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Faculty Excellence Kelly Allison August 30, 2022

Kelly Allison. It’s not easy to convince students and their parents that a degree in theatre will ensure success in life. If I can be totally honest with readers, the majority of students who graduate with degrees related to theatre don’t go on to achieve fame and fortune in a job related to theatre. There… I’ve spilled the beans. This isn’t an industry secret that I have foolishly disclosed. And I suspect this is true for many disciplines. With this in mind, we often ask our students what they will do if they can’t do the thing that drew them to theatre. What is their plan B or the “other” option? Specifically, what will they do to pay their bills so that they can continue acting, designing, or, in some other way, creating theatre?

A student in my Theatre Cornerstone class last year, I’ll call them Pat, told me, “A plan B is for losers.” A lot of responses rolled through my head, but I settled on, “You go, Pat!” It didn’t seem like the right moment to pull Pat back down to earth. Pat might actually achieve fame and fortune in theatre. They are very talented, focused, and driven. While I admire Pat’s passion and confidence, the reality is different for most of our students. Most of them are starting this journey in a whole different place. For the record, I’ve always had a plan B, so...

Oddly enough, I believe a theatre education is more valuable for students who do not have Pat’s gifts. Pat is a triple threat who can act, sing, and dance—they are kind of a unicorn, though. So, why do students who might not become professional theatre performers enroll as theatre majors? If you gather 20 of them in a room and ask that question, you’ll get 20 different answers. There will be similarities, but every answer will be nuanced. Some have a true passion for theatre and want to pursue a career as an actor, designer, director, stage manager, or another role required to produce live theatre. It might surprise readers to learn that many students enroll as theatre majors because it’s a community that accepts them the way they are. It’s a safe place. It would require all my fingers and toes to count all the students who have told me that theatre saved their life in high school. Sadly, they are being literal my friends. It’s sad but it’s also gratifying to know that I work in a field that has that power. The theatre community doesn’t just tolerate diversity—we embrace it and celebrate it. Creative high school students find a home in theatre departments because they feel valued. But it’s not enough to feel safe and valued—we also need to be thinking about the future.

I think graduates from our programs fall into three groups. Group one includes those who find success after graduation in the theatre industry. They are the smallest group. Then, there are those who find success in allied industries like film, dance, music, and opera. Also in this second group are the graduates who pursue careers in industries that value the technical skills our graduates learned studying theatre, including education, event management, fashion design, marketing, content creation, graphic design, public relations, politics, interior design, and many others. There are elements of theatre in all these industries. Students in the third group find work in fields that seem totally unrelated to theatre—the key word is “seem.” Because the thing that contributes more than anything to the success of our graduates in all three groups is the development of soft skills.

Do a search for “soft skills” on your web browser, and you will find hundreds of lists. Narrow the search to “soft skills employers value,” and you’ll find dozens more. Some of the soft skills that you’ll typically find on these lists are critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, social skills, poise, confidence, communication skills (verbal and written), listening, collaboration/teamwork, resource management, introspection, and adaptability. These are skills and character traits that are important in any setting, and our majors develop these skills and character traits doing theatre. Every play we produce presents a new set of challenges and requires all of us working as a team to create a new world onstage to tell stories that enlighten and entertain our audiences.

We tell our new students that the jobs they will pursue in four years don’t exist today. So, what are we doing with them for four years? In the Department of Theatre, we are preparing our graduates to be employees who can adapt and learn new things. We are preparing them to be creative thinkers who can work independently and collaborate as a member of a team. We are training them to communicate effectively with the written and spoken word. We are helping them develop the poise, confidence, and introspection required to be effective leaders. And, most important, we provide opportunities to explore the lives of others so that they will be empathetic human beings.

It may sound like a magic elixir, and in some ways, it is.

By Kelly Allison, chair of the Department of Theatre

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