Theater degrees are not useless

Performer in a dress standing in a dim theater setting, presumable part of a show.
Theater remains relevant to popular culture but with the pandemic, what theater looks like has shifted to a new model. (Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

Dead. Irrelevant. Goofy and embarrassing —this is how the theater is described now. Long before coronavirus introduced itself and promptly took a shit on the stage, theatermakers were struggling to fill seats and acquire funding. Even with the anomalous success of “Hamilton,” straight plays — plays with no musical numbers — haven’t been centerstage of entertainment for over a century.

This considered, it seems reasonable enough to posit theater may be taking a long day’s journey into night, and might even vanish altogether in the next few decades.

 So who in their right mind would choose to study it?

 Over 11,000 students who graduate every year with a degree in dramatic arts in the U.S. alone, that’s who. During the 2018-2019 season, Broadway musicals generated a whopping $1.43 billion and the median salary earned was over $60k. 

 If that’s what death looks like, grab a shovel and start grave-digging because that’s not half bad.

 Western theater was born out of ancient Greece alongside cartography, democracy and the alarm clock. It existed well after the Battle of Corinth ended the Greeks’ Titan rule, through the fall of Rome, the rise of Genghis Khan and even after the Black Plague wiped out half of Europe’s population. It adapted with the invention of improvisational comedy when Italian audiences presumably grew bored of rehearsed lines and adapted again in 17th century England when King Charles II decided sex jokes were funny. 

 Theater’s never so much as dreamt of taking a vacation, let alone withered away like a raisin in the sun. It’s here to stay, albeit in a somewhat less compelling form.

The effect coronavirus had on live events cannot be overstated. For two years, plays and festivals have largely taken place online, and their quality of participation has tanked. Though there are some counterarguments citing the inaccessibility of the more prototypical theater, anyone who’s sat through a Zoom play can tell you that what is gained does not outweigh what is lost.

 Theater isn’t dead. A pandemic simply kicked it out of its house. It’s not the first time; it won’t be the last.

 If that is true, it must also be true that theater degrees are not useless after all. In fact, they impart a variety of invaluable skills to their recipients.

 Dramatic arts programs require a hefty amount of collaboration and communication because that’s what the industry requires of its employees. One large stage play can employ hundreds of people, and it’s absolutely essential to the success of the performance that they all converge with the same overarching artistic understanding and practical follow-through. Otherwise, the event will fall apart and quickly.

 Theatermakers — especially actors — may be better able to handle criticism, even when it’s painfully personal. The competitive nature of the entertainment industry imparts a sort of mandatory resilience. Getting rejected on the basis of hair color, height and nepotism would toughen any person.

 Simultaneously, a career in theater arts is a creative endeavor. Empathy begets creativity, at least according to Chris Adkins, the executive director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center of Ethical Leadership. 

 “Empathy begins with attention. Creativity does too. In both cases, you pay attention to the data you take in,” Adkins said. “When you empathize with some one, you’re stretching outside of yourself and stretching into that person’s world.”

 Which leads to the next point: stage managers, directors and designers are quick-thinking team members — they have to be. Live events always operate under a certain level of stress and are subject to acts of inconvenient randomness. To ensure a project’s safe and effective operation, crew members must be quick on their feet, ready to pin a falling skirt or reset the stage at a moment’s notice.

 With all of that considered, it would seem theater people make rather valuable members of the workplace, so much so that they check every box on Forbes’ list of most valuable professional skills with the unimportant exception of technical abilities. Computers and their technicians get enough credit for running the modern world; do they really need domain over our black box theaters, too?

 Theater is a live performance subject to change from performance to performance. A campfire lit on Wednesday won’t burn the same as one on Sunday; the kindling, temperature and environmental moisture will inevitably vary . That’s the beauty of classic theater: The promise of surprise, which will never grow old. Filmmaking is built on this same principle, a testament to the art of storytelling’s ability to metamorphose and live out several hundred lifetimes.