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The Working Actor

College Counterpoint

College Counterpoint
Dear Jackie:

I think the response to Julian in the March 5 issue, discussing whether to go to college or directly into acting, missed the mark.

First, if the question is whether to go to college at all, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Statistics are quite clear about this. The lifetime earning power of someone with a bachelor's degree vastly outstrips that of someone with only a high school diploma or an associate degree, and I have experience with people who had admirable résumés yet, after 25 years of distinction in the working world, found themselves unable to get raises (or even employment) because they didn't have a bachelor's degree.

If the question is whether to go to school now or wait until later, it depends on your relationship to education after finishing high school. If you're simply 'through with school' for now, a year off in the real world, if for no other reason than to decompress and regroup, is a good idea. However, if you're on the fence about whether to head to work or to college, I would recommend some form of schooling, even community college, because like acting, scholarship is a craft and continued practice is essential. And schools usually provide their own opportunities for actors. Yes, they're different from those in the real world, but you may also get a chance to perform roles or do shows that you wouldn't in the professional industry.

Finally, whereas the real world excels in providing a practical education, the academy provides you with analytical skills that will themselves open doors for you. My wife is currently trying to break into voiceovers, and she finds that approaching commercial copy is greatly facilitated by the techniques she learned to analyze Shakespeare.

College may not teach you how to act, but it will teach you how to think and give you a deeper understanding of culture, history, and literature, all of which are essential to understanding how and why drama works. As Jane Levin, a faculty member at Yale University, says of a liberal arts education, 'What could be more ultimately useful than to have some understanding of the nature of human life?'

-- Robert Parker, Pasadena, Calif.

Dear Robert:

You make some great points. To be clear, the letter you refer to was answered by my colleague, Michael Kostroff, who stated very plainly that there is no right answer to the question of whether to pursue a degree. Over the years, I have written extensively on the topic of acting education, both undergraduate and graduate, but let me recap some of my most fervent beliefs.

For starters, I agree that skipping an undergraduate education to head straight into acting is a mistake. While undergraduate acting training tends to be lacking, it's foolish to assume that people know what they want to do with the rest of their lives at 17 or 18 years old. I'm sorry if I'm offending the teenage actors out there, but making a life choice as large as this one is something to be undertaken with care and gravity -- and a few more years on the planet.

While Michael spoke of acting as a calling, I'm more measured in my view. Acting is a vocation. Yes, actors are passionate about acting, and it can be an art, but as someone who was a teenage actor, sure of my desires at 17, I can tell you I had no earthly idea what I was getting myself into. Do I regret my path? Not at all. But I am very, very glad I went to college. I was lucky enough to attend a school with a fantastic undergraduate acting program -- they exist -- but I also had the opportunity to expand my horizons beyond that narrow focus. I studied Zen, astronomy, sociology, poetry, literature, philosophy, and the environment. What actor wouldn't benefit from those pursuits? To play a human being, we must understand the world around us. College can offer important insights to that end.

I also agree that taking a year or two off before heading to college can sometimes prove useful for those who need a break. I especially recommend this to college grads thinking about graduate school. Working for a while in Los Angeles or New York -- or wherever you are -- can give you a real sense of where to place your focus as you pursue your training. I attended grad school, and although it didn't give me a major leg up in my career directly, I benefit indirectly from my MFA on a frequent basis. I also landed my first agent and first New York acting gig from my graduate school showcase -- very helpful.

No single road works for everyone, but I believe the larger issue here may be that there are many, many perfectly good roads that most of us could benefit from. While jumping straight into the talent pool at 18 might work for some, attending a reputable college wouldn't hurt them either. Grad school gives you uninterrupted time to focus on your craft, but it keeps you out of the market for three years. Booking one job keeps you from auditioning for many others -- and so on. Any step we take opens several doors just as it shuts others. Michael and I have different perspectives on this precisely because we have taken differing steps.

After I got my MFA, I worked for a while, got married, had kids, and found I wanted to take a break from the audition grind to be home with them. While they're little, my MFA affords me the luxury of teaching at a university, among other things. My undergraduate training program hooked me up with the folks I do Shakespeare with every summer. Both programs taught me much about acting and life and introduced me to the people who continue to be my closest and dearest friends, as well as my husband. Who knows what that other me -- the one who didn't get an MFA -- would be doing now? And the me that skipped college altogether? Wow. I hope she's a huge indie film star in an alternate universe!

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