I’m going to let you in on a little secret that very few people who went to an acting school and majored in it in college will tell you: it’s not all it’s chalked up to be.
When someone decides to focus their collegiate studies on theatre performance and acting, chances are they’ve heard things like Meryl Streep and Lupita Nyong’o studied acting in college and may God help us if we could all be as talented – so if they went and are that good, that means we’ll be too, right?
Most colleges will offer two sets of programs; BFA and BA. They’ll both start you on the same foundational level the first two years, and then BFA veers off into focusing on more classical styles while a BA focuses on the more contemporary side. The kicker begins when they try to tell you one is better and harder than the other. I was in the BFA program at a college in the Upper East Side (also attended by everyone from Andrew Rannells to Laverne Cox) and forced myself into one program to be “better” – which was a huge, blundering mistake.
By the time I got to my junior year, I wanted to rip at least the top three layers of my skin off on a daily basis.
The whole point of studying theatre and acting in college is, big picture, to become a more well-rounded artist.
Not only do you learn more about theatre history, different styles of performance and techniques, but also you learn how it all adds up today and how to apply it. While that doesn’t sound bad in theory, and it’s not, the negative side effects of a small school setting kick in pretty quickly. Environment, environment, environment.
While I can only speak on behalf of my experience, I first and foremost suggest you do your homework when looking. Above all else, if there’s nothing else you take away from this, look into different schools and do not put all of your eggs in one basket.
I went for an elite name and high price under the impression I’d like it more – I was also under the impression when I was four years old that I wanted to be a horse, so hindsight is twenty-twenty.
My junior year was spent in a period piece boned-corset, performing George Bernard Shaw and Ibsen pieces I would have rather lit myself on fire than emotionally connected to. The thing that suddenly became so transparent to me was that I was not a “classical” actor – and that was ok, to me, at least. While I looked at it as a learning and growth experience for figuring out who I was as an artist and what I did/did not like, my acting professor took it upon himself to publicly eviscerate my soul in every way.
When you go to an arts school, you should prepare yourself ahead of time that there will be at least one professor who plays favorites – yes, those student loans that will follow you for at least the next decade are paying for this. While even I could tell some of my classmates when we performed our scenes in front of each other couldn’t act out a charade at a cocktail party, he gushed over them. I personally heard everything from (actual quotes from professional collegiate acting professors I am not making up) “It’s a good thing you’re pretty because you have no talent” to “it’s probably time you find a new field.”
It’s not that they’d pull me to the side to quietly whisper it, or even call me into their office for a one-on-one kind of deal. It was borderline daily, and publicly in front of every single one of my peers. If you are not comfortable with the potential to have at least 5-10% of your soul die on a daily basis, acting school might not be for you.
It is not in any way, shape, or form the cute walking-musical that TV shows and movies make it out to be.
You and your closest friends will fight for the same role and you have to be ok with the outcome either way for years. It’s advertised as “training for the industry,” and while it is in many aspects, it’s also an over-priced theatre camp for adults with crippling vanity issues.
This would probably be the point in which at least a few of you reading this would be thinking to yourself that maybe it’s just that I am actually genuinely bad and blind to it while living under my comforting veil, and I wouldn’t blame you. I also started to think that after a certain point, and did genuinely consider leaving the arts altogether. I couldn’t financially afford the burden of the loans that school put on me, so I had to transfer my senior year. All of a sudden, I was the top of the top. (Refer back to: environment, environment, environment) I switched to a BA program for the sake of graduating in a timely fashion, and I would slap my past self in the mouth if I had the chance to get those three years back.
(SpongeBob “What I learned in Boating School Is…” voice) What I got out of acting school was something that words make difficult to nail down. While I used to go home crushed daily, retrospectively it’s pretty hard at this point to critique me in a way that will upset me. I am pretty emotionally well developed as a result. Can I stomach Chekhov? No, thanks for offering. Can I, however, direct a show, make a pretty good low-budget film and analyze media law (yes, you read that right) because I allowed myself to explore other venues? Yup! Of course, I learned about everything from Euripides to Meisner, but the biggest thing I took out of that entire situation was how to not stay down. (Chumbawumba reference, anybody?)
We had “juries” our sophomore year, which were basically trials where you and a scene partner perform in front of every single acting professor in the department and they collectively decide if they think you’re worth staying in the BFA program. I passed while my “more genuine” (my teeth are gritting while typing that) counterparts didn’t and yet I still got emotionally assaulted every single day.
The point being, I listened to myself above all else. I knew I wasn’t less of an actor for being a comedic actor, and I knew for damn sure I wasn’t less talented because of that either.
What I got out of acting school was myself. Be prepared to find out who you are even if you have to do it the hard way.
Just like good acting, in general, is knowing your environment, the same goes for acting school as well. Do what is best for you and you’ll get the best result out of it – and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Take a class at a public theatre instead, attend a local workshop instead, even HOLD a local workshop instead. It’s worth it when you stick to your identity and don’t let anyone force one on you that doesn’t feel right.
No curriculum makes you the best you, you do. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.
“It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley
Also by Katie Veneziano:
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