Friday, September 20, 2013

Career Choice

I have three degrees in theatre: undergrad, masters, and doctorate.  Early on I had planned on a career in theatre, then changed to teaching when it became obvious that I was not the next Ray Liotta or Arthur Miller.  I went on to writing and teaching, and now work in education, although not in theatre.

I’ve never regretted my choice, and while I may not have the career I envisioned forty years ago when I was a senior in college, I think that all those years were worth it and even applicable to what I do now, which is mid-level administration for a school district.

I’m not alone.  Brian at Change Agent has a comprehensive list of why having a theatre degree trumps a business degree.  It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but a lot of it is true.

There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

But what I really want to do is direct.

One bark on “Career Choice

  1. There’s one additional skill, that I’ve always found useful. You understand PRESENTATION. I don’t mean just the get-up-in-front-of-everyone, Toastmasters-grade public speaking gig to make a sale or teach a new skill. I’m talking how to design documentation (write the text, find and set the graphics, all of it), how to design a GUI, everything about how look-and-feel can drive acceptance of a product or service. People look at me oddly when I say it has application to IT – but they stop questioning it when I can lay out a data center, wiring diagram, or user guide so that EVERYONE understands what’s involved and how it’s all used. There’s a lot of set design in user interface development, and there’s a lot of performance-related innate skill in troubleshooting system performance that can translate “this isn’t working quite right” into a meaningful diagnosis and effective action plan.

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