Constantin Stanislavski said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” But, with due respect to the acting master, there are some exceptions. By the time I made it to my last year of school for theatre, I realized that there wasn’t just one thing I wanted to do. I wanted to act. I wanted to direct. I wanted to teach. I wanted to write. So I decided to brand myself as a theatre generalist, someone who could check multiple boxes as a theatre-maker. I knew, or hoped, that this portfolio might make me more marketable not just as a freelance artist, but also as an educator.
It’s no big secret that finding work in theatre is a hit-or-miss game of chance. And even when you are lucky enough to land a gig, there’s no guarantee when,or where, the next opportunity might come about. The current climate is, unfortunately, proof of that. But by offering yourself as someone with a diverse skill set, you can stack the deck when it comes to finding opportunities.
It may surprise you to learn that some of the most successful theatre-makers also worked in other theatrical disciplines. Shakespeare was an actor, and famed contemporary playwrights Aaron Sorkin and Tony Kushner studied musical theatre and acting, respectively, before diving into playwriting. Lin-Manuel Miranda has often spoken about the value of dabbling in a lot of different things as a theatre-maker.
How to Do It
- Get a generalized degree. Many colleges and universities offer a BA degree in theatre, which is a liberal arts approach to theatre. In other words, you’ll get your toes wet doing a lot of different areas, no matter what your preferred focus is. If you want to continue your education, an MA degree might be a good pursuit. An MA is a generalized, more scholarly degree. One downside to be aware of however is that an MA is not a terminal degree, so if a tenure-track position in academia is in your future plans, you’ll probably want to top off your education with a PhD.
- Embrace the unknown. A lot of us turn down opportunities that are outside our skill set or comfort zone because of the (understandable) fear that comes with it. Look for lower-stakes opportunities to try new things. Maybe an area community theatre needs some help building sets. Or perhaps a friend needs some actors for a workshop reading of his brand new play. These are great opportunities to give something new a try. When my friends needed a stage manager for a small production they were mounting, I agreed to do it. I’d never stage managed before, but I knew that the experience would be useful to have. I’ve since stage managed several times.
- Ask for mentorship. It might be intimidating, but artists are very often happy to mentor and teach others who are interested in learning more about their craft. If someone comes across your radar with expertise in an area you’d like to learn more about, don’t be afraid to ask for some advice. Consider asking if they’re willing to let you shadow them so you can get some hands-on experience and insight into their job.
Generalizing yourself as a theatre-maker doesn’t just make you more marketable, it makes you a better-rounded artist and collaborator. My stage management experience gave me valuable, first-hand insight into the work of a stage manager, and I’m now able to better communicate with stage managers when I work with them as a director or actor. Understanding each other’s languages makes the collaborative process easier and more efficient. It also means that you can create work that speaks to the people it’s designed for. Think about how valuable it might be for a playwright to also act, and vice versa. Playwrights who speak the language of acting know how to write material that actors can dive into, and actors who speak the language of playwriting can be better investigators of the text.
Remember: generalizing isn’t just about doing lots of different things in disparate areas of theatre. After all, if you know you’re someone who just shouldn’t be using power tools, it’s not wise to try to master a table saw just to say you did. But think about sub-specialties of your chosen area. For example, within the realm of directing, there are all kinds of opportunities to branch out and add a more diverse skill set to your resume: movement coaching, dialect/vocal coaching, fight choreography, intimacy coaching…there are plenty of opportunities to expand your directing portfolio. The same is true of many other fields as well.
Of course, the key is not to overstep your bounds. While I feel comfortable dialect coaching and intimacy coaching, I would never offer myself as a fight choreographer. I simply don’t have enough training and experience to be able to do it effectively and safely. So just how much should you know before you offer your services in a particular area? Generally, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching it or writing an article about it, you probably shouldn’t offer yourself for hire to do it.
Theatre is an ever-evolving landscape, and more and more people are doing more and more things in the field. I very rarely talk to someone who does thing exclusively. The fact is, there’s a lot to do in theatre, and the old notion that you need to specialize in something isn’t necessarily true anymore. This is great news of course to anyone who eats, sleeps, and breathes theatre…the sky is truly the limit.