Don’t Stay in School

I’ve got quite a few friends in academia; serious artists, dedicated teachers, good people. So it bothers me sometimes that they’re involved in perpetrating a massive fraud against so many young actors.

I give a pass to the undergraduate teachers. Four years of college is not a bad way for people to spend some time and money practicing adulthood and theater is as good a thing to study as anything else. We’ve elevated a college degree into a baseline requirement to live a Successful Life, which it decidedly is not, but I enjoyed my four years on campus and it doesn’t seem to do much harm to the general population.

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RockwellIt’s graduate school where I draw the line. If you’re studying law, medicine, engineering or molecular bioplastic hydropoponomy, then by all means stay in school and hang a lot of letters after your name when you’re done. And here’s hoping they pay big money in your chosen field because that debt can be a mountain you’ll climb for years.

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But acting?

The cost of one year of grad school is enough to mount three full-scale kick-ass productions in any city in America or almost live for a year in New York. Multiply that by three and look hard at that figure. It’s going to be a long time and a lot of luck before you make that much money working in the theater.

But it’s not the money that’s important. Money comes and goes and goes and goes. It’s the time spent in a classroom that is the theft that can never be made good. And it’s those key years that are stolen, those precious years when you’re old enough to do things and still young enough to not know that some things are impossible so you go out and do them anyway. Instead, you stay in school and spend three more years under the dangerous influence of the belief system that whispers

Your elders know better, art can be graded, judgment is the end result of any artistic endeavor and must be accepted, theater belongs in a nice, clean building and is the province of the elite…”

And a thousand other soothing lies.

I’m not against education, not in any way. Learning is a religion in my family and teachers are the saints. But any honest theater educator will tell you that the best teachers are all dead. But you’re in luck. Because they wrote it all down. So sixty bucks in a used book store and a couple of hours a day seriously studying, which you can do in the morning or on the bus or at your shitty day job or instead of staring at a screen for a minute and you can get educated. Read Clurman and Meisner and Stanislavski and Meyerhold and Nemerovitch-Danchenko and Brecht and Artaud and Shaw. Read anything that has the word “theater” in its title. Read about commedia del arte and morality plays and Roman theater and Noh and street theater. And keep a book on psychology always going, Freud and Jung and Reich and all of them.

Now, reading is great. But acting is like boxing or piloting a plane or pick-pocketing: you have to actually do it over and over again before you’re any good at it. Which is the real argument against grad school. Instead of doing class projects, where the director is usually one of your teachers and your cast-mates are people you already know, get out there and audition. For everything. And if you don’t get cast, put up your own show. And keep doing that. Learn what it’s like to play for strangers and work with all kinds of people, geniuses, frauds, idiots, alcoholics, lunatics, holy men, hollow men, angels and trolls. Learn how to make it work when you don’t have enough time. Learn how to still have fun when there’s only one person sitting out there watching. Learn that you hate acting and get on with your life. Learn that you love it and have to do it until you die broke and uncelebrated. Learn your craft by practicing your craft.

The last argument I usually get when I talk about this with my academic friends is the networking one. “Grad school is a great place to get to know people who will go on to have careers and be able to hire you.” This is the most twisted bit of logic out there. In essence, the argument runs that you should spend a hundred thousand dollars and three years of your life to get to know potentially powerful people who might help you down the line. I’ve got a better idea. How about you identify the people you think are doing interesting work now, move to whatever city they’re working in and offer yourself as an unpaid assistant? Get a job doing something so you can pay rent and eat and study with that person. If they refuse the offer and won’t talk with you at all, then fuck them they’re probably not someone you want to study with anyway. Move on to the next. If they agree, then boom, you’ve met and learned from a “powerful person”. It took about three months and cost you nothing. Keep doing that and I guarantee you , if you’re any good it will lead to jobs.

So, grad school is a waste of time and money for an actor. But is it a fraud? That’s criminal behavior. I’m not sure, but I suspect an actual case can be made. Every time I see one of those big glossy ads for grad school in American Theater magazine, I think of it tagged and used as an exhibit for the prosecution. If an organization is implicitly promising you something in exchange for an enormous amount of money when they know that the promised thing is highly unlikely to ever be delivered unto you, well…? When an organization promises to give you the tools and techniques to get hired to do something when they know that the promised tools and techniques aren’t required to get the jobs, then…?

Think about three things:

1) The average unemployment rate of dues-paying union actors in America is somewhere around 80-95%. That’s the unemployment rate. So, no one’s working.

2) Those very few who are working make most of the money: These are the movie stars and a second and third tier of working film and television actors and Broadway regulars and a fourth very thin tier of established regional theater actors. Every big town has two or three. Now here’s where it gets interesting. Start with the movie stars. What grad school did Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Reese Witherspoon go to? Yeah. I’m not talking about how good you might think they are, I’m saying that they get paid to do what tens of thousands of young actors are paying to, ostensibly, learn how to do. A graduate degree in acting, unlike a graduate degree in engineering or biochemistry or just about any other discipline, seems to have very little influence in gaining employment in that field.

brando and monroe3) Now think about the Titans, those American actors who tower in our memories. Brando, Dean, Monroe, Stanwyck, Hagen, Stewart, Hepburn and Tracy. All of them stage and screen actors. Where did they study?

They studied onstage. They lived full, wild, interesting lives and brought that onstage. They had families and went to war (those who lived long enough), they held down other jobs, they borrowed money from their rich parents, they did a million bad shows and a few brilliant ones and they spent their lives working in the theater. Without an MFA among them.

I don’t want my academic friends to be facing charges. They’re good people and sometimes they hire me. My hands certainly aren’t clean here. So, I encourage them to think hard about what they’ve gotten themselves into and what they’re asking young actors to give in exchange for a dubious result.

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  • david braucher

    I’d add Spolins “Improvisation for the Theater” and both of Keith Johnstone’s books as essential. Wendy Smith’s “Real Life Drama”, too, and Brook’s “The Empty Space’,
    and Chekhov’s “To the Actor.” Email David Calvitto for his views on his three years with me improvising with “Good Clean Fun.” Sage advice, John. Waste time and money in
    grad school? While the competition is slugging away in the real world — two to three years ahead of you?

  • Becca

    Good article. Great read. What is your opinion/advice for people/actors who are interested in becoming teachers of acting/theatre on the college level – where an MFA, or MA or other “extensive” – i.e. Broadway-like credits are required to be hired to teach undergrads in theatre programs?
    Thanks,
    Becca

  • Definitely Spolin and Brook.The list goes on and it’s all there waiting. Becca, if your goal is to teach, then definitely get into academia as quickly as you can. It’s the same principle: the more time spent in a classroom, the better a teacher or student you’ll be. The more time spent onstage, the stronger a performer you’ll be.

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