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How Do We Prepare Arts Students for the Workforce?

May 8, 2019

Posted by Camille Schenkkan, May 07, 2019

Within six months of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theatre, I:

  • Took an inflexible, full-time “day job” that prevented me from going to any auditions;
  • Spent $1,500 (in 2006!) for casting workshops that didn’t have actual casting directors in the room;
  • Almost fell for a shady “pay for representation” agency scam;
  • Overspent by about $500 on new headshots;
  • Gave up on acting.

I knew how to act. I didn’t know how to be an actor.

The post-graduation years are considered a rite of passage, where emerging artists navigate crushing poverty, unpaid internships, uninformed financial decisions, and rejection in order to emerge as bona fide artists. People use words like sacrifice and bootstraps. You’re expected to work for free in order to demonstrate your work ethic and “make connections” with important people. These connections, we’re told over and over, lead to paid jobs. Just not yet.

Let’s look closely at these expectations through the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion. The “rite of passage” culture can signal to aspiring artists that the luxury of time, connections, and money are necessary to enter this field.

In a field that is still white and male-dominated despite encouraging signs of change, those who hold privilege (economic, racial, gender, social, etc.) are better positioned to take the unpaid internships, get that one-on-one meeting with the artistic director, or convince the seasoned leader to take them on as an assistant. The idea of “sacrifice” holds different weight for someone with access to mom and dad’s credit card in an emergency, versus someone who is primary caretaker to a parent or child.

How can we better prepare aspiring artists from all backgrounds to enter this field?

There are many interconnected solutions: a shift away from unpaid internship culture, clearer pipelines into entry-level jobs, and prioritizing efforts to make institutions more diverse and accessible, for example.

We can also examine how we are preparing diverse students to transition from higher education to the workforce. Many programs focus exclusively on craft and artistry, but rarely—if ever—address the nitty-gritty topics such as finding work, money management, or entrepreneurship, although these are all critical to finding success in many areas of the arts.

As Next Generation Initiatives Director at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, I’ve had the opportunity to research and develop programming around the idea of “workforce readiness,” or the ability of emerging theatre practitioners to transition from an educational setting to a professional one. Last summer, researcher Naima Orozco-Valdivia and I surveyed more than 600 recent graduates from southern California theatre programs. We asked them what career training they had received on their campuses, what they sought off-campus, and what training they wish they had received prior to graduation. We also collected demographic information and asked about their post-graduation career paths.

The results were striking. Overwhelmingly, recent graduates stressed the importance of financial literacy and understanding the economic realities of making a life in theatre. Contract negotiation, salary and payment best practices, and basic financial literacy topped the list of training that respondents wished they’d received before trying to enter the field.

For respondents who had left live theatre, financial pressure and low pay were the top two reasons given for their career change, and what they identified as the main barriers to entering the field. When asked what additional training would have kept them in the field longer, “where and how to find jobs,” negotiating contracts, and self-marketing topped the list.

We also found that first-generation college students, people of color, and women were leaving the field at higher rates. While 73% of participants overall were still working in live theatre, that number dropped to 71% when female-identified participants were isolated, 66% when people of color were isolated, and 65% when first-generation college students were isolated. People who identified as white/Caucasian had the highest field retention rate at 85%.

Overall, the data suggest that improving access to career training—especially topics related to financial literacy and money—may help more diverse students stay in the live theatre field by providing tools for navigating that toxic “rite of passage” culture described above.

At CTG, we are working with a broad range of higher education and technical training partners to complement existing curriculum through free career training workshops and online tools, paid internships and apprenticeships, and opportunities for mentorship and network-building. We’re constantly learning more about what students need, and trying to support both students and institutions to better prepare diverse individuals for the workforce.

It is often overwhelming. There are thousands of students studying theatre in southern California alone. But the good news is, a lot of the crucial information that needs to be shared with students is relatively straightforward and can usually be integrated into the training they’re already receiving, either on- or off-campus.

If I could have an hour with the Camille of 2006, for example, I would tell her to find a more flexible job, stop falling for pay-to-play scams, and invest in an acting class instead. I’d also tell her that not getting that Evanescence tattoo was the right decision.

The full Southern California Theatre Alumni Survey Executive Report can be accessed here. There are many more interesting findings related to how we train and prepare diverse theatre practitioners. I welcome further discussion and research in this area. There is so much more we can all do—higher education, individuals, and institutions—to make success in our field more accessible to emerging arts practitioners.