7 Reasons Why Professional Acting Programs Are Simply Not Worth It

  1. They waste your time.
  2. They waste your money.
  3. A formal degree means nothing in the film/tv acting world.
  4. They train you for stage, not film.
  5. Many teachers haven't worked professionally for years.
  6. Many teachers and drama directors belittle their students.
  7. They seldom help you get auditions or agents.

But first a little background...

So what do we mean by "Professional Acting Program"? Well, it's any program that's exclusive, and takes your money to teach you how to act. They can be a short as a few weeks, or as long as several years. They can be accredited, which means, they will give you a professional college degree such as a BA, a BFA, an MA, or MFA. Or they can be unaccredited, which means, they might give you a certificate at the end of your time there, saying, Suzie Smith attended the Joe Bascona Acting School 6 Week Method Course! Other unaccredited programs might include: The Stella Adler Theater Course, The Lee Strasberg School of Acting, ACT, or the New York Film Academy, etc...

I have had dozens of auditions, calls, and meetings, with professional directors, agents, and casting directors, from the contacts made in private classes.

Some professional training programs are nothing more than glorified summer camps. I have no problem with a summer camp acting program, if you're between the ages of 13 to 18. But once you decide to really focus on acting, say, as a full time possible career, you'll begin to think beyond a summer workshop or camp; and you'll begin to think about going to college, grad school, or a glorified program with a glorified name that will impress your parents and family.

Acting Classes that would be alternatives to these more structured programs would be private weekly, or bi weekly group classes, or individual classes, in: Method Acting, Voice, Dialects, Movement, Improvisation, Singing, Dance, Meisner Technique, Audition Technique, Cold Reading, Marketing for the Actor, Scene Study, etc...

You could also go the way of getting a Liberal Arts degree at a College or University, and take a few acting classes on the side. Or you could audition for local theater, and learn acting skills by being in a play, or by working alongside local filmmakers, helping them make their indie films.

There are a million different ways to learn how to act, and you do NOT have to be part of a longer, more expensive, actors training program. Believe me, having attended USC's two year, MFA Professional Acting Training Program, and then, having taken several years of private classes afterwards in Los Angeles, I know what I'm talking about. So keep reading.

1. They waste your time

Most professional acting training programs take between one year, and four years. It's in their interest to take time, and move slowly, because, remember, they are MONEY MAKING INSTITUTIONS! Surprise, surprise, they want you to spend many years learning layer upon layer of different acting techniques, because the longer you are there, the more money they will make. And when you're finally done, finally ready to meet with agents and directors, you're four years older. You may have grown up some in the process, but you've also lost some of the best years an actor has -- those years when you could have been acting (years when you are still energetic, full of energy, youth, and nerve!)

I had a friend in my MFA program at USC who was literally kicked out of the school because she was beginning to audition TOO much, and she was missing her classes. How stupid! She had moved to LA to become a professional actor, after going to Harvard undergrad, and the program at USC should have helped her, not kicked her out. She was paying her tuition, but still, she wasn't PLAYING BY THEIR RULES, and professional programs like rules. And rules are obstacles to creativity and growth.

2. They waste your money

A BFA program is an undergraduate acting degree in a 4 year University. It's an Acting Major only with very few other classes needed to graduate besides performance based study. At a more expensive, prestigious, private college (like USC) -- a BFA can run you between $100,000 to $200,000, by the time you finally graduate! At even a smaller, $25,000/year, you're not only breaking your family's bank, you're wasting your money.

With this same money, you could also be funding your own private, very good, independent feature film, with you as the producer and star. That money would also go a long way toward getting settled in LA, paying for private classes with world famous acting coaches, not to mention, maybe even putting a down payment on a house there someday. Most excellent private classes (usually taught weekly, with about 20 - 50 students) run around $200 to $300/ month. That's, at most, $3600 a year. That means, that for the same amount of money as a professional program, you could be taking classes from 8 different, world famous teachers, on a weekly basis, teachers who work every day with professional, famous actors, and you'd still have money to spare! You wouldn't have to work a dumb day job, but you could spend your extra time auditioning!

There is one famous Improv program in Los Angeles, that makes students audition to get to the next level. Having students audition creates an atmosphere of competitiveness, and makes getting to the next level seem really exciting, prestigious even. They do this, not to make the program exclusive, or better, but to make people WANT to continue on, WANT to keep paying more, and taking more classes. They know that actors are competetive, and they're playing on our insecure streak!

If you ask me, this is unethical, and seems a bit like a pyramid scheme; and I would be wary of any program that makes you audition to move up. I don't mind auditions to make sure you're not a crazy lunatic, for entrance into a class, but I do mind auditions to keep people thinking the program is prestigious. This plays on the already heightened sense of insecurity most actors feel. And it's a scam in my opinion. Because the truth is that any acting program that charges a lot, and also holds auditions, is actually desperate for money -- and they're using the audition as a ploy to make you think they are unique. But acting programs aren't. They're a dime a dozen -- it's just that when you're new to Hollywood, you don't know this. So be smart, and keep your eyes and ears open!

3. A formal degree means nothing in the film/tv acting world

No one ever told me that professional agents and directors could care less that I had a formal acting graduate degree from a great university. If I had known this when I first decided I wanted to be a professional actress, I wouldn't have applied, and then gone to, USC for grad school. I was an Anthropology Major at Grinnell College, but I'd always acted in every play during High School and College. So I knew I was talented, as I usually had the leads. My mother and father believed in Academia too, since they'd both been professors, so going into a professional program seemed like the right step, with a move from Iowa (and KC where I'd grown up) out to Los Angeles, in the late 80s.

In retrospect, I realize now, that I was terrified of moving to California, and I just wanted to hit the ground out there, as part of a group of people who were all new to the place. What I didn't know is that if I'd gone to private LA professional classes, I would have met all the same kinds of people as me, kids and adults who were from all over the world, who'd recently moved to LA, and who were following their dreams. Unfortunately, I got into a program that was hard to get into, felt really great about myself, and then spent the next two years paying a fortune to get a Masters, and to learn nothing about professional acting, in Film and TV. All I learned was stage acting: Shakespeare and Chekhov and period plays, that sort of thing.

I did enjoy many aspects of my program, but when I left Grad School to begin auditioning at age 25, all over LA, I really felt I had no real skills. In fact, my acting was way too big and broad for the camera. And what I learned really, the first few weeks I started auditioning for professional parts, with professional casting directors, is that no one, not one single agent or casting director, gave a hoot about my MFA, or the leads I'd had in grad school. They could seriously care less. In fact, not once did a casting director ever ask me about the plays I'd been in, or my training at USC. Not once did I ever get a call based on that part (which was damned good!) of my resume. In fact, I usually found that they'd cast the actor with the least training, as they'd tell me that he or she hadn't developed any major patterns in their acting, they were more directable, more real. And so, I ended up feeling pretty upset that all my training had somehow, been for nothing. It had also put me in debt!

4. They train your for stage, not for film

Many times, back when I was acting professionally, I'd audition for a casting director, and almost all of them told me I was too big in my acting style, that my choices were too large and too much, too theatrical for TV or Film Acting, and thanks but no thanks they'd say, as they'd yell out to the waiting room, Next! It broke my heart, and I spent the next five years retraining my techniques in private classes all over town. I literally had to unlearn everything I'd learned at USC.

In my professional program, we would act in up to three plays a year. All of our training in our individual classes would be about projecting our voices or commanding the stage or creating living breathing characters in our plays that would read to the back row. Although we did learn improvisation, we usually learned it in such a way as to be really busy on stage, doing way too many activities and lots of stage business which could be really fascinating in a theatrical setting. When I started taking private classes, with professional teachers, all of my teachers would say, Just Be Kirsten. You don't have to try so hard. You, just you, as you are, sitting there, talking to me now, are enough. You don't have to put on airs, you don't have to make me laugh, you don't have to work so hard. Just be like you would be in every day life.

One casting director told me a story about an audition she'd had with, get this, Farah Fawcett Majors, many years earlier. She said one girl had come in and auditioned for the role, and had way too many things prepared, and was running all over the room, trying to impress her. When Farah came in (this was before she was famous I believe), the casting director said that all that she did was to sit down, and say her lines across the table, like a normal, boring conversation. Well, you guessed it. Farah got the part!

All professional programs will tell you that once you learn the tricks of the trade, you can just adjust your techniques by turning the volume down a notch. I think this is a lie. You can't just do less. You have to do differently. And a smaller, more intimate program, with a focus on actors who are out there every day, trying to book real jobs, that week, will help you learn the proper approach. They will help you learn that You Are Enough!

You will also learn a list of skills in a professional film/tv acting class that no theater acting class will ever teach you, skills such as: keeping your eye lines, continuity issues for shooting various angles, reverse shots, and retakes, keeping your character's arc when filming shots out of sequence, ways to keep your energy levels consistent when filming on different days, how to move to marks on the ground, staying calm in the midst of a hectic shooting set, audition techniques in a rushed situation, and on and on.

5. Many teachers haven't worked professionally for years

Although I had some amazing teachers in my professional program whom I've befriended, that changed my life, teachers like Pam Clark (Feldenkrais), and Deborah Ross-Sullivan (Voice), those amazing teachers were few and far between.

Many of my other teachers had only worked at USC for the last ten or fifteen years. That being said, they did bring in many professional stage directors to work with us, who directed us in our big productions there. But not once did I meet a professional filmmaker at USC, and I was going to a University with a famous film school!

Not that many professors didn't once work in professional Film or TV -- in fact, most of them had at one time or another. But you will find that with most full time, tenured staff, they don't work any more in the professional world. They may direct a play every few years in LA or NY, or in a summer Shakespeare Festival, but more often than not, they haven't worked on a professional Film or TV project, possibly, EVER. And if they have, it was probably twenty years ago. This is not good.

This means that they are probably out of touch with what's really going on in Film and TV today -- out of touch with things like, The Digital Revolution, The Huge Independent Film World, MySpace and YouTube Film Clips (a great way to get noticed!), New Marketing Methods for actors (like Websites), new Casting Methods On-Line (like LA Casting).

They don't know what casting directors are hot, what agents might be the right ones for you, how to get people to come to your showcase. It's important to keep in mind that the reason you want to go to a professional program is to become a professional.

Whereas, the opposite is true about private acting classes. Most private classes are taught by working filmmakers, producers, and working actors (like myself) who are, right now, casting a film, or editing a feature, or workshopping a script. I never got one break from any of the contacts I made at USC, while in my private classes with private working professionals, once I got out of USC? Well, I was recommended to agents, and even booked an acting gig for French TV, on the recommendation of my acting teacher!

You will know if you have a good, real professional teacher, in the outside world, if your teacher has to cancel classes once in awhile due to a Film or TV project they are working on. And feel free to really ask your teacher what they are doing, or have done, in the last two years. Most will answer vaguely, like, Oh, I did tons of TV! and if you ask when, and what? -- well, if they're vague, beware.

But note: many private coaches no longer work in Film or TV, because they're too busy helping professionals in their Film or TV projects one on one. That's okay too. For example, if your teacher says, Well, I've been coaching Lindsay Lohan on her films recently then you've hit the jackpot! Good sign! Work with this person, immediately.

6. Many teachers and drama directors belittle their students

I know I will get some flack for writing this, but it's been my experience that many teachers, in the bigger programs, are tired and angry (that they're stuck teaching in big programs) and so they often take it out on their students. And often, they're not making enough money, so they're mad.

Many teachers in bigger programs feel stuck, it's that simple. They want to be acting or directing or making films, but they have kids to put through college, or wives or husbands to take care of, or mortgages to pay, or they've worked too hard for too long to get famous, haven't made it, and so now, they have turned to teaching. In a professional training program, they can rule their little fiefdoms, have their groupy acting students (who come over to their houses for drunken parties, and hang on their every word)... And in the end, it's not the healthiest situation.

I have met so many actors who have been burned, seriously hurt, by their acting teachers. And usually, those teachers were in a college, or so-called professional program. Most of these teachers are having to face horrible politics the students don't even know about, they themselves are either underpaid, or unappreciated, or mistreated, by boards, or crazy heads of the programs, and so, they end up passing all of this bad energy down to you.

This happened to me too. It's hard to talk about it, but I want to share this story with you here. I was told by about three different teachers and directors, at USC, that I was: too fat, just way too fat, miscast, they'd wished they'd cast someone else, and overemotional -- this was all while I had the lead in the main stage production! I spent many weeks in classes as I watched as other actors were laughed at, ignored, scorned, or even berated. One actor was pushed, physically pushed out of the class by an angry teacher, one was seduced by another (they had an affair, the student was 22, the teacher was 48). And the list of transgressions goes on.

When you're paying a lot of money to go to a program, you should have some say about how you are treated. But like every good boy and girl, we actors want to please. We don't want to dropout, because we don't want to have wasted our time and money, and we also don't want to be trouble makers or upset our parents. So we put up with inappropriate behavior, abuse, and even, sexual harassment. Because, shouldn't we trust these people? Aren't they really trying to help us? Not always.

I spent years feeling terrible about my weight and body because of a few sentences said to me by a few teachers in my acting program, and may have even given up acting to become a director, because of these comments. And I was maybe only 20 pounds over weight, and a runner, and in very good health at the time. Don't let teachers hurt you this way, and don't keep quiet about it if it happens to you!

The good thing about private classes is that you usually pay monthly (not yearly!), you can drop out any time, and the teachers are usually very happy, because it's their class, taught by them, their way. They themselves are free, running their own business, and class, and they don't have to put up with all the politics of an institutionalized setting. Not that every private teacher is a saint. But you, as a student, definitely have more power. If they act like a jerk, then they could lose a student. Take charge of your life, and don't let teachers hurt you, ever!

7. They seldom help you get auditions or an agent

When I was considering Professional Training Programs, at the Grad School level, right out of college, I was looking for something that would give me an edge, a step up, once I started acting professionally. I got into several programs, all over the US. I decided on USC because it had a SHOWCASE, that they said the whole industry would be invited to at the end of the two years, a showcase which would help me stand out, and get noticed. The program was also in LA, so I thought that would help me make contacts in the real film and tv world.

What I found, was that although there were several casting directors at each yearly showcase, the program itself did nothing much to get professionals to the event. We, the students, had to do all the marketing ourselves. No one told me this when I got there. I found this out the hard way, when I was asked by a second year graduating student friend, if I would be in her scene, as a first year. When I realized that not very many professionals were in the audience, that first year, I made a commitment to myself to get a huge audience for my own showcase, the following year. I worked my butt off to get as many people to my showcase as I could, and I succeeded. But looking back on this now, I don't think that was fair. I had paid an exorbitant amount of money to attend this prestigious program, and it seems that they should have worked hard, and spent some of their own money, to advertise the event. I ended up spending about $1000 of my own money to do marketing and PR, to get people out that year. Sent out photos, post cards, letters, emails, put up flyers, sent press releases to the local papers. As a result, I had many auditions when I got out of USC, from casting directors that couldn't make the showcase. But I had to do this all by myself.

As I said before, I never had one audition or call based on the contacts I (should have) made while at my professional program. While I have had dozens of auditions, calls, and meetings, with professional directors, agents, and casting directors, from the contacts made in private classes. Food for thought.

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City http://theactingroom.com