“Laura is the most cerebral actor I’ve ever worked with.”
I’m 20, sitting in a term evaluation interview for my third year of theatre school. The comment comes from the director of my first semester show who agonized over the fact that I could not, no, would not get out of my head enough to perform.
I mean, he wasn’t lying. I had slowly dropped my lines in this quasi-collective creation, replacing them with nods, handshakes, giggles, and grins. No one noticed. By the time the show opened I’d reduced my biggest role in the play to a mere seven sentences. And still, no one noticed.
Except the director, who three weeks later acknowledged my efforts by giving me the lowest grade and the burning the word “cerebral” into my memory. I had entered the program eager to learn about performing but this was the nail in the coffin; I declared I was done with acting. So, what was my interest?
When I told instructors that I wasn’t into acting anymore, none of them evaluated my list-making qualities and recommended a career change to arts management; instead they continued to do their job and make me an actor. How could I know management was the right choice if my only stab had been as a department student representative? If I was really cerebral shouldn’t I have chosen an academic program in the first place? Was this “giving up” on my dream too soon? I was left to Google it on my own.
Option one was to build a time machine, go back in time, and tell high-school-Laura that acting wouldn’t work out. I jest, but it’s important to note that administrative roles, let alone administrative programs, were never explained or mentioned in any of my high school drama classes. Had I learned at that age about producing, marketing, and programming, I probably would have self-selected into a different undergraduate program from the get-go. Representation and visibility are important: had I seen someone who had my skills and desires in a fulfilling role off-stage I would have felt like I was making the right choice.
Option two (a slightly more realistic one) was to transition to a more academic theatre program, one that would have a course or two in management, or transition to an undergraduate arts management program. A brief survey of arts managers in Toronto shows that many did not graduate from conservatory arts training. Only two theatre students at Humber, where I eventually studied arts administration, came from conservatory programs. Unfortunately transitioning to an academic program was difficult: many universities will not accept college transfer credits so those who discover they’re meant for the books may have to start their undergrad all over again. In the end, I stayed in my program for fear of leaving my friends, though my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Option three was to study management at the post-post-secondary level. Conservatory or not, undergraduate programs are not sufficient prerequisites anymore. I was lucky enough to have a degree and a diploma (shout out to joint programs!) so I could pursue a graduate program, but the average conservatory student would not be admitted to Humber or any other post-graduate program. Employers want a balance of management and a creative mind, which can only develop in an combo artistic-management setting.
After graduating, I bid goodbye to acting, applied and was accepted to the Arts Administration and Cultural Management program at Humber College. Some prospective managers rely on traditional business programs but the unique demands of artistic leadership, like navigating the charitable sector and interacting with artists, require specialized training.
Arts management is not a particularly new area of study, but the programs are scattered and inconsistent. Humber defunded their program for over five years (2009 to 2014), Western University ended their long running certificate program this past year and replaced it with a non-profit management diploma, or students who still have a passion for the art itself can apply for the joint MFA/MBA at York University.
Options outside of Ontario, like the Arts and Cultural Management certificate at MacEwan University in Edmonton, are poorly advertised on the national level, and programs in the US are astronomically expensive for international students. One girl in my cohort came from Newfoundland because there was nothing east of Quebec to educate her in what she needed to know. How is that possible?
There’s definitely a demand from the students (my year was a double-cohort of 60) though few schools are rising to the challenge. We continue to produce hundreds of theatre school grads across the country each year with limited ability as an industry to immediately employ them, yet the arts career that could use more people (hint-hint-fundraising!) has the same number of institutions as clown school.
We need a better understanding of and visibility for arts managers in theatre. Maybe if Glee had featured a character who only wanted to schedule rehearsal times and book busses to regionals the average person would understand what exactly I do every day.
It’s been less than a year since I graduated from Humber, but already I sense trends in our industry that make me hopeful for the next generation of arts managers. Job postings that encourage specialized programs like mine, increasing attendance at those programs, and anecdotes of high school teachers who let students produce their own work reassure me that fewer young people will feel smushed into acting when perhaps they’re meant for other things.
My biggest dream is that the next time a student is told they’re too cerebral for the stage or won’t “get out of their heads” that the comment is immediately followed with “And that’s ok.” Because it is.