By: Madison Rae Tolley
“So what are you doing? Are you an actor or a designer?”
Each and every individual that has ever set out on the theatre career path has heard the eternal, exhausting questions: what are you going to do with that degree? What’s your backup plan? Do you at least plan on double majoring? In truth, these are all valid questions, and while tiresome, they are not entirely offensive. For those that are not theatre artists, the way this world works seems vastly unreliable and daunting without a promise of financial security always on the near horizon. For those that are theatre artists…it seems exactly the same way. Due to the previously mentioned unpredictability that tap dances around the realm of theatre, there is enough doubt laid upon the hopes and aspirations of artists by those outside of the trade. It’s absolutely infuriating to even consider a member of the theatre community putting down the goals of another…yet this happens often; and more specifically with those that take on more than one facet of the craft that is theatre. The impression that I receive continuously is that one must be a performer or a technician, with no grey area in between. It is as though by picking up the wrench, I am choosing to forever put down the script.
Perhaps this is just my experience, and on many levels, I hope it is. Since coming to college, I’ve branched even further into other areas of theatre that I had only dabbled in before. I was and still am primarily a performer, but I also work as a stage electrician, can render costumes, and although it would be painful, draft a basic set. Publicity, dramaturgy, and directing are all pools I’ve yet to fully dip into but have my eyes set upon. The moment a student finds out that I work as an electrician, their immediate second thought is that I have given up performing. “So you don’t act anymore?” Is the most common question I receive when detailing my new explorations. “Oh, so you want to be a lighting designer now? Are you focusing in design and technology instead?” The questions never look at new interests as what they are, and instead see them as choices to abandon previous facets of theatre artistry. The perception maintained by a large amount of my classmates is that you must have one priority, that you must have one area you are the most dedicated to.
Many a time I’ve heard from fellow classmates that I’m “crazy” for doing so much, that I’ll “burn myself out” if I keep going at the rate I am with my involvement in theatre. Perhaps there is some grain of truth to those statements, because I certainly do add a lot more hours to my schedule when trying to fit in more aspects of my craft…but I don’t think that this is a bad thing; I see it as the exact opposite. Realistically, I understand that not every performer has the ability nor desire to be a technician; or that every technician has the ability nor desire to be a performer. However this doesn’t mean that people that do fit these descriptions don’t exist. In a career that is so often dubbed “pointless” and “for dreamers without real plans,” it is so important that we as theatre artists believe in ourselves and our own capabilities. Beyond that, it is almost just as important, if not more so that we believe in the abilities of each other. It’s so dangerous to pigeon-hole each other into one area of craft, to limit the possibilities of creativity.
To avoid these limiting habits, one solution is to supply a more well-rounded education to those that desire it. Some courses are mandatory for new theatre students, courses that expose them to the basics of acting and the basics of design and technology. If this stigma amongst students that you must pick and choose only one area of theatre to master is to be extinguished, we must first make it possible for students to become more well-rounded and explore new curiosities. If we continuously segregate students into different fields, it will continue to be strange to hear of someone that is a performer and a designer. In reality, it makes students much more marketable if they can act and draft a set, or if they can design a light plot but also produce a brilliant dramaturge’s packet for their cast to read through. Instead of it being strange for this to happen, I hope that more courses will be developed that force students to explore outside their comfort zone or their chosen facet of expression. A generation of well-rounded, multi-faceted theatre students could emerge from such a program…and perhaps, one day, performers like myself that also design won’t be looked at like we’re strangers to both worlds. After all, singer/dancer/actors aren’t the only triple threat out there…watch out for a new generation of performers/electricians/directors, or any combination you can imagine. Maybe quadruple threat is more accurate. Or quintuple. The possibilities and opportunities are endless.