In 1997, two years after leaving high school and a year after migrating to Australia, I entered university to study performing arts. I did my research before applying for universities, auditioning for a few courses that sort of offered what I was looking for, but my first preference was Monash University’s Bachelor of Performing Arts. It was, at that time (and still is, I believe), the only university course specialising in theatre and performance. I wasn’t interested in going to uni to get any degree, I wanted to study theatre. That’s it.
In 1998, I got sick in the head so I deferred for a year. In 1999, I completed my second year of uni. In the year 2000, I got sick again, both in the head and in the cervix (I had early stage cancer). I deferred indefinitely.
Early in 2007, having spent all that time doing things other than acting, I went to see Peter Fitzpatrick who was the head of the theatre department at the time. He still remembered me six years later, calling me by name as I entered his office. I told him I wanted to come back to school. He said he’d be delighted to have me. In mid 2008, I finally completed my degree and went on to achieve First Class Honours in 2009, completing the Graduate Ensemble honours year, where I trained under Peter Oyston.
I have been working steadily as an actor since then, often with people I met through that course. I am a member of two companies – Before Shot and Quiet Little Fox – both of which with people I met through that course. My life has completely changed in that I left an industry I hated and entered into a vocation that has my heart, soul and intellect utterly committed to it. I achieved that mainly due to that course. Getting my degree pretty much saved my life.
A few days ago, I heard that Monash University may be discontinuing the Bachelor of Performing Arts (known as BPA), with no intake of new students in 2014.Now, please remember that this is the only course of its kind in Melbourne. Some universities in Melbourne have three year acting courses, or offer theatre studies as a stream in an Arts degree, but BPA is the only degree that is specifically designed as an all-encompassing theatre and performance degree. Look, the degree has its problems, it’s not perfect. However, I am a big believer in getting whatever you can out of anything you do, and I took some amazing skills and knowledge away with me when I graduated.
Now, I’m not a director. I’m not a playwright, although I’ve written plays. I’m not a stage manager, or a lighting designer, or any of those ultra cool things that I wish I had more knowledge of (I sometimes didn’t pay attention in class because I’m slack) and can therefore do and get paid for. I’m intelligent but not particularly academic. I haven’t worked for big and impressive companies. I’m just an actor and occasional composer, but I’m a very good actor/composer who knows theatre, who understands theatre, who appreciates the craft of theatre and even film (because I studied that too) all thanks to that degree. The BPA is the only reason I went to university, and it was the best thing I could have done to change the course of my life, something that desperately needed to happen.
There seems to be a lot of focus by politicians (and university board members, let’s face it) on tertiary education that leads to employment, particularly in sectors that are lacking skilled workers. They want to put money towards training that gives money back to them. Hey, that’s great, train up them students, get ’em working, boost our economy, rah rah rah! But honestly, if you want me to either kill myself or turn into a raging alcoholic, drug-fueled misfit, train me in a skill I don’t want to make me work in a job I have no interest in which will eventually make me hate my life. We are not all wired the same way, and I think it’s dangerous to enforce in society a directive in which art is deemed unnecessary, therefore not worthy of finance, support or an education in. We must have artists, just as we must have doctors and nurses and teachers and vets and lawyers and scientists. And how about taxi drivers and postal workers and cleaners and garbage persons and other “non-skilled” professions? I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. In my ever-so-humble opinion, education is not just about making people employable. It’s not even just about making people smarter. It’s about teaching people to use their minds, to discover the world in their own heads to such a point that they’re excited about discovering the world outside their own experiences.
No, my degree did not guarantee me a job. Yes, I’m still working three jobs outside of acting to pay my rent. Yes, it will take me a while to make a living solely from acting, but I am a much more functional member of society with my degree than without it, even if it’s not tailored to an industry that is lacking skilled workers. And I am capable of such great things now that my mind has been expanded through that awesome thing called education.
I will write an email to the vice chancellor at Monash, imploring him to reconsider the decision to cut the BPA. I have no impressive achievements to offer as incentive; my resume is full to bursting, but not particularly remarkable. But I have a resume. I have training. I have a vocation and a desire to make art that will maybe change the world, or maybe just one person. That’s enough, surely.