I want to preface this by saying I do not regret getting my degree. I am extremely happy with where I am today, and I firmly believe I would not have gotten there were it not for my college experience. There are positives and negatives to any program, whether it is artistic or not. Hopefully it has come across in my previous posts that I am very confident with the choices I’ve made.
Placing theatre in an educational setting is kind of an oddball proposition from the get go. Impressions of performances are always incredibly subjective. For every universally loved actor there is an infinite number of critics who will point to them and say, “Hack!” There isn’t a “right” way to act or sing; you basically just have to explore the techniques available to you and find what personally works best.
Education, on the other hand, tends to be the opposite. It requires metrics and structure. Every student must be ranked, weighed, and measured in a way that can be easily processed via paperwork. If you don’t assign grades, then how do you determine things like GPA, honor roll, and scholarships? How do you decide who gets to stay in school, and who gets kicked out?
You can probably see how this mindset doesn’t exactly jive with the theatrical method of learning. What’s the point value for exploring a character or performing a song? That led to many classes grading mostly on effort and preparation. As long as you showed up on time and stayed focused on the material, your grade was fine. However, that did not lead to much separation between students when it came to report cards, and education demands separation.
That is where juries come in. Juries are a common practice among all conservatory-style performance programs, and my school was no exception.They are a tortuous, soul-breaking week at the end of every semester where your skills are evaluated by the faculty. On the first day, we had to sight-read (sing a piece of written music correctly after hearing only the first note) a random selection, then play a short song on the piano. After that, we had to stand alone on the stage of the big music hall and sing any song we had practiced that semester on command. All under the watchful, scrutinizing eyes of every teacher in the program.
If your performance during any one of these tests was deemed unacceptable, you were put on probation for the following semester. Probation is the boogeyman of the undergraduate theatre world. It’s spoken about in hushed tones by fearful students awaiting its death hammer. If you were on probation, you might as well walk through the halls with a big, red “P” pinned to your shirt, because everyone knew. It was the gossip of every semester break: who got put on, who got taken off, and what happened to the poor souls who had been cursed with it the previous semester. After getting put on probation once, you didn’t get put on again. If you failed to meet standards for a second straight semester, you were out of the program, and had to find another degree.
It’s an archaic practice (in my opinion at least) borrowing from the idea of thesis defenses. The key difference being that the things we were tested on during juries said absolutely nothing about our talent or ability to succeed in our chosen profession. You can read music and learn a song without knowing how to sight read, and you certainly don’t have to play the piano to be an actor. I suppose you do need to memorize songs, but usually they all come from the same show, not the random assortment from across the musical theatre catalogue that was asked of us.
You could argue the idea was simply to test a student’s dedication to the program, but how does that distinguish between students who are truly focused and those who might be quick learners? I never had much of a problem with juries, but that had far more to do with me having a knack for memorization than it did my commitment. Since we had the book of sight-reading samples that we’d be tested from ahead of time, I simply pounded them all out until they were imprinted on my brain. Same with the solos I might be asked to sing. Playing piano required a bit more effort, but as long as I did it enough times I could get it taken care of.
Meanwhile, I saw countless classmates struggling and giving themselves legitimate panic attacks over juries. Every semester, someone always broke down crying in front of the professors. People stayed up in practice rooms until early in the morning repeatedly sight-reading line after line over and over. We were so conditioned to fear this thing that the end of every semester became an endless wait for the executioner’s axe to fall. And fall it did, for several of my classmates anyway.
The practice of holding juries is self-perpetuating. So many of the “top” schools have it that not holding them comes off as second-class. There’s a certain majesty and desirability associated with a program that kicks people out. It means there are people who “aren’t good enough,” which suggests those that are must be exceptional. This works because, in theatre, the expectation is failure. Even after getting a degree, nobody expects you to ever work on Broadway. Most probably don’t even expect you to make a steady living acting. So if one student out of 100 finds a way to “make it,” it’s proof that the system works.
I don’t blame my school for having juries; like I mentioned, it’s almost undesirable not to. But while I found them incredibly silly, they did help me realize how little merit meant in the world of acting. Ultimately my talent and drive didn’t matter; I could still end up struggling regardless. In school, juries were the test by which I lived or died. In the real world? Something far less meaningful, like my hair color, could do me in.
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At the same time all this was going on, I was also working toward a minor in digital media. I had always had a deep affinity for technology in general, and was astounded by the possibilities that the emerging interconnected world provided. It was in one of these classes that I was asked to write a report on a relevant research topic.
Papers had always come easy to me. I generally threw them together in the hours before they were due, pulling random thoughts out of my ass and sprinkling in a liberal helping of run-on sentences. I perfected the art of writing page-long paragraphs that could usually be summed up by one sentence like: “Achilles had a bad ankle.” Yet, these half-efforts always garnered me full grades, even in my college honor classes, so I never paid them much mind.
Which is why I was all the more shocked when I saw my digital media report return to me with a glaring F on the front. The only F I ever received throughout all my years of school. I was furious. I even called my parents and whined with indignation at the nasty old professor who dared question my ability. Hadn’t he seen my high school transcripts? I demanded that he meet with me in private, to which he agreed.
I still remember my enraged stomp to his office. In my head, I went over all the things I was going to say to him, and practiced how I was going to point out all the ways my paper met his criteria. When I punched at the door, he warmly greeted me and invited me inside to take a seat. That immediately caught me off guard, as I had the juvenile expectation that he was mad or disappointed with me. Still, undeterred, I marched straight into his office, shoved my report under his nose, and demanded he explain its grading.
Then, the most miraculous thing happened. My professor took the paper, leaned forward carefully in his seat, then proceeded to carefully, but deliberately, CALL ME OUT ON ALL OF MY BULLSHIT. It was stunning. He knew every trick I pulled, every argument I had extended using bad grammar, every topic I had only fleetingly researched, and every false conclusion I had made without backing them up. What’s more, he wasn’t doing it in a hurtful way; it was so matter-of-fact that it was almost painful. He truly did not give two shits whether I cared or not, but he wasn’t about to reward me for faking it. Uncovering know-it-all bullshit artists was his craft, and I was his ninth symphony.
By the end, I was speechless. I stumbled out of the room a changed student. I wasn’t hurt or upset, I was resolved.
I finally had something to work for.
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To read someone else’s take on themes similar to the first part of this post, but put more eloquently and taking place in a much more intense environment, please read the masterful Gillian Jacobs’ reflection on her time at Juliard: http://www.lennyletter.com/work/a213/gillian-jacob...
Edited by @Becca. From Performer to Programmer updates every Friday. Follow me here or on Twitter to be notified of new posts.