Theatre in Cambridge requires a huge time commitment - often an issue for STEM students. So can more be done?Gabriel Humphreys

STEM and theatre seem to be seen by the vast majority of both camps as incompatible – my fellow physicists are often shocked and occasionally horrified by the amount of extra-curricular drama I take on (and don’t even get me started on the supervisors!). It is so rare to find a fellow non-humanities student on the theatre scene that we all seem to know each other, as if we have some sort of STEM-dar. It can be difficult and occasionally lonely to try and balance the two, but there are some simple steps we can take to bridge this gap.

Natsci, like all STEM subjects, is not conducive to theatre for many reasons. Contact hours are long, compulsory, and non-negotiable for the most part. As a second-year physicist, my typical week contains nine hours of lectures, an eight-hour lab, two and a half hours of computing, and three supervisions. Outside of contact hours, we have three deadlines every week for each of which at least three hours of work are expected. The lectures are dense and the content cumulative and so I need an hour or so after them to go through and check I understand. All in all, this is typically over forty hours per week of academic work. In the physics department’s own words, “it’s not going to be easy”.

Of course, this is not to say that humanities subjects do not have heavy workloads. STEM subjects have reduced or even no reading lists as compared to humanities, and at least in physics, the longest piece of work is a 3000-word lab report once a term. So why the imbalance in the theatre scene?

With most science supervisors, it is often genuinely less painful to lie and pretend you forgot the work than admit it is late because of a show.

In my opinion, one of the main problems facing STEM students is actually the attitudes of both academics and thesps towards theatre. With most science supervisors, it is often genuinely less painful to lie and pretend you forgot the work than admit it is late because of a show. We were told upon arrival to do “one thing outside your studies only” and supervisors can often be quite derogatory about anything outside of their subject. This stems (excuse the pun) from an attitude in physics and other sciences that the arts are inferior and easy. They should only be approached as a hobby, and should never take priority over academia.

Meanwhile, humanities students sometimes assume STEM students won’t have time or aren’t invested in shows due to their time constraints – and they’re often not wrong. Better results are achieved by excluding under committed team members. There is also a certain camaraderie that goes with shows – you can’t not develop a team spirit when you spend so many hours rigging and drilling and painting and rehearsing – but it is easy to feel left out if you have to miss a get in for a lab or a rehearsal for a supervision, and it’s easy to assume people who can’t make their calltimes green aren’t pulling their weight. 

But Cambridge Theatre notoriously takes itself too seriously, and we have to remember that we are students. A student theatre that excludes half its students is not doing a very good job.

Most shows I’ve worked on have not felt exclusionary at all to me personally, but there is always a pair of nagging voices in my head when doing a show. One tells me I’m not working hard enough and the other tells me I’m not committed enough to the show to be there. Shutting them off is easier said than done.

One way to get around this is by choosing positions with lower time commitments. Indeed, in the pit bands, through which I entered the Cambridge theatre scene, almost every player is studying either music or some STEM subject. Pit bands are great fun and a comparatively small time investment, and they come with perks like not having to do get ins/outs. 

However, as I moved on this year to larger creative roles such as composing and MDing, I found the time issue more pressing. I couldn’t make half of the tech run of Funny Girl despite co-MDing it, and Thursday shows are nightmares because I have to come straight from labs, without time to eat or collect myself. This can impact my performance both in the show and academically.

All of the above having been said, it is possible to make it work, and I have some tips for both STEM and other students:


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First, organisation is key! Calendar apps, reminders, timetables, colour codes - however you want to do it, keeping yourself organised is imperative to balancing any degree and hobby.

Second, STEM students, give yourself a break. You are doing theatre for so many reasons – you love it, it relaxes you, it takes your mind off work, it makes you happy. If a musty professor who has never set foot in a theatre tries to tell you that one piece of work is more important than your sanity, try and hold your ground. Easier said than done, I know, but you only have three or four years here, in one of the best student theatre environments in the world. In fifty years, you won’t remember your optics lectures but you will remember the friends you made and the art you inspired.

And if giving yourself a break means going for an ensemble or a pit band or smaller backstage role, that’s okay too! These are all integral to any production. You don’t have to be the main part to belong in Cambridge Theatre.

Non-humanities students can help by generally being aware of the time issues and supporting their STEM production members. Scheduling rehearsals in the evenings and weekends can help, as well as trying to be understanding – most STEM thesps are really trying their absolute best to make all the rehearsals.

Cambridge Theatre is a vibrant and ever-evolving scene and has enriched my uni experience to no end. If we can help make it more inclusive for non-humanities students, we open up brand new avenues and exciting new projects, and take ourselves to the next level of amateur theatre.

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