The Awesome Part About Being A Small Fish In A Big Pond

Written by Laura Clark

If you ask anyone over the age of 25, most people say that university was a life-changing experience for them. Good or for the not-so-good, it’s a big step in the grand scheme of life. Depending on your experience growing up and your previous school experiences, the transition to the diverse (and exclusive) York Fine Art program can be very different. 

For myself, I come from a very small village that had no arts programming. The only drama education I had from kindergarten to grade 8 was the occasional 15 minute session when my teachers had to kill time between our next class. In high school I took Drama from grades 9-12, but then, who didn’t? It wasn’t any form of specialized training that is comparable to a university program. The drama program was a grand mixture of students looking for a “bird course” to satisfy their high school art credit requirement, those who had no idea what they were doing, those who thought they knew what they were doing (but didn’t), and those who really knew what they were doing (as is expected after a decade of dance, vocal, and acting lessons). Without any prior drama experience, but with years of piano and dance lessons behind me, I fell into a comfortable camaraderie with my fellow drama misfits. Fast forward a few years and I had a volunteer internship with a small-town theatre company, a high school production of Grease, and four years of public school drama classes under my belt. To my parents’ shock, I applied to theatre school…and then I got in.

I didn’t really know what that meant until I got here and I was sitting in that mandatory first semester acting class thinking, “I’m completely out of my league.” Most first-year theatre classes at York are comprised of a healthy range of ability levels, but suddenly the stakes were higher. We had all decided that this is what we wanted to do with our lives. We were the best that our high schools had to offer, but we suddenly found ourselves in a much bigger pond. What’s worse, is that people could tell who the shining stars in the classroom were. The same went for our Stagecraft class; some people had parents that they helped in the garage on weekends, or who owned a hardware store. Those people were not at all intimidated by the mitre saw or changing a drill bit. Suddenly, I went from being a high school class favourite who exceeded expectations in every assignment to a lost theatre student who realized how small her competition had been before arriving at university. I became a very small fish in a very big, diverse, and gifted pond. I didn’t excel in Acting or in Stagecraft. Did that mean I wasn’t good enough? Or that I wasn’t going to make it? Or that I shouldn’t be here because I didn’t feel like I could stand up against my gifted classmates, some of whom had been lucky enough to have had 15 more years of training than I did? These were tough questions for a fresh-eyed, small-town, and inexperienced 18-year-old me.

Essentially, this is how I viewed my classmates:

And this is how I viewed myself:

I was constantly wondering whether I was good enough, or whether I had what it took to “make it” (the ever-present question that fuels the daily lives of artists).

If you’re thinking this, know that you aren’t alone. Everyone eventually finds their niche, and you’ll eventually find yours. The drive to be competitive with your friends to succeed in your field is a stressful one, but it also has many benefits too. Here are the results of stress and competition within the theatre industry that produce positive outcomes:

  • Innovation (Forces you to better yourself and improve. Makes you find creative ways to distinguish yourself from competing artists.)
  • Improve relationships with others in the industry. By improving yourself and meeting (or exceeding) expectations, you will form loyal relationships and networking connections in the industry that you can count on to speak well of you.
  • Belays complacency (forces you to be an active participant in the industry and in your career). Also provides opportunities to learn and explore things you may not have explored before.
  • Helps you learn the market and industry better.
  • Gets you in a better position to know what you’re looking for/what you want. Will teach you how to get to where you want to go and which avenues will create specific results.
  • By putting yourself against fellow artists, you’ll be forced to examine things from an employer’s perspective in order to get work and advocate for your skills. That helps you think outside the box, enhance your self-advocacy skills, and helps you to understand what qualities employers find useful to have for different types of work.
  • Seeing what competitor’s do well teaches you about yourself and your own strengths.

Yes, theatre school can be hella stressful. Competition is fierce, the hours are long, and the toll it takes on your body is exhausting. However, there’s also a big sense of camaraderie between classmates to help you through these tough times. How lucky are we that our competitors are also some of our greatest supporters?

In the famous words of T.S. Eliot, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” Keep pushing through, theatre peeps. The results will be worth it.