Bored with hearing lawyers talk about law, the Columbia Pre-Law Society held a Q&A Tuesday night with Steven Chaikelson, director of the Theater Management and Production Program at the School of the Arts. Bwog’s Lawyers In Disguise Specialist James Rathmell was there to hear his story.

Though the Columbia Pre-Law Society has been pushing for a totally new direction in Pre-Law, inviting Steven Chaikelson to speak isn’t as strange as it seems. He may currently serve as director of Theater Management at Columbia’s School of the Arts, but Chaikelson’s career has been based from the beginning on the integration of the entertainment and legal profession. He set the precedent at Columbia for the dual degree in law and theater management (he obtained his MFA and JD in 1993), though maybe it would be better to keep those things apart.

The audience for Tuesday’s Q&A was small enough that Chaikelson asked everyone to introduce themselves and describe their interest in law before he introduced his own background in law and theater. Chaikelson held a strong passion for theater throughout college (he was head of BCMT, which is now part of CU Players, for two years), yet he came from a family of lawyers, who encouraged him to go into law as a stable career.  After graduating CC in 1989, he began to search for programs that offered a joint major in theater and law.

“I told my parents that I can always fall back on law as a stable career,” he said, but after graduating law school in a climate where there was little demand for lawyers, “I told my parents, ‘Don’t worry, I have the theater degree to fall back on.’”

Though he entered grad school with two passions, Chaikelson did end up mostly in the theater world. He has worked on several very high profile Broadway productions throughout his career: he served as Assistant Company Manager for Les Miserables and Company Manager for The Lion King. But Chaikelson still gets in touch with his inner lawyer as a “Lecturer-In-Law” at Columbia Law School.

When asked if he regretted anything about his grad school choices, he joked that his main regret was that he didn’t take a speed reading course before entering grad school and found that he had no free time his first semester due to “the amount that [he] had to read, integrate, and then spit back out the next day.” In terms of the transition between college and graduate school, he said that, “I had the misguided thought that I would just be able to continue as I was…I had a life.” Wait, a life in CC?

Chaikelson had a lot of strong advice to give. He encouraged undergraduates to “think about and explore a vast array of subjects,” since in many grad schools (and particularly in law school), “students must divorce themselves from feelings – they must become cold and analytical.”  He also referred to college as “a giant Facebook…it is a gigantic networking opportunity, so you should connect with people in a meaningful way.” But, more than anything else, he encouraged students to learn to balance their commitments and responsibilities. “In college, you have a paper due, and that’s your inbox. But once you start your career, you realize ‘My inbox is never going to be empty again.’”

As he began to give his thoughts on the state of theater today, he expressed confidence that “there are people who can learn the box and then, the next moment, destroy the box. 21st Century theater needs people who can think differently.” However, he predicts that while “there’s no reason to panic” in the current economic climate, particularly for Broadway, “Non-profits are hurting right now, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

When asked about the most gratifying part of his career, Chaikelson responded, “The teaching, particularly the management and producing students. I live with them for two to three years and see them grow.” He also cited Fool Moon and The Lion King, the latter of which he referred to as “a once in a lifetime experience…a work of artistry.” In closing, he paused briefly then laughed and reiterated that students should really take a speed reading course if they want to go to graduate school, especially “if you want to have a life.” After all, the other road to having a life (getting one graduate degree at a time) is way too risky. You might end up actually becoming a lawyer.