When I asked five people who majored in theater at a liberal arts school if doing so was worth it, the answer was a resounding yes from everyone.
I learned that theater makes Lizzie feel recognized. It allows Arianna the space to explore multiple art forms. It grants Maddy the power to express herself. It gives Shachar a safe space. It helps Alex be a force for good.You have people who have dedicated their lives to bringing the magic of theater to people who do not always have access to it. People who turn to the theater to let their imagination run rampant and to find a place where they are accepted in such a judgemental society. Yet, in an interview with Larry King, even theater legend Liza Minnelli can be seen choking on her tea and laughing when a fan calling in says, “Hi, I’m a musical theater major at the University of Arizona.” Ok, this is funny even to me, but it definitely represents a bigger problem about how theater majors are generally looked down upon, even by some of the industry’s biggest names. But why?
“Honestly we all have that BFA or bust crisis when we’re seniors in high school,” says Lizzie Witek ‘23. Witek grew up in sports-centered Monmouth Beach, NJ. In an effort to fit in, she tried 12 different sports, but was not particularly skilled in any of them. This was a good indication that the arts were definitely more her speed, so she began voice lessons at six years old. Studying musical theater and opera in her voice lessons led her to attend a theater camp, where her love for theater truly blossomed. Witek became especially serious about theater as an art form as she entered high school. She looks back and realizes that prior educators from her area were lowkey abusive, yet shrugs this detail off by indicating “that’s how a lot of good theater kids find out what they need to do.” Paper Mill Playhouse, a Tony Award winning regional theater company, was the first company who really recognized her for her talent; she was the girl with the big voice. She was suddenly running with the big dogs in joining Paper Mill’s show choir and summer conservatory. Theater was her sport, and being engrossed in a professional theater environment at such a young age ensured her desire to pursue theater.
The BFA or bust crisis stems from the idea that a BFA is a professional degree where students hone their skills in a specific art form while a BA is a more general degree that gives students more of a well-rounded education. Statistically, it is easier to get into Harvard Law School than it is to get into most BFA musical theater programs.
“I fully auditioned for a BFA, didn’t get past the pre-screen,” admits Shachar Kessler ‘22. He performed in his first show, Once Upon A Mattress, when he was five years old, which took place at his synagogue and was directed and choreographed by his mother. He pursued theater once again at a day camp in fourth grade. Playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz made him realize how much he loved theater. He performed in the JCC’s theater department from fifth to twelfth grade, along with additional middle school and high school productions. But the BFA was not going to be his path.
“In a BFA program, you are…stuck with that one thing and you have that one niche and that’s great. That works for some people, it’s working for my brother,” says Arianna Tilley ‘22. “But, I like to do everything, I like to be so well- rounded that I can do anything. I love acquiring knowledge, I just love being so multi-dimensional, and a BFA just wasn’t gonna give me what I needed.” Arianna actually considered herself a dancer until an injury forced a change in direction. She performed in a bunch of productions with a physical theater company, as it required a form of movement that would not exacerbate her injury. That summer, she remembers sitting in church when a random guy showed up and told her that a company was having auditions for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but young Arianna was very adamant about not auditioning, proclaiming that she was a dancer first. Her mom basically had to drag her to the audition, yet this experience sparked a love of musical theater within her. From there, she participated in this program every year until she graduated in high school, took voice lessons, got involved with high school theater, and helped build up her former school’s dance program. Her ability to switch from dance to musical theater set her up for a liberal arts-based theater education.
Maddy Burke ‘23 similarly ventured into different performing interests, such as violin and singing, while growing up in the Philly area in a very musical family. When Maddy and her brother had sleepovers with her cousins, their favorite thing to do was to make skits and perform for their parents. As a result, she started taking community theater classes and auditioned for community productions, making her onstage debut in second grade. Maddy has been involved with acting ever since but wanted broader options when pursuing a college degree. “I really love a lot of subjects,” she explains. “And a lot of more intensive conservatory style programs don’t let students, you know, branch out. And I think that in a field like theater especially, it’s so important to have knowledge of a bunch of different areas of life because all of it contributes to the work that we do.”
Everyone I interviewed had very similar motives for pursuing a BA and not a BFA. It was not a backup plan, but an active choice they made to ensure that they could receive a well-rounded education. Plus, the difficulty of getting into a BFA musical theater program versus a BA theater program at a liberal arts school does not determine success in the theater industry. Just look at Muhlenberg alum Frankie Grande. He completed a triple major in biology, dance, and theater, and ended up performing on Broadway. But is Broadway the ultimate goal for theater majors?
“Broadway is probably not very many people’s goals when they pursue a theater degree at a liberal arts school,” says Alex Yates. “I think there’s so many other areas that you can go into whether in theater or not in theater with a theater degree.” Alex is the Theater School Manager and Tour Director at Paper Mill Playhouse. She is in charge of the education department’s classes and manages Children’s Theater on Tour, a group that performs for hospitals, schools, libraries, and centers for kids with special needs. Alex has been engrossed in the world of theater since she was born, given that she was born into The Yates Musical Theatre for Children organization. This non-profit group has been touring theaters and schools for over 50 years. “I didn’t really have a choice,” she mentions, laughing. “That’s what I always say. But when I was born, my family were performers. And we always say, I took my first steps on stage. So it was something that was always part of my life, and I’ve always really enjoyed it.” Clearly, there are other pathways for a career in theater beside Broadway.
“Sure, I would love to perform on Broadway, but I’m being completely honest, I would have so much more fun directing and choreographing something and watching other people’s reactions because you can’t see anyone’s reactions from the stage…sure, everyone is like ‘oh my god, Broadway!’ like everybody is like ‘oh my god NFL,’ but you could do so many other things,” says Arianna.
After Arianna served as a dramaturg for Raisin in the Sun, Muhlenberg’s next show was supposed to be The Bacchae. Unfortunately, the show was never able to have a full run given the COVID-19 pandemic that cut the school year short. The day that the shutdown was announced, the cast and crew put on an impromptu performance of the show. Some actors were still on scripts, the costumes were not finished, it was not perfect, yet Arianna testifies, “That experience was the greatest theatrical experience of my life.” She recalls the yellow over light shining down on the Empie stage and loud booms played over the sound system. The actors performed in the middle of the theater as audience members watched them from all sides. Knowing that an experience like this would not be possible for a long time created a sense of connection between everyone in the theater. “The energy was dead center in the middle of the room and no one could tell me any different,” says Arianna. “Everybody was so into that one moment. Nothing else mattered. Nothing.”
“That power and that experience was the last thing and the last collective experience that I got to experience with everybody before leaving,” Arianna continues. “It set the bar so high for me that that’s the kind of theater that I want to do forever. That kind of silence at the end when everybody realized just how amazing that was. That moment was just…impeccable. So I feel like that moment set up kind of what I ended up doing for the rest of my time here, the shows I went out for, the things I created that were finished but left unfinished in a way where it then became an offering for the audience to take it, think about it, converse with it, and just go into the world.”
The Bacchae not only guided Arianna towards the type of theater she wants to be a part of, but also taught her about her values as a person. The connection that she felt with everyone else in that theater sparked her interest in exploring human intrapersonal connections. Arianna found that she has a general interest in helping and understanding others. For three years at Muhlenberg, Arianna worked on a diversity collective alongside students and faculty in the theater department to work towards constructing a more inclusive theater program. It was a theatrical experience that informed Arianna of what she wanted to do in the world regarding feeling for others and making a difference in their lives, which will inform her theatrical career and her life. “Collective theater never allows you to forget things because that’s its entire mission,” she says. “It’s to raise awareness to things that impact the collective.”
It was difficult for Shachar to abandon the performer’s mindset, but it paved the way for a whole new set of skills that would take him far in Muhlenberg’s theater program and beyond. In his first three weeks, he had 17 auditions and callbacks, but did not get into anything. “Constant rejection was really hard,” he explains, “and I think that really sparked me to be like, ‘I need to find my own ways to continue being in this art form.’” He always had a knack for working backstage and on creative teams, given his experience in high school as an assistant choreographer and stage manager for middle school productions. He recalls the time when he served as the dance captain for his high school’s production of Pippin (while also playing a lead role) when he forgot his part, so he made-up his own choreography without the director noticing given how seamlessly it flowed with the rest of the piece. Shachar’s high school director also assured him that he had the mind to work behind the scenes in the theater. As a result, he was inspired to take a stage management class freshman year and virtually stage managed productions during the pandemic. It was these experiences that made him realize that he wanted to be a professional stage manager.
Shachar always participated in theater because he enjoyed it, but being in leadership positions led him to wonder if he had to sacrifice the fun of it all for professionalism. “If you take it too seriously you’re gonna lose the passion for it,” he says, “but if you don’t take it seriously enough you’re also not gonna understand the importance and the weight that it has.” Some of his most fulfilling experiences have come from the productions in which he learned how to balance the two more evenly. As the deck stage manager in Call Me By Any Other Name…Just As Sweet, Shachar was responsible for everything onstage; the set, the costumes, everything. Shachar leaned into what he calls the “personal” aspect of theater, focusing on the fun of the production. However, when he began the process of tech, he suddenly felt the need to take things 10 times more seriously, leading to an uncomfortable shift within himself as a stage manager and in his relationship with the creative team. This really taught him about the value of balancing the fun side with the professional side of theater. “It’s something that I’ve worked so hard on but also something I’ve, especially during Firebringer, found my comfort in: balancing professionalism and fun,” he says. “If you don’t take it professionally, no one’s going to. You have to be able to command that room.”
Organization, scheduling, budgeting, time management, leadership, and communication are just a handful of the skills Shachar has acquired from stage managing. “I think a lot of theater people, not just performers, don’t really understand the full scale of what stage managers do specifically,” he says. ”And I still am learning things, and so it’s like, understanding that and understanding how to communicate that to people who I’m working with on a piece.” While he is not afraid to make other people on the creative team aware of what responsibilities should be his as a stage manager, he is always willing to work with others on anything, which is the type of confidence and humility that can take a person really far. Nonetheless, Shachar recognizes that stage management is often a thankless job; he does a lot that goes unnoticed, yet if something goes wrong, it is automatically his fault. Shachar was put onto Firebringer two days before callbacks and had twelve hours to arrange scheduling and to send out all of the information, all while juggling school work and other extracurriculars. It was overwhelming, but he did it. Shachar also feels weird asking his friends and family to come to the shows he works on because he feels like he does not have much to show for it. “I don’t care about all of those things because it just keeps me going,” insists Shachar, who says he still misses performing sometimes, but found a way to stay involved in theater in an area where he is especially talented and has built up skills that will help him in all aspects of his life. “It definitely was a big adjustment. I miss performing all the time, and it feels like a part of me isn’t here anymore. My mom, more than anything, misses watching me perform, but I still find ways to be in the theater, and for me that’s the most important part.”
Lizzie Witek felt intense pressure to double major in something else along with theater because that’s what everyone else seemed to do, so she worked to fill requirements that would satisfy a media & communication major. However, no matter how far Lizzie’s studies took her, her desire to be in theater was strong and scary enough to move her to tears. She recalls crying in her friend April’s dorm room, expressing her uncertainty about only majoring in theater while acknowledging that it was what her heart always yearned for. “Why are you fulfilling this thing because everyone else does it?” her friend asked. Lizzie points to this event as the turning point that helped her gain the confidence in allowing herself to focus on theater.
Caring less about what other people thought in this sense was a skill within itself, but Lizzie ’s realization allowed her to grow so much. Lizzie discovered she wanted to focus her studies in stage management after she stage managed a play in Muhlenberg’s Red Door Play Festival and fell in love with it. Lizzie served on the MTA Board and stage managed in two department productions, along with being the lead stage manager and assistant director for “The Vagina Monologues.” Given all of her leadership experiences, it is fair that she describes herself as “a kickass leader,” and has really honed these skills in this program. She learned how to be a leader by finding a middle ground between being nice and taking charge of the room. This confidence makes her feel prepared for the world after college.
Maddy Burk was preoccupied with the question of what she was going to do with her life even when she was very young. Of course she loved theater, but she worried about whether she would be able to get work or hold down a steady job if she went to school for it. For this reason, young Maddy reasoned that the best thing to do was to explore other career paths. “When I was really little, I was like, ‘I’m going to be a doctor.’ And then I was like, ‘No, I’m gonna be a teacher’. And then I decided I would be a music teacher. And then I decided I would be an English teacher. And then I was like, ‘I’ll be a psychologist.’ But always, like, kind of in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I want to act, I want to do theater.’”
Fast forwarding to the present, Maddy is finishing up her junior year at Muhlenberg with both gratitude towards what the theater department has brought her so far and a little bit of fear of what is yet to come after she graduates. “In terms of being ready for the real world,” she says, with a huff of anxiety, “I mean, you know, I do still have another year.” Although her family has always been really supportive, there is always that stigma that a BA in theater won’t prepare her for a real job. “There’s family friends, other family members, other friends who, you know, are very like, ‘how are you gonna get a job?’ ‘Better learn how to be a bartender.’ ‘You could work in the strip clubs’ [don’t worry, that last statement was from a joking friend]…I get a lot of that. I feel like a lot of people do too.” Despite the doubts other people may have had for her, Maddy was focused on her goals. “It got to a point where I was like, ‘this is the only thing I really, really want to do with my life.’ And from then on, I’ve just kind of been set. And you know, you have little moments of like, ‘oh, Lord, I’m never gonna get a job. I’m gonna be a starving artist,’ but I don’t know. It’s… it’s corny. But at the end of the day, it’s all kind of worth it. Somehow I’ll find a way to make a living for myself, and I’ll find a way to keep doing this. And loving what I do.”
Being an actress, Maddy is very familiar with the cutthroat nature of the theater industry, and Muhlenberg helped her gain a stronger sense of this world. “In a theater program as large as this, not everyone is going to get cast all the time,” she says. “And that’s okay. That’s how it is in the real world, too. So if you want to be a theater artist, you’ve got to kind of learn to pick yourself up and be a theater artist. And for some people, that doesn’t work, and that’s okay. And for others, it does, that’s okay. But I think that I’ve gotten some sense of how to do that for myself, you know, for once I go into the real world.” Muhlenberg’s acting classes have taught Maddy how to combat this cutthroat world by being self-sufficient and making work for herself, as well as gaining a better understanding of what it means to be an actor and what it means to be herself. For instance, one of her most impactful experiences related to this idea was studying physical theater in Italy for a semester. “I feel like that really helped me as a person and as an actor to get out of my head and let everything kind of be cohesive. Which has been a thing for me for a long time. I live in my head a lot.”
Despite basically being born onto the stage and performing since her earliest years, Alex Yates reflects on her childhood self as a timid, introverted young girl. This is something that is pretty common among many performers, which makes the idea of participating in the arts even more important given the benefits it offers. “I was a really shy kid,” says Alex. “And studying theater is something that really helped me be able to communicate and relate to people, on the job or off the job.” The first time Alex dove into the world of teaching was quite literally when she started giving swim lessons. Here, she realized how much she enjoyed teaching and working with kids. Soon, she realized, “you know, it’s better not to be in the water. So acting is good!” Besides a very brief stint of wanting to be a whale trainer at SeaWorld, Alex became especially interested in teaching acting in high school and college.
Alex majored in theater at Seton Hall, a liberal arts college in New Jersey. She reflects on two classes she took there that especially formed the basis of what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, including Classical Acting and Children’s Theater Class. “That helped me formulate my own performance style, but also my teaching style, and my directing style and what I appreciate in the theater,” says Alex. “That is then related to the shows that were most important to me while I took part in the theater program there. And those were all the Shakespeare shows that I did. And so those were really a big part of my formulating myself as a performer and teacher.” Alex’s membership in Seton Hall’s Honors Program allowed her to take a lot of classes that were not necessarily related to theater, but that gave her the background to pursue teaching English at Seton Hall later in her career. Plus, studying Shakespeare and reading plays in her English classes made her even more qualified to teach theater while expanding other English skills. After graduating, Alex took a year off, teaching some acting classes and deciding what she wanted to do. She tried to pursue an MFA in acting at the American Shakespeare Center for a year, but did not finish it because she learned something new about herself: she could not live on farmland in Virginia. For this reason, she came back to New Jersey and received an MFA in creative writing, giving her even more credit to teach English at Seton Hall. Alex began teaching classes at the Paper Mill Playhouse here and there after she received her MFA, and was eventually able to go full time at Paper Mill.
Alex’s experience teaching and bringing theater to people who do not always have access to it displays the impact theater can have outside of just entertainment. Alex did not feel like she was leaving her performing experience behind with the interesting idea that both teaching and performing go hand in hand: “I actually think that teaching is a lot like performing. You have to sort of perform for your students. So it kind of all felt connected to me still. So for me personally, it felt organic.” She also says, “I think that I found that I definitely preferred a more stable life, not the life of an actor, you know? So, this was a good way to still have that as part of my life, but not necessarily lead that life.”
One of the common denominators among these theater majors was the immense amount of passion they have for the art form of theater. When Shachar went to see Come From Away, he stared in awe at what he describes as the “beautiful” Broadway lightboard. Lizzie reflects on taking Interpreting U.S. Playwriting: “You read a play every class and you talk about it, it’s just awesome, it’s just so great.” When even the seemingly trivial aspects of something can bring so much joy, it makes it easier to understand why these students are so confident in their choice to major in theater.
“I definitely would like that stigma to be broken so that people know that they can go and study this and lead a very successful, meaningful life and have a combination of the two: being successful and also doing something that you love, which is something that many people don’t get to do,” says Alex.
“I’m gonna be really happy being a cabaret singer,” says Lizzie, who wishes to pursue stage management and casting. Lizzie initially had a difficult time with straying from performance, but came to accept that it is something she will always do for fun. Over the summer, she will be working an apprenticeship for the Paper Mill Playhouse’s Summer Conservatory, doing both office work and hands-on stage management work. She will be studying in New York City next semester with Larry Singer Studios, where she will take an on camera class, a studio class, and an industry class where she will get to see Broadway shows. She will be graduating after this fall semester and is very excited to make her way in the big city.
It’s been a bit difficult for Shachar to find theatrical jobs since many of them are on a rolling basis, but there is no doubt that his major will help him in the workforce beyond the arts. “I’ve applied for a bunch of jobs that aren’t in theater, and people see that I have a background in theater, and it makes them more interested in talking to me,” he explains. “People understand that as a stage manager I have a set of skills. I’m looking at event management jobs, and event managers are like, ‘oh my gosh you really understand how to sit there and run a performance or run a something.’” Shachar was even asked to take further steps with an event management position, but ultimately decided not to, saying “I would just be much happier working in a theater.”
Arianna is applying to many artistic apprenticeships and internships at different theaters that include experience in directing, production, and choreography. A lot of them have mentioned that they could include performing in the apprenticeship if interested, which she definitely is. “My mom has always mentioned ‘you’re a natural born creator,’ my mom has always said that and I was like ‘no, I’m a performer, leave me alone,’” Arianna jokes. “I just used to do choreography for fun, like I started when I was 14 and then it kind of just was something I did for fun until 18. Then I guess I started to get more serious about it…I have so many other shows I would just like fight to the nail to direct and choreograph on a Broadway stage because there are shows that are not forgotten, but their depth and their relatability to the world around us especially right now is forgotten, and I like to remind people of things.” Her time at Muhlenberg has taught her a lot about what she wants to do with her life and has given her the confidence to establish the artist she wants to be. “I don’t really think I could ever really abandon [performing] because that’s just like a core of who I am, but I am looking at theater companies and I am upfront about the work I like to do.”
“If you really think about it, majoring in theater can help you be a lawyer, because sometimes a courtroom is straight up theatrical,” says Arianna. “It’s so versatile, people don’t understand how versatile it is and it could be paired with anything and it can help you be prepared for anything. At the end of the day, you need to be stubborn for your career. Wait, I’m gonna write that down!”
Photo by Emma Bram ’24 of the Muhlenberg Theatre Alumni performing a farewell show to honor the retirements of Charlie Richter and Curtis Dretsch.