Your Guide to Theater Education
Making the decision to acquire an education is more often than not an easy one. To do most any job in America, one must acquire a bachelor's degree. For those who wish to pursue a career in the theater, this is no different: one must undertake a program of education or work-related training.
Though the programs have become increasingly competitive, and there are relatively fewer positions available to potential candidates each year, there is no shortage of programs. There are innumerable theater education and training programs in America alone—this can make doing the necessary research to determine which will be the best fit for you a daunting task.
Information is your ally in this endeavor. And there's a plethora of it floating around on the Internet, in spam emails, in books, in brochures lying about in various public spaces. Be wary of such information—it is often meant to sell you a product, regardless of whether or not you really need it.
If you have decided to pursue a career in the theater, and are in the process of gathering meaningful information to help determine which programs you ought to give serious consideration, this blog is for you.
Having participated in various programs, I have experienced a good deal of what getting an education in theater is all about. Through this series, I will dig into those processes, and guide readers through each world in an attempt to determine which programs are best suited to fit one's individual needs.
Through a series of interviews, posted monthly, we will take an in-depth look at what each model's strengths and drawbacks are, and what sets one apart from another. For our purposes, there will be three categories of education and training: University, Apprenticeship, and the Independent Institution.
Each post will be a conversation with an educator or administrator at a given program. It will outline the instructor’s approach to education and training, then get into the process of teaching and learning in an attempt to identify what works, what doesn't, and for whom.
To work as a director, a playwright, or an actor, there is no real necessity for a degree. All three of these roles require only that you master their techniques. But this is often impossible without the guidance and support offered by professors and advisers.
The advantages of acquiring a university education in any of these disciplines are numerous. You will enter into a rigorous training program, where you will have access to the expertise of any number of individuals and groups. You will likely acquire a wider, more traditional education, which will help to make you a more complete artist and human. And you will leave with a degree that puts you one step nearer to becoming a teacher yourself; it is never a bad thing to be able to teach, especially today, as theater becomes increasingly imbedded in institutions of higher education.
The major drawback here, though, is the cost of education relative to how much money one might make thereafter. Most people take out loans to attend university, but one should really think this through before making the leap (check out this recent article by Diep Tran).
But university isn't the only option. You can attend workshops and classes held at independent institutions. Many organizations, such as Austin ScriptWorks and the PlaywrightsFoundation, offer single classes and workshops that are affordable. They are often taught by the best of the best, and over time, one may build a unique perspective and an individualized tool kit. They rarely have strict guidelines as to who can attend, and they tend to be inclusive organizations that are serious about training the next generation of theater artists, as well as enriching their own pool of collaborators.
But what if you want to be a set designer? There aren't many independent programs that train people in this trade. And sound designers often require training on advanced software. So, for some disciplines, university or community college is the way to go.
One may also consider applying for apprenticeships. Though this model is disappearing rapidly, it's hard to conceive why. Apprentices typically earn a living while learning the tools of their trade. The kicker is that since there are fewer paid apprenticeships available, they are really hard to get into. And, whereas in the past, applicants weren't required to possess a degree, nowadays apprenticeship programs tend to favor those who have completed a related course of study. Nice work if you can get it . . . but it can be elusive, even for the well qualified.
While there is a real question as to whether or not one should even consider theater as a viable career option, we'll assume that if you're reading this, you're already hopelessly bent on making a life in the theater. I use the word life intentionally—you won’t make much money, most likely, but you can expect to build the foundation for a fulfilling life.
If you genuinely love to write for the stage, direct, act, design, build, or manage a complex series of tasks, you can expect to make a decent life doing what you love. If you find employment in the theater, you will have the good fortune of working alongside some of the most generous, accepting, and loving individuals on earth. If you intend to make more than money, if you thrive on collaboration, communication, and camaraderie—then the theater is probably right for you.
It really is possible to make a life in the theater, especially if you acquire the best education you can afford and really dedicate yourself to your training—you will likely be learning from people who can recommend you for work upon completion of your program. This is why it's of the utmost importance to choose the right one for you.