On College: What Theatre, Shakespeare, and Improv Taught Me About Business

A couple days ago, The Daily Beast posted about The 13 Most Useless Majors, and then Newsweek reblogged the article on their tumblr.  My blood started to boil.  Among the “Most Useless Majors” were Fine Arts, English Literature and Language, Philosophy, and of course, Theatre, and the evidence was based on salary and unemployment rate.  I get what they’re saying, I know plenty of actors, writers, and musicians working in bars and scraping to get by.  Fine.  But a degree in the humanities expands your mind, gives you a more diverse world view, and teaches you how to think.  And isn’t that the point of education?

Many of the most effective professionals I know in agencyland come from one of these majors.  They studied photography, literature, architecture, or film making, and now they’re Account Directors, Project Managers, UX designers, and Creative Directors.  And not surprisingly, they’re the most open to *cringe* “out of the box” thinking.

Here’s a handful of invaluable business skills I learned from my “useless” Theatre degree, acting classes, and improv training:

Meeting a deadline

“The show must go on” is a theatrical cliche for a reason.  Opening night can’t be pushed back; you’re either ready to go up, or you’re not.  And not being ready isn’t an option.

How to pitch

I took an acting class in LA that would assign a scene and a scene partner.  It was up to you to track down the play, memorize it, and have it ready to show in class the following week.  Being given 20 pages of dialogue wasn’t unheard of, and if you couldn’t keep up, you were out of the class.  That may sound extreme, but usually you’re given even less time to prepare for an audition, so the teacher wanted us to practice.

That’s not even touching on an actual audition room, where you may have a day to prepare the same amount of work, then perform it for a table full of stone-faced, bored casting directors who may or may not be eating their lunch.

In comparison, presenting and selling a long deck that I helped to write is a piece of cake.

How to think on your feet

When you’re live on stage and something goes wrong, you have no choice but to act like nothing happened, be resourceful, and deal with it.  It’s a great lesson in staying calm and coming up with creative solutions in a pinch.

Being on a team

In improv, it’s the whole team’s job to make everybody else look good.  Being part of a theatre department is like being in a big, incestuous family, where everybody plays their part to get a show off the ground.  Acting is very personal work, so in a class, everybody does their best work when they’re comfortable and feel supported.  If that sounds strange, well, it is.  But a production sinks or swims by its teamwork.

Analyzing a brief

Have you ever analyzed classical text?  It’s kind of like picking out the key takeaways in a brief, only in verse.

When you’re an actor preparing for any script, you learn how to read it as a whole, and garner information from everything: what your character says, what your character says about itself, and what other characters say about your character.  Some people break it down into beats.  Some people use a series of actions.  Some people physicalize it.  Some internalize.

The point is you become very good at scanning a piece, filling in the holes, and then quickly finding the most important parts.  And that’s an important skill to take beyond the theatre.

Creating budgets and finding money

In college, I co-produced and directed a student show called From the Wings that focused on giving students who were either rarely-cast or typecast an opportunity to show what they could do. This was a great lesson in creating budgets, sticking to budgets, and tracking down other sources of money.

Artistic grants, anyone?

How to read people

A big part of being an actor is being able to read your scene partner, and the Meisner technique is built largely on this idea.  An early exercise has you sit in a chair facing your partner and make eye contact for long periods of time, then interpret what they’re thinking.  You become very at knowing what’s going through somebody’s mind.  Cool?  Yes.  Creepy?  A little bit.  Hated by future boyfriends?  Yes.

It’s a power you can use for good or for evil, but it’s incredibly helpful in many work situations: joining a new team, knowing how to navigate both junior and senior colleagues,  and most importantly, how to deal with clients.

How to work for it

Ultimately, you don’t make it in the arts without an insane work ethic.  Sometimes, somebody gets lucky, but often it comes down to “who wants it more, and who will put in the most work.”  Most of my peers and me took 20+ credit hours a semester on top of rehearsing for shows.  I got used to working 14+ hour days long before joining an agency.

Before any of you try to point out that I am not a famous actress, I’d like to say that I ultimately chose a different path, became a writer, and hey!  Now I very happily get paid to write every day.  And the work ethic I learned as a theatre major and a starving artist in LA is directly responsible for any success I’ve enjoyed in my career path.

I’m sure that anybody with an unconventional background who’s working in business can give you a similar list of how their education and life experience has made them successful.  Let me be clear, I’m not knocking “practical” majors like business, but unless you’re going into a specific field such as engineering, it doesn’t matter what you studied as an undergrad. It matters that you know how to think, educate yourself about your chosen profession, and then work your tail off.  Instead of judging what other people have done/studied and poo-pooing their “lack of experience,” let’s evaluate the person, their skill set, and their passion for the job.

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2 thoughts on “On College: What Theatre, Shakespeare, and Improv Taught Me About Business

  1. gwennguyenn says:

    I majored in Philosophy for my undergrad and I couldn’t agree with you more! Humanities graduates are definitely underrated.

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