To get a theater degree or to not get a theater degree? That is the question…literally. This week our Backstage Experts tackle the inquiry: Does a college theater degree really matter to make it as an actor?
Here are several answers from industry professionals spanning different areas of this business to give you some perspective!
Joanne Baron, L.A.-based acting teacher
A college degree can give an actor a certain pedigree when it’s from a renowned school such as the Yale School of Drama. Previous graduates from a school like this who have become successful, as well as the school’s reputation for high-quality training, can impact the way an actor may be perceived within the industry. I recently heard one of my agents say that they always go to certain annual college showcases because they feel that these schools produce quality actors.
Personally, I have always thought that a college degree was more than the degree itself. It represents a time to mature and grow and take a variety of courses that enhance an actor’s skill set. I have also seen terrific actors who choose to train in professional acting schools while attending college, like combining a professional Meisner school while attending UCLA or NYU.
Paul Barry, L.A.-based acting teacher
There are thousands of terrific working actors who’ve found their own success by diving directly into the industry. However, avoiding institutionalized training is no guaranteed way to success either, since schools can offer incredible insight and industry contacts that you might find difficult to unearth otherwise.
Good theater training encourages you to develop stamina and discipline, discover an all-round love for ensemble work, and keep physically, vocally, mentally, and emotionally fit. Bad schools suck the money, confidence, and life force from you, leaving you a bitter, hollow shell of the actor you might otherwise have been. The chasm between the two types is vast. I have seen wonderful actors in poor schools crushed, and poor actors in wonderful schools elevated beyond my own expectations of their abilities.
Theater schools and other full-time acting programs should teach you a solid and broad understanding and appreciation of acting technique, whilst keeping your love of acting and exploration alive, otherwise you might as well dive straight into the industry and sink or swim on your own.
Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
Education is always important. The more you know…ya know? We should really be discussing the larger part of your question which is “make it.” What does that mean to you?
Cathryn Hartt, Dallas-based acting teacher
No way, José! What does matter is what they teach you there. I have a degree from Juilliard and it might look good on a résumé or get someone to take a more serious look at me, but I never got an acting job directly from it. However, what I learned there got me lots of work. It’s not like being a lawyer and having a Harvard degree. It does, however, help if you want to teach.
Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media
As an actor and entrepreneur, I can tell you that so many people just don’t have the confidence to put themselves out there without getting a certificate, degree, or even the approval of their coaches and teachers. I’m not sure where you are in your career or how old you are, so why don’t you try “faking it” by having the confidence that you are enough, have enough, do enough, etc.? Training is always great, but college is not 100 percent necessary. For proof, look at the plethora of thriving child/teen performers in all industries—theater, film/TV, music, dance, magic, circus...I could go on. You can also find “uneducated” talent of every age group who’ve made breakthrough debuts and continued with thriving careers. I’m more concerned that you have the skills to “make it” long-term. Sometimes a college program can set you up for adulthood with the life skills needed to survive in a city like New York or Los Angeles (and navigate success once it meets you). Break a leg!
Kate McClanaghan, Chicago-based casting director
First off, “making it,” in my estimation, is being a working actor who's making a steady, healthy living for 10 years or more. Does that require a degree? Doesn’t hurt. Honestly, the value of earning a theatre degree depends on the individual actor, as well as the specific acting program. Certainly the relationships forged are some of the most important of your professional career. Just as every talent has unique skill sets to be cultivated and explored, so too each acting program available at the collegiate level may (or may not) offer suitable training, encouragement, insights, and suitable acknowledgments of each individual actor’s greatest assets regardless of the cache attached to the sheepskin.
I think the really tough questions are: How driven are you? Do you demand the very best training? Do you know what it is you do best? Are you self-realized enough to know the difference between truly effective training that improves your value as a professional? Frankly, some kids never grow up, while others never leave academia. To each his own.
Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
It depends on what your definition of “making it” is. I think the value is immense if you want to be an acting teacher/professor or be involved in local theater. But getting a degree can also preclude a young actor from actually going out and working and learning on the job. So it’s not necessary to make it, but it’s not going to ruin your chances either. Everyone has their own path, but there is no gatekeeper who only lets actors with degrees “make it” in the industry. Industry folks care about actors being serious about their work, whatever form that may take.
Sara Mornell, L.A.-based acting coach
It does not. I have more actors working who have not gotten a BFA than those who have. I love working with trained actors and I see a difference, however, Hollywood doesn’t care as much. It could definitely help with getting representation, but I have seen more actors get representation without it as long as they know the business.
Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
Yes, you can definitely forge a successful, thriving career as an actor without a degree in theater—much the same as you can become a successful filmmaker without going to film school, or be a successful writer without a BA or MFA in creative writing. Institutions often struggle to bridge the gap between classic theater training and technique and preparing the actor for the styles and demands of an ever-changing film and TV industry. The trained actor will find they need to supplement their training with classes in multi- and single-camera sitcom technique, motion capture, self-taping, cold-reading, etc., in order to be competitive at the Olympic level of the industry.
That said, a theater degree is a truly special experience during one’s collegiate years, and is one which I would never trade for anything. It can offer a strong foundation, solid work ethic, and give precious hands-on experience in a fun and challenging environment with talented, like-minded individuals—people who can offer invaluable support and collaboration as you grow as an artist.
Jackie Reid, manager, owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
A college degree is a wonderful thing to have and I admire and respect anyone who has one! In the real world of acting though, a college theater degree does not determine whether or not you will be successful in the industry. There are many factors that go into “making it” in this industry. One factor is drive and determination—a willingness to let nothing stand in your way and the wherewithal to keep trying no matter how many times you hear the word no. You can take some wonderful classes with many different coaches at various acting schools which will teach you and help you grow—without the hefty price tag of a university degree. There’s also natural talent; I have had people come in the door with no lessons, no experience, nothing but a great attitude and a natural organic way of delivering lines that blew me away. Bottom line: Do what’s right for you. If a college theater degree makes you happy do it! Can’t hurt, might help!
Jessica R. Grosman, founder + artistic director of A Class Act NY
I certainly think it helps to go to a good program because agents and managers worth their salt go to the graduate showcases and they are actively seeking and scouting new talent. It doesn’t mean you can’t make it if you don’t go to a top school or even go to school, but it certainly gives you a leg up!
Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
A college theater program will give you the training and skills needed to excel as an actor. The right college theater program for you will give you a well-rounded education in speech, movement, acting technique, stagecraft, theater history and even learning how to navigate the business of show business. You can also choose to get that training outside of college without getting a degree in theater. Many well-known actors have “made it” in the business without a theater degree, but what they did get is proper training. The industry is looking for smart, well-rounded actors. Where you learn that is up to you.
Douglas Taurel, NYC-based actor-producer
In one word: no. Going to college doesn’t have a lick-of-beans worth of value when it comes to “making it as an actor.” As Tom Hanks says, “Your mailman can become a star tomorrow.” On the other hand, going to college—if you can afford it—does help you develop you as a person and that helps you as an actor. I was a double-major in college, business and theater, and I can say honestly that my business degree has had more impact in my acting career than my theater degree.
College has many values for you as person, but in how it prepares you for the real world of acting, I think there is not that much value. I believe that it is more important for an actor is do relevant training, reading, and traveling. You pull from these resources when you create your characters. If you have the money and can go, go, but if not, I would say go to L.A. and New York, train your ass off, and then go after your dreams. Break a leg!
Ben Whitehair, L.A.-based actor
Is a theater degree necessary in order to make it as an actor? No. Is the commitment, dedication, life experience, and maturity that is often gained by getting a college degree necessary to make it? Absolutely. I’ve dedicated a lot of my life to supporting higher education, and I’m extremely grateful for my college experience. And for actors I think college can be extremely valuable, though not so much because of a theater degree itself. It’s really about getting a life education, regardless of your degree. Heck, I think there’s a pretty argument that a business or marketing degree is more useful for an actor who wants to have a career. I also think a college degree makes it easier to find work that pays the bills while you’re establishing yourself as an actor. So if you’re deciding whether or not to get a theater degree, I suggest choosing from the perspective of your whole life, not just to get a theater degree.
The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.