Anyone who’s been to the extracurricular bazaar has heard this refrain: “Do you sing?” “Do you act?” “Do you watercolor/beatbox/bhangra?” (Cue tone-deaf freshman-year me signing onto 37 unnecessary panlists.)
If this scene is any indication, we have a lot of artists at Yale. Enough to fill five improv troupes and seven major theater venues every weekend. Enough to fill 15 world-class a cappella groups. Fifteen! That’s a ton! Now, where do all these talented people end up after senior year?
Well, according to Yale’s Office of Career Strategy, 15 percent of the class of 2013 took jobs in financial services and 12 percent took jobs in consulting. Only four percent went into the fine or performing arts.
We watch our friends act in Dramat shows and sing for The SOBs and perform for Teeth and dance for Rhythmic Blue. And we watch suited-up graduates shuffle off to jobs at Goldman Sachs. I want to know where all that creative juice goes. Are all those poets and actors and comedians really hunched over in midtown cubicles? I don’t think they are. But we don’t really talk about our campus’ aspiring artists — and whether they receive proper preparation at Yale.
How To Be a Working Actor
When Alex Kramer ’13 graduated, he returned home for the summer and dusted off a copy of a book he’d received in high school: “How to Be a Working Actor.” “It was like reading a user’s manual on my life,” Kramer chuckled. “It was so helpful but it was also so straightforward — why couldn’t Yale give me this information? It’s maddening.”
Kramer had known since sixth grade that he wanted to be an actor. At Yale he’d made all the right moves: performed in shows with the Dramat, studied theater abroad in London, devised a senior project combining the 2012 presidential election with Shakespeare’s Richard III. But post-graduation, things were a bit more complicated.
“You hear things like ‘you’ve got to move to New York and start auditioning,’ but I had no idea what that actually meant,” he told me. At Yale, Kramer had access to training, mentorship, heaps of funding for theater pursuits and a thriving arts community. But he received little of the guidance he needed to actually make it in acting.
Had the University offered more resources and preparation for auditions, Kramer feels his path into the theater world might have felt a bit simpler. The lack of practical counsel dissuaded some of his classmates from pursuing careers in acting, he explained.
“Some of the theater training at Yale is obstinately and decidedly anti-vocational, especially given the wealth of talent among composers and playwrights,” said Bonnie Antosh ’13, now a working actress in New York. “I think it’s a shame that the department doesn’t host a senior showcase for casting directors and literary agents.”
Joseph Roach, former chair of Yale’s Theater Studies program, is quick to defend the University’s lack of pre-professional focus. He notes that a good number of Yale students have gone on to become successful actors — many likely came to Yale for a liberal arts education, not any sort of career training. “From my perspective, no major in Yale College has, or ought to have, a self-limiting vocational focus,” Roach wrote in an email to me.
Susan Yassky ’16, a Theater Studies major, also felt that Yale strikes a delicate balance between theory and practice, an academic education and pre-professional training. “The department focuses more on cultivating our passions and less on training us in practical skills,” Yassky said, “But that’s what I want from my classes here.”
And it’s not every school where you would find Theater Studies majors like Yassky taking science credits along with screenwriting classes. For some students, that’s a huge perk. Yale certainly doesn’t offer the vocational preparation that conservatories do but our liberal arts approach has its advantages — like diverse academic offerings and funding in the form of Creative & Performing Arts Awards.
Nathaniel Dolquist ’15, a Theater Studies major, feels that the University’s distributional requirements make for more well-rounded artists, “People who appreciate many academic disciplines and can bring what they’ve learned back to their art.”
To Tim Creavin ’15, also a Theater Studies major, Yalies know that they won’t be receiving the same training as conservatory students. He said that those who want to further develop their craft after Yale can enroll in MFA programs.
What Yale does offer, Creavin argues, is a ‘Do It Yourself’ mentality, and Matthew George ’11, a working playwright, agreed. “Yale provides opportunities to self-create and insofar as self-creation is how you make art, that prepared me,” George said. “But it didn’t offer me much in the way of practical experience. Everyone you talk to sort of ends up saying, ‘just find your own path!’”
And finding your own path can be difficult — especially when others have theirs clearly defined.
Katherine Paulsen ’14 began her senior year the way many Yale kids do — with interviews and case preparation for consulting jobs. She assumed she’d take the same route as many of her friends, getting work as an associate and moving to a large city nearby. The trouble was, the job descriptions on Symplicity simply didn’t excite her. Toward the middle of her senior year, Paulsen realized she wanted to pursue work in theater. The choice wasn’t easy to make when so many of her friends were entering more lucrative fields.
Looking at the stream of Yalies entering consulting and finance post-graduation, many students pin the blame on Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. Recruitment events for Morgan Stanley and Goldman abound on campus, but jobs in theater and writing can be harder to find.
“When I was a senior, all these people were going into consulting and banking,” says Yael Zinkow ’12, currently in Los Angeles pursuing work as a comedian. “It was scary because we didn’t have any recruiters coming onto campus to say, ‘hey here’s how you pursue comedy.’”
Recently, however, the University’s career services took a significant step in catering to the undergraduate arts community. In the summer of 2013, OCS appointed an advisor for students pursuing careers in the arts, Katie Volz.
Since stepping into her new role, Volz has launched a wide range of initiatives, from hosting screenwriting workshops to connecting students with alumni in theater. She finds that alumni in the arts are particularly eager to lend a hand, recognizing the unique stumbling blocks in their fields of work.
Volz strives to remain particularly sensitive to the financial difficulties that aspiring artists encounter. Last semester, she organized a financial planning workshop for musicians and performing artists, during which OCS outlined sample budgets and encouraged students to consider alternative revenue sources.
Volz takes an optimistic — though realistic — approach in helping students finance their artistic careers. “I don’t entirely ignore the ‘starving artist’ notion,” she explained. “While a life in the arts is possible, one has to plan for it in order to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding — like anything else!”
The new OCS approach operates under a simple premise: Yale students don’t have to exchange artistic dreams for recruitment sessions at the Omni. It’s not easy to make the leap from the Calhoun Cabaret to Broadway, but it’s also not impossible.
Take Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ‘15, a senior major in Theater Studies. Eventually, she told me, she is going to be a theater director. Hoyt-Disick has found OCS’s new arts-focused resources “quite helpful” and said she plans to attend an upcoming OCS workshop on careers in theater.
“I just met with Katie Volz a couple of days ago, and I can’t say enough good things about her,” Hoyt-Disick said. “She answered every question I had with thought and specificity.”
Creavin imagined that OCS resources are geared toward students not as familiar with arts opportunities. Those who have already learned about major casting sites might not find the resources as helpful, he explained. He adds that OCS might take a few simple steps to improve its services: The website might list opportunities according to region and provide contact information for Yale-affiliated arts companies.
Despite these shortcomings, OCS advisors find themselves in a unique position. In many ways, Yale students are removed from the challenges facing most recent graduates. We’re disconnected from that national narrative — the typical young person who fails to find work and moves back in with his parents. The unemployment rate among workers under age 25 is 14.5 percent. Yet by June 2014, over 95 percent of Yale’s graduating seniors had jobs lined up for the fall.
“There’s this almost self-indulgent feeling of invincibility because we’re part of this history and we have this name stamped on our diploma,” says Tao Tao Holmes ’14, a former columnist for the News, now teaching English in rural China. “We have this sort of head-in-the-sand mentality of ‘of course we’ll get jobs.’”
Students with that mentality might feel more comfortable gambling with their careers. Charlie Kelly ’14 said that as a Yale graduate, “It feels like you have a backup plan.”
“I know that if I sent my resume around enough I’d find something that would keep me alive,” Kelly explained. “It leaves you in a good place to set yourself up creatively.” In other words, being a Yalie affords the opportunity for risk. And for many, these are risks worth taking.
On a Friday evening, Larissa Pham ’14 gathers with other Yale alumni in Teo Soares’s ’13 New York apartment for a writing workshop. One of the graduates in attendance now works at Google, another at a Manhattan dance company, another at a local non-profit. They’re doing what it takes to get by, doing real things and adult things.
But in their spare time they write and share their work with one another.
“I love having this group to get together and bounce around ideas,” Pham said. She draws inspiration and support from this network of creative Yale graduates, all finding ways to balance their interest in writing with their day jobs.
Pham’s writing group is just one example of an alumni cohort staying connected in the working world. New York City — colloquially known as “Yale Part II” — is home to many communities of alumni who live and work and socialize together.
“Almost all of my friends from college live within 10 blocks from me,” says Willa Fitzgerald ’13, an actress living in Crown Heights. As she was making the decision to move to New York and audition for shows, it helped her to know she could rely on the friends she’d made in Yale’s theater community.
Paulsen told me that, right before our phone interview, she went out to dinner with three other Yale graduates who are also auditioning for shows in New York. They all traded tips and advice on New York theater — what to wear for auditions, how to prepare in advance.
Dolquist said he sees no drawbacks to New York’s theater world, where Yale graduates can find a broad range of opportunities and a welcoming alumni community.
Lucy Fleming ’16, an aspiring actress and writer, is a bit more skeptical of the post-Yale migration to New York. “I do think there’s value in taking time away from the Yale bubble,” she explains. “I know it’s a huge shock to leave undergrad and suddenly not be surrounded by all your friends, but that’s also an important aspect of transitioning into adult life.”
Living and working with friends from college, many graduates do indeed make a concerted effort to break into new social circles. Antosh decided to actively seek out new friends in New York. “Staying totally immersed in an exported Yale bubble was never attractive to me,” she explained.
It’s for that reason that some Yale graduates leave the Northeast. Holmes told me that one of her Global Affairs advisors urged her not to “continue Yale” by moving to New York City. “I see Yalies living together and I anticipated feeling a small pang of FOMO, but I haven’t had even the smallest bit,” she said. “Four years is enough. I was ready to leave.”
New York’s expansive Yale network didn’t really appeal to Holmes. And she isn’t the only Yale graduate navigating a complicated relationship with the institutional name on her degree. Graduates say that in the theater industry, stamping the Yale brand on your resume doesn’t always work in your favor.
“I find that the Yale pedigree is a double-edged sword,” said Antosh. “I’ve had directors who probably gave me a second look because they assumed I was a ‘smart actor,’ and I’ve had other directors almost not cast me because they’d worked with other Yalies who had a chip on their shoulder.”
Kelly, who’s looking for work as a writer in Los Angeles, said that he has noticed a similar adversity toward Yale graduates. He finds that employers respond well to narratives of desperation, tales of sacrifice for art’s sake. “If you come into meetings like ‘I’m this well-bred Yale graduate,’ they don’t respond well,” Kelly said. “They automatically assume you’re this trust fund-y preppy graduate who already has their ducks in a row.”
Summer Homes, Starving Artists
John Stillman ’14 and Brian Loeb ’14 were roommates their sophomore year at Yale. Post-graduation, they’re living in the same place again: New York. (Surprise!) But this time, they’re not sharing a bedroom — they’re not even in the same neighborhood.
Loeb is working at J.P. Morgan, living in a Tribeca apartment with two other graduates. He typically gets into work around 9:00 in the morning and can finish anywhere between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., sometimes even later. Though the hours are long, Loeb said he’s enjoying work and loves living in New York City with its myriad bars, restaurants and concerts. His apartment, he added, is “a lot bigger than I would’ve expected.”
You’ll find Stillman in Williamsburg, where he’s working as a freelance journalist. He has taken on side jobs to support himself; he has worked as a caretaker and he has done gallery installations. He has even modeled for a Facebook messenger ad. Right now, he said, he’s not ready to determine his lifelong career — he’s experimenting, trying to see what fits.
That’s somewhat difficult in a costly city like New York, where the disparities between professions become apparent pretty quickly.
“I’m making enough to live, but my friends are making enough to buy summer homes,” Stillman laughed. “I’m happy for them, but it’s crazy how the disparity is not something that takes time to set in.”
Charlotte Parker ’13, now working on a farm in New Jersey, has also found that class divisions take root after graduation. “When you’re at Yale, finances aren’t totally relevant,” she explained. Of course, she continues, there’s that small subset of students who eat at posh restaurants and throw lavish parties — but frequently students’ financial situations are unclear. “Once you graduate, you can tell a bit more about what people’s financial situations are by what they’re doing on the weekends, where they go out to eat.”
Sometimes, Parker sees the Instagram photos posted by her classmate working at Vogue. Despite living and studying together for four years, she said, their lifestyles won’t ever be the same.
Even if you’re doing what you love, you might not find it easy to pursue your passions when your classmates are making six figures. And some say it’s not all a matter of personal choice: Our undergraduate lifestyle informs our career plans. Yale and its frills — its parade of comestibles, its endless fellowships and grants — might encourage certain expectations of future wealth. To some students, the emphasis here is on the luxe (and not the lux).
“You become accustomed to a lifestyle at Yale that’s kind of unattainable if you really do the starving artist thing,” explained Kelly. “You get chained to a kind of fanciness.” Finance and consulting recruiters give us the chance to latch on to that fanciness, Kelly said, with their lavish information sessions at the Study.
Paulsen certainly felt the pressures that Kelly describes. She says it wasn’t easy to turn down a high-paying consulting job and its accompanying prestige. “But I realized that sort of work is always available,” she said. “If I don’t try to do acting now though, I never will. I’ll never again put a two-year pause on my life to be a starving actress.”
Not a single person asked me if I wanted to audition for a management consulting troupe freshman year. On the other hand, I was accosted by about five comedy clubs and nine publications and all 15 a cappella groups.
So what happens between an extracurricular bazaar and senior year? At Yale, are the arts just a hobby, or are they a possible career?
I guess there’s no easy answer.
But still, so many graduates are making art and making ends meet. Right now, they’re the four percent. And as OCS expands its arts resources, their numbers may grow.
Antosh told me she was willing to make sacrifices for a career in theater. Unlike some of her peers, she gave up money and security and outside affirmation. But to her, the art was worth the risk.
“Deciding to pursue a career in the arts was never a matter of courage,” she said. “It was a matter of hunger and love.”