From Ensemble to Ecologist

Written by Jenna Karr

Jenna holds her B.S in Marine Biology and a B.S. in Environmental Studies from Florida Southern College and she is now working on her Masters of Science in Marine Science from Hawaii Pacific University and she is looking to earn her PhD in the following years. Jenna spent her entire childhood in the theatre, dance, vocal lessons, and more. Here she shares with us the skills she took from the theatre into her every day life and education.

Though few care to admit it, most people view the life of an actor as one with more hardships than triumphs. Oh sure, there’s the Hollywood movie stars we idolize, or – for an even smaller population- a Broadway lead we follow on Instagram. But to meet a working actor outside of those glitzy, untouchable borders is to feel some level of trepidation.

Because of this, it is not unusual for parents of theatre-loving children to feel mild concern over their son or daughter’s choice to start down the road of becoming an anointed “Theatre Kid.”

What is frequently looked-over, are the skills and lessons learned by those who grow up in the theatre. As a woman in STEM, (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) the skills that were honed by years of dance, voice lessons and countless theatre productions are what allowed me to gain success as a Scientist. To live in the theatre is to learn the value of your abilities and how they can apply to every facet of life – not just the stage.

Public Speaking

It may seem obvious to state that growing up in theatre provides a decreased level of fear when standing in front of a crowd and the ability to project in large spaces. Those are the most basic skills learned from my first production in the children’s ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat– don’t panic when you see all the people and sing loud!

But it’s the refinement of these qualities and the addition of the ability to use words as a way to capture the attention of an audience that develops an actor into a formidable public speaker.

I cannot even begin to convey the importance of the ability to stand in front of a room of peers and superiors while maintaining their attention. It’s one thing to take part in groundbreaking research, but half the battle is getting yourself heard. You might have 10 years in the field, 25 publications and a tenured position at a major research University, but if I’m at a conference and you’re monotone, quiet and I’m sorry – boring– there’s no way I’ll want to sit through 45 minutes of your presentation.

A person who’s been coached to be sensitive to the pitch of their voice for emphasis, the rise and fall of tone to create intriguing variation in their speech and command a spot at the front of the room and the center of attention – now that’s someone I’d pay a conference fee to go listen to.

Networking

Granted this is an imperative skill for success regardless of career, but specifically within the scientific community who you know can be just as important as the work you’ve already done.

What better way to make connections than having a strong introduction and a cool head when throwing yourself into meetings and network events – sounds an awful lot like an audition to me.

And. That. Is. My. Point. Every audition pro-tip or coaching I was given is the main reason I keep a level head in networking scenarios. Be confident, but not cocky. A strong entrance and introduction, but don’t feel the need to be someone you’re not. Dress comfortably and appropriately for the position you want, and overall understand that even if you don’t get this one, the connection you made could spark something down the road.

Taking Direction

A fundamental piece of theatre whether you’re the leading lady or ensemble member #5 – taking your instructions and trusting the process (even when you don’t fully agree) – same goes for scientists.

One of the major hurdles faced by young, budding minds is the day you have to realize that you don’t know anything – at least not yet. It’s easy to get through 4 years of your bachelors degree and think “Wow! I know things!” only to be faced by the harsh reality that comes with scientific territory. The journey from scientific hopeful to Dr. Of Knowledge is not dissimilar to what is faced by those who have chosen the role of “Theatre Kid” from Pre-K to high school graduation.

From the first moment you step into a rehearsal room the majority of time is spent getting talked at and taking direction. Basic blocking, learning music, picking up choreo – it’s all centered around you sitting back and letting your directors do their job. Once you pick up the ground-level – you ask questions. Clarify your instructions and if you’re in the right kind of environment, suggestions for improvement (though always respectfully and in the right place). After years of building your experience – who knows, then you get to be the one calling the major shots. But one of the most important pieces here – and I can’t stress this enough – your learning years are about just that – learning. Take it all in, hone your skill set and yes, even though it can be frustrating, grinning and bearing it even if you don’t agree.

Where is this same timeline of events found? STEM.

The majority of my undergrad was spent picking up on the basics and learning to understand that if I wanted to gain success and notoriety – there was a long road ahead of me. I had to respect my professors (even when some drove me crazy), trust their judgement (even when I didn’t agree) and overall take my directions and use them for self improvement. Even now as a master’s student, I humbly accept any and all advice coming from advisors.

Theatre taught me the importance of taking your direction, absorbing the experience of your superiors and using it to improve upon what’s been done. Really when it comes down to it there’s very little difference between notes from your director and notes from your academic advisor.

So to those who seek to demerit the value of a childhood in the theatre – I say hold my tap shoes, hold my lab coat.

The years spent living and learning from musicals, rehearsals, and lessons do nothing but prepare kids for success regardless of where they seek to take their talents. It builds confidence. It instills a fire for self improvement. It creates artists that can bring their brilliant minds and ideas to fields far beyond the stage.

And yes, it also means I get caught blasting “Forget About the Boy” or “One” in the lab while seeing just how many of the steps I can remember while dissecting fish. But that’s the beauty of theatre. No matter where you are in life the experience and lessons brought to you by those years on stage can make their way into any aspect of life.

Let them do theatre, let them learn – for tomorrow they could change the world.

Taylor Sherry & Jenna Karr in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.