I first ‘met’ Mel when I visited her site. I was so impressed with her story and how she paid off $29,192.46 in student loan debt. I was also truly fascinated by the amazing opportunities that she had in her life – but particularly the adventure that she took on board a ship – that allowed her to pay off that debt in record time. I asked her to share her story here and she agreed – and we are swapping blog posts today so if you go and visit her you will see the post that I wrote for her site! See what we did there?!? I know that you are going to enjoy Mel’s story about how she chose her major. It might even inspire you to go into theatre yourself!
Sometimes I think arts and humanities degrees get a bad wrap. A recent comment over on my blog fired me up and led me to write an entire post on why a theater degree is not useless, and in all honesty, for me, a theater degree was not only totally useful, it’s been the catalyst to my crazy, awesome gypsy life.
Let me throw out a few disclaimers here. I think there are people who have, or find, big, hairy, audacious goals and dreams. They feel it deep in their soul that painting is what they need to do. They walk into a chemistry lab for the first time, their teacher does some silly little experiment, and they are smitten forever. They get a part-time job working in a day care and realize they actually adore being around children. And now they have a dream that they want to chase. I’m not saying every day of the rest of their life will be full of Disney movie happiness, but I am saying that their career choice has become something embedded somewhere deep, maybe even into their soul. The disclaimer is, that on the flip side, there are plenty of people that this doesn’t happen to. Or there are plenty of people who totally have Disney movie happiness moments when they are painting or playing with kids but have no desire to make that into their career. They don’t see the challenge of a difficult career path and think “I’m going to kick that challenge in the… rear end.” And all that’s cool. But I’m not one of those people. For better or for worse (and there’s plenty of ‘for worse’), theater is embedded deep in my soul.
When I first headed off to college, I figured I’d be a high school English teacher. This was not one of those deep down in your soul things. This was merely based on that fact that I’d always done well in English and Lit. classes and I just felt like it was something I could be competent at. I sort of feel that when you first head off to college, for most folks, the world is pretty small. The furthest I’d ever been when I left for college was the beach, two states over, and Disneyworld. So I started taking classes in the Literature track and accidentally wound up in a class called Theater Crafts, a Lit. elective. I thought I’d be reading plays and maybe have to do a monologue or one of those stupid “pretend to be an animal from birth to death” games (those came later), but instead I had to learn how to read plans, build sets, memorize the names of tools and all sorts of other weird things I’d never experienced. And I was good at it. Part of that class required spending 10 hours working in the college scene shop, which was where I almost blew my grade. You see, I was painfully shy, and the theater majors were all so loud and clique-y, that with two weeks left in the semester, I realized my grade was about to go from an A to a B just because I was scared to walk into the scene shop (literally terrified – I walked up to that door no less than a dozen times that semester and then turned around and walked away instead of going through it).
So with my slipping grade in mind, I went to talk to the professor to see if it was even possible to get 10 hours of work in with the time left in the semester and he told me that if I worked on the crew for the last show of the year, I’d get all my hours in. He literally walked with me from the classroom and deposited me with an upperclassman backstage. This upperclassman was the Stage Manager, who was pretty busy, and she shuffled me off to another person, who deposited me with another person, and several people later, I was standing on top of a ladder, with another person literally holding onto my belt loops to keep me up there safely, plastering giant, glittered letters on a rickety wooden web on wheels while the Assistant Stage Manager screamed “faster, faster!!” at me. That was immediately followed by jumping off the ladder, trying to land on the girl who had been holding me up there, sprinting to the other side of the stage and helping another guy untie and lower about 100 little spider puppets. It was insane. And it was magic. And I was hooked forever. Literally, as I write this, I’m can still relive and feel the moment when I knew I was going to do stuff like that forever.
I definitely met with some resistance. My parents were paying for the tuition that my scholarships weren’t covering and they wanted no part of me majoring in theater, so our compromise was a double major (back to the Literature classes – because yeah, Dad, that’s a more useful degree?) as long as I graduated on time (did it a year early actually, booyah). And I slowly won them over. At the start of the next semester, I got a campus job working at that same scene shop I was previously scared to enter. I worked there for about a year before I switched to a different, higher paying job as a stage hand in the school performing arts center, where I got to work with a bunch of “real” stagehands, who usually worked in theaters outside of the educational sphere. Because of those jobs, I was able to get a summer job working at a theater that had no real connection to my school (other than a habit of hiring kids who went to it), where I gained experience as a sound and lighting technician.
After graduation, I went on to grad school, to study an entirely different subject (what can I say? I just like school) and actually paid most of my bills by getting a job as a stage manager for a local theater company – fortunately it was a cheap area of America to live. When I was interviewing for it, the skills that I’d picked up working as a sound and lighting tech (a job I’d gotten because of my stagehand experience as the school performing arts center) were what stood out, because I also had to run an assortment of sound boards while I stage managed during my time with that company.
I was finishing up grad school as the recession started to hit America, and wound up taking on some debt to finish up. At that point, I really started to look around at how my super weird skill set could actually make money (with my theater, literature and now theology degrees) and realized I would probably have to get sort of creative. And something I’ve found further along in my theater career, pretty much everyone who makes it past the start, started out by being creative and open to anything. I know people who got their Equity card by moving to the middle of Montana for 2 years or people who paid off school by doing tours through Alaska or moving to China to work at Universal Studios there for a few years. I’m not saying it’s a guarantee, but it’s pretty likely that if you want to build a solid base for yourself in the entertainment world, you need to be prepared to start out as a nomad. I feel like I really started out as a sailor.
My first theater job that paid a real, living wage (not the cobbled together, trying to make it work one I had during grad school, although it did get the job done at the time) was working as a stage manager on for a cruise line. I lived on a boat and made sure all the shows happened. It was an incredible job for a kid right out of college. Some days were good, other days less so (if you want to check out a particularly crummy day there, you can read this breakdown I wrote ages ago), but at the end of the day, I was living rent free and they were feeding me. I was clearing a little under $2,000 a month (not a huge amount, but I was excited about it) that I could turn over almost entirely to paying off my debt.
And I mean it – if I wanted to go do any of the shore excursion on my time off, they were free. I just had to report back to the Shore Excursions Team about how it went (mystery shopping, if you will). If I wanted to party late into the night – sodas were .50, beer was .70 and hard liquor was .90 in the crew bar. We also had all sorts of crew activities like theme parties, bingo, crew excursions, and other stuff to keep us occupied. Even the shops in ports usually had discounts for crew members. I pretty much spent $40 for an internet card, $40 for food in port and $40 a month on my bar bill. Oh, and I saw the world. During my time with the cruise line I saw Alaska (a lot – 5 summers of Alaska), the majority of islands in the Caribbean, several areas of Canada, Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Greece, Croatia, Turkey… and plenty of other places that just aren’t coming to mind right now. As someone who loves traveling, well, how many times can you call something incredible?
In the middle of my years at sea, I took a year off to get a Master’s degree in England that put me almost $30,000 in debt. I spent a year and a half at sea after completing it and got about $20,000 of it paid off. But by that time, the sea had lost a lot of its magic for me and I desperately wanted to go work on land. Around that time, my boyfriend got offered a job with THE circus, which was a much better gig for him, so he took it. We agreed next time there was an opening in the production department, I’d go for it. So I did and that was the end of my time at sea. Although not the end of rent free living, but I think train life is probably another post in and of itself and this one has rambled on long enough.
So with that in mind, just remember that if you are one of the people with a career dream embedded in your soul, you can still make it. You might need to be willing to follow an unconventional path, but if you are, the job experiences (and the memories) are pretty great!
Mel blogs at brokeGIRLrich where she explores topics like how to not totally panic over adulthood, working in the arts and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass. You can catch up with her on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest (where you can learn more about her crock pot love affair too).