To Go To College Or Not To Go To College? That Is the Question! - Part 1

I’m writing these two part posts, in response to some fabulous comments to follow, but also because I receive so many questions regarding my post Seven Reasons Why Professional Acting Training Programs Are Simply Not Worth It. These are the basic questions I am always asked, and I wanted to explain my thoughts further: “I want to act or at least learn how to become professional actor or actress. Do I need to go to a College or University? If not, should I go to a professional acting program? If I do go to college, should I major in acting, or should I get a BFA in acting? Would that be wasting my time? And what about MFA Acting and Theater programs? What should I do?” Well, this post will try to get more specific about what I advise actors and actresses to do. It’s long, so get ready! But first, I wanted to include a fellow actress's comments I recently received-- (THANK YOU RACHEL!) as you may find your own questions and thoughts reflected herein.

I am an aspiring film actress and have recently applied to many colleges in the California area (one being USC) for a BFA. I have been debating with myself for a while about college in general for acting because there aren't any good screen acting programs I can find that will give me an applicable degree. I would like a college education but at the same time I feel that I will be wasting four years of my time and money for training that will never apply in the real world. What is your suggestion for young actors (straight out of high school) who want to pursue a serious film career?

Wow! First of all, I’m am stunned and amazed by the number of people who’ve responded to my blog. Thank you! I realize now that not only was the post about training programs controversial, but it’s also gotten my site a ton of traffic, which is not my goal for my site. But it’s flattering, and I guess it means that actors and actresses really want to know what to do and where to train to start their careers. I thought as much!

Like me, so many actors have big dreams, and big talents. Way to go! But the only way we theater folk know how to set about pursuing our career goals in the Film and TV industry is to do research. So we go online. We usually find that the only option we have for becoming professional actors or actresses, is to get into a big major acting program. As such, those of you who come to my site are probably sick of researching what programs are out there, and find that you have no idea where to start. I’ll try and help if I can.

If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t know what to do either, when I was at the same stage. I had NO CLUE what to do with my life or how to become an actor – even though I’d been acting for years at school, and had been in a ton of theater. Suddenly I was faced with this huge challenge of moving to Los Angeles, at age 22, and try to get into a field that I felt I knew absolutely nothing about! I felt like I was four years old. It was totally terrifying and caused many sleepless nights! And yet, I still had this dream to be on the big screen and to be the next big star. Sound familiar?

When I was twenty-one, or twenty-two, and I was graduating from my undergraduate college program, at Grinnell College, (it was the winter of my senior year), I realized I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my Anthropology major, but I DID know that I loved acting more than anything in the whole world, and that even though I was good at it, I had no idea where to start to become a professional actress.

Well, as it happens, as many of you know, I ended up auditioning for several Masters of Fine Arts programs (MFA) in Acting. By then, with some help from a Theater Professor friend of mine at Grinnell, Dr. Ellen Mease (one of the few mentors I ever had in the acting world) -- I learned that the basic graduate school training program that’s out there to learn how to act, is called an MFA program.

A Masters of Fine Arts (or MFA in Theater or Acting) is usually a two or three-year professional acting program (you can get also get an MFA in other applied arts such as painting, writing, photography, etc…). A Masters of Fine Arts in Theater or Acting, usually focuses only on the actual applied issues of the art of acting: voice, movement, diction, posture, improvisation, drama lit analysis, performance studies, and a couple of seminars where you may or may not write a paper. In my program at USC, we also had several guest teachers and workshops, in subjects such as: Method Acting, Audition Technique, South African Theater, Mask Work, and Commedia dell’arte.

Since writing my original controversial post, about the reasons why professional programs aren’t worth it, I have learned that the USC MFA program has been completely revised. That’s fantastic! I never really wrote that post to dissuade actors from joining academic programs, or from getting their Masters, or going to USC. If those of you know that you MUST go into an MFA program to get into acting, then go for it! I did learn so much from my program. But I also feel that I learned more when I got out and started taking classes privately.

That being said, I certainly don’t want to dissuade people from graduate programs at Universities, as I really believe in academia, especially if you want to be a teacher or a professional actor in THEATER, such as actors on big stage productions in London or New York. And here I really want to stress, I never EVER meant to advise young High School students from going to College or University to get their Bachelors Degree. That is SO IMPORTANT! Even if you go back when you’re older. I think a college degree is the most important thing you can do for yourself, and it’s something no one can ever take away from you: KNOWLEDGE!

My intentions in writing the original post, was really advice for people who want to be professional actors in TV and Film, but who, (like me), wanted to become professional actors in Hollywood, but just didn’t know where to start: I was writing for people who are 22, out of college, or older, or kids who think they want to quit school altogether to join some other kind of big professional program.

Too often, we have artistic dreams that our parents don’t really understand; and for those of us who plan to try and work in Film and TV, this is a real and difficult journey – one about which we often know nothing. So many of us, who are talented and have this dream to act, we often have acted for many years, but we live in other states (outside of California) or even, we may live in other countries outside of the United States – but still, we dream of a career in Hollywood!

Joining a professional training program in Los Angeles, is something we can actually EXPLAIN to our parents. These kinds of programs look very good to them; our family's can understand them, and they’re often something that they will fund easily, even if they’re quite expensive! You come out with some kind of certificate or degree, and that looks good also. After all, it’s so much easier asking your mother or father for $30,000 a semester, to go to USC, asking them to pay your rent and all your bills, for two years, or for four years. It's much easier to ask for that than to say, “Hey Dad, could you loan me $120,000 for two years, and pay all my bills, oh, and that money will be going to fund an indie film my friend is producing, that I’m going to star in?! YEAH!” Get my point? Sadly, if you could put your money into something really great like that, you'd get recognized much faster than going to a two year graduate program ever would (my opinion here!)

Going to a big University BFA or MFA program, or getting into a big recognized program like ACT, or the New York Film Academy (the NYFA), may often be the only way we can get ourselves, and our lives and dreams, out into the crazy scene of Los Angeles or New York! It’s also an acceptable way for your family to understand your dreams, since getting into, and going to a prestigious program, gives family something to brag about and feel good about. We can certainly understand that, can’t we? It also seems like a safer way for their darling child (who’s no longer that young!) to move to a big strange city. Right? So give your parents a break if you’re wanting to move to LA, but they won’t let you unless you’re a part of a big program. But you might also want to have them read some of my posts before you do so. My (sad) feeling is that no acting degree will open one single door, unless maybe it's a degree from Yale Drama School, or RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) -- and that's the truth!

If you decide to move to Los Angeles (or New York) to pursue your acting dreams, without any program you’re moving out there to attend, then people back home may not understand. You need to see this for what it is, and try to understand your parents’ point of view. They are just worried about you. You’d be going out to LA with nothing more than your car and your suitcase full of scripts and headshots! Please refer to my other posts about moving out to LA for advice on what you’d need money wise, and support wise, if this is what you intend to do. Any way you do it, it’s a difficult choice for your life, and one I wouldn’t take lightly.

Moving to Los Angeles is a very scary thing – especially for your family, or your worried mom! Making this choice on your own, lacks status. Big programs can give a family, and yourself, some status.

But your moving out to LA or NY, with no real plans that they can see (no website or brochure) can make any family fearful on your behalf. It’s an open-ended hero’s journey, in my opinion, one YOU, could be undertaking; and if you’re young, your family may think you’ve lost your mind! If you’re older too, your spouse or loved one, or even your kids, may also think you’ve lost your mind. Maybe you have! But isn’t that why you are an artist? To explore all of your dreams? Your friends and family just want you to be happy. But they also want you to eat, and they want to eat and be able to pay their bills too. Keep that in mind! You WILL need support at first, and lots of it, as well as lots of money, whatever you chose to do, whether it’s school or a program or just a private class. LA is VERY expensive (see my other post about cost!).

Moving to Los Angeles to pursue your acting career is a bold thing to do with your life, especially because you don’t really know what you’re doing, or how to achieve your dreams. Saying you want to at least “try” to become a professional actor in Film or Television, is akin to saying you want to be a brain surgeon or astronaut. But the sad truth about acting is that most people who get parts in films and television are either related to someone in the business, or just have incredibly amazing natural talent, or beauty. That’s the very sad truth.

Entering the city with the thought that you’re going there to “attend a professional training program” or an MFA in Acting program, or a BFA in acting program, at an excellent, top rated University or College, or an Accredited Acting Program, makes you, and your family and friends, feel like you’ve already half “made it”. It feels amazing when you’re accepted into one of these prestigious, competitive programs.

When I got into the USC MFA, back in 1989, I found out that 5,000 students applied, and that only 6, yes, 6, people were accepted! Just think what a star I already thought I was on the first day of school! I was a girl from Kansas City, who’d gotten my undergraduate degree from Grinnell College, in Anthropology no less! I was worldly, as I’d also lived in England while I was growing up, and I’d traveled extensively, so I wasn’t nervous about moving to LA. I wasn’t some dumb country bumpkin! But I wasn’t familiar with Los Angeles. I’d only gone there when I was a kid. I certainly knew nothing about being a professional actor in LA! That’s why I auditioned for all these training programs. I auditioned for Yale, Julliard, USC, Cal Arts, and University of Virginia. I got into Cal Arts, UVA, and USC. I went to USC because it was in the heart of Los Angeles, although I DID like Cal Arts (which is just north of LA). But Cal Arts seemed to “artsty”, more for performance artists, and I wanted something more “professional”. That’s why I picked USC.

Go back to my original post to find out what I thought about my time in my MFA program. I won’t go into the things I didn’t like about it. But I did want to say a few more words here about why I don’t really recommend professional training programs (that are so expensive, and also, take several years). Many of the things I don’t like about professional programs actually came from my time teaching in some – and the stories I’d heard from other acting friends of mine. Read on!

Once I became an actress, and then, later a filmmaker, I ended up teaching acting and filmmaking throughout all of my 30s. So I started seeing acting programs from the inside out. I learned first hand, what the programs really thought of their students, and I learned that these programs are big businesses! They are often set up to make money, and I learned that they make BIG MONEY! For example, one time, I found myself teaching one year at The New York Film Academy. There, I experienced some of the most talented and amazing acting and filmmaking students I’d ever met. I met students: kids and adults from all over the world who have since become great friends! I taught at the Burbank location, the one set on the side of Universal Studios. There, actors and actresses would come to enroll in week-long, two week long, month long, summer long, and multi-year programs. When I taught there, they didn’t have accreditation. I know now, that they now do have college accreditation. (I want to add that here. Perhaps their acting program got better later. I hope it did. I do know that their filmmaking longer programs are excellent, and in my opinion far better than NYU film school, called Tisch.)

What I want to say here is that I found the program acting teachers, on the most part, were pretty good. I also liked the fact that they would have all the acting students act in the student films: this way, the actors got to actually experience acting on film. It helped their acting style, and it was a busy, rich program.

My only issues with the program was really with the management of the school, not so much the teachers, although I did have a few things happen that weren’t good. I always felt that the Academy was a big ol’ money making machine! I also felt that some of the students there were sometimes mistreated by some of the teachers. One of my students was physically pushed out of his acting class, by his teacher, and the student came to me very upset. The management of the school did nothing. Not good. Another student experienced an extremely traumatic event, which I won’t go into here. But she was basically physically hurt by another student, and the “bad student”, a young boy, was just sent home, while the good student (a very young girl) was treated like it was no big deal. The police were involved, and it was a life shattering thing for this girl. This was during the summer camp acting program, and I often feel that unless you're sixteen or older, you shouldn't go to these overnight acting camps. But that's my personal feeling, as I've also known many young HS students who absolutely adored these summer camps at the Academy, so you can take what I'm saying here with a grain of salt. It's your call.

With the thing that happened with the young girl student that I taught in one of my classes: the staff was encouraged to keep the incident quiet, which in my mind, means they were worried that if the other students’ parents found out, then they’d pull their kids from the program. No one really helped this poor girl, but you can bet that I did! I ate lunch with her every day for two weeks, while none of the teachers in her other classes were even told what had happened to her. All of this kind of “mistreatment” of students, in my humble opinion, (and by the way, this kind of thing happens in all big programs), comes from the fact that this program, and others like it, was based on making money from the students. I had another terrible thing happen when I was at USC, where a student was singled out, and basically "psychoanalyzed" by her professor in front of the whole class, and she cried. But the good news is that this teacher was later let go. So the administration at USC took this very seriously. That was the right call.

There is nothing wrong with acting programs making money, since they are after all, businesses. But as I always say, beware of big programs where you have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars up front for year long programs, or for semester long programs. You can learn just as much from private weekly classes, and private teachers in LA as in the bigger more expensive groups; and you also can quit in the middle of the class if you don’t like the teacher. When you’ve invested your money into a bigger program, it makes it harder to quit in the middle, and that’s usually because you can’t get your money back, and so you might end up staying in a dysfunctional class when you should actually protect yourself and quit.

My biggest reason for writing any of these posts is to protect you. Getting into acting is hard enough. You don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to have people tear you down. You should only be taught by professionals who build you up. Getting into Hollywood is close to the hardest thing you'll ever do in your whole life. You need all the support you can get! You'll have enough hardship and rejection once you're out and about, auditioning. You don't need that in school!

Please go to Part 2, to see what I would recommend you doing, if you decide to NOT go into one of these bigger programs.

Thanks, and keep acting! You will find your way, I promise!

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