The Challenges of Earning a Theatre Degree

By Kevin Paley

According to USA Today, the average college student spends 17 hours per week on homework (studying included); that’s roughly two-and-a-half hours per day. Given that the average student takes between 15 and 20 units per semester, that’s about half an hour on each class. What would you say if I asked you to rank the majors or schools at USC in order of busiest to most free, in terms of scheduling? You’d probably think Architecture, Pre-Med, and/or Engineering would be the most time-consuming for the average student, right? Where would Theatre majors land on your list? Some might put it on the bottom of this hypothetical list but allow me to enlighten you on why it would actually be a contender for the top.

Acting, directing, designing, and managing in the theatrical realm are careers where experience is the foundation of the learning process. Homework for theatre classes involves outside of class rehearsal time (similar to group projects), in addition to regular reading and writing assignments. This classroom experience is vital, but the majority of theatre students seek to enhance their education by participating in plays and musicals at USC: both those produced by the School of Dramatic Arts and Independent Student Productions. Rehearsals for these shows are 6-10pm Monday through Friday and 10am-2pm on Saturday (on average). That’s twenty-four hours of rehearsal on top of pre-existing class and homework. One whole day each week dedicated to gaining experience in one of the least prosperous career paths. Why?

For some, the need to sacrifice a social life for the sake of volunteer-work in the theatre comes from the insecurity of landing a job after graduation: it’s the notion that hard work will eventually pay off. For some, it’s a simple and addictive love: acting, directing, or some other artistic platform in the theatre is merely what provides fulfillment in the college student’s turbulent life. No matter what the reason, once one joins the ensemble of a production, the next few months of his or her life are dedicated to making that work of art happen.

A few weeks ago, I completed my twelfth show in college: ten musicals and two plays. With each production rehearsing an average of six weeks (with 44 hours of rehearsal weekly during the final two weeks), that’s about 180 hours dedicated to each show. In the last three years, I have committed about 2,160 hours to acting, and 350 to directing. As I do the math now at my computer, I am floored by the fact that I have spent about 105 days of the last three years rehearsing. That’s enough time to learn a new language, read hundreds of books, start and finish countless Netflix series, or take up and master a new hobby. But I spent those hours in a classroom figuring out how to expertly tell stories.

Do I regret it? At this point in time… I do. Perhaps if I’d done half the shows that I did, I could have developed stronger friendships here in Los Angeles. But, at the same time, I don’t! As my time at USC comes to a close (only one month to graduation!), I look forward to moving to New York City knowing that I absorbed as much as I possibly could about the world of theatre before trying to make a life of it on my own. Sure, I thought I’d have more crazy memories and drunken nights, but I still have the rest of my life for that. Financially speaking, these past four years are the only time I will ever have to learn the craft to which I plan to dedicate my life. I just hope it pays off.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Paley is an undergraduate senior in the School of Dramatic Arts and Thornton School of Music at USC. Hailing from Connecticut, Kevin grew up playing sports and wandering through the woods with his dog until he was twelve; that’s when he discovered a passion for acting. Since then, he has grown to become an avid writer, actor, and director. He recently returned from studying at the British American Drama Academy; while abroad, Kevin was fortunate enough to visit Spain, Holland, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Budapest, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.