Students head to DC to network with theatre alumni

  • Theatre students
    Theatre students
    A group of William & Mary theatre students traveled to New York City for the first alumni networking trip. This year, another group of students will visit Washington D.C.
    Courtesy photo
  • Casting a career
    Casting a career
    Theatre students visit a casting agency during the networking trip to New York City last year.
    Courtesy photo

When the curtain closes on their college days, how do theatre majors find their way to the next stage: the opening scene of their careers? The faculty in the William & Mary Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance believe that, like in so many other career fields, networking plays a crucial role.

This week, thanks to a new opportunity offered through the department, a group of William & Mary students will take steps to build their respective networks by meeting with alumni who are now working successfully in the world of theatre in Washington D.C.

“This is an opportunity to think in terms of what’s particular to careers in the performing arts field,” said Joan Gavaler, chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance.

During the two-day excursion, 14 students and four faculty members will interact with a panel of theatre alumni, participate in a movement workshop, enjoy an alumni reception, and – thanks to a grant from the Christopher Wren Association -- attend two shows.

“It’s nice because the students are practicing the skills of saying what they do, of hearing where other professionals are coming from and just getting used to this idea that, life isn’t a job interview, but there are potential connections you can make with people that may pay off later,” said Gavaler.

The alumni whom the students will meet work in various aspects of theatre, from the technical side to playwriting. Though the alumni may not have names as recognizable as Glenn Close or Linda Lavin, it’s important for students to see that many other theatre alumni have been successful at making careers in the theatre, too, said Gavaler.

“I think it’s great when we can name our stars,” she said, “but I think that the real piece of it is that people actually do this for a career.”

The trip, which is being coordinated by the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance and the Cohen Career Center, is the second of its kind. Last year, a group of theatre students traveled to New York City to meet with alumni working there.

The theatre trip is modeled after similar alumni networking trips that the Career Center created, including the now 12-year-old William & Mary Wall Street program, which introduces students to about 60 alumni working at 10 banks in New York City over the course of three days. Other networking trips offered through the Career Center include a marketing trip, a consulting trip and a Capitol Hill trip.

This year, the Career Center is also offering a new trip to students interested in the sciences. That opportunity will bring students to Richmond to visit three biomedical laboratories.

Mary Schilling, director of the Cohen Career Center, said that the goal of the trips is to “maximize the opportunity we have with our resources to get students off campus and into the environment where they can both learn and network and find a degree of comfort so that when they are really making the transition it won’t be brand new to them.”

Several surveys have revealed that about approximately 75 to 80 percent of people get their jobs through networking, Schilling said.

“So the networking is really important,” she said. “And the magic of these trips is that they are learning content, they are meeting people, they’re seeing role models, they’re finding mentors, they’re being coached and they’re kind of growing up as a pre-professional in the field. Whether it’s science or consulting or finance or theatre, they’re learning how to get through that transition from student to alum who’s in a career field.”

For students interested in the arts, networking is especially important because employers in those career fields don’t necessarily send recruiters to campus, said Schilling, who participated in the last theatre trip and is also going to D.C.

“No one comes to William & Mary to recruit for theatres, so we have to go out there and find the opportunities,” she said. “We have to get them backstage and have them meet costumers and directors and producers and actors and find out how these people get their jobs.”

Schilling, Gavaler and the other organizers of the theatre trip hope to make it an annual event, rotating between Washington D.C. and New York.

“So that during a student’s tenure at the college, he or she might be able to go to both, thereby expanding their alumni connections in both of those cities, and, as they become a senior or are looking for a summer internship as a junior, they will have some of these contacts already made,” said Schilling.

Elizabeth Tait ‘12, a double major in Russian studies and theatre, participated in last year’s trip to New York City and will also be participating in this year’s trip.

“I wanted to go on this trip in the hopes of learning more about job opportunities in theater in the D.C. area,” she said, adding that she also wants to see the differences between the New York and D.C. theatre scenes.

Although she plans on pursuing a career in theatre, Tait is not yet sure what she specifically wants to do. However, she hopes that this trip will help.

“I know this trip will be very beneficial because I learned a lot last year,” she said. “Because of the last trip, I was able to make some decisions regarding my profession and post-graduate life, so I'm guessing that this trip can't be anything but more helpful in my decision-making process.”

She added, “I also know that it's going to be a lot of fun!”