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Five Fields of Study for Theater Careers

If you have always dreamed of stepping out of the wings and onto the stage -- or of contributing your talents to what’s happening behind-the-scenes -- you have plenty of good reasons to do so. Which begs the question: what are your options when it comes to theater studies? Read on for a roundup of five fields of study that will prepare you for an exciting career in performing arts.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
Five Fields of Study for Theater Careers

We usually think of theater in terms of entertainment value. And while taking in a show is indeed exhilarating, the benefits don’t end there. In fact, according to the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, the effects of a theatre education are profound with the potential to boost everything from reading comprehension to self-esteem. It can also lead to “higher levels of empathy and tolerance towards others,” according to a study published by Champions of Change.

So if you have always dreamed of stepping out of the wings and onto the stage -- or of contributing your talents to what’s happening behind-the-scenes -- you have plenty of good reasons to do so. Which begs the question: what are your options when it comes to theater studies? Read on for a roundup of five fields of study that will prepare you for an exciting career in the arts.

1. Dancing, Acting, and Singing

These are probably among the first majors that come to mind when you think of theater studies. And with good reason: many successful celebrities got their starts as dancing, acting, and singing majors. One example? Melanie Chisholm, also known as ‘Mel C’ and ‘Sporty Spice’. Not only did she get her start as a ballerina, but she also took coursework in dance, singing, drama and musical theater at a performing arts academy in the UK. Other famous musical theater majors include Nicole Scherzinger, Kristin Chenoweth, and Callan McAuliffe, while the list of famous drama majors includes everyone from Samuel Jackson to Tina Fey.

So what does a degree program in one of these fields involve? In addition to taking classes in topics such as theater history, acting, and directing, students in the subject also have plenty of opportunities to hone their performance skills. Of course, this experience will come in handy for those who end up pursuing professional acting, dancing, and singing careers.

2. Lighting and Sound Design

The people on the stage may get the lion’s share of attention, but they owe a huge amount of their success to the crew, including the people who literally light up the stage: lighting designers. Falling under the category of theatrical technicians, lighting designers are responsible not only for ensuring that the performers are seen, but also that the artistic vision of the show is fully realized.

Lighting designer Andrew W. Griffin told DC Metro Theater Arts of the technical and collaborative nature of his work, “Lighting is really a unique discipline in that we can’t really create any content until we are in the theater looking at the set, the costumes, and are living in the world of the play. Yes, the lights are in the air and focused where they need to be from the plot. But each of those lights is not singularly a piece of content, it’s how we use them to support and build on everything else. Much like a painter paints, or a musician writes music, we use the lights as brushes or notes to create the atmosphere of the play. And we do this in conjunction with everything and everyone else. We are one of the last people to lay our work into place, and so we have to take care to keep the integrity of not just our work, but the work of the entire team.”

While lighting designers are responsible for what audience members see during a performance, sound designers are responsible for what they hear, including everything from actors’ voices to special effects. And while a huge amount is involved in crafting the audio components of the show, sound designers are often unsung heroes. Says sound designer Justin Schmitz, “If we’ve done our job well, an audience should only ever know that it felt wonderful and right.”

3. Music Direction

Sometimes called conductors, music directors, or ‘MDs’, oversee all musical aspects of a production, including casting performers, hiring pit musicians, rehearsing singers and band members, and conducting during all performances. MDs also work closely with other members of a show’s creative team, including the stage director and choreographers.

What does it take to succeed in this challenging career? Nigel Lilley, musical director of the West End production of Bend it Like Beckham: The Musical, told the Official London Theatre, “Practice, practice, practice; particularly for an MD job where you have to play keyboard as well as conduct. When you’re working with world-class musicians as I am on Beckham you have to be able to hold your own, it’s not just about waving your arms around!”

4. Circus Arts

While live theater can be its own kind of circus, if you have ever dreamed of running away and joining an actual circus, a degree in circus arts can offer an invaluable inside edge when it comes to becoming a professional circus artist. Coursework may include intensive physical training with performance opportunities; movement skills; circus history and cultural studies; circus business and career management; technical aspects of circus production, equipment and safety; and anatomy, physiology, nutrition and sports psychology for circus performers.

CircusTalk explains of what to expect from a post-secondary degree in circus arts, “Most of these programs began as professionalizing circus training programs and then either sought accreditation for their own program or collaborated with an existing college or university to develop the degree. Accredited programs offer students an intensive training experience in circus arts and also include academic requirements that are recognized within the academic framework and also transferable to other academic pursuits.”

5. Makeup, Costume and Scenic Design

From Wicked and The Lion King to Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, amazing hair, makeup, and costumes can turn a show into a truly transportive experience. Studying one of these fields can help you use your creativity and talent to bring shows like these to life.

A lot more goes into these things than merely applying eye-shadow and sizing actors. Makeup artist Joe Dulude II told of finding his inspiration while designing the makeup for Wicked, “I did take from the original “Wizard of Oz,” but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t want her skin to look fake so that it looked like a Gumby Green. We wanted it to look real, not like fake skin. The important thing for us was that she’s not actually ugly, she’s actually beautiful, but they hate her more for her skin color. So our take is more focused on skin color, and not going to the extreme with a wart on the face or a long clunky nose.”

According to Tony Award-winning costume designer Clint Ramos, meanwhile, costumes and other visuals are just as important to telling a story as dialogue. His words of wisdom for those aspiring to follow in his footsteps? “The biggest advice I would just say is sharpen your storytelling skills, and by that I mean we are all storytellers in the theater. I think the designers are storytellers. We tell stories through a visual medium. Fall in love with that and everything else will fall into place.”

One last thing to keep in mind as you contemplate whether or not to pursue a degree in theater? We all know that the entertainment world is fiercely competitive, so what happens to the people who aren’t among the lucky few to make a big? As it turns out, theater majors have many potential career paths in theater and associated fields, such as theater education and arts management.

But the skills you acquire while majoring in a theater are also transferable -- and in great demand by many employers. One CEO says of her eagerness to hire theater majors, “Theater students have done extremely well with us, and we usually hire them because they’re well-disciplined workers who learn quickly and give of themselves to the company.”