Actor, Puppeteer, and Teaching Artist

10 Things I Wish I’d Known On Leaving for College

14.7 million internet years ago I had a post that did some wild numbers on StumbleUpon.

That’s just to actually carbon date the post for the older internet kids out there. It was back in 2009 and was called 10 Things I Wish I’d been Told in College (and 1 I was). It holds up remarkably well for a post from the first year of the Obama era, I think I still agree with the whole list. But it really is a meta list written by someone in blogging mode and thinking about the needs of the theatre community for broadly capable engaged citizens. Being in a show recently with some folks who are headed off into the world of undergrad theatre in the next few weeks, I got to thinking about what advice I would give to those starting out if asked.

They did not ask. Here we are anyway.

Here in 2023 as someone who has spent a lot of time since then doubling and tripling down on performing what do I which I’d leveraged better during undergrad?
What do I wish I’d set as goals before embarking for Durham in 1993?

I would begin where I ended in 2009: “But you have to work for it.”

The narrative about success is that if one actually good at one’s craft it’s effortless.
That is just a hand-wavey myth used by storytellers to skirt showing the endless repetition needed to make anything look effortless.

Effort is the literal marker of progress.
The point of formal program is growth.
If you are paying for undergrad you want to maximize your time.
If it is easy for you (for any value of it)? You aren’t growing muscle. Whether that’s performance, or studying, or how you socialize – if you’re not making a recognizable (to you) effort you’re not going to build all the muscle you can before you return to the wilderness.

  1. There is no system.
    It is easy to believe that one can go through the program of undergrad education listed in the catalog, hit the requirements and then move on to a professional career. But you aren’t studying law. The theatre “industry” is sort of notional unless you are a generational triple threat.
    What this means for you is that one must be proactive in building one’s metaphorical muscles and your network. And it’s essential because there is no conveyor moving you along to the next thing if you hit some minimal threshold. Have a plan. Check it often. Run it by smart folks who know you and your situation.
  2. You are building you, not a resume.
    This moment in a new environment is the right time to create personal practices for you the person to succeed, not just you the performer. Explore and build habits of people you admire, if they are in your life ask – or try some podcasts: Maybe it’s morning pages? Maybe it’s journaling to Oblique Strategies? Reading three plays a week from the New Play Exchange?
    An intentional life starts with a goal so you can start plotting the path to it.
  3. You are Responsible for All of You
    You are a person reading advice from a theatre blogger – you clearly are a brain first human (hey me too!) but I wish someone had set me on building physical practice at 18. One has to create the vehicle that moves that brain around. The gym, dance, combat, nutrition and sleep. You are currently indestructible. But you have to plan for when you’re not, and do everything you can to keep your window of peak health open as long as you can. Not just for you but as a performer.

    Good performers are delivering at 75-85% of max effort most of the time. The less physically able one is, the more effort is required to deliver the same performance – so if you are have low cardio ability and are largely deconditioned muscularly one has to give 100% to achieve the same performance. And lower physical ability means longer recovery times. What about two show days?

    You can 100% survive on powdered cheese and caffeine. But mostly you don’t need to, so don’t.
    Build a fitness practice, yoga or gym.
    Take dance classes like mad.
    Take any combat classes you can.
  4. Learn As Many Ways to Use Your Voice As You Can.
    Sing. Sing pop. Sing rock, Sing opera. Doesn’t matter how good you are, learn. Do Spoken Word. Shakespeare. Modern Idiomatic english texts. Silly puppet voices. Deadly serious puppet voices. Learn any dialect a pro will teach you. Record on camera, Record on microphones, host comedy shows, do standup.
    The broader your experience the more you remove the caveats from your responses to work asks. The more time you have spent doing something the more ready you are to make bold choices for a director when they need it.
  5. Find Your THING
    And it’s not being on stage. In high school your thing was theater. Here in the sequel you need to go deeper. What makes you singularly you? Love of mythology? Punk rock? Horror? Sci-fi? Modern dance adaptations of folk tales? If you are a person who speaks loudly and clearly you are a person who can do the job, but you will never be The Person for This One Particular Job. Dive deep into the other things you love alongside doing this training.
  6. Never Pretend You Know Everything
    First… no one likes that person in the room. Second it’s how you guarantee you never manage to pick up the things you don’t know. Be the person who asks for help when they need it and admits when they don’t know things. That’s how you get the help and the extra knowledge.
  7. Use Your Friends
    Some of the people that you should be asking questions of are your friends. They are smart folks engaged in active learning – ask them about their classes and reading… ask them about YOUR classes and reading. Take breaks from Baldur’s Gate 3 and Tears of the Kingdom to get their takes on things. What are they reading that’s awesome? Why are you wrong about loving David Mamet? the broader your exposure to culture not already your own the better, and the more opinions you hear about the culture you’re interacting with the more critically you can engage with it.
  8. Respect
    Everyone. Students, faculty and staff. Maybe by the time you leave you’ll have a pretty good idea of who might not have fully earned it, but most of the time you won’t know for years, so don’t bother trying to vote folks off the island left and right the whole way through. This of course doesn’t mean that everything everyone says is right… but it means that kindness and listening will sift you out much more gold than spiky dismissal.
  9. Engage the Cultural Canon
    Be like Cap!
    When Steve Rogers returns from the ice to catch up on the century of culture he missed, he takes notes on things people mention as important… and then he follows up and samples them. You are about to hear about 6.3 million things you’ve never heard of. Be a cultural detective and follow up on those leads. It’s a great way to Find Your Thing, but it’s also important as someone who intends to make culture to understand the environment you’re making it in from Aeschylus on down to Planet of Bass. Films, books, philosophy, music, visual art. Get in there.
  10. Say Yes
    This may seem counter to the idea of sleep – but Do The Thing. I didn’t do my first tabletop puppet show until I was almost 40. I didn’t do Shakespeare for almost a decade right after school.
    Do the musical, do a dance show, do the children’s tour, do immersive, do Commedia on the quad, do bawdy French farce, go teach creative drama to 6th graders or incarcerated populations. You can’t know what you love most about performing if you don’t actively sample it all.

Having the opportunity to truly be immersed in learning is honestly amazing. One gets to spend 12-14 hours a day learning and doing and learning and it’s all for you. It may feel like you’re reading that textbook for a professor – but they’ve read it (and may have written it) – you are reading this for you. You GET to. Don’t succumb to the work is drudgery trope, you’re smarter than that.

Have the best damn time here at the beginning it’ll make the rest of the journey a lot more fun.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

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