During my senior year of college, we had a special guest speaker come to visit us – an actress who had been on Broadway that same year. We all gathered in the largest rehearsal studio on campus, anxiously awaiting her speech. We anticipated that she would impart all sorts of theatrical wisdom unto us, and that we would leave the event feeling empowered and ready for our impending graduation.
After she introduced herself and offered some background on her own journey, she prepared to bless us with her most profound piece of advice. She prefaced her next sentence with, “If you leave here with one nugget, I hope this is it.”
We all leaned forward excitedly. This was it – the moment we’d been waiting for! She was going to tell us the secret of how to get on Broadway!
“If you can do anything else but this,” she said, dramatically gesturing around the room, “do it.”
I remember looking around the room just then. Some of my classmates were nodding their heads, brows ruffled, as though she’d just said the most profound statement they’d ever heard. Others looked as confused as I felt.
She went on to explain that the theatre world is a cold one, and that it is very hard to be successful in this business. She warned us that to follow our passions would be asking for a life of heartache and disappointment. That there would be more downs than ups. That we were setting ourselves up for a treacherous struggle – one that we were likely to lose.
She said we should choose the path of least resistance. We should choose the easier road for ourselves. We would thank her one day.
I left that talk initially feeling overwhelmed with anger. We were weeks away from graduation at this point. How dare our theatre department support a talk that would discourage us from pursuing a career in the very field that we were studying! How dare this woman have the nerve to say such depressing things to college seniors! What the hell?!
Soon, however, the anger gave way to worry and dejection. What if she was right? Had I taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to pursue a pointless dream? Had I wasted the past four years of my life? Was I going to literally become a starving artist, living out of a cardboard box? Was I doomed for nothing more than a pathetic stereotype?
Well. It’s been several years since my college graduation. As I type this, I’m eating guacamole, so I’m definitely not starving. (I know guac is extra, and I choose it every time.) My apartment’s walls are not cardboard, and while I’m still paying off student loans, I’m not struggling to do so. I have a career in the arts, and have added dozens of shows to my resume since the day I donned that cap and gown. I’ve even received the elusive “mythical” paycheck for being involved with theatre. If only I had a crystal ball back then – it would have saved a lot of panic.
I may not be on Broadway, but I’ve never given up on the dreams that I had as a college senior. I haven’t been able to turn my back on theatre – it’s such an intricate part of me that I truly don’t know who I am without it.
With that in mind, to this year’s theatre graduates, I say this:
Even if you can do something else, even if you are skilled in many other fields, and even if society tries to tell you that your theatre degree is pointless, don’t ever abandon your dreams.
You have chosen to major in theatre because there has never been any other choice. Theatre is in your blood – it pulses through your veins and is intertwined in the very markup of your DNA. It has made you who you are.
Nothing else makes you feel as alive as being onstage – or behind it – right? Because of this, you somehow know that theatre is the only thing that could ever make sense to you. Whether it’s the ability to create entire new worlds with lights and paint, or the sensation you feel when you take on a challenging role – nothing in the world can compare.
I’m not saying that it will be easy. You will inevitably reflect upon your college experience and cringe at the thought of dropping $40k a year to crawl around on the floor while embracing your inner caterpillar in a scene study class. (Be the caterpillar! Be the butterfly!) You may find yourself bartending into the late hours of the night (aka morning) before pulling yourself together to ride the subway into midtown for an audition on zero sleep. You’ll be rejected more times than you can count, and sometimes you’ll be passed over without a second glance.
But eventually the word “no” will lose its sting, and you’ll learn to equate it with “not yet.” Your skin will get so strong that the rejections won’t hurt, and you’ll find strength in your heart that you didn’t know you had. You will accept cameo roles in tiny offbeat theatres, or opt for stage management jobs with no pay. You will take baby steps forward, and each tiptoe will feel like a marathon. You will keep pushing because you know that for every dozen “no”s, there will one day be a “yes.”
So, to this year’s theatre graduates, even if you can do anything else but this…don’t. That something else isn’t theatre, and theatre is in your soul. Be who you are. Don’t give up.