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Do you REALLY need a degree to be a successful actor?

WatchesWatches Registered User Posts: 1 New Member
edited December 2011 in Theater/Drama Majors
Hello, this is my first post on this website. I've viewed it many times over the years and I would just like to give my insight on some things I have though about.

First off, I do not by any means intend my thread to be offensive to anyone. I am an avid believer of studying a major in which you love and thoroughly enjoy. College/University are some of the best years of your life, all of which can begin by completing a degree of a subject in which you are passionate about and plan to pursue as a career. This is merely just a thought I would like to share. I wouldn't even go as far saying it's an opinion.

As the title of the thread says, my question to all those on this forum, is it really necessary to have a degree in acting in order to be successful in the field as a serious profession? As I look through all these BFA/ BA acting programs offered at prestigious schools and conservatories like Carnegie Mellon, New York University, Yale, Rutgers University, Fordham University etc. the list really can go on for days, I really do wonder, is it truly worth paying an unbelievable amount in tuition to attend a university for an acting degree? I understand, of course, the greatest actor that ever lived can learn something new about the craft every day, but I honestly believe, that at a certain point it has to be said, that acting just cannot be taught. It can be examined, it can be perfected (to a degree) but really a person either has 'it' or they don't. I don't believe this as much when it comes to technical theatre, costume designing or even directing as there is certainly a lot that goes into those fields that require more than just a knack for the subject. However, I feel this is not as much the case with acting.

My main issue with an acting degree is really the curriculum the people in these programs follow. It seems to me that regardless of how many movement and voice classes a person takes, their true fluency and charisma on stage really comes from the heart. It comes from an ability that a person is simply born with and maybe taking classes might make it better, but I believe that no amount of movement or voice lessons will ever make a person an actor. Performing is something a person is born with. It is a way of expressing yourself beyond the use of words; you turn to acting, singing or dancing to let a side of you that is otherwise hidden come out and be on full display. Similarly to how a person is born with a knack for mathematics, another person can be taught to improve in the subject yet they may never have a real feel for it, I believe acting is an art form that no teacher can perfect or improve. As far as the financial aspect goes, I honestly find it hard to justify paying 50,000 dollars a year for a degree that does not guarantee a career after university and may even limit you to pursuing another field. This is especially strengthened by seeing the hundreds of successful TV/Movie/Stage actors that not only didn't get a degree in acting, but also didn't get a degree of any kind for that matter. When I look at the successful alumni that most of the more notable acting programs/conservatories boast of, I am actually surprised by how few there are. You would expect that spending so many long hours in a studio studying and practicing acting would ensure you to have something an 'untrained' person doesn't, when it seems that in the real world, that is not the case at all. It's about perfecting your audition and while you may be a fantastic actor that has gotten even better due to training, someone that has had no training and not as much luck as you may ace an audition and get the part simply because there is no amount of training that would make that specific individual a better actor. It seems very risky sending your child off into this big, scary world to pursue a career that is largely based off of luck and first impressions. If you're a great actor but is out-done by a better one every time you audition (and that better actor may or may not have a degree in acting), coupled with the immense amount of debt, you may have a few VERY difficult years as a young adult. A good example would be James Gandolfini. He was the star of the long running HBO series, "The Sopranos" and is definitely a successful actor. He attended Rutgers University and earned a degree in Communications. A quick internet search will show you that he is definitely one of the more famous Rutgers alumni (as far as acting goes) and yet he didn't even major in acting or theatre. He was simply born with the passion and talent to act and he was perfect for a certain role that now has made him very successful. Clearly no training could have ensured a better chance of success.

I don't believe this is as much the case with a degree in theatre as you learn a whole range of crafts and improve each area. I also believe a degree in a more broad theatre program can lead to many different jobs as it teaches you communication skills, dedication and hard work as well as what it takes to work in a group. However, whilst a degree in acting may teach you some of those, it can definitely limit you to being good at just one craft rather than an array of different abilities.

I also am not a fan of the rigorous and heartbreaking process a child must go through just to be admitted to an acting program. Your child/teenage years are some of the most sensitive times of your life. A certain experience can certainly have an impact on who you become as an adult. A performer of any kind can also tend to be a very sensitive individual since they make a career out of showing a very personal side of them. The two put together makes it very hard for a young person aspiring to be an actor. I think, in many ways, it's truly a lot to ask of a child to not only have good grades, deal with emotional stress, take standardized exams as well as not only live up to your aspirations but also those of your parents/guardians and then, on top of all that to have to audition to be admitted to a school. I find this especially odd since many of the top-rate acting conservatories actually teach a student to audition well. It seems to really contradict the entire point of auditioning in the first place. Once again this all stems back to being lucky. This process also seems extremely nerve wracking and stressful for a young person to endure when they're just beginning the next chapter of their lives. This also seems like a very un-academic atmosphere to me and makes it seems as if every day is a competition.

I also find that in some ways, a conservatory can almost be harmful to your craft as an actor. Art is completely subjective. There's really no right or wrong if you can justify your reason to do something. A teacher is really just teaching their own method and whilst it may be very good, who's to really say it is any better than your own. The head of the drama department at NYU might have a very different approach to acting than say, the head at Carnegie Mellon, yet really which one has a more credible method? The answer is neither because that is the approach that makes THEM successful and yet it may not work for someone else. I hear that the 'method' approach to acting is usually, at the very least, introduced in most acting conservatories; however, at the same time I know that an actor like Daniel Radcliffe is definitely not a 'method' actor. Does that mean that everything he's done is wrong, simply because a drama teacher at a prestigious school believes there is no other way to acting? OF COURSE NOT. Just like every profession, different people excel in different ways. Speaking of Daniel Radcliffe, he is a perfect example of the lucky few as well as of a person who is simply born to act. He got his start very young, and whilst he most likely has had some form of training since, he was born with the talent; in fact, he was born with enough talent to make him successful at a young age. Has he had a great deal of initial luck? Definitely. Were there other 'auditionees' who were just as talented and suited for the role of 'Harry Potter' but just not as lucky on the day? Certainly.

The main point of my thread is really just to say, as with everything, there is no one way to a career. If you are not fit for or are not in favor of attending a BFA program, this certainly does not mean you will have no chance in being a professional actor. In fact, I believe studying in a BFA conservatory might give you the tools to be a professional actor but might limit you from taking many different kind of electives in college. As you grow up, you change ever single day and whilst you thought a career in acting was the only thing you wanted to pursue, an elective in psychology, English, biology, history etc. might open you up to a world you never explored before. I also think that the teacher of a subject is really the make or break element of a class. The teacher can either inspire you and make you more determined than ever to be an actor, or sadly, they may destruct your love for the subject. This is especially true when it comes to the programs that follow a more 'break-you-down' sort of approach and to even those that encourage a 'cut' of an amount of students after a year or so.

Once again, this thread is not in any ways meant to offend. It is just to start an interesting discussion on the subject of pursuing an acting degree. ANY viewpoints, insights or opinions are 100% appreciated!

Post edited by Watches on

Replies to: Do you REALLY need a degree to be a successful actor?

  • glassharmonicaglassharmonica Registered User Posts: 3,090 Senior Member
    Thanks for taking the time to write this essay. You make a lot of excellent points. My daughter and I have been discussing exactly this subject.
  • MOMMY5MOMMY5 Registered User Posts: 239 Junior Member
    I do agree with you on the point that someone either has the "it" factor or not. That can not be learned, no matter where one trains. But I do believe that if someone has the talent, they can improve. This is true with almost anything- art, music, dance, math, etc. Plus, there are many other benefits and reasons to go to college. Connections, is of course, one of them.

    This is why I worry about the whole safety list idea. If my kid is not selected at any of the top 10 audition programs on her list, isn't that saying something? If 10 schools didn't see that "it" factor, isn't that a good reason to take that as a message? I would bet a degree from the schools you mentioned (CMU, Yale, NYU, etc.) do open up doors. But how valuable is a BFA degree from a NOT prestigious school?
  • NJTheatreMOMNJTheatreMOM Registered User Posts: 3,673 Senior Member
    I would like to address several of these points:

    - Training versus talent. Every individual is different, but a person who brings great passion, sensitivity, and intelligence -- but no really obvious talent, at the onset -- to the study of acting can learn to be an excellent actor. I have seen it.

    - Why minimally trained actors are often successful. Many actors in film and TV are "personality actors." They basically play themselves...or portray a single type of character..over and over. They have little range. When this was discussed here before, I asked someone to imagine Tommy Lee Jones playing King Lear. Tommy Lee is great, and monumentally successful, but he doesn't have the range for Lear.

    - Success. Financial success as an actor cannot be assured for anyone. A theatre degree is still a worthwhile degree. If great financial success is a high priority for a certain individual, they probably should not pursue a BFA in acting. Theatre is one of the arts. The arts tend to be personally satisfying but not very financially rewarding. Why get a BFA in classical music or studio art? Same question.

    - Differences in how acting is taught at various schools. Some school do emphasize one approach more than others, but all programs provide the same basics. It is common for instruction to involve a "toolbox" approach, which allows students to decide what works best for them.

    - "Method" acting. This is pretty much only included in the toolbox form of instruction, to familiarize students with it. It is not a predominant approach, as it once was.

    - Stress on the student. Auditioning for acting programs is indeed very stressful and should probably only be attempted by students who possess a certain level of passion and drive. A lot of the stress comes from the logistics of scheduling and traveling to auditions, and balancing auditioning with other obligations, though. Most well-prepared students come to enjoy the actual auditions.
  • NJTheatreMOMNJTheatreMOM Registered User Posts: 3,673 Senior Member
    Mommy5, a BFA degree from a non-prestigious school still provides good training. All auditioned BFA programs are quite selective in their admissions.

    Some kids decide later than others that they want to pursue a BFA. The ones who decide later may not have had very much theatrical experience. It could make sense for them to take a gap year during which they increase their level of experience, and ideally get some coaching and/or other training, before auditioning for BFA programs.

    My son was someone who became passionate about theatre relatively late. He was also somebody who did not exhibit a huge amount of talent when he first got involved. But he worked very, very, hard at milking every last drop of learning out of every theatrical opportunity he had, over a period of about three years.

    He decided to apply only to auditioned programs, with no BA safeties. He only applied to six schools, and five of them were in the "super selective" category. If he had been accepted at none, he would have taken a gap year and tried again. Fortunately, he was accepted at three of them.
  • northdadnorthdad Registered User Posts: 80 Junior Member
    a couple of things... Yes, of course, there is no guarantee of becoming a star; and, yes, there are stars who did not do BFAs. But, I don't think we should use stars - famous actors - as the standard to judge the theater world generally. That world is much wider and diverse than Broadway or Hollywood or HBO. I live in a town with a vibrant summer theater, populated with professional actors. And there are other such theaters within an hour's drive, including a very good professional Shakespeare company. Many of the actors in these places - from what can be learned in the little program bios - have BFA training. They are happy and doing what they love, and they have trained intensively to do it. That should be the standard against which we judge the career prospects of undergraduate conservatory programs: does it increase the chances for a fulfilling life in theater at whatever level or location that might be?

    Furthermore, a BFA in acting does not mean that one must become an actor. Just as a BA in history does not mean a person will be a historian, etc. A variety of skills are developed by acting training, skills that can carry over to a host of different career tracks. Within the theater world itself, you will find people trained as actors who direct or produce or write. Aaron Sorkin comes immediately to mind (BFA in MT from Syracuse).

    It is not at all clear to me that a liberal arts or social science BA provides any greater career prospect than a BFA. As is always the case, it depends on what the individual person does with the opportunities he or she receives for learning and moving beyond college.

    And stress is not particular to theater, by any means. The CC boards are replete with young people stressing out over SATS and admissions and whatever. And right now there are thousands of and thousands of college seniors stressing out over not finding a job. The stress may come in a specific form for aspiring actors, but stress itself is endemic to modern life - and is has gotten worse for all young people in the last couple of decades.
  • kjgckjgc College Rep Posts: 428 Member
    "The main point of my thread is really just to say, as with everything, there is no one way to a career. If you are not fit for or are not in favor of attending a BFA program, this certainly does not mean you will have no chance in being a professional actor. In fact, I believe studying in a BFA conservatory might give you the tools to be a professional actor but might limit you from taking many different kind of electives in college. As you grow up, you change ever single day and whilst you thought a career in acting was the only thing you wanted to pursue, an elective in psychology, English, biology, history etc. might open you up to a world you never explored before. I also think that the teacher of a subject is really the make or break element of a class. The teacher can either inspire you and make you more determined than ever to be an actor, or sadly, they may destruct your love for the subject. This is especially true when it comes to the programs that follow a more 'break-you-down' sort of approach and to even those that encourage a 'cut' of an amount of students after a year or so."

    Well thought out, and true. Training gives you tools and is necessary at some point for long term work in a variety of roles. There are actors who forgo training and are quite successful, there are actors with no training who make tons of money, there are actors who have degrees in chemistry, in communication, and everything else under the sun. Many roads to the same destination. That is art. There are successful musicians that have never even learned to read music, and there are successful visual artists who have never taken a class. But these are unique talents. There are even more successful musicians and visual artists and actors who have trained, and at a variety of levels. Neither road is a means to sure success. Do what feels right in your heart.
  • fishbowlfreshmanfishbowlfreshman Registered User Posts: 827 Member
    This again??? Meh … I’ll play. LOL Of course you don’t NEED a degree, but what you learn getting one sure can be helpful if it’s a good program. It sure has been for me, but I‘m SO FAR one of the lucky ones who’s managed to get a quick start on a lucrative career …

    I agree to an extent that an actor has “it” or he doesn’t although it would really be more accurate to say “sufficient talent“ which may be nurtured through a combination of high quality training and experience. Also, “it” may not become marketable for quite some time after one’s early 20s no matter which training route is pursued. Gandolfini, who trained for many years at Michael Howard Studio btw, certainly wasn’t a hot commodity at 22. Neither was his leading lady, Edie Falco, who happens to have trained at SUNY Purchase and has had the more high prolific career since “The Sopranos” was cancelled partially due to her greater range ...

    Many who enter these programs simply have to wait their turn after graduation and that can take years. I don’t mean for “stardom,“ either. Just to become a regularly employed member of the rank and file of working actors. A good number of them end up moving onto good careers - both inside and outside other areas of the business - before they’ve had a chance to come into their own. Some move onto grad school in different areas, too, and don’t buy into the idea that conservatory graduates are somehow handicapped in getting into those. Just like having “it,” you’re smart enough to do well on the aptitude tests or you’re not. At worst, you could brush up on or acquire some of the basic knowledge needed by taking a few cheap community college courses. Others who are extremely talented and potentially marketable find that they aren’t emotionally cut out for the Biz in the years after graduation as well. Others just get tired of the grind and still others make stupid choices and self destruct ... at least temporarily ...

    Like I had to bite my knuckles to not respond with a huge <FACEPALM> to the Backstage blog of a 2010 graduate of a high profile BFA conservatory when I saw that she’d scored great representation from her showcase who were getting her huge numbers of auditions but allowed herself to gain 20 lbs in the months after graduation thinking that walking to and from the subway would somehow make up for the absence of all the physical activity in her program. One of her classmates whom I know personally did the same. HELLO??? Then there’s one from my school who certainly has the money to maintain a fabulous wardrobe in which she constantly goes clubbing, but somehow just can’t seem to afford to update her three year old headshots that weren’t doing her service in the first place. And she wonders why she doesn't get many auditions? I could go on and on with some of the stupid moves I've seen ... Of course, this is all notwithstanding some others who made the grievous mistake of taking on too much debt to pursue this career seriously, but one thing to which I’ll agree wholeheartedly is that these programs cannot teach common sense. Then, what major does? Can anyone recommend a minor somewhere?! :confused:

    I could go on and on refuting and/or expanding upon some of the points made in the OP’s missive in a line-by-line, but I’ll try to keep it short since I actually have some other things to do today. What I will say is that unless you grew up in the business in one of the major markets or happen to be one of those rare kids who has the steel and emotional maturity to move to one to train and start a career at 17 or 18, there is no better way to nurture your “it” than to acquire the toolbox you’ll get from training in a quality BFA by the time you‘re 22.

    On another related note, I’m not a big fan of TV, but have had to start watching a good bit lately to educate myself more about the various show styles since my agent is promising that I’m about to have a very active pilot season. Something I’ve noticed with the series leads and regulars is that a surprisingly large number of the women really do come from a BFA or MFA background. Is it a majority? No. However, when you consider the many thousands of people who flood to the major markets trying to work their way up to those gigs through studio training versus those who come from that background, the percentage is really pretty good. The men don’t seem to have caught up as much yet, but I think you’ll see that trend expanding over time. Also, the overwhelming majority working regularly in theatre definitely do come from that background.

    Again … No rules. Only trends …
  • ActingDadActingDad Registered User Posts: 680 Member
    Thanks again Fishbowl for continuting to add your perspective.

    As to OP, I think you make some good points. You certainly don't need a degree as top training can be provided outside of a BFA but I think the flaw in your thought process is this one sentence:

    "Similarly to how a person is born with a knack for mathematics, another person can be taught to improve in the subject yet they may never have a real feel for it, I believe acting is an art form that no teacher can perfect or improve."

    I think this sentence probably overstates your views based on other things in your post but I think its the framework from which you are starting. I think your view is a common one. I also think its wrong. Stella Adler's book has a great discussion of the problems with the perceptions of acting versus other pursuits. An actor achieves their aim of "truth" when actors is successful in convicing the audience that he's not acting. (I am sure she said it better -- but that is the gist of it as I recall.) I think with that comes the impression by many that its easy to achieve as great actors make it appear effortless. Many seem to miss that the appearance of not acting is something that takes a tremendous degree of skill and training. Some of my daughters contemporaries, even those pursuing musical theater aspirations (who should know better), are often floored when they find out she's been studying acting for over 6 years and has attended summer programs to study acting. She gets a lot of what's there to study?

    Are there some that make it with little study? Sure. But as someone pointed out in this thread they tend to be people who have a natural personality that works and they tend to play themselves over and over. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a true actor -- one that can play many different characters and types -- that does not have serious training under their belt (which does not have to be a BFA.)
  • hoveringmomhoveringmom Registered User Posts: 383 Member
    Short answer:
    No, it's not necessary. But it can certainly help.

    But I don't think you wanted an answer. It seems like you put this in question format but actually were answering your own question, and answering, No.

    The problem is that your response is dependent on all sorts of personal variables. Is a BFA worth it? No, if you're taking out $200,000 in loans. No, if you don't make use of *any* of the connections it affords. No, if it's the wrong program for you. No, if you don't recognize that it's not a guarantee by any means. No, if you don't have the stamina, focus, purpose and VERY THICK SKIN that is an absolute necessity in the business. No, if you're delusional about your own talent. No if you can't take criticism and think you're God's gift because your high school director told you so.

    But it can definitely be worth it for many folks. It gives you an edge, certainly. Statistically, you have a greater chance getting roles with a degree than without it (much higher). You certainly learn, but no one is disputing that. But notice I left out talent. That's because talent is something that is very individual. You can be talent-less but have extreme self discipline AND have the absolute right look for a commercial, say, and then that can segue into something else, etc. You can be brimming with talent but lack self-discipline and purpose and you'll go nowhere. And most commonly, you can still be maturing and growing. At this age, it is often impossible to tell who is uncannily talented and who is merely average and who is not at all talented. I do believe there is innate talent and gifts, but there are just so many variables going into talent that at this point all you can do is have the core willingness and basic ability to throw yourself into the work.

    I do not believe a BFA is worth it *ever* if you have to take out major loans. It's too great a risk. Get an affordable BA and use the money you'd have spent in the BFA to invest in excellent non-degree acting classes in NYC or other top places.

    However, if you don't have to take out the major loans or if you're blessed to have parents who are well off, then a BFA can be worth it on multiple levels. Even if you don't go into acting, you can use what you've learned to go into post-graduate schools such as law schools or, for example, even med schools if you can manage to take core science courses.

    Ultimately, the answer is individual. But at core I believe that you should pursue your dream aggressively when you are young. Getting a BFA or BA in acting in a top school helps you chase your dream. If you have the discipline and maturity to let it.
  • NJTheatreMOMNJTheatreMOM Registered User Posts: 3,673 Senior Member
    Great post, hoveringmom. Well said. Happy holidays!

    (So many valuable posts here. This turned out to be a terrific thread.)
This discussion has been closed.