So you’re keen on trying your hand at a dream career in the performing arts. Yay! We’re glad to have you. You might be wondering “Where the heck do I start?”
Should you join a 2-4 year conservatory program? Get an MFA? Or head straight out to Hollywood and dive into the biz? There are several variables that come into play when making this decision. So I’m gonna give you my humble opinion, and some pros and cons so you can decide what is right for you! And my opinion might surprise you!
If you’re certain you want to make acting in film & TV your career for the next 10 years and beyond, don’t go to “acting school.”
If you KNOW you want to make this a profession, not a hobby, your money would be better spent in a city where things are already happening. Los Angeles is the center of it all. But you might get your feet wet in a smaller market first (Atlanta, Chicago, New Mexico, etc.). While these smaller markets are still competitive, the cost of living may be lower with more opportunities for new actors.
See? I’m a straight-shooter. But if you’re still on the fence let’s tackle this topic-by-topic and see where your preference lies.
The Difference In Teaching Styles
ACTING PROGRAM: You may receive more attention on your acting skill, but not the business. You’ll have a select few teachers with you for the length of your training in school. And your teachers will have less students cycling in and out every month. Your time spent working on stage will be greater. But the training you’ll receive on the business side of being an actor will likely be severely lacking. Teachers in these institutions often don’t have time to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry.
IN-MARKET: Your teachers can guide you professionally. You’ll study under teachers who are “plugged in” to current projects and trends in film/television. The best teachers in Los Angeles are coaching actors for every new project out there. They know what’s working and what gets cast. Teachers may occasionally offer referrals to a manager who would be a good fit. Or be able to help you decide between two offers for representation. Your teachers are up-to-speed on “the biz” and can offer advice.
Gaining Real-World Experience
ACTING PROGRAM: Prefer you don’t audition for professional work. Most schools like to keep your focus on the training – not missing a bunch of classes because you booked a job. Oftentimes, auditions are happening during class time. Which becomes a disruption if your scene partner is always missing from class. It’s a policy I do understand, but frustrating for anyone who’d like to try what they’re learning in the real world.
IN-MARKET: You can start auditioning. Until you secure representation, your auditions will be few. But chances are you’ll be able to hop into a few student film auditions or low-budget films – and that’s great! Experience is the best teacher and the more you audition, the better you’ll get. The cherry on top is you might book a job!
Total Immersion in Different Areas.
ACTING PROGRAM: Total training immersion. With an MFA program, you’re studying your craft several hours per day. The rehearsals aren’t suggested, they’re mandatory. You’re provided with free rehearsal space to meet. You are breathing acting every single day. There’s something sexy and once-in-a-lifetime about that kind of training. But this also means that there is little to zero time to pursue experience and jobs outside of school. So your professional career will likely be on hold.
IN-MARKET: Total industry immersion. Many acting schools are lacking in the actual career preparation department. They’ve got the acting training down, tend to skim over how to market yourself as a business person. By being in the market and in class, you’ll soak up bits of information from peer’s real-life experiences. You’ll learn pitfalls to avoid and what’s working. And you’ll learn it a lot faster than from any book or college program. So if you plan to do this thing for real, might as well dive in.
Strict Schedule vs. Go-With-The-Flow
ACTING PROGRAM: On a consistent pre-designed schedule. You need to show up to class to get credit. It’s not a go-when-you-feel-like-it situation. Not interested in studying the classical pieces ‘cause all you wanna do is Sorkin? Sorry friend. You still gotta show up.
The good news is, you don’t have to make all the decisions. Acting programs offer a set curriculum in a particular order that builds upon itself. So, if you don’t like doing all the research and getting referrals for your next career move, this might be nice for you. It’s a done-for-you kinda deal.
IN-MARKET: Training is more flexible. Don’t like your acting class? There’s hundreds to choose from. Don’t feel like going to class today? Nobody will be on your case, and you’re only out the money you paid for the session. You’ll spend your money and time in the areas you specifically want to improve, instead of a “one size fits all” approach.
The down-side. It’s easy to get lazy when you’re in charge of your own schedule. If you’re the type of person who gets influenced by others or distracted easily, this may be a tough road for you. You might say “I want to take a few months off of acting class to save money and relax.” That’s your prerogative and there’s nothing wrong with that. But do remember that all that time you’re not training, you’re still paying rent in an expensive city.
How You Like To Handle Your Money
ACTING PROGRAM: See all costs up-front. In a conservatory or MFA program, you’ll see most of your costs estimated and shared with you up-front. You’ll join the program with a fairly accurate estimate that includes: course fees, materials, housing, and other expenses, in one lump sum. You can decide before you jump in, “Am I willing to spend this much on my acting education?” And if you say yes, you know how much you’ll be on the hook for.
But don’t forget, you’ll still have plenty of costs to actually launch your career after graduation. The amount you’ll spend will be larger in the long run. Even with your 2-4 years of training, you will still need to take acting classes when you get to your market of choice. But if it gives you ease to see the road ahead a little clearer, this might be a good option.
IN-MARKET: You don’t mind “playing it by ear.” When you move to a major market, the costs might stay lower in the short term. Yet, if you actually want to make this your official career path, there will be plenty of expenses. But, they’ll be individual transactions that you’ll need to budget for as you go. If you go at this career with all your gusto, you can easily spend the same as you would on an acting degree. You’ll just have more control over how and when it gets spent.
Which Path Is More Likely To “Pay Off”?
ACTING PROGRAMS: can saddle you with oppressive debt. While an acting program is a pretty neat way to spend your college years if you’ve got the resources, you will end up with a lot of bills to pay. Even if you end up working pretty consistently once you’re out of school, it will take you a very long time to pay back.
While I do everything I can on this blog and in my courses to help you make money acting, the chances of your MFA being a real career benefit isn’t likely. Once you get into the working industry, your degree will mean very little. Your training will be with you always. But unlike a PHD, your degree is not a requirement to get hired for an acting job. If you choose this route, it should be because you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and this lifestyle suits your taste.
“What about the industry showcases upon graduation?” is a common question. Yes, many schools invite industry guests to a final performance to scout for talent. Some people get signed and some do not. While this is a nice perk at the end of an expensive program in which you weren’t able to work professionally, it’s not a reason to apply to an MFA program. There are showcases EVERYWHERE – some better than others. But paying $100,000 + to perform for agents is a major no-no in Happy Actor Land!
IN-MARKET: This is a better place to see if you like this career. But fair warning, you’re EXTREMELY unlikely to make any real money for several years. One year is not enough to give this a “shot.” If this career is something you’re gonna try to do as a professional, you have to give it at least two years in a major market.
First of all, it costs a lot of money to even make a move. You’ll spend your first month or so figuring how to get around and finding a job. You may not love the first acting class you join and need to shop around for others. You’ll want to audit classes, sometimes they only do audits once a month – so this kinda thing takes a while. You need headshots and a resume. And you need time to get a handle on how things run around here. When people say “I’m giving it six months!” I want to tell them, “That’s not trying at all!”
If after two years, you’re not feeling it. You don’t feel the gravitational pull to keep going, then you can leave saying you gave it a shot.
So there’s a lot to chew on here! If you’re still not sure which path is right for you, take the quiz to see where you should start your career. If you already have an instinct about which sounds like a better plan for you, read on for next steps.
I Want To Apply To An Acting Program
Alright! I’m glad you have a clear grasp on this choice and why you want to do it. You might be asking, “Are there ANY acting programs that won’t leave me with bills for years to come?” Luckily, there are a few. Check out the table below for a list of programs with generous scholarships!
The Old Globe / University of San Diego
Penn State School of Theatre
Case Western Reserve University / Cleveland Playhouse
PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Brown University / Trinity Rep
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training / Florida State University
The Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Asolo Repertory Theatre at Florida State University
Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program at Case Western Reserve University
La Jolla Playhouse at The University of California, San Diego
I Want To Move To An Acting Market!
Great! Let’s make a commitment! Just because you’re not going to grad school for acting, does not mean this career is playtime. The people that work on sets, WORK OFF SET. They train, they practice at home, they tape themselves and watch it back, they rehearse. They spend money on amazing materials and coaches. They are not flying by the seat of their pants.
The people who work take “the hustle” as seriously as one might take law school. Because this business it as hard to crack as any other prestigious career. And often, much much harder. You have to decide if giving this a try is worth the $100,000 investment – even if it’s not for a fancy school.
If you’re committed to taking this business seriously, I recommend making a rock-solid plan before you get out here. What techniques you’ll study, your budget, your goals. All that good jazz. I created an online training program that can help you do that before you even step foot in Los Angeles!
In Actor Business Plan, I’ll walk you through EVERYTHING you need to know to get your career off on the right foot. I’m sharing insights I’ve learned from hustling for 17 years in Los Angeles. This is all the info I wish I had when I got here! I’ve taken the workshops and classes, I’ve made all the mistakes. I’ve got a real-world-degree in the business, and I’m transferring all that wisdom to YOU inside this course!
Check out Actor Business Plan Here.