If someone is a natural performer who loves the idea of entertaining an audience, then that person may want to consider a career as a professional actor. Attending acting school and earning an acting degree is one way for a talented actor to sharpen skills and gain credibility in the acting industry. Here is a guide to acting school and acting degrees.
How to Decide Whether Acting School Is Worthwhile
Though it is possible for someone to become a successful and prominent actor without a degree in acting, drama, theater or film studies, many working actors with acting degrees say that their formal training made them more confident and competent in their profession, and they often are emphatic about being pleased with their career decision.
Lana Young, who received an M.A. degree in acting from Arts Educational Schools London in the United Kingdom – commonly known as ArtsEd – says her master’s program felt like “heaven.”
Young, who regularly appears on TV shows, enrolled in acting school in her early 30s after doing some amateur acting on the side while pursuing a career in finance. She became convinced that acting was her calling.
“I was a sponge and ready to go,” Young says. “It remains one of the best memories and experiences of my life so far.” Being trained as an actress increased her “self-esteem” as a performer, she says. “In order for me to feel confident to make the switch into acting as a career, I felt that training was necessary to show me how to take my craft to a deeper level.”
Some of the most prominent actors in the world are alumni of renowned acting schools. For instance, award-winning film stars Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett received Master of Fine Arts degrees in drama from the prestigious Yale School of Drama in Connecticut. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which has campuses in New York City and Los Angeles, is home to an acting program that has trained many acclaimed actors such as Spencer Tracy, Jessica Chastain and Danny Devito.
Although the most prominent actors are wealthy celebrities, many actors earn modest amounts from their performances, so it is common for them to supplement their income with money from other types of work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage among U.S. actors in May 2019 was $20.43.
Acting school faculty say that the desire to become rich and famous is not the right reason to pursue an acting degree. The most successful actors are often highly enterprising individuals who create their own performance opportunities by producing or directing their own projects, faculty say.
“To be an actor is to own your own business, and that business is yourself,” says Rachel Friedman, head of the Tisch Drama Office of Career Development and Alumni Engagement at New York University. “You are that business.”
Future actors need to be highly resilient and able to go to multiple auditions in a row, knowing that there is a chance of rejection but remaining steadfast in their efforts, according to experts on the acting industry.
Jennifer Chang, head of undergraduate acting in the department of theatre and dance at the University of California—San Diego, explains that acting can be an extraordinarily exciting career path and an especially challenging field.
“It is a business that can be the best job ever, and it can be the worst job ever. And it is not a business for the faint of heart … but it can be so incredibly rewarding to be a storyteller for a living,” she says.
Robert Hoyt, director of admissions and recruitment within the drama department at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, says prospective acting students should think carefully about why they want to pursue an acting degree and what they would like to contribute to the field. They should think about the “type of artist” they aspire to be and what kind of unique statement they want to make through their art, he says.
There are a variety of types of acting degree programs, including some where the vast majority of a student’s time is spent honing his or her artistic craft and others where a student has the option of taking classes in fields besides acting. Acting education is available at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
Experts warn that an acting degree, by itself, cannot guarantee a successful acting career, since excelling in the acting field is extremely challenging.
“Portfolios, headshots, and reels are absolute necessities in today’s acting market, regardless whether a performer also has a degree,” wrote Cie Peterson, an acting coach who has an M.A. in theater from CUNY—Hunter College in New York City and significant experience with acting and directing.
Actors typically need to prove themselves before they are able to secure representation from a talent agent, Peterson explained in an email. “Remember that agents only make money when their client makes money, so they are not inclined to represent someone who they don’t believe can do that, and nothing will convince them of your ability to do that more than having already proven you can.”
Performer and producer Lauren White, who played the character Lacey on the comedy sitcom “Parks and Recreation” and who also appeared on the TV show “House of Cards,” says non-degree acting classes can be helpful. “Any time you learn a new technique, skill or way of doing things, I’d say it’s valuable,” White wrote in an email. “Specifically, audition prep and technique classes, for film and television, can be extremely valuable.”
White suggests that actors wait to join an acting union until they’ve refined their skills sufficiently to qualify for high-caliber acting roles and their “craft is at that level,” since union acting roles tend to be more competitive than nonunion jobs.
What Acting Schools Are Like and How to Get Into One
Acting school alumni and faculty say that acting students at high-quality acting programs have the opportunity to network with influential people within the acting industry and learn from master actors. These students typically have numerous performance opportunities and many acting classes, including courses on the physical, vocal and psychological aspects of acting. Throughout the acting school curriculum, there are numerous lessons about how to understand and embody fictional characters in an authentic way, experts say.
Ursula Meyer, the head of graduate acting at UCSD, says that an acting degree program allows an actor to take bold risks as a performer in an environment where it is safe to experiment. Acting school provides an opportunity for artistic exploration and growth, she says. “There’s something about the time you take to see who you are as an actor and how you can best express that.”
Evan Yionoulis, the Richard Rodgers Dean and director of the drama division at the Julliard School in New York City, says that when she evaluates acting school applicants, she looks for “truthfulness” – a raw honesty that lies at the heart of their performance and makes their character seem like a real human being.
“When you see something, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s a person standing in front of me. That’s a person talking with their own voice, in their own body, actually speaking and putting action out into the world as a person,'” she says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”