The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).And this:
This widespread drive to be famous is a relatively recent phenomenon in our society. Before the complete domination of mass media on our thought processes, becoming famous was not a concept held by every average person. Most people expected to lead average, normal lives such as they saw around them on a daily basis. Most people people prior to the 20th century lived and died within a 50-mile radius of where they were born. Today’s mass media, however, makes the idea of fame a possibility accessible to everyone. Every movie, television show, reality show, hit song – you name it, and people see it, see it’s famous, and want a slice of that pie. More people today can name movie stars than can name scientists or government policy makers. Because of the fact of its continued and overwhelming presence in our culture, people come to believe that fame is possible for anyone. Shows like American Idol in fact count on it.And his finale:
The sad truth is that, for all their dreaming of fame, the statistics say that most of our students will not achieve their dreams. Perhaps for 15 minutes, maybe. If we want to be honest educators, we need to start telling students the truth, and build better options for them for their theatrical futures. It can be done if we have the will, and perhaps if we are willing to re-think our own dreams of fame.For good measure, he links to this Onion article.
I like Tom a lot, but I disagree with just about every single part of his post. I really, really do. I think it's horrible, horrible advice for a young person, even though it comes from a good-ish place. I certainly feel Tom's frustration with the elevated expectations of young men and women, and we should certainly could do more to expand their ideas of success and possible life choices. But other than that...it's just kind of mean and bitter.
Let's think about it this way. A student in a history seminar takes a liking to the course work, even though she's not a major and writes the professor a message saying, "I know my last paper's haven't been great, but I'm really excited by this material and the coursework and I want to be the best student I can be. And, who knows, maybe I'll wind up as President and can invite you to the inauguration! I hope so!" Do you think the professor should respond with, "Well, since no women and only 43 people have ever been President of the US, it's not a very realistic or conceivable goal. You should think about your other options right now!"? Is that going to further this student's career? Their growth? Honestly, we wouldn't even expect a teacher to say that. And way more folks have won Academy Awards in acting (nearly 300) than have won the presidency.
Listen, I get that it's an unrealistic goal if this kid thinks one class is going to turn him into an award-winning actor. But, from my read and Tom's description, this is a young guy, trying it out, and trying to work hard. Why shouldn't he aim high? Say what you want about the politics or whatever about it, but it's basically the highest award an actor can win and it generally goes to a pretty accomplished or skilled actor. Yes, yes, advantages and unfairness and blah blah blah, but really, it's not just given out to anyone. And this kid is willing to do the work. He's not asking for a pass or a easy ride. He's offering to come in and do extra work to feel satisfaction. Why would you want to discourage that?
What's worse about this is making the connection between this kid, who again is looking to work harder, and the likes of the odious reality-TV "stars." When these things come up, there's always this current of, well, sneering at awards and success as the product of a selfish desire for attention. An artist should want to achieve at high level, they should push themselves to be the best they can be, and, in a lot of ways, accolades are proof of that. And they come with a pretty big stage and the opportunity to affect lives. I'm not saying that everyone has noble goals and intents, but not everyone has shallow, self-serving goals, either.
The kid isn't thinking rationally...but what kid is? He's a college student and trying out the things that fall in his path. Today, it's Oscar-winner. Tomorrow, it may be brain surgeon. Or astronaut. But right now he is thinking, if he wants to win an Oscar, he has to work harder and hold himself to a higher standard. All of that is the first step in the right direction. And along that path...who knows? This kid may want to be a big acting star now, but if he pursues it, he may find he doesn't like it and wants to do something else, write, design, direct, or teach. He may decide that he wants to head back to his hometown and found a community theatre. Who knows where his path goes. But to start him off telling him to give up on his dreams...that's a dead end.