I almost dropped out of my musical theater program the summer after my freshman year.
I was burnt out, frustrated, and yearning for things I thought I didn’t have.
At the time I was working as an intern at the Sharon Playhouse with one of my closest friends (Ian). On one of our nights off we went to a park near the theater and sat on top of a large jungle gym. Staring straight ahead at the gorgeous New England sunset, I became overwhelmed with sadness, frustration, and defeat. I had to voice this internal fury.
“I don’t think I can go back to school,” I said. Ian confusedly turned and stared at me trying to assess whether or not this was a joke.
“What? What are you talking about?” Ian replied.
“I just don’t know. School is a lot. And I don’t actually know if I’m any good at this. Like I keep getting the note that I’m a hard worker. And that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that I’m actually improving.”
I keep getting the note that I’m a hard worker. And that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that I’m actually improving.
Ian looked at me for a long time. I think he knew that I was simultaneously correct and incorrect.
For context, I grew up as a competition dancer. My pathway into theater was through dance, choreography, and movement. Singing and acting were almost entirely foreign entities to me when I started college. I didn’t really start singing until my junior year of high school and I didn’t really have any formal acting training until I went to college. At school, I was excelling in my dance classes, but I was really hitting a wall with my voice and my acting. And what compounded my frustration about this was that every time I would get feedback it would essentially follow the tune of, “You’re a very hard worker, but you’re just not getting it yet.”
Every time I would get feedback it would essentially follow the tune of, “You’re a very hard worker, but you’re just not getting it yet.”
To be clear, I have found that hard work is one of the most important attributes of succeeding in this industry. But my hard work was not productive work and I wasn’t able to follow what the faculty was suggesting. It’s not that the faculty wasn’t supportive, it was that I had this unrealistic expectation of myself to be incredible at everything right away. After all, I had been valedictorian of my high school so I was used to getting top grades and high praise from my professors.
I had this unrealistic expectation of myself to be incredible at everything right away.
After a bit more conversation, Ian probed me about what I would do if I left our musical theatre program. I mentioned a couple of dance-focused programs at both our university and other universities that sounded appealing or even suggested switching my major altogether. I kept saying that I just wanted to dance, but that I still wanted to make my way in the theatre. After a few more minutes of back and forth, Ian said something to me I will never forget.
“Listen, you can’t go to school for what you’re already good at. That’s a waste of your time. If you really want to do this, then you have to keep doing the work at what you’re bad at. And like own it. Be bad. If you keep working you will find the growth that you want. And yes, it’s not fun, but trust me, you’ll get there.”
Own it. Be bad. If you keep working you will find the growth that you want.
I owe many thanks to Ian for these words on that gorgeous summer night. He could not have been more right. If I had dropped out of school I would never have had the career that I have been lucky enough to achieve.
I share this with you, as you are in the process of applying and auditioning for colleges, in hopes that you’ll consider this:
What do you need the most help with in your skill set arsenal? Are you a weak dancer? Do you struggle to connect honestly to your text? Are you still finding your way to a strong vocal technique? Something else?
Whatever it is, (and it might be multiple things), find the school that is going to give you as much of that as you can get. Go to school to strengthen your weaknesses. Be brave enough to stand confidently in where you are in your journey and know that you have work to do. If you are already a fantastic vocalist with several gorgeous money notes, then most likely you need help in other areas.
Go to school to strengthen your weaknesses. Be brave enough to stand confidently in where you are in your journey and know that you have work to do.
Be proactive and self-aware and consider what you would like to be able to confidently execute once you leave school that you don’t feel you can achieve right now. Is it a double pirouette? Is it developing a thorough understanding of how to approach Shakespeare’s text? Is it an understanding of what it’s like to approach a new musical work? All of the above and more? You do not have to feel like you have to be able to do everything, but the more diverse your skill set, the more hirable you will be when you leave school.
You might be quick to say “I don’t want to do work that will require me to (*insert weakness here*)… the truth about this is twofold. First, if you want to be successful in this industry, there are certain things you can’t avoid. (Delving into that would be an entirely separate blog post that perhaps I’ll explore another time).
If you want to be successful in this industry, there are certain things you can’t avoid.
Second, you will naturally gravitate towards what you are good at when no one is forcing you to hone your craft. So, do yourself a favor now and while you are still young and still committing full-time to training your instrument, give yourself the chance to have the largest and strongest skill set available to you. You will thank yourself down the line.
About the Author
Josh Zacher is an NYC based dancer, actor, teacher, and choreographer. A proud native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he graduated high school as valedictorian, Josh holds a BFA in Drama (with Honors) from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a graduate of both the Broadway Dance Center Summer Professional Semester and the University of Michigan Summer Dance Institute. As a performer, Josh served as the Dance Captain on The Prom 1st national tour, played Larry in the national/international tour of A Chorus Line (direction by Tony Award Winner Baayork Lee) and appeared in the world premiere cast of The Elf on the Shelf musical. Josh has performed at The Kennedy Center, The Lyric Opera of Chicago (West Side Story), North Shore Music Theatre (The Music Man), Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, The Ordway, Kansas City Starlight, The REV Theatre Co. (Footloose), Theatre By The Sea (Newsies), The Sharon Playhouse (Les Miserables), and The Wagon Wheel Center for the Performing Arts. Josh is a guest faculty at Broadway Dance Center, a teaching artist for New York City Center, and a teaching/audition assistant at Ballet Tech in Manhattan.