How majoring in Theatre prepared me for everything else

I started writing a comment for my friend Matt over at Must Be This Tall to Ride, but the comment took on a life of its own.

I always chuckle a little when people talk about “career planning.” Aside from a last-minute decision to get a degree in something vaguely employment-worthy, I’m not sure there has been anything about my career that was planned. I went into Education entirely as an afterthought. At 18, my intention was to major in theatre, but on my way to register I decided to get an Education degree so I would have teaching to “fall back on.” It turned out that not only do I like teaching, I’m actually pretty good at it. In the thirty years since graduating from the Faculty of Education, I have taught Theatre, English, Physical Geography, Music, Art, Study Skills, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Policy Development, Adult Learning Theory, Adult Education History, Consulting Skills, and Government Values and Ethics– to students who ranged from grade 2 to university. Along the way I also managed to wander into an extensive management career.

I did do a little theatre along the way, but– aside from a gig as a high school theatre teacher and director of a handful of school theatrical productions– nothing anyone ever paid me for. But I have never felt like it was something I left behind. In fact, in my thirty year “off-stage” career journey, I have used the things I learned in my theatre studies on a daily basis.

  1. I learned how to take direction. Taking direction well is harder, and more complicated, that just “doing what you’re told.” Taking direction as an actor means listening to what is being asked of you, trying it as many times as necessary until you achieve the desired result, and then internalizing it so that you keep doing the desired thing without the director having to check up on you constantly. Taking direction well as an employee is essentially the same process.
  2. I learned how to give direction. Directing actors in a play is all about bringing out the best in each individual and guiding a diverse group to work together effectively.  It’s about motivating people to act in a certain way to get certain results. Sounds  a lot like teaching doesn’t it? And management.
  3. I learned how to perform. In order to teach you have to be able to hold the attention of a classroom full of students. It’s really difficult to do that if you just stand in one spot and talk. A good teacher needs to make effective use of space and movement. As a manager, I also discovered that being comfortable in front of an audience was a big help in staff meetings, stakeholder consultations, and all manner of presentations.
  4. I learned how to improvise.  Good improv is not a complete free-for-all. There are rules and structures underlying the most spontaneous-looking improvisation. The better you understand those rules and structures, the more effectively you can go with the moment. Teaching and management are both highly improvisational in nature. I can’t remember the last time my day directly correlated with what was written in my calendar. The art of improvisation taught me that there are always an infinite number of potential paths from A to B, and it’s OK to take a different path than the one I had planned.
  5. I learned how to observe and respond to other people’s behaviour. Theatre is all about human behaviour and the emotions that drive that behaviour. Taking on a theatrical role is all about stepping inside the psyche of a person who is not you. As such, acting lessons are in large part lessons in empathy. It’s not a big leap from imagining what it would mean to be Lady Macbeth to imagining what it would be like to be that rebellious student in the third row. Or that employee who is struggling.
  6. I learned to be part of a team. Performing in a play meaning paying attention to the other members of the cast, responding to what they are doing, and giving back to them what they need. It also means being in a similar give and take relationship with your audience. Even when you are playing a tiny role, you need to show up for all your cues on time or everyone else on the team is impacted.
  7. I learned that the show must go on. The tickets have been sold. The audience is waiting. There are no “extensions” in theatre. You’ve made a commitment to being ready at a particular date and time, and you will therefore be ready. Even if you aren’t ready. I learned that “good enough” is often good enough, and that if you wait until you feel ready, or the circumstances are perfect, you will never achieve anything. As a teacher, my best lessons were almost always the ones that I was still fine tuning as I walked into the classroom. As a manager, I don’t get to wait until I feel fully prepared to deal with an issue if the issue is staring me in the face and interfering with everyone else’s productivity. It really does work to “fake it ’til you make it.”
  8. I learned that the audience isn’t following the script. While this lesson was certainly reinforced in my theatre training, I have to admit that I learned it first from my piano teacher. “The audience doesn’t have the music in front of them. They will only know you’ve made a mistake if you telegraph it to them through your reaction. If you hit a wrong note don’t make a face. Just keep playing.” When it comes to our failings, we are typically far harder on ourselves than anyone we imagine to be judging us.
  9. I learned that the right costume helps you get in character. There’s an adage in the business world that you should dress for the job you are striving for, not for the one you have. The role that costuming plays in the theatre taught me that, whether you like it or not, appearance can make a big difference to how people perceive you. When I first started teaching high school I was only 25. I felt like I wasn’t a lot older than my students, but I wanted them to see me as more mature, so I invested in suit jackets and introduced myself as “Mrs.” When I have a particularly challenging meeting or presentation at work, I pay attention to what I wear, not because of how I think other people expect me to look, but because of the way certain clothes make me feel stronger and more confident.
  10. I learned the value of a good stage crew. The best advice I was given when I started my teaching career was that, in any school I ever taught in, there were two people with whom I needed to establish a good relationship immediately: the secretary and the custodian. As an actor you learn that you are completely dependent on the work that is being done by the “backstage” crew, and it behooves you to show those people your gratitude and respect. That stage manager whose job it is to make sure your prop is in precisely the right spot when you reach for it is a lot like that administrative assistant who hands you the right file seconds before you knew you needed it. As an actor, or a teacher, or a manager, you typically have a lot of people backstage working hard at making you look good. Appreciate them.

In theatre, you typically don’t do one thing for very long. You learn a role, perform it for a while, and then move on to another role. I’ve carried that craving for variety into my non-theatrical career. I gravitate to the type of work where each day can be expected to bring something new. Admittedly there are times when I wish I knew my lines a little better and my entrances and exits were a little smoother, but so far it’s been a good run. There has even been the odd moment for which I could have sold tickets.


6 thoughts on “How majoring in Theatre prepared me for everything else

  1. Terrific list. I used to act with an amateur theatre troupe years ago. I can relate to all of your points. If I had to choose THE most influential bit of theatre training, it would be improv. Specifically the rule of “yes”. In order for improvisation to move forward, the actors must build on one another’s contribution. Kinda like brainstorming – all ideas merit consideration. Check your ego at the door.

    1. Oh you’re so right about the “yes”! I so often see people in the workplace “blocking the scene” when things aren’t unfolding they way they want them to. It’s so much more productive to agree to work in collaboration with others.

  2. Really liked this. #7-8, especially. The ready-or-not aspect which so many of us experience in a variety if ways. And the fact that we tend to be so much harder on ourselves than others are. Also, in a variety if ways.

    Really nice of you to mention me. Thank you. I hope you’re having a great weekend. 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your list or with the value of theater courses. I took them in high school, but they were my most valuable ones and ones I value every day. I too dreamed of acting, and I sort of do. I work as a fake medical professional, so I’m always having to improvise. Not only does good costuming apply in the physical sense, I find that the presentation of any written report needs to be top notch, as well. No typos, no weird spacings. It’s not a dress rehearsal … it’s a performance. Each and every day.

    And being a good performer makes office parties much more fun!

  4. Pingback: Strive to thrive | Muddy River Muse

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