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Experience vs. Sheepskin: Verdict?

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Experience vs. Sheepskin: Verdict?
Author's Note: I typed this tempestuous tome nearly a year ago, moments after the soon referenced incident occurred. Now that an opportunity has come for this to go live, I thought about editing my prior venom below. But that would not be honest nor fair to those who expect my candor. So here we go... warts and all.


I'm annoyed. Peeved at my younger self and irked by academia.

I was recently contacted by a performing arts school to teach a Business of Acting course. My credentials?

–  I teach a similar course to NYU-Tisch students.
–  I've spoken and taught master classes on the campuses of Yale, Temple, Elon, Northeastern, The University of the Arts, and numerous other training programs for performers.
–  I've worked on multiple Broadway productions.
–  I've been associated with film casting for 20th Century Fox.
–  I've toiled long nights and days for HBO multiple times.
–  I've been at the casting table for TV series for Carsey-Warner, CBS, and NBC.
–  I have numerous producers and regional theaters as clients.
–  I've directed at a Tony Award recognized regional theater.
–  And I've written a goddamn book about the Business of Acting that has been published by Random House and is presently being used by colleges and universities.

The interview with my prospective employer of academia was going smoother than this summary. But then came the question: "Did you go to college?" I replied truthfully: "No." To which I was informed that my lack of a certificate from a secondary institution of learning would prevent me from teaching at this particular school.

When I was younger I didn't have the grades nor the money for college. I made my journey the hard, old-fashion way: through work. That was my only choice.

I asked if the person who previously taught the Business of Acting course at this particular institution had been a published author, worked on Broadway, cast for major studios, and was a member of SDC like myself.  "No" was the reply.

Uh-huh. Ok. I get it. A college degree matters more than nearly 30 years of practical professional experience. Well, f@#k me.

I dedicated an extensive chapter to the subject of schooling in my book. I forewarned actors that without a B.A. or the bank-busting M.F.A., they would be penalized years later in their career.  Just use me as an example.

An actor cannot be an actor 24/7. One way for an actor to earn extra money—and get on a health insurance plan—is by teaching. Without the diploma you can teach at non-accredited studios and schools. No degree? No teach-ie at colleges and universities. (Unless a major exception is made by the hiring academics, which is rare. They only like inviting fellow members of the degree club to the faculty lounge.)

Lesson? Go to school, folks. Without the sheepskin, you're screwed if you want to teach at accredited schools later on.

Now to be an actor, do you need a degree? No. To be successful, must one have a framed document from an institution of learning validating your worth? Well, here's some parchment-less people whodidn't get complete degrees (meaning they dropped out) or never attended a secondary institution of learning:

–  Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft)
–  Halle Berry (actress)
–  Michael Dell (founder and CEO of Dell Computers)
–  Henry Ford (inventor, founder of Ford)
–  Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics)
–  Steven Spielberg (producer and director)
–  Hans Christian Anderson (author)
–  Rachael Ray (television host and author)
–  John D. Rockefeller (America's first billionaire)
–  Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook)
–  Ben Affleck (actor and screenwriter)
–  Woody Allen (screenwriter, playwright, director, producer and actor)
–  Andrew Jackson (U.S. President)

The list prior is just a small sampling of the successes of people who, without degrees or a history of academics beyond high school, went on to have notable careers and legacies.

Now, I'm not equating myself with them. But I do ponder this: If one of the group prior with lifelong expertise and practical experience (but no diploma) wanted to share their knowledge with others embarking on a similar career, would a college or university reject any one of these successful individuals from teaching on staff on their campuses?

Can you imagine a chair of political science addressing Andrew Jackson over a century ago: "I'm sorry sir. Without a college education, none of your employment history or experience as a congressman, army commander, military governor, and this nation's sixth Commander in Chief qualifies you to teach politics to our students. You need a degree for that."

I can easily envision such an occurrence today. Unless the school believes the non-accredited success to be a marketing coup for student recruitment, then suddenly an honorary degree is printed. Academia can be both coveting and whoring about who gets in the teacher's lounge and who doesn't. And it's not just the tenured that holds this snobbery.

Several years ago my agent—for my work as a director—got me two meetings with two separate regional theaters on the same day within an hour's driving distance of each other. One was a national leader in presenting musicals; the other a small stage tucked away in a town hall located on a very distant, winding back road.

The latter theater I had never heard of during my thirty years in the business. At the large venue with multi-million dollar budgets, there was no inquiry of my academic history. At the tiny-theater-in-Timbuktu, the producing artistic director soured and abruptly ended our meeting when he learned that I did not go to a college or university for my craft.

Back to the school that recently snubbed my experience for their want of a sheepskin stooge. As a parting gift, when I was sent on my way from the interview (held at a Starbucks, for Christ's sake), I was told that I could be invited to give a workshop or lecture to the same students I was not allowed to teach on a week-to-week basis.

Really? No f@#king comment.

'Nuff said.


Paul Russell's career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. He is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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