Chasing Yale

by Jim Hutchinson
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Rejection sucks. But it won’t determine your success or failure. Photo credit: A creative commons image from flickr user Mandy_Jansen
Rejection sucks. But it won’t determine your success or failure. Photo credit: A creative commons image from flickr user Mandy_Jansen
Success isn’t an impossible dream—and the path there isn’t the exclusive property of just a few schools.

[While I’m on vacation, I’ve asked some friends to contribute blog posts. Today we hear from Jim Hutchinson. Jim Hutchison, the goateed, shaven headed lighting expert who writes JimOnLight.com and designs for Alive Lighting is doing some major moving himself right now, packing up his life to move to Toronto, Canada at the stop of the month.  Jim's been all over the world lighting stuff, from ex-presidents to rockers, and from divas to dummies.  Throwing the photons is Jim's game.  Oh yeah, and writing about the photons.]

There is a very ugly, smelly disease among many, many people in our industry right now, and it’s called OMG WHAT IF I DON’T GET INTO YALE Syndrome. The symptoms of this disease are basically sweats and bad attitude about not getting into one of the “top” places to study Entertainment in some form or another.

I have three friends right now who whine about their degrees, and how they’ll never “make it big” because they didn’t get their degree from Yale.  Or Northwestern.  Or they didn’t study with Ming Cho Lee, so how on EARTH will they ever get their genius recognized?  The perception seems to be that there is just a small cadre of schools who really matter, and if you study there, you are guaranteed a spot on America’s Next Top Designer (which I just invented and you may buy rights from me directly) or you get to star in your own sitcom, called Another Actor Makes It Big.  This is a particularly pernicious fantasy. (Who wouldn’t want to take the chance at actually succeeding in the fashion that it seems people who go to Yale succeed?) But it is a fantasy all the same.

This is going to be hard to swallow, but it needs to be said:
Not everyone who goes to one of the “top” schools succeeds in this industry.

That’s a little too much like rooting for failure, though, so here’s a more affirmative phrasing:
You can succeed in this industry no matter where you go to school.

As I write this, there are people out there kicking some Gluteus Maximus in the business of making Theatre, Dance, Opera, Corporate Theatre, Concert Production, and a multitude of other awesome things that they did not learn from Yale or some other “elite” school. Hell, some people who are on the absolute TOP of our industries didn’t go to college at all. It is possible to work very frequently in this business in any way, shape, or form, as long as you want to do it, and you act on your desires.

Still breathing?

People seem to that if that if you attend some special school, you’re just handed a degree and a job on your way out the door.  Folks, that is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Schools don’t hand anybody anything.  The most successful programs “elite” or not, make their students work their lower rear regions off. And there are lots of schools across the USA that can give you that.

So, what do you do if all you ever wanted was to get into Yale and you didn’t? You do what the rest of us do, which is to get over it, look for a school that fits not only within your budget, but fits your vision of what you want to get out of the program. When you’re doing tours and meeting professors and administrators, ask yourself some questions as you’re getting the spiels.

* What condition are the school’s facilities in?

This is a very important question if you plan on studying Design, Production, or Technical Direction.  If you walk into a venue and most of the lighting equipment is in various stages of disrepair, or perhaps it’s all from the late ‘70s, this could be a sign that you want to keep looking.  If you’re into Scenic or Costume Design and that school has no shops, this might be an indication of a place to steer clear of in your final decision.

* What have the faculty been doing?  How many support personnel work here?

These are so very important if you’re looking for a mentor, which is what you’re doing, especially in graduate programs.  If you’re designers, has the design faculty at School X been doing anything other than school?  Have they maintained a career outside of Academia?  If professor in your field has just been working on tenure for five years and doing very little else other than being an administrator for an area of that department, perhaps you might want to steer clear of that specific program.  Make sure that where you decide to go will offer you outside opportunities in the industry, unrelated to the academic program there.

Related to this, how many people are around to help in the program?  Is there a master electrician on staff?  Staff carpenters and electricians?  A Shop Foreman?  These are all very, very important people, because oftentimes you will spend more time with the supporting staff than you will with the professor, and you will often learn the trade from the staff instructors.

* What’s their season schedule like?

This is yet another important question, because if you’re doing four shows a year, you might not be getting enough practice doing the craft.  Some places pride themselves on a very long and exhausting season schedule, and I have to agree that I recommend studying with a program where you’ll be worked hard.  Why, you might ask?  Well, get ready for this bit o’ knowledge: The world isn’t easy.  You want to go to school somewhere that will ready you for outside employment.

Ultimately, at any school, it’s fundamentally your responsibility to make sure that YOU learn all there is to learn.  It doesn’t matter where you go to school; what does matter is that you want to learn.

Remember these two things: You will get out of school what you put into school, and learning doesn’t stop once you’re out of the classroom.

No matter where you go, it’s important to continue to look into subjects once you’re not in class.  Reading notes and learning more about the subjects professors sometimes can only briefly touch upon in class is still called learning, and sometimes it’s some of the best learning you’re doing.