conscience can I do so? By “thinking outside the box,” which is one of the many skills theatre teaches.

Louis E. Catron, a prize-winning professor of theatre at the College of William and Mary, recently interviewed a group of business leaders about his college’s theatre program. One CEO told him, “Theatre-trained applicants are valuable employees because they’re energetic, enthusiastic and able to work under pressure. They also generally have polished communications and human relations skills, are experienced working as members of a team toward a common goal, and have a can-do confidence based on their experience of meeting difficult challenges.”

According to Catron, theatre graduates enter the job market with important points in their favor. “First, theatre classes give them the broad vision that all liberal arts students are supposed to acquire in college. Second, theatre’s special hands-on, learn-by-doing environment gives them training, experience and skills that can be valuable in any number of careers.” He goes on to say, “You need to be aware of the many skills you learn as a theatre major. You’re a better candidate for employment than perhaps you know.”

Catron goes on to list 25 advantages (skills, traits and qualities) that theatre graduates have, often over those who majored in other areas. These are:

1)     Oral communication skills

2)     Creative problem-solving abilities

3)     Getting it done right

4)     Motivation and commitment

5)     Willingness to work cooperatively

6)     The ability to work independently

7)     Time-budgeting skills

8)     Initiative

9)     Promptness and Respect for Deadlines

10)     Acceptance of Rules

11)     The ability to learn quickly and correctly

12)     Respect for colleagues

13)     Respect for authority

14)     Adaptability and Flexibility

15)     The ability to work under pressure

16)     A healthy self-image

17)     Acceptance of disappointment and the ability to bounce back

18)     Self-discipline

19)     A goal-oriented work approach

20)     Concentration

21)     Dedication

22)     A willingness to accept responsibility

23)     Leadership skills

24)     Self-confidence

25) The ability to find enjoyment in what they do

Like Catron, I believe that the study of theatre involves a variety of transferable skills to many careers outside of the theatre, not to mention to life in general. Here are just a few examples:

a) By engaging in script and character analysis, students learn to dig beyond the surface, synthesizing and uncovering information in order to give a complete and

truthful performance. There is a great need for attention to detail in this process – an important skill for success in any career.

b) Scenic and other design-related courses challenge students to move from the creative and conceptual to the concrete – a skill certainly valuable in advertising, marketing, public relations, and product development, to name a few.

c) Involvement in a production teaches students about the importance of working together toward a common goal, regardless of differences in personality, skills, experience, etc. It also teaches the importance of deadlines and prioritizing, for when opening night comes, “the show must go on” – a phrase theatre folks take very seriously.

d) Theatre students also develop resilience and fortitude because of their involvement. Without such, most don’t survive the ups and downs of this crazy profession. In his book, Acting Onstage and Off, Robert Barton states, “Life is unfair and theatre is less fair than life.” In order to survive, the theatre student needs to be able to dust off the rejection of not getting a role or job and quickly focus on getting the next one. There is no room for wallowing in the past. As a result, students who study theatre might just be a little more prepared for the ups and downs of careers, relationships and other aspects of life.

e) Theatre students learn to take risks without fear of judgment and to explore all the choices before settling in on any one. Theatre is one place where there isn’t merely one right answer. This type of open-minded thinking can be a great asset in many professions.

In addition to teaching skills that can translate to the workplace, studying theatre also has tremendous personal value for the student. Studies have shown that self-esteem, confidence, leadership, improved communication and improved conflict resolution are all byproducts of a student’s involvement in the arts, particularly theatre.

Furthermore, while psychology teaches us cognitive aspects about the human condition and the needs and motivations that influence our behavior, theatre, because of its experiential nature, helps students better understand the complexities of human motivations and emotions by allowing them to vicariously think and live the way another person does. It helps them to see the grey that exists between what others may too quickly deem black or white. Because of this vicarious experience, theatre artists learn to be more empathetic -- better able to feel for people different from themselves because they have vicariously walked in their shoes for a brief time. Through this process the acting student also learns things about him/herself, perhaps the greatest of which is, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

So is theatre a dead-end choice? HARDLY! While I can’t promise that a theatre degree will launch a student to fame and fortune in Hollywood or on Broadway, I am confident that they are acquiring knowledge, skills and insights that are necessary and valuable in numerous other professions. Even more importantly, they may just end up being better human beings.

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