To Go To College Or Not To Go To College? That Is the Question! - Part 2

Okay, enough complaining about bigger training programs. The question you may be asking now is, “So if you don’t think I should go to a bigger program, then what should I do? I don’t want to waste my time or money! And I just don't know if I should go to college. Shouldn't I just start acting, and move to LA now?”

Well, getting a classic four-year college degree, from an excellent academic university is never wasting your time! In fact, when I think about it, I never ever cast an actor based on whether or not they had a degree from any kind of professional acting training program. Isn't that sad? I also noticed that, back when I was acting professionally, no one ever cared one bit that I had both a BA degree, and a Masters in Fine Arts in Acting, even thought I went to very prestigious colleges. It kind of broke my heart. I felt like I'd just wasted all this money to get my Masters. And that's why I always say, get your undergrad degree, then move to LA and start acting!

Yes, I do recommend some kind of college, and it doesn't have to be based on studying Theater or Acting. When I was directing films and producing them with my brother, filmmaker, Eric Tretbar, I was ALWAYS impressed when an actor actually had a real BA, that is, a four year, real college degree. It meant they could study and they could focus, and that they were bright and well educated.

But honestly, either way, degrees actually don’t mean a thing to casting directors, agents, or directors making films. All that really matters is talent and experience, that, and (sadly), looks. Sometimes it's not your good looks that gets you the part, it's your unique looks! Keep that in mind. Filmmakers are looking for "the person" who "is" that person, that looks and acts like that person, not for an actor who can "play" that person. Film is very different from theater. I actually had agent friend ask me recently if I knew of any red headed actors. He said commercials always need them. Isn't that odd? That's how the industry works! But if you're new, and untrained, I will say that it's always nice too to have something on your resume – as far as some classes, and some plays or films you’ve been in.

So keeping that in mind, the real question is, what do you want to do with your life, besides acting, or what are your interests, and what kind of person do you really want to be? Because acting, although it may be your passion, is also a very hard way to make a living. And so you better at least learn a few things about the world, or you'll just be another out of work actor with no idea about the world, who thinks that "chicken of the sea" is actually chicken! (Bad joke, so sorry!)

First and foremost, I really, really can not stress enough here that I think every single person in the whole world, (and that includes those of you who want to be a professional TV or Film actor or actress), should get a decent Liberal Arts college or university education if they have the chance! It’s never too late to go to college! Ever! Even if you are over 22.

I know it’s hard to think about taking four years out of your life to go to college, (or university, as you say in the UK) -- when you think that you should be acting immediately. You want to be the “hot young actor about town” right NOW, don’t you? Or you just want to move away from home, and be an adult, and get on with your life! Well let me give you the best advice anyone ever gave me: GET YOUR UNIVERSITY OR COLLEGE FOUR YEAR BACHELORS DEGREE! The life that you see in shows like, "The Hills", is fake, and totally made up! I would bet you a million dollars that most of the actors that you see on those shows, and on shows like, "High School Musical" are actually all over 25, even if they say they're 16, 18 or 19! And I'd bet most of them went to college or university!

You’re probably thinking, “Oh God Kirsten, you sound JUST LIKE MY MOM!” Well, I probably COULD be your mother (since I’m 42!) but remember, I’m NOT your mother. I’m a professional working woman who’s spent the last twenty years living and working in Hollywood, and also in London. I’ve done it all when it comes to this business. And I can tell you, it's HARD! I’ve acted professionally. Had some amazing agents. Been in a several commercials and films. Been in a ton of plays. Directed several plays. Produced indie films that were on TV, and over five hundred hours of professional TV programming, for American TV, and for British TV, and for the big screen! And I’ve won some big awards for the films I’ve made! I kind of know what I'm talking about.

On top of that, I’ve also taught. Why? Well, because I love to inspire people. But I've also taught because I've found it hard to make a living wage doing nothing but film and theater and acting. So I've taught. Luckily for me, I've found that I like teaching as much as I like doing the actual acting thing, or the directing thing.

This allows me to do my creative projects (as you all know, I've just written a novel!) -- and it keeps me interested in all the subjects I love so much. At this point in my life, I don't consider this a "fall back" career, I consider it a rich and varied career, and it keeps my bills paid, and my creative inner self fulfilled and inspired!

I’ve taught Anthropology and Filmmaking classes at Grinnell College (a very difficult school to get into by the way, and one that’s pretty hard to get hired to teach at as well! – and something I couldn’t have done without a degree.) I’ve also taught acting all over LA, even at those crazy professional training programs; and then, of course, I’ve taught acting at my own school, my private professional class, which wasn’t too expensive (under the title of The Acting Room!) If I still lived in LA, I'd keep teaching there, and so I'm sorry I don't, but maybe I will again some day. I'll keep you posted.

However, at this point in my career, I now like to spend lots of my life trying to advise students and younger people about how to get into their artistic careers and how to pursue their dreams, and their “bliss”. The reason I love giving this advice, is that I never myself had a mentor, really. I always wanted advice from someone who was older, but cool and realistic, who’d “gone for it” like I was planning to do, in the acting world; someone who could help me not look like an idiot while I was trying to do all of this! I never really had a mentor. So that’s why I want to help you now.

When my own mother, Kathy, a college professor herself, told me that I should get a Liberal Arts education, in my undergraduate college (or university) years, and she recommended me NOT getting a major in theater, I actually listened; and I’m glad now that I did. This kind of Liberal Arts degree, called a BA in Liberal Arts (Liberal Arts include studies such as: English, History, Sociology, Psychology, Art History, Political Science, Anthropology, Philosophy, Languages) will help you get jobs while you’re trying to support yourself as you go out on auditions. I even recommend a BA in Theater, over a BFA in Theater (I will go into that later), because it's a broader degree, and you learn more about every kind of subject, and not just theater.

A Bachelors of Arts, in some Liberal Arts subject, will help you understand History, and Culture, and human behavior. It’s made me a much better actor, writer, producer, and director! It’s also made me a better, smarter person as a whole. There is no way I could have had the career in Film and Television that I’ve had without my undergraduate college degree. I just wouldn’t have been smart enough to do the work required of me. There’s certainly no way I could have become the documentary filmmaker I ended up being for the BBC, and there’s no way I could have made my award winning film, ZENITH, which aired on NBC (yes, I’m bragging here to inspire you!) – if I had never gone to college, or if I had only gone and gotten a BFA in acting. No way! So I ended up getting my BA in Cultural Anthropology, and I loved studying cultures! By the way, I highly recommend my Alma Mater, the school I went to for college: Grinnell College. Check it out if you have time! It’s hard to get into, but amazing if you can go!

I also want to add here, that my choice of majors and my choice of schools wasn't a quick or easy one. I started out going to Washington University, in St. Louis. Then I took a semester off of that school and went to a Junior College here in Kansas City, because I thought I wanted to be a doctor! Then I went back to Wash U. Then I took another semester off and traveled all over England studying Literary sites! And THEN I transferred to Grinnell College. I add all this here to let you know that no one really has a clue what they're doing when they're 18 to 21! So don't beat yourself up if you feel like you're the only one in the world that keeps changing majors and schools. It's pretty normal, and it probably means you're just searching for the right fit for YOU.

BFA acting programs are fun, but you don’t learn the depths of other kinds of classes that a BA (or even a BS program) would teach you. A BFA program is like an MFA program, only it’s the four-year undergraduate program, that you start out of High School, and you come out with four years of strictly performance based studies. It’s an “art” degree. You are not expected to learn other things like History, Anthropology, English, Literature, Foreign Languages, Science, Psychology, or anything else, like learning how to write! And you can not go into any Masters or Doctoral programs with only a BFA degree. It limits you. It’s called a “final” degree. And you never want to limit yourself.

For example, if you wanted to teach at a public high school, and you only had a BFA degree, you’d have to go back to college (or university) -- quite possibly for about three or more years, just to get the extra classes you’d already have if you had a BA degree. It’s my opinion that a BFA degree is fun, and certainly challenging and inspirational, but it doesn’t help you develop into a multi-layered, well-educated actor. I’m sorry if this offends or hurts some really talented actors out there who love their BFA programs, because I know that for some kids, who HATE academia, maybe a BFA program is the best fit for them. Maybe it is good for some people, but it's just not what I would recommend if you have a choice.

I seriously feel that, if you have a choice right now, it’s so important to use your four college years, age 18 to 21 – or even later if you choose to go back -- to learn about the world, in all its guises, and about you, and to challenge your brain! You have your whole life ahead of you to work like a maniac and get into Film and TV! If you can learn about History, Social History, Literature, Art History, and what makes the world go round (things like Political Science and Anthropology) you will be a much more rounded person. And you’ll also be smarter! Don’t you think being smarter is a wonderful goal to achieve? You may not always have your looks, or your acting career, but you CAN always have your brain and what you know.

I encourage everyone who comes to my bog to think about going to a four year college or university if they can afford it. I don’t encourage this just so you can think in terms of “having a fall back career” if acting doesn’t work out, I recommend this for the simple yet very important goal of becoming a whole, educated adult person in the world. You need to be smart. You need to know how to write and think and understand the complexities of the world.

Going to college, and getting a Liberal Arts degree, will take your acting to a whole new level. And during this time, you can still be in all the college plays, or take private acting classes in the city in which you live. Then when you’re a few years older, 21 at most, take your lovely wonderful self out to Los Angeles, or to New York, or London, or any other big city that has an acting scene, and GO FOR IT! Once you get there, get into a bunch of private weekly classes, and learn from the other actors you’ll meet there exactly what you should do. I also recommend weekend workshops. They won’t drain your bank account, and you won’t lose much money if you end up not liking the teacher, or if you decide to quit.

As always, I send you all my encouragement, my respect, and my gratitude during this holiday season! Thank you so much for coming to my blog! It means the world to me that you are searching for answers, and that you’re coming to me for help! I wish each one of you peace, health, and success! Here’s to a wonderful New Year!

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