Theater as Preparation for Life, by Elise Robinson
Today's post is written by theater professor, actor, director, speaker and teacher - Elise Robinson. Elise happened to be my theater professor when I was in college, directed me in several shows, and is someone I admire and adore. She is brilliant and funny - and has taught me so much. Way back in November I interviewed her for This Moved Me on the episode about Holy Theater - and in it she mentions that theater is great preparation for life. I was intrigued and asked her to expound on that idea a bit, and she agreed. Lucky for us! Thanks, Elise, for sharing your wit and wisdom here, once again.
“The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.”
~Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
When you work in the theatre, and particularly in academic theatre, you quickly get used to being the target of other people’s well-meaning concern:
“But what will you do for money?” they say. “Shouldn’t you have some other plans for back-up?”
“I know it’s fun, but it’s not very practical, is it?” they ask you. “Did you know that only 2% of actors make a living at it?” (For some reason, every parent of a theatre kid knows this statistic. How do they all know this? Who told?)
Or, as a kind but misguided mentor once asked me, “Do you want to wait tables for the rest of your life?”
Now, look: a) NO ONE wants to wait tables for the rest of their life (seriously, have you tried it? Waiting tables SUCKS), and b) I could point you to numerous studies showing the cognitive and social benefits of studying the arts, and the civic benefits of a lively arts community, but all that is pretty abstract stuff. And while I can’t claim that my choice of theatre as a career was exactly made from a practical perspective, I nevertheless maintain that theatre in general, and acting in particular, is the best possible training for the one job we all have our whole lives: being a person, living alongside other people, in the world.
[Tweet "Theater is the best possible training for the one job we all have: being a person, living alonside other people, in the world." ~@EliseRobinson on @ThisMovedMe"]
“All the world’s a stage,” Mr. Shakespeare famously proclaimed, and what was true in Elizabethan England turns out to be even more so in the era of Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, and whatever the hell other social media platforms the kidz are using these days. Because, as Erving Goffman noted way back in 1959, performance isn’t something that only happens on a stage or film set; we’re performing ourselves every day, in every interaction we have with the world around us.
Think about it: how many “characters” do you present to the world on a daily basis? Speaking for myself, I have a “professional/mentor” character when I’m teaching, a “goofy/nerd” character for when I’m with friends, a “mom-in-charge” character for supervising my kids, a “wife/BFF” character with my husband, and a “liberal-feminist-link-posting-snarky-muppet-fan” character for social media consumption. And that is by no means an exhaustive list! True, these characters are unified insofar as they’re all being performed by the physical body that is me, but then, what am I but the assemblage of these various characters? My roles are created via a kind of alchemical convergence of external influences and internal instincts; much as we like to believe that we have a unified, coherent (albeit evolving) “Self,” science increasingly suggests what the theatre has long known: we’re all actors, playing multiple roles, in the world’s longest-running improv show.
What better preparation for life could there be, then, than the study of theatre? There are the practical skills you acquire, sure (costuming teaches you how to sew! Scene building teaches you how to use power tools! Directing teaches you how to manage people!), but more than that, learning how to be a performer gives you insight and technique for understanding your own performance(s) of “self” on and off the stage. Beyond just understanding the importance of “dressing the part” or having the right “props” for, say, an important job interview, theatre training promotes the kind of adaptability and playful creativity that make for a more productive, abundant, and fully-lived existence. Moreover, because theatre – like life – is an essentially communal art, successful students of stagecraft must learn to work as a team, communicate clearly, manage artistic temperaments, and strive for a collective goal.
So, if you’re a theatre person, the next time someone expresses well-meaning concern over your life choices, remind them that you’re in training to become a professional human being. And if you’re not a theatre person, consider adding some theatrical experiences to your life, whether it’s taking an acting class, joining an improv group, or going to see some local shows. We’re all in this production together, after all.
You can find Elise on Twitter at @EliseRobinson
Or, just read this and you'll see why she is so awesome.