I Don’t Think It’s Just Me Anymore: The Shift Towards Healthier Theatre Education

Well-meaning relatives like to ask me during the holidays: “Now that you’re out of college, when will you be in another show?” I’ve gotten quite good at smiling and word-vomiting breezy, nonchalant responses like: “I’m not sure yet” or “I’m just seeing where it goes,” despite the fact that I have actually thought a lot about it. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I were to be honest while answering the dreaded question; if instead I said, “Actually, the last time I thought about auditioning, I had a panic attack,” while my dad carves the turkey in the kitchen. Or if I quipped, “I cried in the bathroom the last time my friends tried to get me to sing at karaoke,” while sampling baked brie at the appetizer table. Who knows, maybe this year I’ll just stand up after the prayer and announce: “I am afraid of performing now, and I don’t think I’m wrong!”

My college theatre experience was about what I’d expected up until the first semester of my sophomore year when classes, student-run projects, rehearsals, voice lessons, auditions, mandatory production hours, and the job I was working on weekends began to pile up for me. I felt the environment shift from friendly to an uneasy undercurrent of constant competitiveness. It seemed that nervous comparison of talent was becoming more and more common amongst students, including myself. The program that I was a part of implemented a series of incredibly intense end-of-semester juries. Students who did not pass these juries were not allowed to continue on in performance-focused tracks. As my class size slowly became sparser after each semester, I felt the weight of it all. I started to experience persistent and extreme anxiety that began accompanying all my in-class performances.

I channeled all my nervous energy into my work in all the worst ways one can. I pulled all-nighters, practicing compulsively not out of genuine passion but out of fear. Any time that I wasn’t focused on thinking about school felt like time wasted. I felt pressure to be perfect because I thought that it was the only way to stay one step ahead of the potential judgement that I greatly feared.

I applied this same flawed logic to my appearance. At that point, comments about bodies seemed to float around more frequently, and I felt afraid that one day they’d be directed specifically at me. I started to feel incredibly self-conscious of the unflattering shapes my body made as I contorted in front of the dance studio mirrors for hours each day. I picked out parts of my body that I deemed as potentially problematic to others and focused on whittling them down. I eventually fell down a slippery slope into a full-blown eating disorder.

This pressure culminated in a voice lesson where I stopped and broke down crying only a few bars into my song. Every note that I sang sounded so painfully wrong to me, even though it was a song that I knew well and had been studying for years. I stood there and cried for the remainder of that lesson, unable to make a single note come out of my mouth.

I felt that it was clear at this point that I was struggling, yet I found that I had a difficult time finding support. This was definitely not for a lack of trying. At the time, there was very little availability for therapy appointments at the health center. I spent weeks trying to make appointments with countless therapists outside of school but ultimately found it nearly impossible to carve out a weekly time to go due to the demands of my packed schedule. I found myself in a position where I decided that I would have to choose between pursuing the program and my mental health. With a heavy heart, I prioritized my mental health and switched to a non-performance emphasis. Afterwards, I fell into a deep depression. My feelings of perceived failure cast a massive shadow on the thing that was once my greatest passion and, if I’m being honest, I still feel that way to this day.

Instead of simulating the hardships of the industry and watching as students sink or swim, wouldn’t it be more effective to spend those years teaching inclusive, healthy, and updated ways to float?

I found this extremely difficult to discuss with others. I felt that the problem was just me, and that I simply wasn’t talented or strong enough to learn how to do what I loved. I strongly believed that those specific shortcomings would only be confirmed and highlighted if I brought the topic up. I stopped performing because I thought that it was what people like me were supposed to do. I didn’t realize that simply wanting to do theatre should be enough of a reason to pursue it. I’m glad I know that now, but it would have been helpful to know back then. In lieu of that, I think there are several long overdue changes that theatre educators should consider.

Firstly, I’d like to see programs take the mental health of their students more seriously. Services such as counseling should be accessible on campus and actively encouraged by faculty. I would like to see professors take a more active stance in speaking about mental health to their students directly in class. There are many mental health struggles that come with this profession that start out as habits, such as jealousy, self-comparison, perfectionism, and more. I believe that a well-rounded theatre education should involve acknowledging how common these struggles are within theatre, as well as brainstorming ways together on how to manage them. That way, when they come up, students are prepared to recognize these toxic habits for what they are and know how to help themselves before things get worse. These practices should start at the very beginning of the process and remain consistent throughout.

I would also like to see theatre programs approach giving criticism in a more individualized way. Some students may appreciate harsh criticism, but it may stunt the growth of other students. One practice that I’ve heard about involved a professor having their students fill out a survey on the first day of class regarding how they prefer to receive criticism personally. I think using a method like that could be very effective in ensuring that criticism stays constructive, and that student’s individual boundaries are respected.

The next shift that I’d like to see is one towards healthier body image. Dieting, eating habits, and weight loss should never be a part of theatre education. If programs are truly committed to the wellness of their students, then they should shift those lessons towards how to be kind to one’s body. For example, I was a part of a wonderful dance class where one day a week was devoted to recovery practices like foam rolling and stretching. If food is to be talked about in any way, shape, or form, it should be focused solely on general ways to nourish and fuel one’s body and not caloric content. Eating should be encouraged, and the breaks given between classes and other activities should be long enough for students to adequately fuel themselves.

Somewhat adjacent to that, I’d also like to see programs move away from teaching and practicing typecasting. A lot of typecasting is rooted in fatphobic, racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic stereotypes. Students should be encouraged to pick material based off their abilities and what resonates with them personally, not based off how they look. The mainstage shows on campus should also be cast according to this philosophy. However, it is important to note that there are some instances where typecasting is still relevant. For example, a slim white actress should not be cast as Effie in Dream Girls, as the story is specifically about a Black, plus-sized woman. It’s important to recognize these instances and cast accordingly when they occur, as to not further exclude groups who have been historically under-represented in theatre. I think it would be great for educators to initiate an open discussion with students on where the line is between open self-expression and taking opportunities away from marginalized communities.

Lastly, I’d like to see programs organized in a way that is more considerate of financial inequity among students. Promising students from all backgrounds deserve to study the arts—not just those who come from wealth. One huge way that programs can (and do) help with this is by offering scholarships. Something else that could be helpful is having paid positions for students on campus such as working the box office or ushering. Classes and other activities should be scheduled in a way that makes it possible for students to work while in school. Having workshops on financial literacy would be a gamechanger by giving students instruction to properly prepare them to navigate the costly experience of supporting themselves as a performer. Students could be given advice on compatible, career-adjacent day jobs, and professors could discuss unions with them as well as other important strategies that protect artists and allow them to be compensated properly for their time.