Career plans can take a dramatic turn when students discover theater
Chris Kuiken spent most of his time at Boston University playing “mental ping-pong.” Creative left brain and logical right brain wielded blazing paddles as he struggled to decide between economics, his chosen field of study, and theater, which he had been involved in since childhood.
He graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in economics (he chose the “practical” major partly for, well, its practicality) and a minor in arts administration. But he also left BU with experience in roughly a dozen plays and musicals, including starring roles (Jesus Christ in “Godspell) and three years on the executive board (one as president) for BU On Broadway, an extracurricular musical theater group on campus.
“I was at sort of a crossroads, where I was like: What do I want to do with my life?,” he says. “I was going back and forth every day between these two worlds, and trying to figure it out.”
It wasn’t until his senior year that he finally came to a realization: “Life’s too short.” Theater it was, and the choice panned out well for Kuiken, now 23 and in the midst of an artistic residency at Luna Stage Company in New Jersey following a stint acting in an “off-off-Broadway” production, “I Killed Batman.” He also directed a series of one-minute plays for New Jersey’s One-Minute Play Festival this summer.
He attributes the decision to pursue a career in the arts, and his success thus far, to his involvement in collegiate extracurricular theater. “I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for BU On Broadway,” he says.
He’s not alone. Despite the lucrative jobs that could come with careers in STEM fields and business, some students — like Kuiken — are shifting their gaze from Wall Street to Broadway, from laboratory fluorescents to footlights.
Take 22-year-old Boston College senior Nick Swancott. He entered college with no acting experience, not even the slightest inclination toward theater. He had enrolled in the honors chemistry program, with the intent to pursue medical school after graduation.
Would he have considered theater before he came to college?
“Absolutely not,” Swancott says. “When I came into college, I also thought: Oh my God, they’re college theater actors. They must have been doing this since they were like, 4, and always wanted to be actors.”
What he did have was a background in music — choir and orchestra in high school — and a friend from orientation suggested he audition for the ensemble of “Carousel” with the theater department. He got the part.
“I just completely fell in love, right from the first show,” Swancott says. But in the classroom, he was growing discontented. The joy he had once found in science just wasn’t there anymore.
The next semester, he was back onstage in the ensemble of “Cabaret,” presented by the BC Dramatics Society. By the end of freshman year, he’d completely pivoted to theater, changing his major to fit.
Swancott recently played George Wickham in a production of “Pride and Prejudice,” and he will also direct his first show at BC, “Significant Other,” in March. He now plans on acting after graduation, auditioning for “truly everything that comes my way,” he says.
Though it started on a whim, he doesn’t regret abandoning the lab for the stage. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.
Unlike Swancott, 24-year-old BU alum Mary Kate Heagerty enrolled with her sights on theater — BU On Broadway was one of the reasons she chose the school, because she knew she could spend just as much time (if not more) onstage as she did in the classroom. Her degree, however, is in finance, and she had put theater aside once she left school in 2017.
“My day was spent 9 to 5 in the greatest city in the world, working in front of a screen and not really having any direct contact with the art,” Heagerty says. “At the end of the summer, I just called it quits. There is absolutely no way to move here and not pursue theater for at least a little while.”
She’s now a self-described “struggling actress” in New York City, auditioning weekly while she works a handful of side gigs. Heagerty says BU On Broadway helped her make the leap.
“It was huge. It was sort of everything,” she says. Where once acting may have seemed like a “lofty goal,” BU On Broadway surrounded Heagerty with others who shared her goals. “If they can do it, I can do it. [It] sort of put the idea in my head for the first time, that this is actually something that could happen if I wanted to do it,” she says.
She doesn’t want to write off the value of her finance degree just yet, even though she remains focused on theater at the moment. Heagerty says she’s still figuring things out.
That’s true of a lot of college students and recent grads, says Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, a professor in Northeastern University’s theater department who teaches courses in acting, improvisation, and voice and speech.
Ocampo-Guzman believes students are better off when they explore a lot of different options (like business and theater), but theater in particular prepares students to be quick on their feet and adapt while they explore different paths. It gives them the chance to try new things — and to fail, too, and learn from that failure.
“I think a lot of our young students are so obsessed with success, even though they might not be able to articulate what success looks like, that they are afraid to fail, and that fear [takes over] very quickly,” Ocampo-Guzman says. “I firmly believe that once you embrace fear, your creativity is able to actually flow.”