Culture July 3, 2018
When did we all stop thinking of art schools as schools?
When someone asks me where I go to school, I beam with violet pride as I declare, “I go to NYU.” When someone asks me about my major, I get a little quiet, roll my eyes and smirk with embarrassment as I spit out, “I study acting.” I minor in creative writing and mathematics, which I am quick to shout immediately after I mutter my major.
I feel this compulsive need to make sure everyone knows that I know that acting is not necessarily a lucrative or stable major. If I act like I think the major is ridiculous, maybe everyone will stop informing me that it’s ridiculous.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think my major is weak or any kind of waste. In fact, I think studying acting is the best thing that’s happened to me. I took the path we keep encouraging our children to take–I boldly pursued my passions. My first year at college, I was a math major. I tried the practical thing, hated it, stayed long enough to achieve the minor and then opted for the brave thing. That’s means something, right?
And honestly, the art school I attend is not too shabby in terms of getting an education in acting. Studying acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts is sort of the equivalent of studying physics at Caltech. When I tell people in “the industry” that I study acting at NYU, I’m rewarded with a pat on the back and a, “Hey, good going!” For everyone else in my life, though, I’m met with a down-turned smile and a judgmental, “Hm.”
Even if I manage to avoid the “Hm” reaction, there are all kinds of fun and annoying questions people love to ask. Perhaps the most frustrating inquiry is, “So what career do you want to pursue eventually?”
I study acting, so why do people keep asking me what I want to do for work? It’s right there in the name of the major! I want to act! The “eventually” tacked on to the end of the career question is the real downer. It implies that people assume my passion will fizzle out, and I’ll have to buckle down into something “serious.” If I studied physics at Caltech, would people ask the same questions?
Perhaps this stings me so much because it’s relatively new to me to face dismissal for how I academically exist.
In high school, I tried my best in every class, and every subject mattered to me. Performing was always my passion, but my commitment to my academic courses kept it concealed. I graduated high school second in my class with a 4.9 GPA. I don’t say this to acquire any sort of fresh praise for a dated accomplishment. And I certainly don’t say it to toot any form of horn, especially since grades are in no way accurate depictions of someone’s intelligence. Rather, I say this because when adults noticed that I did all right on my math tests, they recognized me as someone who was on a path to success. They trusted me with my education.
I miss feeling that trust. In those days, I didn’t have to worry about defending my intelligence or my choices to anyone. I was taken seriously. People assumed I had to work really hard, so they cut me slack. They gave me room to breathe. My brain was respected, so my heart was free.
Truthfully, I wasn’t working nearly as hard then as I am now. Sure, I had homework and extracurricular commitments. But I daydreamed in class, put off studying and even had time to go on dates with my high school boyfriend on school nights. Madness!
Nowadays, I return to my dorm from class exhausted and sore and still expected to complete several hours of homework.
Even though I work my patooty off at university, somehow, because of what I choose to study, I am less responsible than I was in high school. This befuddles me. Because I study an art, I am some sort of rebel. I feel like the defiant 16-year-old girl who has fallen madly in love with the kid who rides motorcycles. She shouts, “But I love him, Mom!,” and everyone dismisses her because of her youth. But I’m studying, and I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life. How can a dedication to my education be reckless?
Perhaps part of the issue here is a lack of knowledge around what actually takes place in an acting program like NYU’s.
I am part of the Experimental Theatre Wing, an acting studio at NYU dedicated to using movement in storytelling. Most days, I have class from 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. We train in physically demanding courses, including modern dance, martial arts, circus acrobatics and life-size puppetry training. In our more acting-centric studio classes, we also find ways to incorporate physical exertion, perfecting our planks and push-ups while studying characters and scenes. We also take notes, have homework and write papers. It’s fun and exciting, but it’s difficult and frustrating, too.
Despite popular belief, acting is more than just studying hypothetical scenarios and fictional outlines. I find myself more in touch with who I am and with those around me the deeper I delve into this education. I have to learn to listen closely and respond authentically in my classes, making me a more effective communicator. Attending acting classes actually enhances the way I learn everything else, because my eyes and ears are wide open at all times. To study acting is to study humans. Humans are intricate and delicate, and my education has to reflect that.
However, since switching my major from math to drama, I feel as if my education has been invalidated. When I introduce myself and my studies, I feel inferior or fraudulent. Even in writing this, I feel the need to describe the intensity of my education and the credit of my program. I’m sitting here feeling like a pretentious asshole as I defend my craft.
Yet, it is a craft. Acting is not just about the physical act of performing. There are thousands of texts and scholarly articles attached to the field. It is, in fact, something I literally study, with real books and everything. Every day in an acting program is a test of one’s progress. There is no room for daydreaming, and if you don’t come prepared, you can’t participate. At what point does learning a craft that is not immediately academic become recognized as valid? At what point is it treated as an education and not an after-school hobby?
It is a privilege to study something I love. I feel grateful for every day in my program, reminiscing on the muddy days spent stuck in the math department. Even on my worst days, I know I am seizing an incredible learning opportunity.
But I miss feeling like the “smart kid” in school. I miss the trust. People used to assume I would be successful. Now, they assume I won’t be. How much more will I have to do before my passion is more than just a pastime?
Like any college experience, attending art school is all about what you make it. Thus, in spite of the issues that neighbors, peers, grandparents, kindergarten teachers or presidents may have with my time spent in drama classes, I will study hard and chase this dream with all my might. After all, in the wise words of Hannah Montana, “Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock.”
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