‘Just’ A Theatre Degree…

The current job market has led many of us to search LinkedIn for new opportunities. Amid the numerous posts on my feed, a recent discussion caught my eye, lamenting the prevalence of administrative jobs requiring candidates to have a degree. I agreed; surely, there are many qualified individuals with impressive experience and skills, yet no diploma to show for it. It feels unjust to exclude them from even applying. However, one comment in particular struck a nerve: “How is someone with a theatre degree more qualified than someone with no degree?”

graduation day

It stung a little to see something in black and white that I knew was a very real phenomenon. It didn’t matter how hard I’d worked to earn my degree; the snobbery was still there, as if my three years of education were less valid than someone who’d chosen a different subject – or none at all.

Let’s start by acknowledging that your chosen degree doesn’t define your entire skill set. Just because you elect to study English Literature, it doesn’t mean you lack skills in Mathematics or Geography. Your chosen study path is simply a focused area of expertise. For example, many political leaders and decision-makers don’t hold degrees in politics or law, but instead have backgrounds in history or philosophy. Classics is a common qualification for many holding positions in the UK government, and in the US government, whatever degree someone studied begins to feel less relevant once they reach the average Congress age (58).

Naturally, many workers in the corporate world once studied a subject entirely unrelated to their current role. We don’t always know what we want to do at age 18, and even if we do, it doesn’t always work out that way. So yes, your corporate colleague may have a degree in dancing and singing, and not put any of that to use on the spreadsheets and presentations they create.

But the question in the comments wasn’t “why don’t you need a degree in a subject more relevant to the role?”. The person instead implied that if your qualification was in drama, then you may as well not have bothered studying at all. It’s a common misconception that the arts boils down to an easy hobby, but I believe my time at university taught me so much more than just double pirouettes. So, I’m going to take a moment to share my experience of studying for a BA (Hons) in Theatre Arts – Musical Theatre.

Ballet dancers partnering on stage, theatre degree

Degree by Dancing

To dispel the notion that a drama degree is a walk in the park, let me take you through a typical day in my program. Unlike friends on traditional university courses who bragged about skipping lectures or sleeping late after a night of binge drinking, my schedule demanded daily attendance from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. Not to mention the additional rehearsals, late-night technical runs (often right up until midnight), and catching the early train on a Saturday to London for performances.

9am-10am: Fitness Class. Picture people using exercise as a form of extreme torture. EVERY DAY.

10am-12pm: Acting, Singing, and Dancing classes. Now this would depend on the week and the project at hand, but would involve learning material, performing for each other, polishing dances, perfecting harmonies, and there was a lot of study on the movements of the larynx and soft palette; it wasn’t what I’d imagined either, but I loved every minute of it.

12pm-1pm: Lunch. Grab something quickly and then head back to the studio with your remaining ‘free’ time to work on material.

1pm-5pm: Audition technique (aka stand up in front of everyone and sing a song, and then get in the moment direct feedback from everyone), more dancing, singing, and acting. Again, this depended on the time of year and which shows or projects we were working on.

5pm-6pm: Self-guided choreography sessions creating original work, workshopping, and teaching routines to others in preparation for a performance.

After hours: For those students who made it through the auditions, we would learn and rehearse our performance piece for the annual dance convention, ‘Move It’.

And Wednesdays? Wednesdays were known as ‘dance day’. An intense full-day affair, requiring strength and discipline that few outside the field can appreciate. How many different dance styles can you fit into one day? It all becomes a blur. Changing from black to pink tights between classes was a mad rush I won’t forget, as well as the sometimes painful attempt to walk the next day.

The programming was rigorous, testing our focus, stamina, and ability to adapt. In one rehearsal, each person was secretly given a task to test potential weaknesses in the show, like ‘forgetting’ the words to a duet, singing the wrong harmonies, or messing up the choreography/blocking. Almost everyone powered through – including the two singers making their way through a Sweeney Todd duet as the music kept ‘malfunctioning.’ We tested every aspect of a performance to perfect it; you may see a slick polished piece of choreography but what you missed was the painful rehearsals where everyone went step by step making sure all of their arms and legs were at the exact same angles (this was often accompanied by filming the rehearsal and critiquing frame by frame). 

Like America’s Next Top Model… but with jazz hands and no cash prize at the end

We were tasked with learning songs overnight, memorising lyrics and monologues, and improvising material on the spot. Mock auditions were lurking around every corner and everything felt like a test to pass. A common on-the-spot exercise was, ‘What would you sing if you were auditioning for X?’ in which you’d have to rack your brain for the appropriate material matching the composer or style of the show and sing it acapella without preparation.

For every production, we would collaborate with the other theatre departments: hair and makeup students, prop makers and set builders, stage management, lights/sound, and costume makers to form one big production company. It was magical.

An unconventional aspect of our education was the legend that came to be known as ‘image class,’ where classmates constructively critique each other’s first impressions, the way they speak, and how they look and dress. It’s a bit like Makeover Day on America’s Next Top Model – there are some tears, and a few people drastically cut or dye their hair afterward. This process, though initially unsettling, aimed to help us stand out and embrace our uniqueness in the competitive world of performing arts.

ballet dancer tying shoes

Beyond the Stage

We delved into the business of performing arts, learning about self-employment, taxes, marketing, networking, auditioning, and navigating a fiercely competitive industry. The postgraduate landscape wasn’t about internships or entry-level positions; it was about diving into auditions and competing with countless performers.

And let’s not forget the paperwork. Despite the practical nature of our syllabus, we couldn’t escape the writing component. Essays, log books (essentially a documented journal of your daily learnings and research), and a final dissertation became integral parts of our journey.

In those three years, my ‘just a drama degree’ taught me more than singing and acting. It taught discipline, mental and physical strength, receiving feedback and criticism, the ability to work under pressure, public speaking, memorization, confidence, presentation, critical thinking, collaboration, teamwork, teaching, problem-solving, determination, handling rejection, research, writing, meeting deadlines, quick thinking, and much more.

While it’s true that not every job requires a degree, experience is invaluable. But don’t devalue this one subject just because you don’t know what work went into earning that qualification.

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