Last week, we talked about the first step toward becoming an actor. I have already made it clear that everyone needs to train as an actor (EVERYONE!) so I won’t belabor that point any further.
We’ve already gone over undergraduate training and today we’ll look at graduate programs. Most actors find it hard to decide when, where, and whether to attend a graduate training program. These can be very expensive and the value is debatable so it’s important to choose the right program for the right reasons. Rather than focusing on the merits of individual programs, I’ll highlight the reasons to get an MFA in acting and then it is up to you to decide if that is something you want and which program best suits your needs.
To start out, you need to know what you want out of the program. Then find out whether a program exists that will fit ALL of your criteria. I think the primary criteria for choosing a program should be the following:
What will I learn that I don’t already know? What will I gain that I don’t already have? What have others gotten out of this program and how do their experiences line up with my future goals? Who will I be when I finish the program?
What will I learn that I don’t already know?
If you are looking to gain a deeper understanding of the craft, find a program that fits the specific area you wish to focus on, for example classical acting, experimental theatre, film acting, or musical theatre. I think at this stage it is important to specify, so if you want a career as a film actor, an MFA in classical acting may be helpful in general, but it will not help you directly. If you want to focus on a specific type of acting and gain further knowledge in that specialized field, then an MFA might be right for you. This is not the time to be general or try to be versatile. Focus on the area of acting where you hope to work during most of your career, and if you aren’t sure which area you want to focus on that’s a sign that it may be too early for grad school.
What will I gain that I don’t already have?
This is all about adding to your actor tool kit. If you specialize in classical acting, you will most likely learn quite a lot about the subject in any program. However, if you attend a program that is attached to or affiliated with a professional classical theatre company, you will gain something else: exposure and opportunity. Look at grad school like the minor leagues in baseball. You will want to be at a school that is developing your talent for the the next stage: the show (as they call it in baseball circles). You can play baseball anywhere and your skills will continue to develop as you grow and push yourself, but if the organization you play for has invested in you as well there will be even more of an effort to get you to the next step in your career. You can get a fantastic acting education from many institutions around the world, but choose one where the people you are studying with (both teachers and fellow students) will be in a position to hire you and recommend you for jobs after you graduate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s about who you know. If you have been working for 2 or 3 years with a professor who is also a working director, that is better than any audition. You will already have a working relationship and he/ she will not only want to continue working with you but will also feel comfortable recommending you to colleagues.
What have others gotten out of this program and how do their experiences line up with my future goals?
This is all about research. Most schools will have a list of “distinguished alumni” on their website (if there are no distinguished alumni then you probably shouldn’t waste your money going there) Do some research on how those alumni went from that school to their successful careers. Was it a fluke, or did the school help propel them to their current place. Also, it’s important to note whether these alumni are recent or if most are from 25- 30 years ago, changes in faculty may have occurred that will make the inclusion of some names irrelevant. Do some research on people who didn’t make the “distinguished alumni” list. The acting community is smaller than you think, so you probably know someone who has attended this program or you have a friend of a friend of a friend. Ask him/ her to coffee to get to the nitty gritty. It’s your time and money and you should be thorough.
Who will I be when I finish the program?
This is a tough one, but visualize where you will be both physically and mentally at the end of the program. Will you be in debt, on your friend’s couch, or living with mom & dad? What about your relationships? Will you still be with your significant other? Do you have kids and how will this decision affect them? Is the person you see in 2 or 3 years better than the one in front of you today. If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure” grad school might not be the right path for you. However, if you see yourself brighter, more confident, better connected, and more prepared then a graduate program could be the key to a successful career for you. It is all so subjective. Actor know thyself.