AS A THESPIAN, you know theatre provides skills you use in every area of life. But you might find it difficult to articulate what those skills are and how they help you offstage. Whether it’s convincing your parents to support your theatre addiction or proving to a prospective employer you have what it takes to succeed, you need to show that taking theatre classes or participating in productions makes you ready for any job — especially if you don’t plan to pursue theatre after high school.

The answer can be found by connecting the dots between what you learn in theatre and what skills employers want, which are often divided into four broad categories: interdisciplinary; learning and innovation; information, media, and technology; and life and career. Thespians not only practice but also master these talents daily in the world of high school theatre.

INTERDISCIPLINARY SKILLS

Increasingly, employers want workers who can look at the world across disciplines. As a Thespian, you learn a lot through theatre, including important global, financial, and civic lessons. For example, plays and musicals teach you about the world. Watching Hamilton or The Sound of Music offers lessons in history. West Side Story and A Raisin in the Sun instruct us about racism and cultural awareness. Hamlet teaches psychology.

Studying foreign theatre traditions such as commedia dell’arte or Suzuki helps Thespians understand global cultures. Budgeting for sets and costumes, fundraising for new light fixtures, or selling tickets in the box office enhances your financial know-how. And you practice civic engagement every time you take part in community productions or attend regional performing arts centers to see the latest tour of a Broadway show.

Jessica Angulo and Nathan Ayala in the Garden City (Kan.) High School production of Hamlet.
Jessica Angulo and Nathan Ayala in the Garden City (Kan.) High School production of Hamlet at the 2019 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

LEARNING AND INNOVATION SKILLS

Thespians have learning and innovation skills — like problem-solving, communication, and collaboration — in spades. You want creativity? Just ask a stage manager how many uses she’s discovered for gaffer’s tape. Every time a co-star drops a line, a prop breaks in the middle of a scene, or a lighting instrument won’t focus, Thespians engage in critical thinking and problem-solving. Actors’ brains go 100 miles per minute every time they’re onstage, thinking through the millions of scenarios that can pop up in live performance.

Communication is at the heart of every theatre production. Thespians are always communicating to an audience, to each other, to the camera. Plus, theatre is one of, if not the most, collaborative art forms. Actors must work with directors who must work with designers who must work with stagehands — and they all must work with stage managers and producers. The adage that there is no “I” in team applies equally to theatre.

INFORMATION, MEDIA, AND TECHNOLOGY SKILLS

Many Thespians don’t realize how adept they are at information literacy, which is the awareness of where and how to find needed information. You use these skills every time you prepare for an audition by memorizing a monologue from a different play by the same playwright or research a character by watching a documentary about the period in which the play is set.

Most theatre students are also experts in media, using a variety of methods from posters to video clips to social media campaigns to promote their productions. You use media tools to create your résumés, headshots, websites, and video reels.

Finally, theatre is the perfect place to learn technology. Thespians engage with high-tech equipment, such as lighting consoles, microphones, fog machines, and computer design software, every time they put on a show. And I’m not just referring to designers and stage crew. When actors “find their light” or use proper microphone techniques, they, too, prove how technologically savvy theatre students must be.

A Thespian operates the light board during the Garden City (Kan.) High School International Thespian Festival production of Hamlet.
A Thespian operates the sound board during the Garden City (Kan.) High School International Thespian Festival production of Hamlet. Photo by Susan Doremus.

LIFE AND CAREER SKILLS

Life and career skills are traits that define how well an individual can work in a dynamic 21st century organization. The challenges of live performance force theatre students to master flexibility and adaptability, two skills exemplified in the clichéd phrase “The show must go on.” Initiative and self-direction are part of every good audition and rehearsal process. When actors are asked to “Make a strong choice,” they’re required to take initiative with their characters rather than waiting for directors to give them explicit instructions.

The trust built among cast and crew members exudes social and cross-cultural skills. Additionally, high school theatres are notoriously identity-inclusive, judgement-free safe havens for artists of different creeds (“Let your freak flag fly,” anyone?), a model becoming more prevalent in the 21st century workplace.

Regardless of whether a Thespian troupe puts on two, three, or eight shows a year, the productivity and accountability required for any one of those productions is admirable. It takes a lot of work on every student’s part to memorize lines, build sets, focus lights, hem costumes, design programs, and sell tickets.

Leadership and responsibility are perhaps the most difficult life and career skills to define yet the most important. Read 10 articles and you’ll find 10 definitions for leadership, but most include discussion of the relationship between a leader and the rest of the team. Leaders must be understanding, empathetic, and supportive of their teammates. This is where theatre plays a key role.

Most high school theatre programs operate on a revolving cycle, whether by design or not. Students who perform in one production may decide to work backstage for another then usher or sell tickets for a third. Even among performers, it’s unlikely one student will consistently play the starring role in every show for four years. This cycle ensures that when a student does take on a leadership position (as a stage manager, director, or leading player) that same Thespian will have worked in other roles on the team. Diverse experiences build understanding, empathy, and a collective sense of shared responsibility essential to effective leadership. Few quarterbacks have also played wide receiver, linebacker, or punter positions, but most directors have also served as actors, designers, or stage managers at some point in their theatrical careers.

So, the next time you’re tasked in an interview with answering questions about your strengths or skills, don’t sweat it. As a Thespian, you can take pride in your theatre experience, knowing it’s supplied all the beginning skills you need.

Students participate in leadership training during the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.
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