4 Real World Skills Learned Working in the Theater


I had a hilariously misguided dream last year about how I’d spend my summer. I thought I’d be able to land a paid internship or job in Washington D.C. I know, right? After approximately one billion interviews that all seemed to end with, “One last thing, this isn’t a paid position. I hope that won’t affect your decision!” and me thinking, “No of course not! I can eat ‘valuable job experience,’ and ‘seeing my name in print,’” I ended up back in my parents’ house, working the same job I’d had in high school.

Despite my setback, I decided to make my summer count in another way. I ended up directing an amateur production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with my friends. I believe that by doing so, I learned more applicable lessons about the professional world than any amount of coffee-fetching and data input could have taught me. Here’s what I now know.

1. How to Form a Successful Team

Amateur theater is nothing like professional theater. Case in point, I’m no actor. In college, I do nothing theater related, besides my occasional role as audience member number 35 or 106. In professional theater, dozens of qualified actors audition for each role. A panel of casting directors evaluates each actor’s audition and selects the best person for the job. My auditions bore no resemblance to that scenario.

For my show, 10 people showed up to auditions (not even enough to fill all the roles), and rather than selecting the best person for each part, I had to select the best way to fit the 10 people I had into the available parts. Before I could even think about casting, I had to sit down with a script and cut, conglomerate, double-cast, and tweak characters until the play could be performed with 10 actors. Then I ran into dozens of problems that went like this: “If I cast person A as George, then I’ll have to cast person B as his father, but person B couldn’t pull off being George’s father, so I have to cast person B as George and person A as his father.” No matter which way I sliced it, I had to put at least one person who could have done a lot more into a smaller part, and had to trust someone I wasn’t sure was as promising with a larger one.

In the future, whenever I am in a situation in which I need to select a team of people and hand out different duties to them, I’ll remember casting this show. It was a matter of figuring out what each person could do, knowing the different places I could put them, and then arranging things so that everyone had a task they could do well. By carefully arranging the people I had, I ended up with a very capable cast, and everyone thrived. 

2. How to Conduct a Business Meeting

Once I had a great team, I ran up against my next problem: where could we rehearse and perform our show? I had to locate spaces, find out who was in charge of them, and then convince the owner that they should let a troop of amateur actors use their spaces for free. This was a tall order, and required research, phone calls, and meetings. The first space I found was great for rehearsals, but wouldn’t work for a performance. The second space was perfect, but after a two-hour meeting in which the woman in charge asked questions about every aspect of the production and my qualifications, no one ever called me back. In my next meeting, a man yelled at me that he was fed up with theater groups trying to rent the space from him, because, according to him, they always left a mess and the lights on. I got false positives, agreed to meet people at certain times only to be left knocking fruitlessly on the doors of empty buildings, and was flat-out rejected. Finally, a cast member made some private inquiries at his own church, and got us a fabulous space. In the end it was all about knowing the right people.

Still, I was able to gain experience with scheduling meetings, presenting a hard-to-sell case, and moving past disappointments. All are necessary skills for the professional world, and I was able to practice them while advancing a cause I really loved. 

3. Picking Your Battles

My actors, quite understandably, didn’t take the project as seriously as I did. Some of them didn’t bother coming to rehearsals, didn'tmemorize lines for weeks after their deadlines, spent more of their time socializing than working, and magically went from completely inaudible onstage and in character to earsplittingly loud when offstage and out of character.

Now, I am very aware of the fact that I’m five foot tall, petite, and have a voice with all the resonance of Mickey Mouse's after he has inhaled a helium balloon. I would have to be a special kind of delusional to think that people would listen to me all the time just because I was the nominal leader of the group. I yelled myself hoarse until I realized that battling what I saw as problems, and simply letting them slide, had exactly the same effect.

I had to change my viewpoint. If someone didn’t show up to rehearsal, I made a point of working more of their material the next time we met. If someone didn’t know their lines, I moved on, figuring that the fear of not knowing what to say in front of a large audience would be enough motivation for them to get in gear before the actual show. If people would rather socialize than work, (what a surprise) I gave them a ten minute break in hopes of refocusing later.

If I kept the criticisms short and infrequent, and gave everyone plenty of encouragement, people gave me their best work. As we got closer and closer to the performance, everyone rallied and started surprising me with their talent and drive. My worrying had been useless, so I am glad I stopped stressing when I did. 

4. At A Certain Point, There's Nothing More You Can Do

When the day of the performance finally arrived, the team pulled it off brilliantly. Any mistakes were overshadowed by the fact that the audience was extremely entertained, and watching a capable performance of a classic play. My job had been to direct and polish extremely talented people, and while I wasn’t onstage with them or receiving the audience’s attention, I can’t imagine a job I’d enjoy more.

I’d spent my entire summer on this project. I wasn’t paid, but I also wasn’t paying anyone for the experience. It benefited a lot of people with a night of entertainment, and it benefited a smaller group of people by giving them a summer project they could be passionate about. Most of all, I think it helped me by giving me a professional experience on my own terms, and allowing me to do something I enjoy. And you can bet I’m putting it on my resume.