Do I Ever Regret My Theatre Degree?

Shakespeare's Globe in London. Every theatre lover/student dreams of visiting here.
I often get interesting responses when I start talking about my educational background. Since my current work is all being done in an English program, most of the other grad students and academics I meet have come from an English studies background or other similar academic background. So when people learn that my undergrad degree is a Theatre Arts degree and that I spent several years as a costume designer I usually get interesting looks. And sometimes those reactions make me stop and think about my past educational experiences. Was it all a waste? I'm in such a different field now, would I be further along in my life and my career right now if I'd just majored in English as an undergrad? Was getting a theatre degree a mistake and do I regret that choice?

No. Nope. Not at all. Not ever.

And here's why...

I know 110% that I would not be the person I am today without my experiences in theatre. I also probably wouldn't be doing the research I'm doing if I hadn't taken the very specific path I've taken to get here. And that path started with theatre. First as an actor, then as a costume designer, which was born primarily out of an interest in costume/fashion theory (even though I didn't think of it that way at the time). After awhile I started to realize I liked the research part of being a costume designer more than I liked the actual sewing, long hours, and sh*t pay. You know the pay is bad when academia looks like a better choice financially. (Only academics will get that income joke.) 

But there's not a day that goes by as a junior scholar/college instructor that I don't thank 18 year old me for choosing theatre as an undergrad degree or my amazing parents for allowing me to get a theatre degree. They always supported my choice, their only caveat was that they wanted me to go to grad school and earn at least an MA so that I could teach at the college level if I wanted. I think they were ahead of the curve at the millennium (I graduated high school in 1999), degree inflation wasn't yet a thing and the economy was still several years off from it's spectacular meltdown, but I think they already were seeing that a BA by itself wasn't getting people as far as it used to. So I had it in my head from an early age that I would be getting an MA degree. Now look at me, I'm getting a PhD! That was certainly never the plan, but I don't think it would have been even remotely a possibility if I hadn't already had my parents stressing the importance of grad school in general.

Though I'm not in theatre anymore, it's still very much a career path I could end up back on. With my PhD I can easily see myself working for a theatre company doing writing/PR/marketing/social media. But even more than that there are several skills that I first learned in my undergrad degree that I still use today. So I thought I'd share those today. Maybe you are/were a theatre student once and feel like it was a waste or maybe you're a parent who's kid wants to study theatre and you feel like it's not the "smart" choice. Hopefully you'll see that a theatre degree is much more flexible than you think.

Outside the Guildhall in London. This is NOT where I studied lol! But I totally wish I had.

1. Performance

I'm not an actor anymore, but it still feels like it sometimes. Less so currently since I teach online. But when I teach face to face, every class period is a performance. My training as an actor taught me how to use my body, use the stage (or the classroom), project my voice as well as play with volume, tone, and inflection to keep the audience interested, and how to improvise, a very useful skill when you teach college freshman who are the ultimate hecklers. During my first year as a TA in my current degree I had to be observed in the classroom. After the class the professor who had been observing me raved about my ability to move around the classroom, the way I used my voice to keep my students engaged, the way I adapted to different directions the students took the class, etc. My response? "Thanks, I learned all that during my theatre degree." I don't think I'd be half as confident in a classroom if not for my training as an actor. My performance background is also super helpful for getting through class presentations and conferences. I always get nerves and jitters but I honestly don't have any serious issues with public speaking. I'm very grateful for that.

Me, presenting a paper on Fashion Bloggers at an academic conference. This former actor has no problem with public speaking. I get nervous but it's still a lot of fun!

2. Research Skills

Whether you're an actor, a designer, a director, a writer, whatever, you have to be able to research the project you're working on. As an actor I had to research the script and the character I was playing, I had to understand the world of the play and how that world impacted my character. As a costume designer I had to research the script, the historical period the production would be set in or was being inspired by, I had to understand all the characters and how they interacted and how I could portray a variety of factors (weather, year, geographic location, psychological state, etc) through their clothing. There was soooooooooo much research that went into every production, my costume bibles were always half research, which was why I usually needed a 3 inch binder to fit it all. But through all that I learned how to use a variety of databases and other research sources to learn everything I needed to learn. Library searches were nothing new to me by the time I started grad school. And most of the research skills I have now may have been improved throughout my grad school experiences but they were first learned during my time in theatre.

3. Writing Skills

Along with that research comes a lot of writing. And in a number of different genres. During my undergrad I wrote everything from short answer character and script analyses to 20+ page research papers for my theatre history classes. There were countless resumes plus play and script reviews. A lot of my classmates would grumble and complain and say they hate writing and that's why they're actors but I always that that was such a ridiculous response. I tell my theatre students now to learn to like writing. It can help you get a job down the road. Most people pursuing a career in theatre have to be more than an actor or designer. You have to find your "and". I was an actor AND a costume designer. I know people who are actors and playwrights, actors and directors, writers and directors, directors and designers. The more skills you can bring to a company, the more likely you are to be hired. You can act AND you can write copy for the program and press releases? Hired. Ok, maybe it's not quite so simple, and maybe I'm biased being an English major, but I think having strong writing skills makes you automatically more hirable to anyone. Just like with my research skills, grad school has improved my writing skills, but they were first cultivated during my theatre degree.

4. Flexibility/Adaptability

When you work in theatre you have to be flexible and be able to adapt to a variety of situations. Your job is constantly changing, often you're contracted for one show at a time, or maybe a whole season, but the permanent theatre jobs are few and far between and usually someone has to die for them to open up. And that's not hyperbole, because most theatre people don't save up enough to retire, so they really do stay in that job until they die. It's a tough world. And one that I didn't really have the energy to deal with, but it definitely taught me how to be flexible and adapt. It also teaches you how to problem solve, especially when I was a costume designer. Every day brought new challenges that I had to find solutions to. Academia requires those skills as well, so thankfully I'd already mastered them, more or less, by the time I got to grad school.

Costuming requires problem solving, math, and Starbucks on a daily basis.

5. Sociability 

Theatre is an incredibly social discipline. You don't work in a bubble. You work with dozens of other people and have to learn how to collaborate and be part of a team. There's definitely room to be an introvert, goodness knows I'm definitely incredibly introverted, but you also have to be social and work as part of a group. I do miss that aspect. You can be so much more isolated in academia. I go days and weeks without talking to any of my colleagues, I'm certainly not stretching my social skills right now. So when an event like a conference comes up, I'm always so glad for my background in theatre because those social skills are still there to help me get through all the introductions and networking. I'll never be an extroverted social butterfly, but my theatre background keeps me from lurking in the corners hoping no one will try to talk to me.

6. Interdisciplinary

A lot of people won't get a theatre degree, but a lot of kids will be interested in studying theatre in high school and joining a drama club if there is one. And I fully support that. Don't discourage your teenage from exploring theatre during secondary school (middle or high school). You learn so many skills in theatre that can prepare you for a wide range of careers. Plus, extra curricular activities like drama club look great on college applications. Theatre is far more interdisciplinary than people think and can prepare young adults for a wide variety of careers while at the same time giving them strong social skills, increased responsibility and time management skills (rehearsal schedules are intense!), and improve their reading, writing, and research abilities. High school drama classes often fill massive gaps that the rest of their writing and humanities classes are leaving. Among my freshman English students, the ones that succeed the most are the ones who have a background in drama or any other art (music, dance, speech/debate, art, etc.). These classes often build on skills they are learning in their required classes and as a result put them ahead of their classmates who aren't involved in the arts. And something I always found interesting was that out of all the kids in my high school drama class, only a handful of us (6 at most) got theatre degrees. The rest went into a wide range of career paths. There are teachers, MBA grads, artists, people working in IT, marketing, finance, and other corporate jobs, the list is endless. We all have done something slightly different. But if their experience is anything like mine, I'm sure at least of few of the skills they use in their current jobs were first formed during their time in theatre.

So those are just some of the big skills I first learned through my time in theatre that I still use even though I'm in a very different career field. So do I regret my theatre degree? Not a bit. Because that degree got me started in my adult life. And the skills I learned had so much transferability it's amazing more people don't get into theatre for at least a short period. I think it should be required in high school. And I think everyone should take at least one theatre class in uni, whether it's an acting class or playwriting, design, dramaturgy, etc. Theatre, and the arts in general, make you a more well rounded person. And it's never too late. If you've always wanted to give it a try, find a community college or local workshop in acting or writing or whatever interest you. Audition for a community play. Find out who does the costumes or sets for your local community theatre and offer to volunteer (I always bent over backwards to find community volunteers to help me in the costume shop, whether they knew how to sew or not).

And if you are currently studying theatre and struggling to justify your choice to friends and family, just send them a link to this post and tell them that an English PhD student/uni instructor says her theatre degree was one of the best choices she ever made and that she credits all her current success to that degree. :)



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