The Wicked Stage: What can you do with a BA in Musical Theatre?

There is a song in the musical Avenue Q called ‘What do you do with a BA in English?’ which perfectly sums up the dilemma faced by many graduates with less vocational qualifications. This blog is about what can be done with a degree in musical theatre, and what people have done with the knowledge and skills gained at University. The examples I’m using contrast hugely and are still only two of the huge number of possibilities…

The first example is probably the most helpful for anyone trying to get their foot in the door of the industry but lacks the big name drama school or a top agent. In my last blog I spoke to Katie Pritchard, who went to the same university as me but was two years ahead. On graduating, Katie knew that she needed to earn some extra credits to secure an agent and further work, and did this by working for free: “Profit share shows are great for new actors starting out and those wanting to change direction in their career (eg. go from ensemble to lead roles). This was a great way to gain exposure within the industry, and meet some great people who work in the business.” Like many industries, the ability to network is key. Katie mentioned how this helped her: “I managed to meet loads of people, who in turn have recommended me to agents, casting directors, directors and musical directors.” The joy of profit share meant that Katie gained an extremely varied CV from actor/musician shows, to shows where she was a featured singer or a featured dancer. It also wasn’t just stage shows that Katie got involved in, also doing work on rehearsed readings and podcasts and as many extra jobs as possible. Katie sums it up: “This meant that when it came to Christmas 2009 and I signed with my new (current) agent and was offered Dreamboats and Petticoats I was in a terrific position in my career – I had built up my CV massively from nothing to quite a long list of credits in a year. And finally the industry was taking me seriously as a performer.”

The second example is a good friend of mine, Leanne O’Reilly, who also graduated in 2010 from Buckinghamshire New University with a BA. We both held similar outlooks, in that we didn’t want to be on a West End stage; we have both said in the past how we lacked the confidence needed as performers and at the end of the day we didn’t have the determination required to work professionally. However, Leanne now uses her performance skills every day and is an assistant manager of a branch of Gymboree, which provides arts-based classes for children under the age of five. The format of the classes includes art, story-telling, apparatus activities and games. Every class is sung and then there are music classes on top of this which cover different genres and instruments. I wondered what attracted Leanne to this role, and she said, “At Gymboree I can combine both my career and my hobby. I sing, dance and act all day! What more could a Musical Theatre student want?” I was keen to learn which skills Leanne learnt on the degree that she uses in her job. The obvious one is singing, but equally important is the use of projection skills to be heard over a class of 24 children and their parents. One skill that is useful in many jobs is the ability to think on your feet – Leanne puts this down to the improvisation skills we learnt in acting class, which are invaluable in her daily work: “Even if it is for little things, like, the iPod isn’t working and I really need the ‘Gymbo Dance’ song.” Despite finding out how many Musical Theatre skills Leanne uses every day, I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought she could do the job as well as she does if she didn’t have her degree behind her: “I honestly don’t think I could. Because you need performance skills to be able to able to guide a class through the activity. Also having a good singing voice is crucial at Gymboree as all classes rely so heavily on singing.”

These are just two examples of what you can do with a theatre-based qualification – many of my graduating class have spent the year working abroad as performers in resorts and on cruises, and an equal number are in the process of gaining teaching qualifications. I will end with my pathway, as it is different to my peers and friends. There is a misconception that theatre is purely performance-based but I plan to continue down the academic route and write about musical theatre at a PhD level, because during my studies I found a love of writing (hence this blog!) and have ambitions to continue down this path. I hope this proves useful or interesting to any readers wondering about the future.

Image by JECO Photo.