In Defense of Impractical Majors

How a Theatre Major Came Back to his True Love

Over the last eight years, my college career (if you would charitably call it that) has been up and down and all around. But there has been one constant.

“Make sure you get a degree in something practical.”

Of course, I learned a long time ago not to tell anybody what my major is. As somebody who’s had a crisis of faith between studying theatre and English, I am pretty much the subject of mockery whichever way I swing. If I get a degree in theatre, I am bound to become a cliche blending frappuccinos in Bushwick; if I get a degree in English, I’ll be offering advice in a Barnes and Noble for the rest of my life.

(Joke’s on you, Universe; I already spend an inordinate amount of time giving book recommendations, whether or not I’m in a Barnes and Noble.)

Still, during all those years, I struggled.

I tried convincing myself that I needed to major in Education. It’s something I’ve been talking about all my life, after all: I wanted to be one of those sadists that went back to high school in order to make it better for the kids who are struggling through. And I still think about it. But after a single Intro to Secondary Education course, with a professor that made Betsy DeVos look like a Fairy Godmother, I was scarred for life.

I don’t know if it was her teaching or just facing the reality of being a teacher, but it sounded miserable. And, looking at the starting salary of what a teacher earns, how much better is it than managing a Barnes and Noble or a Starbucks? (Yes, tenure. Yes, holidays and vacations. I know.) In return, I would have to be a morally upstanding citizen, and dedicate most of my life to grading papers, and, most likely, not even teaching the books I wanted to teach. (I wrote my high school’s required Senior Thesis about how Young Adult fiction needed to be integrated into the high school curriculum.)

And studying Education itself took me away from what I was passionate about. I wasn’t passionate about the bureaucracy or learning how to write up lesson plans, crucial as those skills are. I was passionate about books, stories, ideas, dreams. It was only a semester, but I lost the forest for the trees.

I also considered going into Law. Granted, my only experience with the realities of law school are Legally Blonde and How to Get Away With Murder. I can only assume the truth of law school falls somewhere between those two extremes. (Though, if Viola Davis was offering a masterclass, I’d sign up in a heartbeat).

My rationale behind wanting to study law was, at least, that it was a little bit like theatre. Getting in front of an audience and basically telling a story; wrapping facts into a coherent narrative in order to win sympathy for your client.

Or journalism! I had experience in journalism, after running my high school paper for two years. Except I loathed writing hard news and investigative stories; I was much more comfortable writing reviews and doing the layout. Not exactly the kind of person that journalism programs are looking for.

I also had other fleeting thoughts: go into healthcare, maybe become a nurse or even a doctor. I have a grandmother, a great-aunt, and a great-grandmother who were all nurses. It runs in our family. And I grew up watching episodes of ER, from the time I was twelve or so. If Alex Kingston could be an ethereal ageless divinity performing emergency thoracotomies and charging defibrillators, why couldn’t I?

Oh, right. The blood.

But all of these were things I considered after I’d given up on theatre.

***

After a few elementary school productions, I rediscovered the theatre in my senior year of high school.

It was like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. I made great friends, and I enjoyed what I was doing. I had the great opportunity in being in both of the productions that my school put on that year, Dark of the Moon and South Pacific. Even the year afterward, I joined up with the local youth theatre for Anything Goes and You Can’t Take It With You.

It is hard for me to express the magic of acting in words. As someone who primarily spends their days as a writer, that’s a terrible thing to say. But it’s the truth. I feel like I spend most of my days being numb, and I can only really let down all of my walls when I’m on stage, pretending to be somebody else. It’s energizing. Not only do you get to create a character and develop a persona, you have a captive audience, forced by convention to shut up and listen to you, when you walk on the stage.

Compare that to my writing career. Writing on the internet tends to feel like trying to scream into a tornado. You end up going hoarse, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference, anyway. But on that stage, I matter. The people around me matter. I know that I am being heard.

However, in that first year after high school, a chain reaction started. First, I took a musical theatre class at a local community college that was well-renowned for its theatre department.

The first thing I noticed was that all of the guys in the room were a type. And I was not that type. Skinny, tall leading men with dramatic flare and voices that could make angels cry, who danced circles around me while their sweat-glistening undershirts clinged to their six-pack abs.

I’m really not embellishing all that much. In stark contrast to them, there was me: a guy who enjoyed acting and singing, and did about as well as he could with being half deaf in one ear, a bum foot, and 200 extra pounds. I did everything that the class asked of me, but I didn’t connect. I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t make friends. I didn’t audition for any shows. I knew I wasn’t good enough. I knew that I didn’t belong.

When we closed You Can’t Take It With You in February 2010, I didn’t expect that to be my last show. But, as time passed on, I just didn’t feel comfortable being on stage anymore. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t enough, period. I convinced myself so thoroughly of this; as I look back now, I can’t help but wonder how I bought it.

It probably didn’t help that I had a major, years-long depressive episode brewing, one that would shatter my life into a million different pieces and break me down into a creature I would barely recognize. But that’s a story for another time. But after years passed, I was convinced that I had made the right decision. I had grown out of theatre. It was time for me to move on.

***

Flash forward to February 2016. It has been six years since I’ve been on stage. I’ve spent a little over two years living in Nevada, and trying to pull my life back together. I’ve written a novel. I’ve put tendrils out into exploring “real” careers. I’ve spent the last 18 months at a job that took all of my free-time, ruined my college progress, and made me hate the world. All while leaving me helplessly broke.

Then I came back home.

Not home, exactly, but about 50 miles from home, where my Mom was now living. After making a spectacular failure of being out on my own, I wanted to go back to school. Mom was finishing her Associate’s Degree, so I’d go back and restart mine, yet again.

Yes, I was beginning to wonder if I was stuck inside a highly sadistic version of Groundhog Day.

Anyway, by the time I went to sign up for classes, there were very few opening left. And, in order to get my full 12 units to be considered a full-time student, I was kind of strong-armed into taking theatre classes. They were the only thing that kinda fit my educational plan, and I rationalized the whole thing as “okay, I’ll do these theatre classes first, but then I’m going to get my degree in English!”

That lasted for a little while.

I managed to resist the urge to audition for To Kill A Mockingbird halfway through the semester. One of my favorite stories? It seemed like a perfect opportunity. I had even talked with my teacher (I had the same teacher for both theatre classes) about some details about adapting Bob Ewell. Still, I sat back on my hands and didn’t audition.

But the desire to get involved built up in me as I went through my Beginning Acting and Oral Interpretation of Literature classes. It was a slow awakening, like a deathly ill person coming back to life. But, by the time To Kill A Mockingbird closed, my behind firmly in the best seat in the house, I had worked up the confidence to tell my teacher, the director, “Will you let me know if there are any stage management classes in the future?”

That was as far as my hesitant nerves would let me go. Fortunately, that teacher, Ed, had other ideas.

On the last day of class, he insisted that I audition for the summer show. It was this play that I never heard of before, a Peter Pan origin story called Peter and the Starcatcher. It did not sound like my cup of tea.

Still, Ed insisted that I come to the auditions.

I had a million reasons to say no. I didn’t have a song prepared. I was rusty with my monologue. I was afraid of having to learn lines in times for the performance.

But Ed insisted again. I finally agreed. I went back that night, pulled myself through the monologue and the song — I think it was Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or something similar that he had us all sing — and through sides.

I was nervous the entire time. And surprised as hell when he offered me the role of Alf.

Peter and the Starcatcher was magical. Some combination of a beautiful script and having the opportunity to work with some of the loveliest, funniest, and most energetic people I had seen in the last six years just took down all of my walls. I became Alf. I learned those lines. I even sang a bit.

But, most importantly, I realized that I wanted to act.

At first, I thought that I’d just add some more theatre classes to my schedule, while I was working on my English degree. Practical, but I still had that fun.

But after another semester and another show with Ed, that idea pretty much went out the window. My guidance counselor finally talked me into putting aside the English degree and just going with the Fine Arts/Theatre.

And I figured, why not just do that with real life, too?

***

Let me be clear: I have no delusions about how difficult it is to have a career as an actor. But I no longer want to suffocate the idea, to let that dream die, in order to pursue what I have been conditioned to see as “more likely” or “more appropriate” careers. But I want to give that dream a fair shot, while also playing the field.

If I’m going to become a teacher, it’ll be an English and theatre teacher, with a degree in Theatre — and maybe Creative Writing. I’m not going to sit around discussing color symbolism in Jane Eyre and writing up cardboard stale lesson plans.

I am going to write another novel.

I am going to write a full-length play.

I am going to write the libretto to a jukebox musical based on one of my favorite albums.

Life is too short. I’ve already spent enough of it depressed out of my mind and hating myself. I am not going to dismiss this art that I love as something “merely impractical.” I am not throwing my passion away.

Zach J. Payne is a poet, novelist, and thespian; a lover of languages and purveyor of useless knowledge. He is an assistant at Ninja Writers and interns for Pam Howell at D4EO Literary Agency. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at ZachJPayne. If you enjoyed this article, please click the little green heart. ❤