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Backstage Experts

How To Know If Getting an MFA is Right for You

How To Know If Getting an MFA is Right for You

I recently got an e-mail from a young actor who just graduated from an acting conservatory program.

His e-mail: I read the marketing tip you wrote, and I think it was very wise. I appreciate your reaching out to young actors. As for me, I’m a talented and highly trained actor who recently toured with our school’s Shakespearian production. I won the graduating senior award for outstanding character development. I look forward to applying my craft and talent to obtain a highly successful career in New York where I’ll be re-locating next month.

My response: Great! Good luck.

A few months later, I sent him an e-mail with a marketing tip asking if he was thriving.

His response (3 months later): I’m here—barely and not thriving at all. I am struggling to balance my life—paying for rent, keeping a full-time bar job, taking classes—and trying to find the time to audition or even get auditions. How and where do you find them? It’s not what I expected.

My response: Hang in there. They call it “paying your dues.” What’s your plan?

His response: I don’t have one. SURVIVE. But my parents think I should go to grad school—Yale, Julliard, or NYU. Which is better? What should I do?

My response: You can tell your parents the following.

Grad school is an excellent idea for many reasons. If you want to teach later at the college level, you’ll need at the very least an MFA and a Phd. And it’s more good training, especially if you’re a character actor who will hit his stride a little later in life—then years of schooling, teaching, or working in another career is not a bad idea. You’ll also make good connections that will help to get work in all medias. Several classmates of mine from Carnegie Mellon and Yale became successful, and a lot of us got roles from their referrals.

Here are the downsides:

1. Time lost. However, grad school means time lost. If you want to work in TV and Film, your market is here and now. There are so many roles for younger actors, especially those who look like they’re in their teens or early 20s. But if you wait three or four years from now, you’ll be in the biggest demographic of actors—those in their late 20’s and 30’s. It’s very competitive. It’s not impossible, but it’ll be more challenging. The sooner you get your career started, the sooner you’ll become established. Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, James Spader, Jodie Foster are all good examples of the benefits of starting a career very young. It takes an average of three to five years just to start working somewhat regularly, with no guarantees, and 10 years to be at the top of your game.

2. Debt. The average debt incurred for graduate school is about $100,000.00+ which even with steady work can take you a decade or more to pay off. Unless your parents are fortunate enough to afford this, why put enormous stress on yourself having to pay an overwhelming debt or having to accept a fulltime office job or other career for a decade that prohibits you from auditioning or accepting the roles you do want. If your goal is to have a great career playing challenging roles with the highest level of talent, you have to be available for the auditions.

3. Agent Misperception. Agents don’t sign you because you have a MFA. It doesn’t hurt to impress them that you studied longer, but that’s NOT the only criteria. Neither is talent. It’s the whole package—personality, appearance, charm, talent, training, will power, marketing savvy, audition skills, marketability, castability, etc. If they can see that you can or are booking jobs immediately, they’ll be more interested in representing you!

4. Getting Hired. Producers and directors do not hire you because you have an MFA. The teenager with the dark hair who looks like Liev Schreiber’s son on “Ray Donovan”; the actor who has studied martial arts so he can play an action-adventure hero; or the guy who resembles a drug dealer/criminal is the actor who gets hired for that specific role. The girl who is “hot”, the quirky comedic sidekick, or the exotic Asian princess is hired because they are seeking exactly that. The MFA? Oh really? She has one? That’s nice!

A good alternative is to invest in the highest level of training. There are dozens of top acting studios and teachers out there that are less expensive than graduate school. You can also create marketing tools—lifestyle photos, sizzle reel, website—for a lower cost than tuition. Casting these days often requires seeing your work in a video or online before a final audition so you need updated tools. Find a mentor or marketing coach. Then make a marketing plan to market yourself consistently. Build a huge network of industry professionals who really know you and your work. Get a personal referral to a theater agent, a personal manager, and when the first sizeable role appears, hire a publicist to promote you. Total cost? A few thousand dollars—a very small investment to start a career that could establish you.

Every actor is unique, and every path is different. And all “types” are marketable. You can start an acting career at any time. But by getting excellent training and tools, creating a marketing plan, and finding a mentor to open doors, you’ll save years of struggle, tons of money, and get the career you want sooner rather than later. A graduate degree is a plus if your situation warrants getting one.

As the founder and executive director of The Actors's Market, Gwyn Gilliss provides free monthly info seminars, agent/casting director interview tele-seminars, weekly marketing tips, as well as many coaching programs to help actors break into both the NY and L.A. industries. Gwyn has tremendous success with her private career coaching clients. More than 90 percent get agent representation launching their careers with performances in feature films, Broadway productions, and Emmy-award-winning primetime TV series, such as "The Good Wife," "White Collar," "Grey's Anatomy," "NCIS," "House," "Law & Order," "30 Rock," "Criminal Minds."

Email her to request a free 15-minute career session:

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