“Of all the things you could do with your life, why theater?”
It’s a question that follows every theater artist. Admittedly, in this way we are no different from many of the other art forms–just substitute the eyebrow raising “theater” with, “sculpting,” or “dance,” or, god forbid, “writing novels.” (No harm intended for writer friends–by this article you can probably guess that I like writing, too!)
First off, let’s talk about the implied reasons why someone chooses NOT to do theater. (Stick with me here, I promise I’m going somewhere with this.) Even though we all enjoy going to a show from time to time, society tells us the following:
- It’s impossible to make money if you do theater.
- Theater requires you to do silly things in front of other people, who may be judgmental of you.
- The people who do theater are bad influences and are prone to vice.
Now it’s my turn. Let me break this down.
Preconception #1: Theater will leave you broke
This misconception is based on an old trope that suggests once someone experiences theater, they are going to run away and insist on making theater their career. Admittedly, some people do this, but the overwhelming majority of folks who choose to participate in drama activities as youth or adults find that it helps build the skills that they need to succeed in whatever career they choose.
You see, theater is not about a thirst for the limelight, as society would have you think. People try out for a play or take classes for a lot of different reasons–some are seeking community, some are trying to challenge themselves creatively, and, yes, some are looking to find their spotlight–but, with strong mentors and a supportive group, participants find a healthy balance of all three.
I started taking theater classes around age 10, and at the time, I was desperately looking for a way to set myself apart from my older, brilliant, talented sister (whom I love and still look up to). After trying a lot of different activities that my sister had already done, I ended up taking a new drama class at a local community college. At the end, the teacher encouraged me to try out for some shows because I clearly loved the work and seemed to have an inclination toward acting. He even showed my mother and I where to find audition notices in the newspaper. At the time, I was thirsting for this sort of recognition, and I’ll admit that I had big dreams of being a star. However, as I continued to take classes and gained opportunities, my focus shifted. I enjoyed acting, but I also enjoyed painting sets and directing and producing and, ultimately, teaching. I was there to tell a story, to communicate, and I was being given the tools to do so. My ability to develop and organize projects, speak publicly, manage people, collaborate, think outside of the box, and (yes!) be accountable is all the direct result of my time growing in theater.
And what employer wouldn’t be looking for that?
Preconception #2: You will be onstage and you will be judged
Okay, I can’t argue with the fact that, if you choose to try acting, you will be onstage. In fact, I encourage all of my students to try being onstage, just to build those presentation skills.
And I can’t argue with the fact that you will receive feedback. However, what sets a good theater experience from a bad one is how that feedback is offered. Introducing children to structured, thoughtful constructive criticism in a supportive environment now can help prepare them for whatever judgments life might throw at them down the road. In addition, at Little Theater Workshop, we create a safe space for kids to practice providing feedback to each other in a kind way.
Given the understanding that you are bound to receive some feedback, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are feeling more “judged” than you are comfortable, don’t continue participating with that group! Seek out the companies or organizations that are a good fit, because I guarantee that once you find the right one, you’ll be able to worry less and focus more on your personal growth. And this growth can only be achieved if you are comfortable with the people around you.
Preconception #3: Theater people are a bad crowd
This one drives me absolutely crazy. Historically, theater throughout the world has fluctuated between being a celebrated high artform and being restricted or outright banned. It depended on who was in power and who the trendsetters were at the time. Whenever theater was restricted or banned, the artists struggled to make ends meet. They’d try to work around the laws (because storytelling is very important, right?) and, yes, many would be forced by circumstance to do unsavory things to pay the bills. They were no more good nor bad than anyone else, just humans pushed to their limit. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) all of this, theater was put in the unique position of being a haven for people who were pushed to the fringes. You’ll find that in the best and most innovative of theater programs, this is still the case today.
But the negative image has never quite left. The insinuations are just a little more coded than they have been in the past. More than once, someone has assumed that because I’m “in theater” I know more about wine or am a habitual liar, neither of which are true. And people are sometimes shocked when I am not the “life of the party,” and would much rather spend a quiet evening with a couple of close friends.
In my experience, good theater artists–especially theater teaching artists–are some of the most kind, generous, supportive people around. They know the value of the work they do, and know that to be successful, one must first show respect to oneself and those around them. Are theater artists human and make mistakes? Of course. Are there some bad eggs? Every field has them. But overall, what I have seen is that they are looking to change the world for the better, whether onstage through a powerful story or in the classroom by encouraging a shy child to share an idea.
So that brings us back to the original question: “Why theater?”
The answer is different for each person. For me, I choose theater because:
- It’s given me some of my deepest friendships.
- It taught me to be brave. And reminds me again and again to keep it up.
- It taught me the value of hard work. Plays aren’t just play!
- It can be (and should be!) accessible for everyone, regardless of ability, income, orientation, religion…
- It builds empathy and understanding by telling stories outside of what we know.
- It allows kids (and adults, too!) the opportunity to explore skills they never knew they had.
- I am excited to go to work! I look forward to each new class I teach, play I direct, or piece I perform in, because…
- It’s FUN!