Current Economic Outlook Fails To Dampen the Spirits of Members of the Class of 2012


All across America this month, millions of students are donning caps and gowns and marching across a myriad of stages to accept their degrees, along with a handshake from some older and wiser academics and the hopeful applause of their families and friends.

Among them (according to The National Center for Education Statistics, some 1,781,000 students at the bachelor's degree level will graduate as part of the Class of 2012), of course, are a fresh crop of would-be actors, directors, stage managers, playwrights, critics and others who hope to parlay that degree in theater into some semblance of a career that will pay them a living wage and foster their future growth and continued devotion to their chosen field.

With their eyes focused sharply on the prize and their unbridled ambition propelling them onward, the new college grads find themselves facing near-record unemployment, a daunting economic environment and dwindling earnings projections.

And then there's a listing from The Daily Beast of the "13 most useless college majors," a list derived from research done at Georgetown University, which takes into account recent graduate employment figures, experienced graduate employment, recent graduate earnings, experienced graduate earnings and the projected growth in the total number of jobs between 2010 and 2020.

A degree in "drama and theater arts," as The Daily Beast reported, includes the "related occupation" of actor. According to The Daily Beast, the unemployment rate for recent grads stands at 7.8 percent (which is below the most recent national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent), while the unemployment rate for "experienced grads" stands at an alarming 8.8 percent-and there is an estimated growth rate of four percent predicted for the decade between 2010 and 2020. Estimated income for those freshly minted theater grads is $26,000 per year, while someone with more experience could expect to earn about $45,000 annually.

Armed with this newfound knowledge and the collected data, we put a series of questions to several members of the Class of 2012-as well as to Beki Baker, who graduated from college in the not-so-distant past and is now a member of the theatre faculty at Nashville's David Lipscomb University- wondering where their approach to the future falls in the glass-half-full or the glass-half-empty measure of optimism/pessimism.

First up is Baker, who works closely with her students at David Lipscomb University (she'll helm the upcoming fall musical at DLU, The Pajama Game) and who has worked with several Nashville-area theater companies, most notably Nashville Shakespeare Festival for whom she directed Julius Caesar, the much-heralded production that ushered in the 2012 part of the theater season in Nashville.

Do you think majoring in drama/theater is still a worthwhile endeavor? Yes. Beyond the obvious value of acquiring the training needed for a career in this field, the act of studying theatre (and in a broader sense, storytelling) cultivates stronger communication and collaboration skills, as well as a greater sense of the spectrum of humanity in terms of what connects us and what makes us different. There are many, many theatre majors who don't pursue theatre exclusively post-college. I know fellow graduates who now work as lawyers, ministers, musicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, and even missionaries. Some might question their degrees- was their major worthwhile since they don't exclusively work in the arts?  But they are artists in their fields. I would hope they are more creative, insightful, sensitive, and communicative after spending four years studying human interaction on such a personal level. Through their theatre studies, they have vicariously learned history, psychology, science, literature, and even languages. They have learned the importance of the how in communication as much as the what.

What does a liberal arts education in theater/drama add to a budding actor's arsenal?I have always championed a holistic approach to arts education-I think we are made better artists through the study of politics, religion, sociology and even (gasp!) geology. Theatre majors should study everything they can-how else can they tell stories? They should take dance lessons, go to museums, visit zoos, travel. They should take classes in photography, physics, and Russian literature. They should spend a summer abroad, immersed in a new and shocking culture. They should become interested in others. They should become interesting people. Then they can become storytellers.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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