Foundational Training in College vs. Private Acting Studios

I haven’t seen the topic of college vs. studio training come up on this forum much during the time that I have been occasionally monitoring. However, from having gone back and read discussions from years ago when a friend of mine posted frequently, I thought that now might be a good time to offer my perspective - especially since activity here seems to be at an all-time low. You guys need to wake up! haha

This is neither a perfect nor ideal world and neither is any particular training route. However, if you are somebody who has sufficient aptitude to be trained to act professionally, you will usually be best off laying your foundation in the craft of acting in a good college acting program as long as you can pull it off without burying yourself in debt. I have previously offered three years worth of research from the world of television casting to back that up and will posit that if such numbers were compiled from the theatre world, they would be overwhelming.

Again, college programs do not exist in a perfect world. The training at even the top schools most of which were set up in the 1960s with few changes in their curriculums having been made since is primarily geared towards preparing students for careers in the now-on-life-support regional repertory system and in the US, they go on for a year too long. Moreover, there are a lot of bad ones staffed by academic theorists with no real world acting or directing experience outside the Ivory Tower of Academia, so you will want to watch out for those. You can usually tell that by looking at the faculty bios on the websites. Also beware of state university BA programs where graduate MFA and MA students are guaranteed all the major roles in mainstage productions and are even tasked with teaching the undergraduates.

However, with that being said, good college programs which do not exist in a perfect or ideal world are overall preferable to trying to lay one’s foundation in private acting studios because the situation in the lion’s share of those places is as follows:

  1. The teachers are primarily in the BUSINESS of teaching instead of simply being honest teachers. They cannot be like the great studio teachers of old who absolutely did not play around for fear of negative Yelp reviews hurting their bottom lines. I have seen some of these people in action and came away unimpressed. It was like they were either so burned out from feeling like they had to coddle every starry-eyed schmo who walked in off the street that they had lost their effectiveness from back when the big names on their brag sheets studied with them or they were never really teachers in the first place, but were rather more suited to be private coaches. There is a difference.
  2. There is no meaningful vetting process for admission as a student. Anybody with sufficient cash and a pulse is welcome and actually needed to keep the business in the black. This leaves a serious student sometimes confronted with having to work scenes and exercises with fellow students of questionable seriousness and little aptitude - or even serious psychological problems. This can be especially daunting for females because rehearsals are most often conducted outside the confines of the brick and mortar studios - usually at one or another's apartment - leaving her vulnerable to her scene partner's unwanted sexual advances. A flake factor is also inherent with an all-too-common complaint being that you can have an entire month's tuition of $250-$350 wasted when your scene partner refuses to rehearse or even fails to show up on the night you are scheduled to put up your scene.
  3. Classes are overcrowded. Some of the big name Los Angeles acting studios have as many as 600 students training with them at any given time with over 30 students to a class. The teacher may not even know your name if it isn't big enough to drop and you will only put up a scene every two weeks at best within the vicinity of a 15 minute window.
  4. Only around a third of the acting equation is taught at most studios with the elements of voice, speech, dialects, movement, and other ancillary skills such as combat, singing, and dance nonexistent or relegated to short workshops from which no meaningful depth can be attained. This tends to make for very limited actors. It is possible to study most of that in separate studios or with private coaches, but if you did, it would cost as much or more than a lot of colleges.
  5. You get no meaningful experience using what you have learned in full-length plays in a semi-safe, controlled environment. The late William Esper who was probably the best qualified person on the planet to speak on this subject having been both one of the foremost studio teachers in the U.S. and the former Head of Acting at Rutgers University said, "The biggest disadvantage is that today it is difficult for students in New York (or Los Angeles) to gain performing opportunities of sufficient substance to augment their classroom work."

Of course, what I have related comes from my observations about the foundational level private acting studios that I have seen in Los Angeles although I will posit that the same kinds of problems exist in New York and other markets as well. In NYC in particular, the New York Times published an article last year outlining the financial struggles those places are experiencing to just keep the doors open. At minimum, the same kinds of financial considerations are what lead to the problems I addressed in my first three points about LA.

Also understand that I am referring to primary foundational actor training. Once you have that, there are some great studios for continued market-specific training that I have recommended in past posts.


Thank you so much for this information! And thank you for all of the research and information you have posted in the past. My D is auditioning this year for a BFA Acting program and I have had her read your posts! So helpful to her and to me as a mom who has no clue in the arts and specifically the ins and outs of an acting career. Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!

@Gyokoren - excellent info, as always. I no longer read CC much but I check back now and then in case someone like you contributes so Thank You!!! Do you know the links to your older posts on studios that provide excellent post-foundational training? Otherwise I will look them up and link them here.

Excellent posts. Before doing her BFA in theater design my daughter went to a private performing arts high school with musical theater as a discipline. Prior to that she in 7th grade was the youngest in adult acting class with a known acting coach, plus private dance and vocal lessons. The acting coach was very hard on her but taught her things like dialect, speech and acting skills that like no school could. She did this to get ready for her auditions for the high school. They were also very tough (in a good way) and brought in New York /California acting coaches that would assist. It was great not having to take her to all these lessons since it was all done at school now… 6 days a week. 8 performances/week, when the shows opened. 2 weeks to mark and be off book.

Then she went to a BFA in theater design at college and saw exactly what you said. Students that really were not serious. Some were of course but most not. She would run lines and know the parts better then the actors. They were in a few school plays so thought they could act. It actually seemed the “behind the scene” kids were the ones that were serious and got jobs right out of school.
She was lucky and as a freshman in college summer got a job working in LA on a really bad children’s film but with great experience and pay. She was credited as the art director with the people that do Sharknado… Lol. But got to go to Warner Bros studio and pull and tag for the set etc. She designed the main bedrooms for the movie and worked like 16 hours/day at least.

It was a great experience but left seeing 40-50 year olds still trying to “make it”.

I love live theater. Especially in Chicago there are so many great small to large theater companies.

I would just suggest having a back up plan also.

@Knowsstuff re: Chicago- we are surely so blessed here! Nothing like being surrounded by neighborhood theaters putting on high quality, diverse, outstanding productions no matter their budget!

No question. If you look at the playbills the actors are from all over besides just Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia.

@CaMom13 The main teachers that I recommend to new graduates coming to LA are John Rosenfeld, Billy O’Leary, and Stan Kirsch all of whom used to work for Lesly Kahn who is also amazing if they can afford her. I’m sure there are others, but they are the ones that I have seen people get the most mileage from. I linked podcast interviews with each of them in this reply last spring.

And speaking of podcasts, there was a great conversation with Bridget Regan who is a UNCSA graduate on That One Audition last week . It’s relevant here in that she talks a little about her experience with college auditions. She also goes into the difference between preparing for theatre vs. tv/film and says that if she could tell her younger self something, it would be that she still had a lot to learn coming out of college and didn’t know what she didn’t know. Her saving grace was finding Warner Loughlin who happens to be on my bucket list for continued study when I’m back in LA on a regular basis.

Both of those women currently study with Nancy Banks although you need an industry referral and lots of credits to get in with her. I haven’t seen any interviews with her, but here is one from that same podcast with Warner.

@knowsstuff Wow. That lack of seriousness with the acting students would have gotten them flunked or cut where I’m from - if being shunned by their classmates didn’t cause them to get it together first. But that is always the case with the D&Ps getting more work than the actors straight out. With actors, a few will get great rep from showcase and hit the ground running, but the conventional wisdom is that if one is going to give starting a career in tv/film five minutes, they had better plan on giving it five years - or more like ten and ten or longer for more charactery types.

So helpful @Gyokoren ! I am going to PM you with a specific question - if you don’t want to answer PMs, just let me know. :slight_smile:

You’re right about it being a bit quiet around here @Gyokoren. I suspect most of us have been busy shepherding our offspring through the big chunk of applications/prescreens/Unifieds scheduling that is required upfront of this process and hopefully folks will be starting to emerge from under soon, now that some of the EA deadlines have passed and some prescreen results come back.
Great post, and it struck a chord with me. I feel like we’ve barely started on this journey, and yet the sticker shock from doing NPCs has already seen the thought cross my mind that perhaps sending your kid off to NYC or LA with instructions to go spend $100K on lessons might be easier! Just kidding … I think! :wink:
But your post serves as a timely reminder that we should probably stick the course. While working actors’ journeys take many different paths, there definitely has to be value in getting started on your 10,000 hours in the right college environment. I just wish it was as easy as seeking out the best one and going there, as opposed to applying to multiple programs and then praying to the acting gods that your child will get accepted somewhere, with the cherry on the top being that it won’t bankrupt them (or you!!)
Your description of LA acting classes brought to mind some of the scenarios in Barry and The Kominsky Method. Fun to watch, but my heart breaks a bit at the thought of all the hopeful young actors spending their hard earned income to attend classes like some of those you describe. I wish they could all read this thread!

Thanks again for your very informative posts on these forums. I hope you’re booking lots!!

Thanks for posting this @Gyokoren --especially the list of LA instructors!

I think your advice is fantastic. I see a lot of parents here worried about their child getting into a big name school, but we took a different route. My son is a junior theatre performance (straight acting) major at a large Midwestern state university connected to a regional repertory theatre. He made the choice to go the college degree route close to home for lots of the reasons you mentioned (solid foundational training with professors with industry experience, plus with in-state tuition, merit & talent scholarships we can help him graduate with zero debt for either of us). He’s being cast regularly, and he’s earning EMC points and gaining professional credits through work with the repertory theatre and summer apprenticeships. He’s found through the apprenticeships that he can hold his own as an actor with kids from “top” schools. We were lucky that we had a solid foundational training program nearby, even if it isn’t glamorous or well connected.

When my son graduates, he and his classmates plan to move where the work is, and join classes (thanks again!) to advance their industry training and build connections. He loves stage work and plans on working as much regional theatre as he can at first to break in, but he knows in straight acting he has to be successful in commercial or TV/film to survive. Without student debt, and with a little help from us, he should be able to live on survival jobs until opportunities start to open up for him. If that doesn’t happen, he can always go the MFA route and try again, or look at a career teaching or directing on a university level. Plan B’s are important. He would have loved to go to a very expensive school on either coast for his undergrad, but we couldn’t do that without a great deal of debt. He decided he could go another route to gain the same connections, and that would give him the financial breathing room to try to build a career. I think every student considering a career in the arts should always be open to simultaneously preparing for other options.

I also think a degree vs. studio training is hugely important because of career flexibility. So is the concern about student debt. We have a young friend who headed to New York for two years of studio actor training. His family has fairly modest means. He borrowed as much in private loans for tuition and living expenses for two years of training in NYC as the cost of four years at a state university, and then “graduated” without a degree or transferable credits. Now he’s living at home with his parents, far from the industry, and working two jobs to pay off student loans with no degree to show for it. Without an undergraduate degree, his job options are limited. He’s trapped financially, and it breaks my heart. Acting is a risky career choice, and even the most talented don’t always make it. It’s always smart to plot out a career and training path that gives you the most flexibility and options down the road. It’s tragic when talented people are held back from success because they just can’t financially afford the time it takes to build a career.

@sugarpiehoneybunch Crippling student debt with no degree? Ouch.

Definitely agree about career flexibility. I always laugh and shake my head when I look at the reddit Acting sub and see kids post frantic questions about majoring in Theatre/Acting as if doing so would condemn them to a life of poverty with no other options. I graduated six and a half years ago and from my class, we already have a lawyer, a law student, an MBA/corporate benefits coordinator, a pharmaceutical sales rep, a nutritionist, and a construction contractor. And of those who kept it closer to the industry, we have an agent, a casting associate, a theatre marketing director, and a good old fashioned high school drama teacher. Some may think, “Oh, how sad that they gave up their dreams!” No, no, no, no, no! They’re the sane ones! I promise! haha

See, a dirty little secret that shouldn’t be so dirty and secret is that lots of kids love acting and love studying acting only to later find that they do not love the grind of being actors in the real world - and believe you me it’s a grind even if they find early success like I did. In fact, a cast member on my last show decided to quit right after we got canceled. So it isn’t just the early struggles that wear on one’s psyche. In some ways it really gets harder as you go and I’m only half kidding when I say that surviving in this business takes some kind of recessive gene. So yes, having a degree of any kind gives one more options to move on and most probably will.

I’ve recommended it here before, but to get an idea of what this life is really like for 99% of actors, check out The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer and then pass it on to your son. She goes into exquisite detail about her struggles in grinding it out for over eight years before she booked “The Office.” It would probably be kind of depressing if it weren’t written in her hilarious voice. And since I seem to have a podcast episode for all occasions on this forum, here she is talking about it.

Another fun fact is that Jenna’s first good agent who signed her after seeing her doing commedia dell’arte Downtown is none other than Tony Martinez who authored An Agent Tells All which I also highly recommend. Some other books that I think should be required reading for new actors coming to LA are The Hollywood Survival Guide for Actors by Kym Jackson and Self-Management for Actors by Bonnie Gillespie along with binging the Audrey Helps Actors and 1 Broke Actress podcasts.

Excellent advice above ^^!!

I am in the camp of having a backup plan. Seen too many young actors going to name brand university acting school only to quit one year later and leave school. Now they have $50, 000 to pay back and no job… Ouch again…

We have a few students we know of that are in the current touring of “Mean Girls” and “Hamilton”. Know many doing local theater. Know a current grad from DePaul going on Auditions, seeing her friends in line locally and from out of town. Everyone has a story (heh, great premise for a play I say ?).

Many like my daughter did a 180 but will always have making “art” a part of her life.

Many theater /acting kids are so great in business and other areas due to always being on time, remembering lines which translates to remembering products and can turn it on with the acting skills, being dependable and can learn/Train easily.

Doing some local theater acting and having an income with another means to me is living the dream.