Since I began teaching at Bakersfield College five years ago, most of my best students, who come from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and circumstances, share one commonality. They are theater people.
Let me be clear: I teach journalism. My background in theater was less than stellar.
As an undergraduate transfer student at the University of Arizona, I was cut from the conservatory musical theater program after one year. I had no way of knowing then that what felt like the biggest failure in the world was just one of many setbacks that would shape my life.
Initially determined to prove wrong the professors who excised me from the program, I auditioned for every community and semi-professional theater production in Tucson. I performed in outdoor summer stock dramas in Texas and Utah for a little money and a lot of bug bites.
I completed an academic master’s degree in theater and, in the late 1990s, continued to audition for any show in Las Vegas that would consider hiring the antithesis of a showgirl. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t work much.
It took me years, filled with everything from terrible to terrific jobs and experiences, to find my way.
At BC, my small journalism program requires students who are hardworking and devoted. They often spend lots of hours on the (digital and print) newspaper classes, covering events, shooting photos, interviewing sources and crafting stories and packages for publication. They must edit their peers’ work and eke out a podcast here or there if they have time. To be productive, they consistently work toward a goal.
The theater students put forth just as much effort, rehearsing for performances, memorizing scripts, assembling costumes, scenery, lighting and sound schematics for productions.
At BC, our programs are collaborative, not cut-throat. Both journalism and theater majors also share an unfortunate link in these fraught times. People question their worthiness.
Certainly, arts majors of all stripes have had to deal with distraught parents and naysayers for generations. They worry about the practicality of going to college and incurring debt just to wind up waiting tables or nannying to make ends meet while they audition and hope to get a nibble of paid work.
With the digital age, journalism began to suffer a similar stigma as newspapers shrank, media outlets consolidated and it seemed like anyone with a Twitter handle could report the news.
Certainly, both courses of study require creativity and honing raw talent through practice, skill building and continued effort. Students in both majors need excellent oral communication skills (for interviewing subjects, delivering reports or presenting monologues and scenes). They need to be outgoing (willing to approach or contact strangers for interviews and confident enough to go onstage). They need technical skills (multimedia, tech, and editing abilities easily apply to both professions). They also need to be excellent storytellers.
Whether you become a stagehand, page designer, producer, reporter, editor, director or actor, to embark on either profession requires bravery.
On Thursday, the theater and journalism majors who completed their programs at BC graduated. Whether the next step is more education or a job in a related field, these students have acquired training and skills that will be useful for a variety of careers. Some of my former students are working in local news. But it doesn’t matter if they wind up becoming reporters, actors, producers or working in a totally unrelated profession. After all, they are just starting to find their way.
Erin Auerbach is a professor at Bakersfield College and adviser to The Renegade Rip, BC's award-winning student news publication.