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Why Major in Theatre? Part II

The following is a transcript of an address given by one of our former Theatre majors who now applies the skills he gained in his theatre training to his consulting business. It is a testament to the value of the arts and how they can give you an advantage in the job market.

Schools of Arts & Humanities
Honors Convocation Address
June 2, 2011

Mr. David A. Milazzo
Founder and Principal, Macroscopic

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight. As a proud alumnus of CSUB, I couldn’t be more thrilled to have an opportunity to address such an exceptional group of graduates. Even though the colleges were organized a tad differently when I graduated in 1997, I feel very much aligned with the School of Arts & Humanities.

I thought I’d begin with a little backstory on me, then we’ll take a few minutes to talk about why I believe you graduates are in an extraordinary position to attack this, shall we say, tricky job market.

I hold a B.A. in Theatre Arts with a minor in English. I grew up in Bakersfield and my childhood interests were two-fold: magic and computers. Girls hadn’t entered the equation yet, but even if they had, the magic and computers probably would have kept them away . . . not the most suave of pastimes, to say the least.

Magic was my very first hobby. It began with a horrible talent show performance at my school at age 7. I opted to do close-up coin tricks on stage. Just awful. But with some significant practice, by 14 I was performing for school assemblies around Kern County. And at its core, the performance and practice of magic is simple theatre with more highly technical props. So it’s not a big leap to comprehend my transition from magician to actor.

The computer part of my life began shortly thereafter. It was 1982 and I asked for an ATARI for Christmas. My friends had these wonderful game consoles and I wanted one too. For playing games. Instead my parents brought home an Apple II+ from their office. A much more advanced and expensive piece of hardware. But at the time, and considering I was 8, I was seriously ticked off. This thing did not play games! Well, not a lot of games – they were scarce at best. And since I wanted to play with the computer, and there weren’t really many games, I had to playwith the computer. And thank goodness, as this developed a skill that would turn out to be hugely valuable

So theatre and Apple computers have really been the two passions I've nurtured throughout my life. In high school and college, I put my energy into acting, music, and dance, and performed around Bakersfield just about anywhere they’d let me. And when I wasn’t in class or performing, I was working for my father’s architectural firm learning and experimenting with his IT infrastructure. We didn’t call it IT yet. It was still just, “the computers.” But having access to a few dozen workstations, printers and plotters at 16 was a boon to my developing technical savvy. I recall how satisfying I found it to implement various network acrobatics. It really tickled me. And strangely enough, it felt similar to the experience of performing magic. To the uninitiated, both appear quite mysterious.

After graduating from CSUB, I moved to New York City to continue my theatre studies. And while attending grad school, I began consulting for folks around New York: ad agencies, architectural firms, graphic designers, and lots of independent professionals. Sort of the same gig I had in Bakersfield: a blend of theatre and computers. Albeit it was a little bit higher up the food chain, but it was still acting and Macs. And it was a great way to live in New York. For one, I didn’t have to wait tables – not that there is anything wrong with restaurant work – but as an actor to not have to wait tables, was completely awesome. But, two, I had an opportunity to meet hundreds of random New Yorkers. Nothing gets the juices flowing like walking into a stranger’s apartment to troubleshoot their computer and simultaneously improvise with them. Or vice-versa.

And hindsight of course being so clear, and now after consulting professionally for nearly 15 years, I’ve concluded that my success in the world of computer consulting is directly attributed to my studies in the arts. Let me back-track a little....

When I started college, I, like a few of you maybe, had some difficulty choosing a major. I didn't begin as a theatre major. I think I started with psychology. Then music – until I took a theory class. Yikes! But I finally returned to theatre. And as much as my parents championed my magic and theatre interests – they were remarkably supportive – my Dad still had some practical advice for his son: “Get a degree in finance. Anything you’ll want to do in theatre, film making, whatever, you’re going to need to finance it. So study it all; but get a degree in finance.” Excellent advice, right? I didn’t follow a lick of it. But, to his credit, I still think it’s great advice.

Instead, I went about pleading my case that a degree in theatre was the right choice for me. Luckily, posted on the bulletin board in the Doré Theatre one day, was an article titled “10 Reasons a Degree in Theatre is Immensely Valuable” or something like that. It could have even had a subtitle saying “you should really take this home to your parents” underneath. It listed things like: works well with others, understands the true meaning of deadlines, enhanced presentation skills, etc. So, armed with these tidbits, I managed to convince my folks.

And in the end, while I’ve not pursued a professional career in the arts, my arts education has been invaluable. The skills I learned, while seemingly not pertaining directly to my business, made my business a success.

There’s just so much to know. So many skills to learn in this ever-complicated universe. From the day we’re born, it’s skill collecting time. And the skills required only increase. Practical skills. Self- preservation skills. Emotional skills. Earning-a-living-in-a-tough-economy skills. And we pick them up through a myriad of experiences: some within a framework of formal education and some out in the wild. And, my opinion, for what it’s worth: of all the skills one needs to excel, it’s people skills that make the difference. The buzz-phrase for people skills is interpersonal dynamics. Which is simply a catchy title for the relationships and communication between people.

So how does one obtain people skills? We’re surrounded by people, so we should all possess people skills, right? Not necessarily. I’d bet you can think of a few people off the top of your head that are sorely in need of some additional people skills.

I contend that an education in the arts and humanities is an optimal place where one may increase their proficiency with interpersonal dynamics.

Now my intention isn’t to pit artist versus scientist or philosopher against horticulturist, as all disciplines are critical to the success of complex societies. Not to mention interconnected. If it weren’t for the wine the horticulturist helped produce, much of our philosophy never would have gotten off the ground.

But I would like to suggest that your degree in the arts and humanities has an advantage. A small but meaningful advantage over those that study within other disciplines. All of us experience interpersonal relationships as we’re all surrounded by people. We all have families and friends. But only those that truly study what makes us human – our history, our sculpture, our symphonies, religion, philosophy, theatre, language and literature – all of these pursuits require rigorous investigation of the human. Of our psyche and our place among our families, friends, and communities. And even our place in the cosmos. Physics and chemistry are shockingly dense and rich subject matter – but I would argue, so too is the inner-life of a human being. And if you can relate and operate among humans with a fraction more facility than your competitor, regardless of the industry, you have an advantage.

There are a number of technical fields that have a sort of sub-requirement of interpersonal skills. The most glaring example is when we speak of doctors having a bedside manner. Bedside manner is not related to their medical prowess at all, but rather their ability to listen and communicate with us, the scared lay-person in the room with our butt hanging out. And you can be the greatest surgeon in the land, but if you aren't able to empathize and connect with your human patient, I would wager a lackluster career.

For me: I’ve become a technology translator. I combined my geeky underbelly with strong interpersonal skills and it’s set me apart from my competitors. Lots of IT guys can pull off the very same technical feats, but few can communicate with the client as well. Instead of using acronyms and jargon – which I love, BTW – I use metaphors or, if it’s at all possible, plain English. Better yet, I try to attenuate myself to the client, and if I succeed, I might discern what amount of geek-ish-ness to offer up.

My point is, I try to hear my clients. And my education helped me get better at hearing them. This human element gives me an advantage. And it turns out, it’s such an advantage that I can beat out competition; even competition with more technical savvy than I possess. My people skills are slightly stronger than my computer skills, but my clients are never the wiser. All they know is they feel heard. Well, heard, and the computer works. Because, FYI: all this interpersonal crap goes right out the window if you can't perform your primary function.

But this is what I want to leave you with tonight. Whichever occupational path you end up going down, be it exactly what you studied or something wildly different, know that by nature of this education, a degree with honors from the CSUB School of Arts and Humanities, you have an advantage. So as difficult as you’ve heard the job outlook may be, don’t fret . . .

You are students of humans; and the world is full of ‘em.

Congratulations on all your accomplishments.