5 Career Lessons from the Theatre

I recently attended a Bay Area Girl Geek Dinner, an event put on for the dual purposes of connecting female employees with San Francisco Bay Area companies and encouraging networking within the female tech community. One of the speakers, a vice president from a telecommunications company, began her speech describing the trajectory of her professional life. She started college as a musical theatre major before heading to law school and settling into a career in marketing. She highlighted the atypical start to her career by belting out the beginning lines to the musical “Sweet Charity.” (“The minute you walked in the joint, I could see you were a man of distinction, a real big spender…”)

Having myself performed in musical theatre while in high school and college (including a stint as a “Sweet Charity” dance hall hostess), I felt an instant kinship. I listened to her presentation, which was delivered with the unbridled exuberance of a true stage performance, and it made me reflect on the ways that participating in musical theatre is like professional life.

1. The audition process, like a job interview, is your chance to shine.  An audition is basically an interview: an opportunity to demonstrate your skills for the purpose of being selected for a coveted role. Some aspects of the audition process require preparation. Other parts test your ability to think on your feet. Either way you must stay calm, persevere through the stress and do your best to impress those judging your talent.

2. You have to gracefully accept rejection.  Following auditions there is always this moment when you approach a posted cast list or receive a phone call from a member of the selection committee. With bated breath you await the results. Sometimes you get the role. Sometimes you don’t. Through the disappointment you have to find a way to express your gratitude for the opportunity and communicate a continuing interest in working together in the future. Grace in the face of rejection is a lesson with many applications

3. The theatre world reinforces the importance of working as a team.  Any performance requires the full attention and hard work of multiple teams, including actors and dancers, stage crew, musicians, technicians and front-of-the-house workers. Failure to collaborate leads to a disjointed experience for the audience. Whether in theatre or in the context of a company, working together as a team is the key to flawless execution and customer satisfaction. Moreover, everyone should be respected as a vital contributor to the effort. Prima donnas are never fun to work with—be it in the theatre or the professional sector.

4. Everything must be ready by opening night.  There are always moments in the weeks leading up to opening night where everything seems to go wrong and you think, “How is this possibly going to come together in time?” And yet everything does somehow magically come together on opening night. The magic, of course, comes from hard work and lots of practice. Opening night in theatre is the ultimate product launch date. Delaying the product launch is simply not an option. It’s a deadline that everyone must respect.

5. Never stop, even if you make a mistake.  There is a famous show business saying: “The show must go on.” Regardless of what may go wrong during a live performance, everyone must maintain their composure, ignore the disturbance and continue as rehearsed. If you “blank out” during a performance, you should improvise until you are able to pick back up. I remember a choreographer once telling my troupe, “If you forget the steps, you should keep moving because most of the time nobody will notice. But the minute you stop, you’ll draw attention and that’s when you’ll have a problem.” If you stumble, whether it’s during an interview or presentation, keep your wits about you and maintain momentum (even if you have to fake it) until you’re able to recover.

I’ve focused on the conceptual similarities between theatre and the working world, and I think Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, even if you may not have sang, danced or acted on stage as a child, you can still benefit from elements of the performance arts in your career. You can learn to think on your feet, be a better public speaker, and become more aware of how you are communicating via facial expressions and body movements. Getting involved in the theatre world by taking classes or participating in live performance groups can have great impact on your professional skills. In fact, research shows that arts and music training can benefit one’s career.