Who Should Go to Professional Acting Training Programs Vs Who Should Go to Smaller Group Classes

I get many emotional reactions to my post “The Seven Reasons Why Professional Acting Training Programs Simply Aren’t Worth It.” In fact, that one post alone gets about a thousand hits a month, and brings lots of traffic to this blog. That blows my mind. I never meant to be so controversial.

Heck, I have an MFA in Acting and there were many things I absolutely LOVED about my two year USC program. But after I got out of the program, I learned that I’d spent about $75,000 to go there, and I could have spent that much money putting a down payment on a house in LA, or even funded my own indie film. I could have taken ten years of private classes (on my own time and schedule) with the most famous acting coaches in the world!

I could have started acting the day I arrived in LA – at age 23; instead of having to wait two years to complete my degree – just to turn around and realize I was 25 and broke! All to say, I really DO have good intentions. There are MANY actors and actresses who I believe WOULD benefit immensely from a traditional University based, or Professional Actors Training Program. I just think it wasn’t the best choice for ME.

Through the years, I’ve had people thank me for saving their money and time. I’ve also had many angry comments stating that I have no clue what I’m talking about. Comments calling me names full of rage and fury. I also have many kind intentioned people write me to tell me about their fantastic professional training programs, with great teachers, wonderful contacts into the industry, and careers that have been made through going to such programs. If that’s you, well then, fantastic! I’m seriously, so happy for you. Tell us your stories, please, we all need the positive encouragement!

I have many thoughts on this, and I’d love to clarify a bit more. One thought I have is that many people read this one post I wrote, and don’t read any other posts on my site, posts that say, “You SHOULD go to College or University, and you SHOULD seek out a professional academic education if you are able.” I’ve been a college professor, and I love academia! It’s so important to get an education if you can. Don’t ever postpone your learning.

People tend to read that one post, and they don’t really understand why I wrote it, or what my motivation was. They may think I’m a very angry failed actress, who had some bad experiences in my MFA Acting Program, and am now using the Internet to spew my rage (or my personal vendetta) against such programs. My intentions are absolutely nothing of the sort.

What many people do not realize is that I also taught at such a professional program, but for ethical reasons, I try not to diss that particular program too much. I’ve seen these “money making” programs from the other side, and I’m trying to protect innocent actors who don’t know there are other options, from getting conned. In the end, it’s really up to you, and what you want for your career.

I recently received a great email from a London based well-known DJ/Musician who wants to get into acting. He wants to produce his own indie films too, and was wondering if he should take a year long acting program. He had read my post about the 7 reasons why you might not want to, and wanted more advice. Here is his email:

I was just reading your articles on 7 things against acting school. I'm in England and was considering going to a year long school, but now feel I can learn on the job. I have zero experience but am 41 y/o and have been a creative DJ / musician and music producer, and now have setup a production company to make several short films this year. So my question would be; would you recommend I just learn on the job? And then maybe go to a few 1 or 2 day workshops & learn with other actors as I go along?

– Chris

I have been trying to break down his question in reference to that older post. I realize that, much to everyone’s amazement, they may be surprised to learn I do not believe that EVERYONE should forget about going to a Professional Training Program. It’s just that they may not be for you.

So here’s a quick breakdown of who should and who should not go to such a program. I am not the final word on this of course, just one actress/acting teacher/filmmaker who’s been in the industry for twenty years. You can ignore this list if you want, and you can absolutely tell me why you think I’m wrong. I always welcome debate and friendly advice, stories, conversation, and thoughts.

Who SHOULD go to a Professional Acting Training Program:

  1. Actors who want to act in Theater.
  2. Actors moving to a new city, needing to quickly meet a new group of friends and colleagues in a quick and organized way.
  3. Actors who aren’t in a rush to get started in their careers.
  4. Actors who have the money to pay for such a program.
  5. Actors who like to immerse themselves in everything concerning acting for an intense, longer period of time.
  6. Actors who are younger, and need structure in their lives.
  7. Actors who are just starting out and don’t have any way to figure out how to start an acting career and just need total immersion.
  8. Actors who have the money to pay for such a program.
  9. Actors who want to act in Theater.
  10. Actors who won’t mind being locked into someone else’s schedule.
  11. Actors who don’t mind starting off their careers in debt, either to the bank, to a college loan department, or to their parents.
  12. Actors who might never want to produce their own projects.

Notice any themes here? Yes, I repeat myself for comic effect. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, just honest. Longer training programs lock you in and if you don’t like them, you’re often stuck, because you’ve already invested so much time and money into the program, that it becomes quite hard to quit.

Who SHOULD go to a Private Group Acting Class or Private Coach:

  1. Actors who have money but would rather put it into rent, a down payment on a house or condo, or cheaper private classes.
  2. Actors who are not moving to a new city or place, and already have a support structure in place.
  3. Actors who can’t afford a longer program.
  4. Actors who want to start NOW, get an agent, and go on auditions as soon as they get their headshots.
  5. Actors who can structure their own program by getting into several private classes, and don’t mind organizing their own program of study.
  6. Actors who are older, more sure about what they want to do.
  7. Actors who want to produce their own indie films or theater, and who chose to use the money they would have spent enrolling in long programs, on their films or plays.
  8. Actors who might even invest their money in indie films directed by other people, as a way to show case their talent (instead of showcasing their talent at a live, school sponsored theater showcase event).
  9. Actors who want to work on specific issues such as: Improv, Dialect/Voice Work, Movement Work, Auditioning, Sensory Work, Scene Study.
  10. Actors who know they only want to act in Film or TV.
  11. Actors who have a very specific look or style, either beauty-wise, or character type looks, who are easily cast because of their uniqueness.

Now, to address Chris’s email specifically. Chris is an experienced artist in the music world. He already understands how to market himself and his work, all things a talented working actor needs to know if he’s to be successful.

He’s in his 40s, and has a supportive structure where he lives, in the UK. He knows who he is and what he wants. He wants to produce his own films, and has set up a production company with talented friends who own cameras, editing equipment, and studio spaces. He’s not moving to LA from a tiny town in Alabama, at age 16. He lives in London, and has many friends and supporters who understand the acting scene there. In short, there’s no reason why he should enroll in a longer intensive program. He doesn’t need the degree. He doesn’t need much other than to quickly hone the craft and his talents.

If you look at my list, you can see why I would recommend that Chris does NOT get involved in a year long professional actors training program. Chris has everything going for him already. He can start writing scripts and producing them, and acting in them, immediately. He can take private classes in screenwriting, hire talented coaches, enroll in shorter group classes, and learn as he goes. He may not have any real experience acting, but I’m sure, as a DJ, he acts all the time. He’s probably been told, “Chris, you should act! You’re hilarious! You’re a natural!” that kind of thing.

I have an anecdote for you all here regarding someone like Chris. When I was auditioning for Drama School for MFA Acting Programs, when I went to audition for Yale, I had a very odd experience. I was kind of bragging to the head of the program that I had a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College, that I had a great education, and had acted in the leads of three plays a year since I was 16. The head of the program said, “We could care less what your pedigree is. Our best actor in our BFA program right now never even went to college, in fact, he’s been in prison before, and has a very complicated personal past. He had no prior experience and no academic background. He’s the best actor we’ve ever worked with!” I was totally stunned. What do you say to that? I mean, I was thinking, “You’re Yale! You should be obsessed with Academic credentials and you should be impressed by me!” My vanity bubble was popped and I can tell you, I felt like a complete loser.

It took me many years to realize what they were really talking about. I think what they really meant was, “Kid, if you’ve got it, you’ve got it!” Since I didn’t get into Yale, I assume I didn’t “have it!” That, and it’s a very competitive famous program, so I wasn’t too upset. A similar story surrounds my own husband, Ozzy Benn. Ozzy wasn’t an actor when I first met him. He is also from London, and although he had gone to a prestigious Boys’ School called Dulwich College, he never got the opportunity to go to University after High School. He had never acted a day in his life when I met him. With my prompting, he decided to get headshots. The next thing I know, he’s auditioning for indie films all over LA, and got booked as the lead in three! Then he gets a great agent, and gets SAG in about a week, after he books a major Fed-Ex commercial that went out during the Super Bowl. Agents were fighting to represent him, and I was thinking, “What?” I was a bit jealous and amazed, but this taught me a lesson. And that is what I said above, “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it!” Of course, Ozzy also had one of those natural talents. He just knew how to act. But that being said, he didn’t know HOW he was doing what he did. And so he ended up taking classes to hone his already natural skills.

With more of my prodding, he started taking private acting classes once a week with a great teacher in LA, as well as voice lessons with another private teacher – to work on his American accent and to help him learn how to enunciate better (he has a very strong Cockney sounding accent). He paid nothing CLOSE to what someone would have spent trying to get into a professional program. And he already, in about one year, had a very budding career.

Now, when I went to USC, I had never been to LA. I had no background in studying theater, as I was a major in Anthropology. I had financial backing from my parents to go to graduate school. But when I got out of my graduate program, I was totally broke. I was trying to pay my parents back for the tuition, and trying to pay my incredibly expensive rent, and I just felt like I could never get out of the hole. I had to work two full time jobs just to stay alive, while trying to go out on auditions. There was only one year when I had tons of work, and that was the year that I had financial support from someone else and didn’t have to work a day job, and I was able to work out at the gym four hours a day (seriously), when not going on auditions. You really have to have the time to totally devote your life to your acting career if you are going to be successful.

Then, I started getting into indie filmmaking. I started producing films for my brother, Eric Tretbar – rock and roll themed films we shot up in Minneapolis– one of which aired on the Sundance Channel and garnered Eric an Indie Spirit Award. (Check out Ozzy's hilarious acting in "Furry Creatures" clip on MySpace -- he's the one with the English Accent.) During this time, I had to hold down a full time job to keep paying my rent. And we were always looking for more money for Eric’s films. Years would go by while we tried to get funding for his films, years that could have been avoided had we spent money on them, instead of money on graduate school.

Now, no one told me that many actors get discovered by acting in indie films. That’s what happened with my husband Ozzy. Also, no one told me I’d be going to film festivals, watching really low budget indie films, and then calling up directors and casting people to find out who that “guy in that film X” at the film festival was, and how do I get him to come and audition for my brother’s film? Many of the actors in Eric’s films were cast from seeing them in indie films at film festivals. We NEVER called an actor to audition based on his training – only on his headshot, or through an agent’s recommendation.

My life would have been so much easier if I’d known that. I could have asked my parents to give me the money they put into my two year degree program, and then meet some great director (like my brother Eric) and I could have funded a short, or even a low budget indie feature – with the stipulation that they’d have to cast me as one of the main parts! That would have gotten me seen and given me a show reel. I could have also put some of that money into a down payment on a house or condo in LA, or just put it into rent for several years while I then only focused on my career – instead of working two full time jobs and not ever having enough time to work on my acting career. When people first move to LA, they don’t realize that they may actually be living there for the next twenty years. They think only of today. I woke up one day at age 38 and realized I’d been paying rent every month for sixteen years. At an average of $1000 a month, that’s $192,000 that I spent just to pay rent. CRAZY! Orson Wells had a famous quote about Hollywood and people who move there to get into the industry. It goes something like this, “Hollywood is a place where you sit down when you’re 20 and then you turn around, and get up out of your seat, and you realize you’re 65.” Meaning, it’s hard work. You may be in it for the long haul, so set yourself up right, financially, from the very beginning.

These are all topics that I really never addressed in my previous post “The Seven Reasons.” In that post, I only talk about the quality of programs being bad. The reason I spoke so much about that is; that I found I really had to retrain with a whole new teacher to tone down my acting style once I started audition for films and TV. I also found my new private classes to be of such a higher caliber, because not only were they full of real, sometimes famous, working actors, they were also paid on a month to month basis -- so the teacher had to try harder too – because if we didn’t like her teaching, we’d quit. That’s not so in a bigger longer program. Many of those teachers are Tenured, and so if you get a teacher that isn’t very good, or unethical, or abusive, you’re pretty much stuck with them for the duration of that class or program.

Now, not to diss those types of programs too much. I did get the chance to audition for many casting directors when I got out of USC. But most of those auditions were due to my own legwork. Perhaps the USC degree opened the door in the first place, but unfortunately, many casting directors said my acting style was too broad. Once I retrained, I eventually got more parts. But that took another year or so to set in, years while you’re young and energetic when you really want to be acting.

I also say above in the last list, that if you have a unique look, you might not want to get hooked into a longer program. The reason I say this relates back to my husband Ozzy. He is very unique, has a rocker dude kind of edgy funky look, and has a really unique voice and style. For that reason, he got cast almost every time he went on an audition even though he had no training or experience. What old school programs don’t tell you is that in film and television, they really do cast you by type, and only by type. It doesn’t matter if you are the best actress in the entire world, it doesn’t matter if you went to Yale, or RADA, or any other prestigious program. If you don’t look right for the part, you’re not going to get it.

That being said, I can argue in favor of academic programs too, in certain circumstances. I truly believe that professional programs can be great. Many are gearing their classes more toward TV and Film acting, and many have really revamped them in the last few years.

My biggest advice to you is to look at your financial standing, your motivations, your time issues, and your future plans, before you lock yourself into longer programs. And if you love academia, and may want to be a professional acting professor sometime in the future, then maybe you should go to a longer academic program. It’s your life. Just do your research, and stay true to yourself.

Hope this helps, and keep on acting!

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