DURING QUARANTINE, I’ve been asked to give advice to theatre students and recent graduates quite a few times. (Virtually, obviously!) Here are the Top 10 things I’ve found myself saying.

Be More Chill creator Joe Iconis with producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Be More Chill creator Joe Iconis with producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper. Photo by Stephanie Wessels.

1. During this insane time, your number one priority should be your health and wellbeing, including mental health. Figure out what you need to get through everything going on ― physically, financially, mentally ― and ask for help if you need it. Take care of yourself.

2. What’s going on in our country is of utmost importance. Pay attention and take action. Obviously, there are a million reasons why you should vote if you’re eligible, do everything you can to get others to vote, and raise your voice about the issues plaguing America in every way you can. One of these reasons is the future of the arts and the future of artists. Do your research about what’s going on at the national, state, and local levels and find out which candidates and movements you can support and how.

3. One of the best things I did for my future self in middle school, high school, and college was assign myself things I wanted to learn about, separate from anything I learned in class. There’s a huge opportunity for everyone to do that now. Listen to the cast albums you meant to learn and didn’t have a chance to before. Assign yourself one theatre book per week that teaches you a new topic. Gather a group of friends virtually to watch a theatre-related movie, documentary, or pro-shot each week and discuss it. Give yourself writing prompts, acting assignments, or design projects about what you want to learn. Find whatever version of this advice works for you and structure it so it helps you learn and take advantage of the time you have.

4. As a theatremaker, the years in college and immediately after are so much about finding your squad ― about finding the people you want to collaborate with and forming bonds with them. Even though technology is no match for in-person connecting, finding your squad is not canceled. Find ways to connect with other artists, especially folks your age, and see what seeds you can plant during this time, whether it’s starting to work on something together or just getting to know better the people you want to work with in the future.

5. Find things you love to do and are passionate about outside the arts and develop those interests and skills too. Even in the best of times, almost every artist needs other work they can rely on doing in between jobs and shows. Whether it’s graphic design or social media management or baking or photography or nonprofit activism or teaching or anything else, hone the skills it will be helpful for you to call on in the future and that you can find authentic passion for.

6. On the flip side, find stuff within the arts ― different from what you’ve already focused on ― and learn about it. Are you an actor who has always thought about learning to play guitar? A scenic designer who has always thought about learning to design costumes? Are there skills you can learn during this time that will make you a better, more informed, more employable team member no matter which position you’re occupying on a show? And similarly, are there elements within your main field you can learn more about? Are you a choreographer who can educate yourself on new choreography technology? A theatre marketer who can learn video editing? A stage actor who can learn more about on-screen performance techniques?

Group of students at the 2019 International Thespian Festival
Find ways to connect with other artists, especially folks your age, and see what seeds you can plant during this time, even if that's done virtually. Photo from the 2019 International Thespian Festival by Susan Doremus.

7. Find out what theatre-related projects are happening near you. Is your local regional theatre doing virtual programming, and is there a way to offer your services as an intern and help from your bedroom or dorm? Is there a park near your childhood home doing socially distanced outdoor performances and in need of a production assistant? Is there a theatre near you planning their next indoor season that you can help in advance? Figure out if there are opportunities to participate, even if they might not look like the internships and jobs you would have originally planned during school and right after graduation.

8. It is no secret that there are barely any opportunities for arts jobs at the moment, and that’s likely to be true for a significant period of time. We all know (realistically) that when theatre returns it will be gradual. We know that during the next era, the arts job market will likely not be as robust, as every organization struggles to raise funds needed to reopen and continue to exist. There is no point burying one’s head in the sand. We are all worried about it, and we might as well name it and be honest about the prospects. But do not let this scare you away from pursuing the thing you love. 

In addition to all the above, the next era is going to be an incredibly fertile time for new, scrappy, and creative ways to make theatre ― hybrids of digital and in-person performances or events in outdoor spaces and unconventional venues. Young theatremakers have always had to carve out their own opportunities. Some of the most exciting theatre in history has started with a bunch of emerging artists making something they believe in, in a small way that grows and grows. Audiences are going to be hungrier than ever for those experiences. Power players are going to be looking for artists doing these things successfully and will be eager to bring them to higher levels. So, there will be space for new artists to make their way and build successful careers. It is just going to take unique initiative, resourcefulness, and creativity.

9. So much of #ArtistLyfe is having no control over your own schedule, not being able to see family or friends as much as you’d like, not being able to go home to visit for holidays. If you can do so safely, embrace quality family time now. Spend time with your parents, your cousins, your camp friend, whatever. I recorded a bunch of family history interviews with older members of my family during quarantine. It was the best! Take advantage of the time you have with the humans in your life. You’ll remember those moments years from now when you’re on tour doing a 10-show holiday week.

10. Practice gratitude. Say thank you to your teachers a million times because they are doing the impossible. In general, try to practice gratitude toward everyone who is teaching you and working with you at school because there was no way to prepare for this and chances are they are doing their best with an extremely challenging situation. We all are. But things are not always going to be how they are now, and there is going to be an exciting next era to come. So, let’s treat each other with extra kindness no matter how frustrating things are. That includes treating yourself with kindness. Some days none of the things in the list above are going to feel doable, and you might just stay in your bed and eat cookies. That’s fine! I have been there. We have all been there. We will get through this time.

11. Bonus tip: Be as sad as you want to be about the things that are canceled or postponed. If this pandemic happened when I was a student and my senior musical/Thespian induction/graduation was canceled, I would be devastated. Feel how you feel. You are allowed.

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