How the "worst" advice I received as a college senior actually paid off

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My final semester in college was definitely a whirlwind. Those last few weeks were filled with library trips, barbecues, exams, parties, and so many job applications. As a theater major, I had just wrapped up my last show of the year, and I was done with rehearsals and late nights. There wasn’t much left to do but set my sights on graduation and the great abyss beyond.

One night in May, I attended a lecture given by a Broadway actress. She made an appearance at my small liberal arts school in between rehearsals for Angels in America – a play that my friends and I recently worked on in class. It seemed as though almost every theater major attended that lecture, thinking she would surely bestow some kind of great wisdom upon us as we embarked on our “real world” journeys.

To be honest, I don’t really remember what she talked about during her lecture. It was the Q+A portion of the event that has stayed with me.

Towards the end of the evening, a classmate of mine asked her the question that was probably on all of our minds: “What advice would you give to theater majors?”

The actress paused (dramatically, no doubt) and we all leaned forward expectantly.

“If you can do anything else but this,” she said seriously, “do it.”

Teacher talking to students in theater class
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I looked around at my fellow classmates to see if anyone else had the reaction I did. Was this lady serious? Did she really come into a room of 20-somethings about to graduate with a theater degree and tell us to “do something else?” Like many of my peers, my post-college plans included moving to New York City, getting a part-time job, and auditioning as much as possible. When you spend four years reading Shakespeare and crawling around on the floor in Alexander Technique class, that’s really the only logical option.

With that in mind, I was pretty furious at this advice.

I left the lecture feeling indignant. How dare this Broadway actress try to discourage me and my friends. How dare she not encourage us to follow our dreams and believe in ourselves. It made me even more resigned to proceed without a backup plan, to choose theater as my only option. Screw that Broadway actress; I was going to prove her wrong.

And I did, for a while.

A few weeks after graduation, I booked my first real theater job. Someone was actually going to pay me to sing and dance and act – it felt totally surreal. I spent five months living in a house with a dozen other actors while we performed six shows in repertory theatre. I played a Pink Lady in Grease, a damsel in Pirates of Penzance, a little girl heading to Narnia in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I received a goddamned paycheck every week in exchange. I was sure that when I went back to New York at the end of my contract, I’d book another gig almost instantly.

But I was totally wrong.

It turns out that my first theater job was probably the result of dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time – more than anything else. Upon returning to New York, I auditioned every day, sometimes more than once a day. And even though I received several callbacks, months went by without booking a solid role.

Soon, I began to spend more time serving drinks than singing or acting, and I started to understand what that Broadway actress meant.

Theater
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Following your dreams only gets you so far.

Ultimately, your dreams can’t pay rent, they can’t put food on the table, and they can’t ease the panic of checking your bank account. Some dreams are fleeting. You grasp them, just for a bit, and then they disappear again. I knew what it was like to feel successful at theater, and I also knew what it was like to feel that I’d failed. Getting a taste of both in such short succession was painful at best, heartbreaking at worst.

I’ve changed careers twice since the days of auditioning in New York. I worked as a theater teacher, and now I’m a full-time writer and editor (who sometimes writes about theater). In my spare time, I work with community theaters as both a performer and a director. And while I sometimes miss the rush of performing every day, I don’t miss the uncertainty that came afterwards.

So in retrospect, I think I understand what that Broadway actress was trying to say.

I think I know why she didn’t tell us, a room full of almost-graduates, to follow our dreams.

The “real world” doesn’t care about anyone’s dreams. And even though it feels good to have those dreams reinforced, that encouragement is entirely superficial when you consider the weight of responsibilities that all post-grads must carry.

When you grow up being told that you can be anything you want, you inherently feel like a failure when you can’t make that happen. So maybe we shouldn’t be telling each other that anything is possible, when, in all likelihood, some things just aren’t possible. Maybe saying “if you can do anything else but this, do it” isn’t so cruel.

After all, your passion and your career don’t have to be one and the same. Perhaps that’s the secret we should have been told all along.

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