The Benefit of a Theater Degree

posted in: Day In The Life, Tips 4
The play’s the thing! Image: Wikipedia.


There are plenty of fun and exciting things going on in the great city of Chicago this weekend. I won’t see any of it, though, which sounds sad but it’s okay.

My weekend will be spent polishing my QuiltCon 2018 lecture slides and rehearsing everything 90,000 times before the big show next week. I assure you: There’s nothing else I want to be doing this weekend. I care deeply about this work: Besides, debut lectures at QuiltCon don’t come along every day. In fact, they only come along once a year, which makes them sort of like Christmas or my birthday, except that I don’t get presents and I spend months and months researching and writing and then dozens of hours making great slides for my slideshow and then I get in front of a huge crowd of people and talk to them and hope I don’t screw up and ruin my reputation and never get asked back to any show, ever. In this way, making and debuting two new lectures is not like Christmas or my birthday. At all.

As I was thinking through everything I need to get right, every detail I must lock down, I realized that there is one thing I am not at all concerned about: I am not concerned with freaking out up there once I’m onstage. Certainly, part of the reason I won’t lose my nerves or have a full-on panic attack is because I have nearly two decades of professional experience doing things onstage. But it’s also because in college, I actually studied how to be in front of people.

Yes, my master’s in writing gets all the attention these days, but I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa (’01) — and that degree is in Theater Arts. During those four, heady years taking Meisner I & II, rehearsing the next show, communicating with directors, and writing short pieces of my own, I learned a lot more than my lines.

I learned how to work closely with people. Like, really closely. Making a play — which typically goes from the table read to opening night in matter of weeks — is an incredibly intense, focused experience. Many of you know this from your own theater-making experience. You do hard work in small spaces, either with a tiny ensemble or a huge one, both of which come with their own challenges. You put in long hours. You must be professional, on time, courteous. There are long periods of tedium punctuated with periods of intense activity; your problem-solving skills are harnessed in all kinds of unexpected ways, I assure you.

And you have to memorize a script. (Some monologues are about as long as this post, for example.) You have to memorize your blocking. Then, once the play opens, you have to hope people come to see what you’ve made! Sometimes they don’t come and this is devastating, so you have to grow into a person who can accept that. Of course, sometimes the people do come and then you’ve really got to bring the juice. Can you? Will you? You’ll find out when the curtain goes up, honey. Break a leg.


So this is just a shout-out to all my theater people out there. Graduation is coming (!) and there are plenty of parents and grandparents out there who have a theater major in the family who is about to get their degree. Y’all might be worried about the kid, right? What she’ll do with a degree in theater for Lord’s sake??

I promise you: She’ll use it.

She’ll use it when she meets a new person and gives them a “Hello!” and a confident handshake. She’ll use it when she’s giving a presentation at work. She’s going to use her theater degree when she’s faced with a problem with her spouse and recalls what she learned about body language and tone of voice and maybe she can respond more thoughtfully to what she was trained to observe in this person she loves so much. She’ll use it when she reads a wonderful quote in a magazine that she wants to remember it forever. She’ll use her memorization skills and then she’ll have it forever.

She’ll probably use it (however subconsciously) when she throws parties, too. I’m serious. Go to the theater people’s parties. We have the party bone, take it from me.



Le Smoking.

posted in: Day In The Life 0
Insert brand here. Photo: Kiwiev, 2014.
You’ve come a long way, baby. Photo: Kiwiev, 2014.

I used to smoke. A little.

Smokers gauge the personal investment in their habit by the number of packs they smoke per day. Even when I did smoke cigarettes, the idea that I would smoke an entire pack in the course of one day was enough to make me queasy. But I counted as a smoker, and I know this because I would roll my eyes at non-smokers at house parties who would bum a smoke the minute they got tipsy. It’s incredible how the most health-conscious among us will crave a cigarette after enough vodka.

The most I ever smoked was probably three cigarettes a day, on average. This habit — and, relatively mild as it was, it was a habit to be sure — started in high school. I did it so my sister’s older friends and my best friend Annie would think I was cool. I didn’t need to try and impress Annie once we truly bonded, but she continued to impress me for a number of reasons, including her commitment to smoking about a pack a day of Marlboro Reds. Reds! By sophomore year! The last time I saw Annie was in Oklahoma, and we hit up a Kum n’ Go to buy a couple packs of smokes. We smoked a couple, guiltily. The older you get, the less cute smoking becomes. Annie has kids. I’m at high risk for cancer in my intestines due to my health history. Put ’em down, girls.

In college, though, that was when I smoked for keeps. Smoking was cute when I was twenty and besides, it was strategic. I was studying theater and everyone knew that auditions were essential, but the real casting happened on the stoop of the theater building between rehearsals and classes. If you wanted to date or go to parties, you flirted and got invites whilst puffing away on your American Spirits. The smokers were the cool kids and I was desperate to be cool by the time I got to Iowa City. In high school I was only grudgingly accepted. I wasn’t a social leper but in the galaxy of Popular Kids, I was a distant, dwarf star. I remember being at the legendary senior party at the end of senior year; just being there engendered love for my fellow classmates, even the ones who would never talk to me. Ben Radish* and a bunch of other people were in the kitchen of the house where the party was and Radish squinted his eyes and regarded me from across the room. He lowered his can of Natty Ice and nodded his head, barely.

“You know, Mary Fons? I guess you’re pretty cool.”

It was like a blessing from the Pope. It’s amazing how much I craved validation from a high school wrestler in a HyperColor shirt whose last name was Radish.

Anyway, the whole cool kid thing, the strategy thing with smoking, it kept going after college because I continued to make theater in Chicago and I was a waitress. Same cultures. Same five-minute break structure in a person’s day. You smoke, therefore you have friends; you smoke, therefore you have something to do between the early morning rush and the mid-morning rush.

But I bagged smoking some time ago. Years ago, with occasional “Let me just see if this still works for me” transgressions. It does not. The more you are not a person who smokes, the more revolting the stink of cigarette smoke becomes, at least for me. I like the way a cigar smells when it’s being actively smoked twenty feet away from me; I do not like the way my shirt smells even after simply holding a cigarette for someone while they button their jacket.

I walk the cities where I live and see people lighting up. I get it. I used to really love smoking. It was a habit and I’m a fan of habits, especially ones that relieve anxiety (e.g., patchwork, chewing my cuticles, rocking ever-so-slightly during intense conversations, etc.) But smoking is for the birds. And the birds don’t even smoke. So probably no one should.

Of course, we could all vape. 

*Name changed.