My brother in law does this thing that makes me crazy. Whenever we go to a show – not that I go to shows much, but he loves it and it becomes a family thing – he makes a big deal of the fact that, back in the Reagan years, I was a college drama major. For a long time it made me uncomfortable because I felt guilty that I had given up my dream of being an actress. His comments reminded me of something I considered a failure.
I think I was an okay actress. I worked hard, I learned my lines, I delighted in coming up with novel approaches to characters. I loved the theatre. I loved majoring in drama.
I hated going on auditions and I sucked at them.
I froze up – especially when the auditioners kindly said things designed to put me at ease or break through my shell. I still hate going on interviews. I escaped back into a shell of sorts, taking a retail job, then making a retail career. And I always looked back and regretted what may have been.
Then, on a long car trip, he asked “Auntie Libby who used to be an Actress” to help his 13 year old son with an audition monologue. We spent almost 5 hours that trip – sooooo long for a boy with ADHD – picking between two monologues, digging into the one we chose, learning the thoughts behind the words, playing with different interpretations, different line readings, coming up with physical actions that could help him, talking about how to start, how to finish. It brought back to me how much I loved acting.
And it shifted how I perceived my years in Drama. Not as a failure – because I had left before even really starting a career – but as a foundation for everything else that came after.
When I look back now at my years as a drama major, I can see five things that I took from that experience that I use today in my very different job.
1. The courage to make a fool of myself.
As a drama major, I often performed in ways that made me look foolish. After a semester at the Strasberg studio – where acting was made small and intimate – I transferred to the Adler Studio. For my first performance in our Shakespeare class, I chose Ariel from The Tempest. When I finished, there was a stunned silence from my new classmates and my teacher. Finally, he stepped onto the stage, tucked my hand into the crook of his arm and said, “Well, dear, I’m going to save your life.”
Once you have done Shakespeare in flippers, a Dracula cape, and headband antenna, you stop worrying whether your idea for transforming an employee recognition program will fly.
2. The poise to stand in front of a room of people and speak.
Public speaking is a skill you will be called upon repeatedly in your work life, whether you are speaking to a small executive team, in front of a room of 30 people, or in front of a conference of hundreds.
Some people get nervous at the thought – I get excited. I love being in the spotlight, as long as I know my stuff.
3. Empathy with people who have different perspectives than my own.
As an actor, you have to be able to play different characters, characters that you agree with, who are like you; and characters who do things that you would never do. This latter is fun because you have to get inside the character, consider what motivates them, look at life from their perspective.
I use this all the time at work and it surprises me when colleagues don’t do it. The ability to look at a dashboard from the perspective of people who will be using it; the ability to wonder what causes an employee to miss work or underperform. The ability to look at your work from the perspective of someone else and either adjust your work – or help them adjust their perspective – is something that has helped me in work situation after work situation.
4. Analysis and experimentation skills.
Believe it or not, acting requires analysis skills. An actor takes at the words on the page and looks for clues. Clues about their character, clues about how they might say the words, clues about what the author is trying to convey with the script, clues about the character’s role in conveying whatever it was that the author wanted to convey. And then an actor tries things out, they read the line one way, another way, experiments with little bits of business (“Whatever you were doing there –” the producer calls from the house, “– Yes, that thing – Don’t.”), experiments with different motivations for the character, different relationships the character might have with the people and props and set pieces and activities happening around them. Then changes them again.
This is not unlike what happens in a “real” job. You look at data or read the room or step back and look at some work you’ve done visually, you make decisions on the meaning or whether this might appeal to others (your boss, your customers), you tinker with it, you try something different. Until finally, you have to say to yourself – this will be good enough to start with.
And then the curtain goes up.
5. The show must go on.
Crazy things happen all the time on-stage. Costumes malfunction. Blocking gets messed up. Cast members forget their lines. Scenery and props misbehave. (I remember having problems with doors – when I played Annie Sullivan in high school, there is a scene where I wrestled Helen Keller up to a room and locked the door. Our set was just a sketch of a set – the door was just a frame. I pulled the actress in, signing into her hand the whole time, and slammed the door as planned, which rebounded open — as not planned. Luckily, Helen ran out of the room and I chased her, brought her back to the room, and carefully closed the door making sure it stayed closed this time.
In another show, as I made my exit, I bumped into the door frame which – being just a frame again – shook. I stayed in character and said, “Excuse me” to the set, which got a nice laugh.
Things go wrong all the time on the stage and, if the actors are doing their jobs right, you never know in the audience except that maybe a stale performance becomes a little more lively, a little less predictable, as the actors are awoken from routine and forced to improvise.
And things go wrong all the time at work. You go on a sales call and the software doesn’t perform as intended. Or you sit down with an underperforming employee for a conversation that you have mapped out in your head and they say something that blows your script away.
You can’t just yell, Cut! You have to keep going. You have to find a way to make things happen, even if you’re not completely ready. The show must go on!
Never look back on your college education or your early jobs as a waste of time or money
Parents, do not despair at your child’s useless (and expensive) college major.
Employers, do not write off someone who has a major that seems completely unrelated to your business.
Learning is everywhere and the lessons you take from seemingly meaningless activities are adding up, in ways you may not recognize, over the years until finally they come in handy for something and you recognize that you are a product of the steps you take in life.
You can’t avoid it.