May 20, 2015

Behind That Heavily Criticized Theater Major: Experiences, Skills For Multiple Jobs

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Photo by Ian Servin

Christian Hahn and 12 other cast members stood onstage in front of a sellout crowd in mid-February, just like they had for the previous two weeks straight.

By acting in the University of Iowa Theatre Department-produced play Good Kids, which is about the signs and dangers of sexual assault and underage drinking, Hahn had an opportunity to educate, inform, change, and entertain a large audience during two hours.

But if he were to simply search “college majors” online Hahn, who just finished his sophomore year at the University of Iowa, would find that his theater major, allowing him to confidently communicate an educational message in front of hundreds if not thousands of people, is considered worthless by various “listicles.”

The University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department's cast of the 2015 show Good Kids: Caitlin Edwards-(bottom left), Kylie Jansen (pulling hood over Caitlin’s head),  Julia Sears (back of picnic table in black shirt), McKenna Goodman (holding soccer ball), Alex Rinehart (standing on picnic table), Christian Hahn (sitting on picnic table), Kit Grassi, Danny Petersen, Skyler Matthias (standing, left to right).

Photo and copyright: Ian Servin

The University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department’s cast of the 2015 show Good Kids: Caitlin Edwards-(bottom left), Kylie Jansen (pulling hood over Caitlin’s head), Julia Sears (back of picnic table in black shirt), McKenna Goodman (holding soccer ball), Alex Rinehart (standing on picnic table), Christian Hahn (sitting on picnic table), Kit Grassi, Danny Petersen, Skyler Matthias (standing, left to right).

Listicles are articles — sometimes criticized for being superficial and poorly sourced — that purport to inform readers about the 10 best or worst of most any topic you can imagine.

Some combination of fine arts, drama, theatre, and visual and performing arts appears on almost every “worthless college major” list on the Internet. Drama and theater arts comes in as high as number two on The Daily Beast’s list of “The 13 Most Useless Majors,” right after fine arts, of which theater is essentially an extension.

Yet Hahn views his major as anything but worthless, citing the guidance, opportunities, and resources he has at Iowa.

“I’m coming from a great art school, and that really says something about me,” Hahn said. “And there’s a lot of people here who will connect you with the right people,” he said about getting a job.

“You just have to want to do it.”

Wanting to do it seems to be the rally cry among theater majors who feel lists about college majors tend to oversimplify worth into general categories like unemployment rate and average salary.

The Daily Beast lists the unemployment rate among recent theater grads at 7.8 percent and among experienced grads at 8.8 percent. Average yearly salaries range from $26,000 for recent grads to $45,000 for experienced grads, the online site reports.

“If you can be happy doing anything else besides being an actor, do that,” Alan MacVey, chair of the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department, said. “Most people do this profession because they love it.”

HARD WORK, LIMITED JOBS

Stephen Thorne and Angela Brazil know about the highs and lows of life with a theater degree. They graduated from the University of Iowa’s graduate theater program in 1997, got married, and are actors in Rhode Island.

The unemployment rate for theater majors is higher than most because making a career out of acting is tough, Brazil said. She said only 20 percent of people in the Actors’ Equity Association, a professional actors’ union, are in acting jobs at a given time.

“Most people who enter graduate school know the risks they’re taking and the percentage of people who are working,” she said. “But we love it so much that we’re willing to do it. So is it worth it? Yeah.”

Thorne agreed, but acknowledged theater isn’t for everybody.

“I think it is definitely a necessary major. I would assume there are probably many more programs in the United States than are actually needed, and I think that’s one thing that can make it a little bit tough,” he said. “For every actor who ends up making it, a large number don’t end up working, at least full time, in that profession.”

Thorne said many graduates use skills from theater in different ways.

“A lot of people get involved in teaching,” he said. “In particular, if they’re working at any kind of elementary school using those skills to introduce people to the theater is an incredibly vital thing to be doing.”

MacVey said theater graduates move to acting hotbeds like New York or Los Angeles, try the theater for a while, end up doing other jobs that make it easier to make a living, and then pursue that other career. Most stay in performing arts, though, either as a side job, a hobby or just as someone in an audience.

Alan MacVey, professor and chair, University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department

Alan MacVey, professor and chair, University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department

Students taking a theater major, at least at Iowa, are able to pursue a second major and MacVey said more than one-half do. He said the theater program is seeking a more formal way to encourage students to take a second major.

Students with a second major who apply for a job outside theater learn skills applicable for any work setting. The University of Iowa’s theater department website lists 10 qualities employers look for in job applicants. MacVey said eight can be learned through theater. Some of those eight include communication skills, teamwork, problem solving and work ethic.

READ MORE:
Best And Worst College Major Lists Challenge New Grads In Job Hunts

VALUE PROPOSITION: THEATER FOR ENJOYMENT

Hahn said he realizes the difficulty of getting an acting job. He said acting is more of a hobby than career pursuit.

He is most interested in lighting design, which falls under the theater major. He said he either wants to join a touring company and do light design or go somewhere like New York where he could do light design on Broadway or something similar.

Hahn has also taken steps to prepare himself beyond lighting design. He is getting a certificate in arts entrepreneurship.

“I think it’s something that sets me apart, and it shows my initiative or my work ethic I guess,” he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: BLAKE JORGENSEN ORIGINAL WROTE THIS STORY FOR A UNIVERSITY OF IOWA SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION CLASS TAUGHT BY IOWAWATCH CO-FOUNDER STEPHEN BERRY.

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