Why Studying Theatre…
…is the Most Useful and Consequential Education a Human Being Can Have in the Information Age
by Lydia Mackay
School has started and rehearsals are underway for the first show of the season! Let’s kick off this season’s blog posts with a bang. Professional actor and university professor at TCU, Lydia Mackay reflects on a life lived in the theatre. She walks the walk and talks the talk. Currently, you can see her in Second Thought Theater’s riveting production of What We Were by Blake Hackler (Also a theater professional and university professor at SMU). She’s also a highly sought after voiceover actor. Everyday, she brings her professional insight to the classroom nurturing the next generation of theater artists.
The year was 1982. Two momentous events happened that year that forever altered my future course. My little sister was born, relieving me from the arduous task of being everyone’s favorite toe-head, and Joan Jett’s single I Love Rock & Roll (still topping the charts), found its way into my 5 year old soul. So, that year I decided to chuck it all and go for broke. What did I have to lose? I was the sassy, fearless, (now) middle child who had perpetually dirty feet from playing outside, and I loved more than anything to dance and make people happy… But on the inside I had a rock-n-roll rebel bleeding heart ready to be unleashed like a demon.
So, I decided to perform in the annual talent show.
And Joan Jett would sing my anthem !
My supportive, nurturing, Hippie-Turned-Disco-Queen-Flame-Haired Mama made me a gold sequin pant suit, and with crimped hair, glitter on my feet, and red heart-shaped earrings, I hit the stage. I swayed and twirled just like we’d practiced for weeks in the front yard at dusk. I held my audience captive as they videotaped my every move with their 20 pound VHS cameras, smiling and attentive as I burned up my air guitar. Then, it was over. I expected roses to be thrown at my feet as my loyal subjects roared with ovation, shouting ‘Bravo! Bravo!’. But what I got, was laughter and applause and giggles… and a few stunned faces. Not what I was expecting… but definitely what I’d earned. I learned that day that sometimes you put yourself out there as positively and authentically as you can, and there will still be side-eye. (“What WERE her parents smoking to let her do that?!”) Haters gonna hate. It’s what you do with that perceived derision that changes the world one Svedberg at a time.
… Please forgive the lady the prologue, but a good tale needs appropriate exposition.
Growing up, I was always in the middle. I lived in the house in the middle of the cul-de-sac. I was the middle sister. I was right in the middle of my friends in terms of age. Some were older, some were younger, and it didn’t matter to me. (*That’s not true… it did matter. I wanted to be as cool as the older kids and be respected and loved by the little kids… I just wanted to fit in) … I wanted to be in the middle of it all. By the time I got to high school, circa 1991, I somehow managed to be in the middle of things again. Every high school has its’ cliques, and my high school was no different. You had the super smart nerdy kids, the strong able athletes, the dark goths filled with ennui and an insatiable love for The Cure and Depeche Mode. You had the kids whose parents had loads of money and bought them brand new cars on their 16th birthdays’ schlepping down the hallways next to kids who wore the same clothes to school everyday because their parents worked three jobs and no one had time to do laundry. You had the kids in gangs with goatees and tattoos. You had the kids who could disappear and recede into the lockers because they just wanted to be left alone. You had the stoners, the punks, the preps, the jocks, the cheerleaders… oh those cheerleaders. And somehow, I managed to fit in with all of them. I think it was because I wasn’t out to hurt anyone, or shame anyone. We all got some version of that at home. I just wanted to be friendly, to be liked… and so, you have to make yourself likable. I found that over time I could become any one of them… fit into any one group. Take AP classes with the type A’s and break-out for lunch with the rebels. Dress like any cheerleader or dork as it suited my mood. Drop in to any one group, say hi, make a connection, then jet. I think that’s how I knew I was meant to be an actor. I could become anyone. Flow between versions of myself with ease.
And the one place where everyone could become anyone, was the Theatre. So in Theatre class, you had all of them – the stoners, the punks, the preps, the jocks, the cheerleaders, the dorks, the nerds, the goths, the invisible ones. And there, it didn’t matter what you looked like or what you were wearing because if you couldn’t nail that monologue you were shit. We were playing for something bigger than titles, bigger than your Gibeaux jeans or the 10 layers of Rave hairspray sprayed onto your meticulously splayed bangs. Here, we were playing for truth. For boldness. For fearlessness. Here is where glory was won. Respect was earned. Honor was given. Here. The Theatre.
It’s where people went to feel accepted when there was no where else to turn. It was where people went to transform themselves and be heard beyond their socio-economic confines. Beyond their stereotypes. It was where the jock learned to speak Shakespeare, the nerd found bravery, the invisible found their voice. The Theatre. Do your research and you’ll find on that Google machine of yours, that the history of Theatre is the history of humanity… of ALL the arts, really. The Theatre is where we dance, we sing, we speak, we craft, we build, we share, we unify, we tell stories, we remember back, we think forward, we lead.
I went there and found my people. And found that everyone, all of them… all of you… are my people. So there I stayed, close to the house I grew up in, close to that middle-of-the-road cul-de-sac where I felt safe and secure enough to dig deep roots and find my way through this world. Have I traveled enough? No. Never. But I’ve been around and I’ve seen a few things. Enough to know that what found me in that elementary school, then later in high school was my future. What found me was my Love Language. And in turn, my PURPOSE found me.
Flash forward to 1995. Cell phones were still fairly new, totally exciting, and very chunky. Like Acme Brick chunky. Playing a game on your phone meant using it as a substitute for Spin the Bottle when the party boasted only Natty Light beer cans. Analog imagination was still on trend. My rock-n-roll rebel bleeding heart was still pining for performance, for connection to humanity – so I found a local university that offered a Theatre degree and a damn good scholarship. Game, set, match. It was a good match too, because there, I could fit in with all the other middle kids who had rock-n-roll rebel hearts. Being at a small liberal arts university cracked my world open. It asked me questions no one had ever asked me before. It made me think hard and focus intensely and defend my vision of the ‘way things were’. I got a hell of a lot wrong. I got a lot right too. And along the way my Theatre family wove into me the threads that would bind my life to purpose, to meaning… ya know, the thing that everyone desperately needs and wants in this life. Theatre taught me how to make a plan, make a back up plan, or at the very least, create a plausible alternative solution. It taught me divergent thinking, problem solving, meticulous organization, artistic expression, critical analysis, time management, public speaking, expansion of my technical skills (sewing, painting, welding, building, crafting, computing), active listening, instant and long-term collaboration, abstract conceptualization, understanding and appreciating pedagogy, learning the value of humility, vulnerability, and honesty, and (perhaps most importantly) empathy for the human condition. Skills that every industry, every employer, and every employee would do well to have on their side. And that was just in my freshman year.
I hope you see where this is going.
The foundations laid in the world of Theatre I believe prepares a student for any life they choose to live… whether that be pursuing a dream of Broadway, opening their own business, becoming a nurse, doing scientific research, programming the next best app, or being a kindergarten teacher. Because only in the Theatre do all of the aforementioned skills get expanded daily. Everyday. Yes. Really.
Flash forward a couple of decades and you’ll find me teaching Theatre, after having had a really successful career as a Theatre artist (by my own self designed standards, thank you very much). And by the grace of the Universe, I’m still having a successful career. If it takes place in a Theatre, I’ve done it. Public relations. Building scenery. Crafting props. Sweeping the stage. Setting up the chairs. Designing the costumes. Making clothes from scratch. Painting. Nursing bruises and cuts. Sharing best practices for health and stamina. Hanging the lights. Running the sound. Running the errands. Leading the warm-up. Writing the story. Directing the play. Dancing the dance. Singing the song. Acting the story. Creating the website. Managing a team. Brainstorming. Learning new software. Practicing Stewardship. Understanding Conservation. Working within the confines of a budget. Taking the risk. Refining techniques. Getting the laughs. Getting the applause. Getting the bad reviews. Getting knocked down. Getting back up.
And striving to be an authentically good human all the while. I realize now, at the tender age of 42 (which is the answer, btw, to Life, the Universe, and Everything), that all I was ever really looking for, was Love. To be Loved by others. To Love myself. To Love my unique earthly purpose. To give that Love to everyone I come in contact with to make the world less terrible. Love… the thing that lives at the core of humanity, whether or not people are willing to admit it.
I drive a 45 minute commute twice a day, 5-6 times a week, and I vacillate between listening to NPR or my dreamy/floaty/sexy/groovy/hippie music. I want to hear the news and know what’s going on in the world, to be a more informed citizen… but after the 4th terrible story about how terrible things are happening across our terribly polluted Earth, I usually give up and switch over to the floaty. Because it’s all too much sometimes. It’s all too hard and unforgiving and relentless and painful and maddening and it weighs so very heavily on me. I think sometimes I suffer from too much empathy. So instead I float. And imagine. And pretend. And try to be a beacon of light and goodness for my students, my family, and my community. My attempt at daily goodness is owed to the Theatre. I believe that Goodness – my goodness, your goodness, our goodness can make this planet vibrate with a steady level of CONstructive growth. So to any who say that the ARTS don’t matter, that God given talents don’t matter, that Science and Technology are more meaningful, is to say that you’ve forgotten your humanity. It says you’ve forgotten the power of empathy. It says that you’ve forgotten how to play. It says that you’ve forgotten your Story.
So study Theatre. Or better yet, get your Theatre degree. Awaken your inner artist. Because EVERYONE is an artist. And then go study anything else that makes you hum with excitement. Get your Theatre degree and then go learn finance. Then go study medicine. Then go become a lawyer, or open your own Theatre, or become a machinist, or wait tables, or become an administrative assistant, or a biology professor. Doesn’t matter. The foundation is as important as the roof.
So now, I ask you a question that I want you to seriously consider:
Part 1: Think of a life without the ARTS – Without Theatre. Without Film and Television.
Without Video Games. Without Music. Without Books. Without Dancing. Without Concerts.
Without Design. Without Craftsmanship. Without Museums. Without Games. Without
Freedom of Expression. Without Shared Stories.
Part 2: Do you see it? Can you visualize that? What does Life look like now?
…To me, it looks like no life at all. So go to the Theatre. Support the ARTS. Get involved with
the ARTS. Let the ARTS ignite your own personal evolution toward the service of global
betterment… towards Love.
And realize, that the ARTS give us all a Life Worth Living.