We’re pleased to introduce a new contributor to our blog, Kirk Laing. Kirk is a current graduate student, pursuing a Master’s in Stage Management at Columbia University in New York City. For his first article, he shares his thoughts on the pros and cons of the technical theatre graduate school experience.
Choosing to pursue a master’s program is never easy. It is a significant time commitment and the expectations only increase from what you experience in undergrad. But for me, as I approach the end of my own grad school journey, I can honestly say it has been the most valuable experience I’ve ever had. It has helped me develop the key skills I need to be a better collaborator, artist, and leader. Skills that can allow others to more readily trust in me to take on new challenges.
But nothing is perfect, right? And you’ve got to make your own decision. So here’s my unfiltered take on the good, the bad, and the miscellaneous takeaways that come with choosing to get your master’s in stage management.
The people. Oh, the people…
Enrolling in a grad program put me smack in the middle of some of the most talented people I’ve ever come across. Not just the faculty, either. I’m working shoulder to shoulder with incredibly dedicated stage managers who have quickly become the foundation of my professional peer group. Before I ever set foot outside of the program, I’ve got a whole network of other industry folks I can rely on for support or opportunity. Can you get this same kind of engagement out in the professional world? Of course you can. But you would have to go out and create that peer group for yourself. Let’s face it – in a master’s program, it gets handed to you and YOU are the focus. Every instructor, guest artist, and administrator has generously committed time to improving your skills. Where else do you get that kind of nurturing?
Did I mention the network?
This industry is built on referrals. So many opportunities come via connections. And it’s the training you receive on a job that gives you the experience to advance your career. Graduate school is a hand-delivered network on a platter. Most programs are actively involved not just in student productions but professional ones as well. With the weight of your program behind you, in becomes much easier to land critical resumé-building opportunities. Additionally, many of the artists, guests, or professors manage their own work separately. They have colleagues of their own, many of whom could be your next employer. Your school provides you with all the tools to benefit from these associations. All you have to do is reach out and grab them.
The freedom to fail in a (relatively) mistake-free zone
Okay, I know I just said that you are likely to work on professional productions that come to your campus. And even student productions carry high expectations. So you can’t exactly burn the place down. However, a graduate program offers what I like to think of as “the security of experimentation.” In other words, you can take risks in an attempt to find your most efficient methods for work and communication. Risks you may not have the luxury of taking on a professional contract. You can take on many different types of projects as well. Discover team dynamics, work in multiple roles, and truly discover what ignites your passion. From talking at length with stage managers out in the field, this is an opportunity you might not have again, at least not for some time. When you don’t have to worry about where and when your next gig is, is your responsibility to take advantage of this freedom.
Hurry up and Wait
For all of the opportunities you get in school, you are still in school. There are only so many outside projects you can take on. But it’s all skill building, right? Sure, but put it this way. There aren’t a lot of entry-level jobs in theatre that pay well. And coming out of a graduate program, even a highly regarded one is no guarantee of some cushy job. Really, how many cushy jobs are out there, anyways? No, in order to advance and establish a sustainable career, you are still going to have to pay your dues. Remember how I mentioned this is a referral industry? Committing to more school means you are actively choosing to limit (or at least delay) the amount of professional work experience you gain as a young artist. Sometimes significantly. And at a time when paying your dues is often easier to manage and accept.
It’s a High Wire Act
Did you think balancing undergraduate classes and work was hard? Just wait. Not only do your responsibilities increase, your assignments grow in scope as well. You are also likely pursuing an internship or other work opportunity and still trying to maintain a social life so that you can exit the program with your sanity intact.
It’s All on You
Much of your work is self-directed. There is a lot less handholding. This means that how you budget your time is all the more critical. If you have time management struggles, get ready. This also includes how you plan your exit strategy. What is life going to look like when you graduate? You surely will have guidance and assistance but the motivation to tap these resources has to come from you.
The Frustration of Saying No
This is a big one, especially as you near graduation. You can see the end but you aren’t quite there. Job offers come in that you have to turn down because they conflict with your school requirements. We’ve all been there – feeling like we’ve graduated even though walking across that stage is still a few months off. But in a master’s program, it really feels like every opportunity you turn down can have an effect on your career. This frustration can feed on itself and make it harder to find success post-graduation.
Get Inspired, Get Advice, Get Leads
The most helpful thing I did for my own sake was to seek out resources that I connected with. As I mentioned before, this is a process everyone goes through individually. Find something that drives you. It will really help, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed. Peter Lawrence wrote a terrific book, filled with all sorts of advice and tips for backstage pros. It became my companion. I also discovered professional associations and trades. The SMA and Theatrical Index offer a variety of benefits from job postings to mentoring opportunities to regular old meetups across the city. Whatever you can do to leverage both the educational and professional spheres, the better.
Stage Management Master’s programs may not be for everyone. The time commitment and balance is certainly a challenge and might affect people differently. Especially when considering what else you have going on in your life. But if you can manage those challenges, you’ll find the benefits of networking, building a peer group, and having room to grow may be just right.
For me, it was perfect. I’ll never forget how my journey started. I closed a production of Spamalot in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a Saturday night, said good-bye to my friends and family, moved to New York City on Sunday, and began orientation Monday morning. It was a whirlwind of a weekend. And it is what my entire experience has been since. The fact that this craziness is thrilling to me rather than stressful confirms that I made the right decision. I hope you make the right decision for you, too. Good luck!
Have you attended or are you thinking about attending a masters program in technical theatre? What are your experiences of the process? Please share them with us and other readers in the comments below.
By: Kirk Laing