A Letter to a Young Actor on Graduation

April 10, 2019

James Arthel Reilly, a Philadelphia-based actor, gives words of encouragement and advice for young actors transitioning from high school to college. 

If you're like me, you were a "theatre kid." I know, I know: that's a pesky label with a lot of baggage and it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different folks. However, as I have grown older and spent a lot more of my time away from that community, I have come to cherish and cling to my "theatre kid-ness," and to seek it out in other people. There is a common experience there that simply is not found anywhere else, and it's immediately obvious when two people share it. If you cling to that drive, like-minded people will be drawn like magnets to your energy. I truly believe that.

That "theatre kid" essence is what propelled me to make theatre, storytelling and art parts of my everyday life. Graduation from high school can be a scary step for anyone, and regardless of how in a row you think your ducks are, it's useful to remember these two things:

1) You are allowed to feel how you feel, be it elated or terrified. No one can invalidate that.

2) Stick to your convictions.

Alright, now that that's out of the way, let's get down to business. Maybe you're about to study one of the myriad of creative disciplines that can help sharpen an artist's craft and character. Maybe you're about to pursue a career as a creative professional. Or, maybe you're about to study accounting and you don't want to lose touch with that special thing that makes you, you. In any case, there is a large chance that you are going to be in charge of your destiny in a way that you never have been before in your life. There will be no one telling you when to be home, when to be up, or to turn the music down. College is a little like adulting with training wheels. You'll still be in a relatively safe bubble, but at least you'll be able to take a few twists and turns on your own!  

While this is all exciting (What? No one is going to stop me from eating 37 slices of pizza in the dining hall?) there are two sides to every coin (oof, stomach ache). As your freedom grows, so does your responsibility. This will be true not only in your personal and academic lives but especially in your creative life. Your high school most likely had a network of people much more extensive than you ever realized helping you to act out your heart's desires each spring and fall. Dedicated parents and educators made sure that you were fed, that tickets went on sale, that the set got built and the lines got learned. No matter how many times the students and teachers alike griped about the attention the school football team was getting, there was a framework established that gave you a comfortable space in which to practice your art and recognize your identity.

It will now be up to you to create that framework. This can, again, be frightening and exciting all at the same time. You will be entering a larger pool of talent and meeting a new group of teachers and students. You might not be cast in a show every semester. And guess what? You may not even want to be (Do you really need to do Our Town, again?). As you mature as a theatre artist, you will be able and required to take a larger role in the art you make. There will be so many things that you cannot control in this business, so relish and seize the things that you can. Don't see a playwright you love on your college's season? Notice that all of the playwrights represented in the season are white men? Snap up the opportunity and get down to networking, because chances are you're not the only one who noticed it. Get together and make your voices heard. 

A college campus is (and this isn't as obvious as it sounds) nothing without its students. You will have the ability here to exercise an influence that was impossible in high school. And the best way to do that is to organize. For more on that, check out the next installment of this blog: coming soon!

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