The school year has come to a close, graduation ceremonies have taken place, and many former high school seniors are preparing for the next stage in their life: college. And for students who want to study acting, that next stage is a literal one.
However, college acting and musical theater programs have become more competitive than ever. For “top-tier” programs, hundreds—if not thousands—of applicants audition for what are only a few select slots into their BFA or conservatory program. This competitiveness means the odds are menacing. And while there are a few lucky individuals who get into their top choice acting school, there are many, many more who don’t.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re preparing to start school in the fall at a program that wasn’t your number one choice.
Know what you can—and can’t—control.
Undoubtedly, not getting into your dream school is a massive bummer. Allow yourself to feel upset and disappointed; it’s okay to feel that way. But also know that when programs choose future students, there are innumerable factors at play. College theater programs consider many dynamics and variables that are beyond the quality of your audition or even your application. It is possible to give a fantastic audition, have a stellar GPA, and still not get into your top program because the school might be looking for something else. The awareness of this reality is an important one to reckon with as it’s the same dynamic that will exist in every audition room and casting office for the rest of your career.
However, there are things in your control. Be honest with yourself; if there is room to grow, attack those growth points with attention. Treat people with respect and keep a creative attitude—this will always pay off. And always use whatever resources you have (time, energy, space) to do your best work as a committed artist.
Focus on developing discipline.
No training program can guarantee success. Theater is open-ended, fluid, and defies clear-set steps. Success is defined by the opportunities that arise, your access to those opportunities, and—here’s the most important part—your discipline. Use your time in college to develop habits of discipline. Discover which parts of the day you work best in and dedicate yourself during those times to reading, rehearsing, or running lines. Spend every free moment you have discovering a character and developing your craft. Learn how to pace yourself—understand that the prime hours of your day are in the classroom or the rehearsal hall, not at the all-nighter basement kegger. Eat well, exercise, get sleep, keep your instrument healthy. If you develop habits of discipline, you will be mentally and physically present to gain the most out of your training and you will be prepared to work professionally as an actor in an industry where self-discipline is, sadly, rare to find.
It doesn’t matter where you go to undergrad.
Here’s another secret. This one could get me in trouble, but I’m going to share it anyway because it’s true—the name of your school doesn’t really matter. Undeniably, you will make friends and network in college. Those friendships and networks might be stronger at schools where the other students are as serious as you are. However, on the whole, no casting director will ever ask or care about where you went to undergrad.
Find your community and your allies.
The essential ingredient for success in college is that you find a community of friends and teachers you trust, support you, and you support. These communities exist anywhere and everywhere—don’t close yourself off into thinking they only live in certain places.
Does your “B school” cost less than your “A school?” If so, you made a good choice.
Very, very rarely does acting pay well. For the most part, if you are to pursue a life in the theater, you need to be prepared to live with financial nimbleness. This unfortunate fact is not a point of depression; it’s a point of education. According to the 2016/2017 Annual Report from Actors’ Equity, roughly 18,422 professional actors are working annually on an average of 16.4 weeks with 37 percent of Equity members earn between $1,000 and $5,000 annually; 31 percent earn between $5,000 and $15,000 annually. The less debt you have coming out of undergraduate education, the greater ability you have to have access to opportunities.
The sooner you acquaint yourself with challenges, the more mature of a professional you become.
Successful actors understand that the nature of life in the entertainment industry is one of frequent failure or rejection. Learn to embrace that rejection; allow it to be a moment of growth, perspective, or even a celebration of the fact that you’re human! The less stressed or thrown you are by inevitable challenges, failures, or rejections, the stronger you become as a professional. If you develop habits of coping well when things don’t go your way and making the most of the opportunities you have, you will have unlocked an essential viewpoint for success and sustainability as an actor.
It’s not where you go, it’s what you do.
Alex Ates is an actor (AEA), director, and certified theater educator. He is a contributing writer for Backstage and also freelances for Howlround and American Theatre. He is a member of the board of directors for the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) and is a company member of The NOLA Project.
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.
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