Another Brick in the Theatrical Wall

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As a drama professor, I sometimes represent our department at many university Open Houses where potential students and their parents come to see what we offer. We have our brochures and production photos on display boards to dazzle the students, and of course we don’t have a stack of handouts showing the latest Actors Equity employment figures — no sense scaring people away, right? But we do have a plastic file for the parents that is filled with a hand-out called “What Can You “Do” With a Theatre Major?” This hand-out lists 25 “special advantages” that a theatre major has over other majors as far as employment in the corporate world. These run the gamut from “oral communication skills” to “self-discipline,” and are designed to mollify fearful parents who worry about junior’s employment fate if he doesn’t “make it.” They will now will have a rejoinder when someone makes the inevitable “you want fries with that” crack. The central argument is that business leaders are looking for exactly the types of skills that drama majors develop. I have seen parental worry lines fade as they read the hand-out, because it makes a lot of sense.

But in reality, it goes much further than even the brochure says, because the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre student would be applauded in any corporate boardroom in the world.

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Diagram via Broadway Educators Click to enlarge.
Diagram via Broadway Educators
Click to enlarge.

1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director’s bidding. And the director does the producer’s bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because not only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he’s also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn’t like your attitude! This is why there are so many martinets in theatre departments — power corrupts, and absolute power… In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholder, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: “You can’t make art by committee.” We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tattooed on the psyches of every drama major that is “trained.”

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2. Efficiency is everything. If you don’t believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after “You can’t create art by committee”) is that we “don’t have time” for that, we have to “get the show up.” We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question the way we do things. It’s too expensive to spend money on rehearsal — better minimize the investment and hope for the best. Productivity!

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salute3. Do what you’re told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don’t take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it — that’ll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die. Here is an example from a production handbook I’ve recently read: “An actor is to follow the directions of the Director in all areas of staging, characterization, delivery, and overall interpretation requirements of the role. Although an actor is expected to come to all rehearsals with character and performance ideas, preparation, and lines memorized, ultimately the actor must adapt the performance to the overall desires of the Director’s vision for the entire show.” Sound familiar?

4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is “Dance Ten — Looks Three” from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with “Razzle-Dazzle” from Chicago. What does the market want right now? Students in departments across the country are encouraged to ask themselves the most disgusting question I can imagine: “What’s my type?” When you answer that, that’s what you should be. It’s a great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well.

5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I’m currently working on, always say its the best thing you’ve ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else in the show — you’re dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill — it’s ingrained in theatre people, too.

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6. Don’t let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opportunities in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you’ll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist’s responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it’s only theatre — we don’t actually affect anyone’s ideas, right? And after all, it was just a joke — Satire! That’s it. We were using the stereotype to undermine the stereotype. Film filled with violence and misogyny? It’s entertainment — nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women’s shelter or something.

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And so truly, when junior’s Dad looks me in the eye and says, “How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?,” I can say with sincerity and confidence that he is being imbued with all the values that will make him successful in the corporate world. Compliance, obedience, and patience is what we teach, and what he learns. In spades. Relax, Mom and Dad, when we’re done with him, he’ll be the perfect corporate automaton.

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