COLLEGE LIFE. The phrase brings mixed emotions for students on the cusp of leaving home for the first time. There’s freedom and fear. Opportunity and uncertainty. Excitement … and about a million questions for what the future holds. In addition to all the normal concerns, those who want to major in the performing arts have another thing to think about: How will my parents react to my decision … and will they still pay for my education.

Let’s face it, unless you’re planning to pay for college on your own, you’ll need buy-in from your parents. That can be challenging for theatre students — not because your parents don’t support your dreams, but because they genuinely want the best for you, and they may worry that a theatre degree will keep you from getting a high-paying job. If you’ve already begun to broach this conversation with your parents, teachers, and counselors, chances are at least one person has been less than thrilled by your plans. Maybe they’ve suggested choosing theatre as a minor and going with a safer, “more marketable” major like business or psychology.

You might even have a few gnawing concerns yourself. Can I make a living in theatre? Will I get the support I need from my professors? Can I switch gears later if it’s not working out?

These are all perfectly normal questions, and the whole thing can feel daunting, to be sure. But fear not! Thousands of people have chosen to pursue a theatre degree and have emerged on the other side satisfied, happy, well-connected, and financially solvent, in a variety of professions, both theatrical and otherwise. Here are some talking points that can help you articulate why majoring in theatre is not only the best decision for you but also one that could continue paying off long after graduation.

POINT 1: THE GORDON GEKKO CLAUSE

“The most valuable commodity I know of is information.” That’s a famous quote from ruthless businessman Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street. While Gekko is talking about stealing competitor secrets, he makes a good point: There’s no such thing as knowing too much. Often, success amounts to having a broad spectrum of insider knowledge and being a jack-of-all-trades.

Theatre majors — particularly those pursuing a B.A. in theatre — have to juggle a lot of know-how. They have to know about business: production schedules, ticket sales, marketing, etc. They have to know about the technology involved in successfully executing lighting and sound. They have to know about finance (again, ticket sales!). They have to know about history and literature (Shakespeare, anyone?) Perhaps above all, theatre students must possess the fine art of selling to get people interested enough to pay to see their production.

The list of required knowledge goes on, but the point is that there arguably has never been a more cross-disciplinary education than that of a college theatre major.

“Speaking as the father of a theatre major, I’ve sort of literally put my money where my mouth is on this issue,” says David Lee, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Western Kentucky University. Lee routinely encounters parents who express skepticism at the choice of theatre as a degree path but who also strive to understand and support their child’s creative aspirations.

“I tell those parents that I wholeheartedly believe theatre is the most practical major in the college curriculum,” he says. “It allows students to work in production, of course, but that often involves some painting, carpentry, and even areas like welding and electrical wiring. There’s a vast amount of knowledge to be gained from working in creative theatre, and I don’t know of any other college major that offers that same spectrum.”

POINT 2: THE LIBERTARIAN PERSPECTIVE

Lee is also a firm believer that the 21st-century workplace has evolved to accommodate a certain career fluidity unfamiliar to older generations, and he is hardly alone in that belief.

In fact, there is mounting evidence to suggest that college major and future career are by no means inextricably linked. In the past, one would embark on a college degree with hopes of finding a good job, amassing wealth, and retiring from that same company. But in today’s entrepreneurial, global economy, the college experience is less about strategically choosing a major and more about acquiring universal skills and a reliable network that will help you navigate many stages of your professional career.

Put another way, college is more about the journey than the destination. People now tend to move more flexibly between careers, often working in fields far removed from their college training. Even if you decide to stay in theatre forever, you might start working for a small theatre company only to find yourself a year later working as a talent agent or director in a new city.

“I see this a lot with theatre students, as well as film and broadcasting majors,” Lee says. “They start out assuming that they will work on camera, but after a semester or two, they become fascinated with the technical production aspects and decide to switch gears. I tell them the key is to trust their instincts and prepare for the possibility that things might go in a direction they didn’t anticipate.”

Take Lee’s lead and make sure your parents understand that you’ll be much better equipped to manage those big life changes if you view them as inevitable, embrace the freedom, and arm yourself with a theatre degree.

Illustration by Chris McNay.
Illustration by Chris McNay.

POINT 3: THE MINIMALIST OUTLOOK

The great philosopher Socrates once said, “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” Alfred Hitchcock put it more simply with, “Stay out of jail.” Both statements have the same point: Focus on what really matters.

It’s no fun to struggle financially — ask any college student living on pizza and an inflatable mattress. But it’s a universal truth that humans tend to spend as much as they earn. That’s why so many lottery winners are actually some of the unhappiest people on the planet.

Of course, your goal should be to achieve success, but who says that has to come with a $1 million salary? Spoiler alert: As a theatre major, your chances of becoming a famous millionaire are pretty slim. By choosing to avoid debt and live within your means, your chances of living a rich, happy life are pretty good, no matter what career path you choose. Let your parents know that you want your future to be about doing fulfilling work. You’re willing to set your salary goals a little lower and focus on great experiences as opposed to collecting “stuff.”

Here, Lee offers another angle on the minimalist perspective: the notion that creative work often involves getting while the getting is good and budgeting resources for times when the opportunities become scarce. “I don’t emphasize that students should endeavor to be happier with less money, per se,” he says. “They may have to make do with less but maybe not. Maybe they’ll have more. But what they do need to be comfortable with is a certain level of unpredictability.”

Lee describes a conversation he had with a former student who landed a lead role in the largest theatre on Broadway after graduation. “It was a significant achievement for her, and she enjoyed the experience tremendously,” Lee says. “But when I caught up with her a year and a half later, after the production had ended, she found herself right back in that loop that so many creative theatre graduates have to contend with, sort of swinging from vine to vine and constantly being on the lookout for the next opportunity. It’s not a concern for most people who work in more standard careers.”

He believes this feast-or-famine cycle is common in the creative-driven life, but the constant change could actually prove to be the very thing that satisfies people who eschew the “standard” for a less predictable career path.

POINT 4: THE SPICE-OF-LIFE ANGLE

That leads us to our fourth talking point. Choosing a creative major proves that you’re curious about the world around you. And you’re in luck — your college theatre department will expose you to people of every color, shape, size, ethnicity, orientation, and worldview. Your new friends will profoundly affect your ability to roll with life’s changes. Your parents might need to be reminded that you’re an explorer, a person who won’t be happy staying rooted in one place. You need a college major that satisfies your curiosity and transports you to new places, both literally and figuratively.

For good measure, you might also remind them that some of the world’s most successful leaders travel and meet new people almost every day. That’s the whole reason airline frequent flyer rewards exist. Tell your parents that theatre majors are some of the hardest workers on any college campus. While your roommate getting a business degree is playing videogames, you’ll be in rehearsal. Theatre major = major work ethic.

POINT 5: THE LEADERSHIP APPROACH

Picture that you’re producing a show and you have 20 parts to assign. Fifteen of your closest friends have auditioned. The unexperienced lacrosse player seems best for the part, but you’re worried that if you don’t cast the seasoned theatre major, your friendship with her will be damaged beyond repair.

Choose carefully, young Thespian, because there are consequences either way.

Now fast forward to life after college, when you’re faced with a similar conundrum — be it another production, a hiring situation, a grant opportunity, or something as seemingly inconsequential as a spot on the company softball team. Aren’t you glad you had experience navigating such tricky territory? Leadership takes all forms, and college theatre programs require a level of teamwork and decision-making unfamiliar to many college graduates entering the “real world.”

As you begin putting together these talking points and mounting your argument, remember that this doesn’t need to be an adversarial conversation. Your parents trust and believe in you, but they will never stop worrying about your future happiness. It’s kind of their job as parents. Your job is to put a lot of thought into what you really want and to articulate your goals in a way that instills confidence and gains your parents’ critical buy-in.

Once everyone is on the same page, you’ll be free to move on to more important questions like who has the best sandwiches on campus and when can I take stage combat and make-up and wig design?

This story appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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