Sunday, August 05, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Place-Bound Theater Major

A new correspondent writes:

I'm facing a conundrum and I haven't been able to get any clarity or guidance on it for some time. I've been doing theatre in one form or another for the past thirteen years. First acting, then design, now I'm in an MA program at an R1 in Theatre History/Theory/Lit. I'm doing very well, I'm only halfway in, and I've presented at a national conference, and am holding down an A average. For a person who barely passed high school, this is pretty good. 
However. I'm faced with some horrible economic realities, namely, that I will probably not be able to find a job. Not because I'm untalented, unhygienic, or lazy, but because I have the combination of a "useless" degree field, and I have to stay within the Chicagoland area (for a variety of long-winded reasons). The thought of working my tail off for five or more years at a PhD, and then being limited to only to Chicago, doesn't seem right to me. Besides, there is only one theatre PhD in Chicago, and that's Northwestern, the top university in my field. And I used to work there as a secretary before I went to grad school, so they will never know me as anything but a secretary.
I can't teach in my program as an MA student (for reasons that are beyond me), and I've been thwarted at every turn (applying to direct at a private high school, proposing an independent course for another department, etc.). I have no teaching experience, and I'm looking at having absolutely zero when I graduate in May. This is the kiss of death for me, isn't it? How can I get more teaching experience to land that community college teaching job?
Ideally, I'd love to either balance a class at a CC while teaching at a private high school (certification in IL happens only in Normal, hours from Chicago) or be full time at a CC. I just want to teach. My minor in college was Art History, so I don't have a broad area to teach in, outside of theatre. I don't have the credentials, anyway. If I wanted to tack on certification in English, I'd have to do 2.5 years at a university an hour away, and then I would only be certified in English. More schooling on top of what I've already got seems nightmarish to me, at the moment.
I've got a very extensive background in theatre design, both costume and scenic, and I've worked for two of the most elite theatre companies in Chicago. I'm talented there. Would it make sense for me to buck up and try and get a terminal MFA in Costume/Scenic Design? Would it make my chances at getting a job at a CC better, since I'd be able to show, with my degree, that I could also teach design classes?
I have a substantial and (so I've heard) impressive portfolio of design work as of right now. I haven't done any design work for a few years now, but it's not a skill that goes away. Would just having the portfolio to point to be enough, or would the MFA really increase my chances?
The thought of three more years of grueling schooling, probably more loans, is really unattractive at the moment, I gotta say...
I'm willing to do just about anything to prepare myself for the job market in May, but I'm really getting discouraged. I want to be able to make a decent living (I'm talking $45K as the dream salary, here) while teaching theatre. How do I go about making myself an attractive candidate, even without a PhD under my belt?

My first thought is to diversify your targets.  At the community college level, generally speaking, the Ph.D. isn’t a deal-breaker.  (In most cases, it’s not even a tiebreaker.)  So I certainly wouldn’t recommend going after one if a community college is your goal.  Although it’s not my field, my impression is that the same holds true for most private high schools; a doctorate may be nice, but it’s not going to get you the job, and it’s not a requirement.

Unfortunately, the full-time faculty market is very much a national one.  Even community colleges typically do national searches for full-time faculty at this point.  The Chicago area is more cosmopolitan than most -- I can’t bring myself to use the term “Chicagoland,” because it reminds me too much of “Wayne’s World” -- but it’s still a pretty small slice of the country.  Picking an overcrowded field, and then limiting yourself to a single city, is pretty high-risk.  

From a narrow career perspective, the clear long-term strategy would be to adjunct a little to gain experience and to see whether teaching actual community college students really appeals to you.  With a little experience, you’ll have a better sense of how much you want the actual job, and you’ll be a more attractive candidate.  It might also buy you some time, during which the factors holding you in one region may or may not dissipate.  Of course, adjuncting pays terribly, so in the meantime there’s a bread-and-butter issue to address.  

Of course, you could also construe the possible careers more broadly.  Professorships of theater are pretty rare, and the folks who have them tend to hold onto them.  (We hire a new full-timer roughly once every ten years or so.)  But those aren’t the only avenues available.  Acting (and other theater related) classes happen in other venues, both official and unofficial.  And if you can sell yourself convincingly as someone who can teach public speaking, even better.

There’s also the time-honored option of the day job.  In this economy, they aren’t as easy to get as they once were, and they can be pretty uninspiring, but at least they can keep you afloat whjle you’re trying to make something else happen.  

What I would not do is recommend spending yet more years, and money, piling up more degrees.  I don’t see them paying off, and I do see the debt payments (and opportunity cost) growing.  A Master’s is enough, if you’re a good teacher and the right opportunity comes along.  More than that won’t make you a better teacher, and outside of a few, rarified settings, it won’t create more opportunities, either.  Instead, I’d look at getting some teaching experience, both for the information it will give you -- do you really enjoy this? -- and to make you a more appealing candidate.  

Good luck.  You’ve got a tough row to hoe.

Wise and worldly readers, I hope someone knows something I don’t.  Is there another, better option for a place-bound theater major?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.