Theatre Artists Should be Onions

By Kelly Rudolph, James Madison University

You won’t last very long here.

Those were the words I was threatened with during the entrance interview for my university’s school of theatre. You won’t last very long. After three years, I can still picture the professor saying those words after I answered a question about my desire to study outside one specific area of theatre. Once I implied that yes, I would like to broaden my horizons, one of the professors interviewing me snorted and said “Well you better be. You won’t last very long here if you’re not.”

After three years, I now finally understand what she meant.

In Rachel Chavkin’s article, “What if… Devised Theatre Moved to the Mainstream of Theatre Making?” she mentions the term “hybrid-artist” discussed at a conference as the up-and-coming modus operandi for new theatre artists, particularly those devising new work. Being well-versed in more than one area of theatre has graduated from being just a little extra on a resume to becoming a vital skill that boosts employment potential and eases collaboration in a creative environment.

“Whenever I’ve been hired I’ve gotten the job because I can do a lot of things,” prefaced Dennis Beck, professor at James Madison University, “That doesn’t mean they expect me to do all of them.” He continues by detailing instances where positions as a lighting designer were offered to him because of his directing experience, even making mention of set construction knowledge being applied to building houses during a trip to Israel. As for directing a show, “I work well with the designers because I understand the design process and how to give designers space and yet provide direction collaboratively.” Without knowledge of fields both inside and outside our small world, how can we expect to get a proper dialogue going?

During work as an electrician on a production of 42nd Street, my master electrician had a confusing run-in with the technical director about lamp bases. Namely, he didn’t understand there were different terms for different kinds of household bulbs. This is obviously not common knowledge to the general public, but as a TD working with electrified scenery, a little background knowledge on practicals seems like a good thing to have in your back pocket.

But maybe I’m a just a know-it-all who likes to have the answers before the questions are asked (Spoiler alert: I am).

After five semesters spent stockpiling knowledge in classes from lighting design to scene painting to costume construction to devised theatre, I am more confident speaking with fellow artists in a dialect we can all process. The narrower the program, the less opportunity students have to branch out and improve their knowledge of subjects outside their primary course of study.

This is where KCACTF and its sibling conferences come into play. For students unable to accent their course load with complimentary classes, KCACTF gives students a broad spectrum of workshops and performances to attend. Over the course of four days I had the opportunity to see new plays, devised works, a gore workshop, and design displays all under one roof or a short shuttle trip away. These conferences are a gateway drug leading to multifaceted skillsets that will help theatre artists create more cohesive work in the future.

Once a person is known for a certain skill, he or she runs the risk of getting pigeonholed. Joan Schirle in her article “Potholes in the Road to Devising,” explains that, “Devisers are often found multi-tasking in ensembles… where wearing many hats is a commonplace strength rather than an anomaly, and the nonhierarchical nature of devising mirrors the horizontal spectrum of each individual’s talents.” Becoming a layered actor-designer-dramaturg (or any other combination you can whip up) instead of embracing one skill per artist has the potential to add flexibility to traditional theatre styles that only devising and its predecessors has achieved thus far.

After three years of thinking the goal was to become exemplary in one field and one field only, the best advice I can give to my peers is to run in the opposite direction I did. Instead of striving for excellence in one area, focus your energy on flexibility. For all of you theatre artists out there who left high school and all you wanted to do was be onstage, take a drawing class. Volunteer on a production where you never see the spotlight. For those of you hidden backstage in any capacity, take a movement class. Take a dance class. Go to festivals and pop in on workshops you never in a million years thought would interest you. Broaden your horizons. Because you could ultimately find an outlet for your love of theatre that speaks to you more than your original focus ever did. Don’t take this to mean you have to give that focus up, though. There’s no sacrifice; you should only build on additions.

Beck ended our interview with this final thought: “On a strong foundation one can develop all sorts of skills… Appreciate that the financial, filial, and existential demands of life are light relative to later years, and do what that lightness makes possible.”

In other words, build up your layers while you still have time. Otherwise you won’t last very long.