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

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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.

What keeps you inspired so that you might be a better teacher?My students inspire me.  It takes so much tenacity to pursue this line of study. So much courage. So much vulnerability. I never want to let them down. I push myself hard and demand the same dedication from them. You know when I learned to do that? When I was a theatre major.

Now, the five members of the Class of 2012, offer their perspectives…

With graduation upon you, do you feel like your education has prepared you for the career you seek?

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Caleb Reynolds, a native of Williamson County and a Nashville stage veteran, is a 2012 graduate of Point Park University's musical theatre program: I think that the education that I have received at Point Park University has prepared me in ways that I never could have imagined when I initially decided to attend. When I first attended school I was so terribly "green" in theatre that it was ridiculous. The program here has given me such knowledge not only in the aspect of the history behind theatre, but also how to get into the theatre. When I first auditioned for the school, I only had two songs that I knew and that I would sing for an audition and these songs definitely fell into the "way overdone" category of audition songs. Upon leaving school, I now have over 25 songs that I would feel incredibly comfortable singing at an audition.

However, I think that one of the places that you learn the most is in an actual audition-that is where you get the real test of whether the song that you have chosen will land you the job, or get the deadly response, "Thank you very much. We'll call you." Only so much can be learned in the classroom. It is all so drastically different when you are in front of the director singing your heart out, hoping that you can get some kind of reaction out of him to know that you are doing a good job. The nerves that you experience in an audition cannot be replicated in class. In class you are surrounded by all of your peers, friends, and teachers who know and care about you. If your acting

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Meg Davis, a member of Middle Tennessee State University's Class of 2012, is headed to graduate school at the University of Missouri as she begins her pursuit of a doctorate: I recently graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Speech and Theatre, featuring a minor in French. I applied to five graduate programs (University of Missouri, SUNY Binghamton, CUNY Brooklyn College, Central Washington University, and University of Colorado at Boulder) and was accepted into all five. I accepted admission into the University of Missouri, having been offered an assistantship and a fellowship. This means that my tuition is waived and that I will be receiving quality health insurance for at least the next two years. Additionally, I am being paid $15,000 per year for the next two years for being a teaching assistant. I owe this oncoming success to my educational experiences at MTSU.choice is terrible in class, so what? In an audition, if your acting choice is terrible, you don't get the job and once again go back to waiting tables.

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Casey Hebbel, a musical theatre graduate of Belmont University's Class of 2012, is in California this summer doing theater in anticipation of a move to New York City this fall: I would say, more than most college degrees, my degree in musical theatre has prepared me to do exactly what I want. I not only have the skill set needed to pursue this career, but I also know how to go out into the world and be hired in my field. I also think it speaks highly that as a graduating senior, I have already worked professionally in my career every summer as well as several times during the school year. Most other majors cannot say that of their students.

Stephen Michael Jones, another member of Middle Tennessee State University's Class of 2012, is already making a splash in Nashville-area theater, having starred in Boiler Room Theatre's Xanadu and headlining Jekyll & Hyde In Concert, the upcoming production from Stones River Theatre Company: My education was very diverse, I transitioned from Vocal Performance, to Business, and then to Theatre. Although I transitioned a lot in my education I feel very prepared for what I am going into. My education taught me the hardships of being a young actor in a world where I am a dime a dozen, but it also prepared me to take each failure as a learning opportunity and to keep my head up because eventually I will find my place in the theatre world whether I am still acting, or working in any other area of this wonderful field.

Hannah Church, who is working at Clarksville's Roxy Theatre this summer (she most recently played Wendla in the company's critically acclaimed production of Spring Awakening) and is a graduate of Rockford College: Yes I do. I still have one more semester to go, but obviously it has prepared me since I am already working professionally. I think if you pursue a degree in theater and you are passionate about it, your professors will give you the tools you need to be successful. It is on the student to take those tools and make them prosper.

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Do you think majoring in drama/theater is still a worthwhile endeavor?

Casey Hebbel: I feel very strongly that majoring in theatre is worthwhile. Not only does this degree prepare you for the specific profession of theatre, it also gives you the confidence and interpersonal skills needed to acquire any job. Actors are 100% comfortable speaking in front of people, or interviewing because it is so much like what we do every day anyway. Generally speaking, actors are very good assets to any work place environment, and employers are very aware of this fact. So, yes, majoring in theatre is indeed still worthwhile, very much so.

Caleb Reynolds: There is no doubt that majoring in theatre is a risk. Anyone who will tell you otherwise is fooling themselves. However, as long as you realize what you are getting yourself into, then I would say go for it. While yes, there can be financial hardships in being a performer, in the economy today, who doesn't have those? For me, being able to get up on stage and sing and dance and get paid for it seems like a pretty sweet deal.  I feel like there are so many people who sit in their cubicles day after day and absolutely hate their job and I knew that I could not do this. Why not do what you love and get paid for it at the same time?

Meg Davis: I consider theatre to be an entirely worthwhile career. I feel fulfilled and happy-I feel constantly challenged and stimulated by my projects, and I wouldn't trade that for the world. Theatre is considered a throw-away degree primarily because most who pursue it go about it in the wrong way. If your goal is to be famous, you may never get there. If your goal is to understand the definition of art and produce it as a gift to those you serve-the audience and community, that is-then you will be a great deal more successful. Fame and fortune do not touch the soul-that's what honest, roll-up-your-sleeves art is for.

Hannah Church:  I think it is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor. As I stated before, as long as that student is passionate about theater and is willing to work harder than most other majors then they will be successful. Because success is not measured by how much money you make every month, but by how happy and fulfilled you feel at the end of the day.

Members-of-the-Class-of-2012-Look-Ahead-to-Their-Futures-in-Theater-20010101Stephen Michael Jones: I believe so. It allows students to express themselves and find who they are in a safe environment. Also it teaches students to interact with people comfortably even when you just meet them, which becomes very useful in the event that they decide to pursue other career more focused in corporate settings.

What do you hope to be doing five years from now?
Casey Hebbel: Five years from now, I hope to be settled in New York City and performing.  I am planning on moving to NYC in September to begin moving toward this five-year goal.

Caleb Reynolds: My five-year plan is quite different from the typical plan of a musical theatre graduate. I have always said that I would love to do a show on Broadway at some point in my life to be able to have it on my resume and be able to say that I performed on Broadway. However, this is not how I view my success as a performer. As cheesy as it sounds, as long as I am able to pay the bills and I have a family that supports what I do, I will be completely happy.  I know that I am not a city kid in any way and I think that the hectic nature of New York, LA, Chicago, or any of those other big cities would get to me after a while.  I could be in some incredibly small town theatre in Montana where no one knows my name except the people in the town and, as long as the bills are paid, I would be happy.

Meg Davis: Five years from now, I should be wrapping up my doctoral degree. By the time I attend my ten-year high school reunion, I will be Dr. Meghan Davis, which is more than I can say for most of my high school classmates. After I finish my doctorate, it is my (current) plan to work at a university and build my own theatre in or near New Orleans-art is one of the quickest ways to heal a community, and I can't think of a community more in need of healing. 

Hannah Church: Five years from now I hope to still be doing theater as my career. Not as a hobby, or every once in a while, but how I make my living. I do not care if i am in NYC, Chicago, L.A., or working at regional theatres around the country. As long as I am still doing theatre, then I will be happy.

Stephen Michael Jones: I would like to be living in New York City performing on Broadway or in a national tour of an original show, or performing in Wicked.

 

Pictured (from top to bottom): Beki Baker, Caleb Reynolds, Meg Davis, Casey Hebbel, Hannah Church and Stephen Michael Jones

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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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