I love the look on people’s faces when I tell them I have an MFA; they promptly ask me one of two questions: What is an MFA, or Why? If they decide to not ask any questions, they just blink a few times, nod their heads, and say, “Ooooh, how nice!” My own aunt even said to me, “But Alex, there are so many opportunities for women these days…you could even be a weather girl!” This comes from the woman who has her own master’s degree in education…
I understand their confusion. True, an MFA is not a requirement to act, neither is a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree, so why would someone dish out so much money and valuable time—that could be spent auditioning—to get a degree that isn’t a necessity? I had to ask myself this question when it came time for me to decide whether or not I wanted to apply to graduate school. In the end there were several factors that helped me determine that graduate school was the right path for me.
Disclaimer: If you do decide to apply to graduate school, make sure you apply to a school that is known for their graduate acting program. At the end of this article, I will list off what is considered by many in the business to be the top ten graduate acting programs. I am sure there are many other great programs that are not in the top ten however, having a reputable graduate school on your resume ensures that you will be receiving the best training, connections, and professional experience. Furthermore, going to a school in the top ten ensures that future employers will be aware of your level of training and expertise when they look at your resume. The following five points regarding the benefits of having a master’s degree apply to the programs that are in the top ten.
1. Quality of training
When it comes to training, no acting class or workshop you take can beat out the advantages of the variety of classes that are offered in graduate school programs, or the fact that you will be studying all day, every day. Furthermore, most acting classes that take place outside of a college or graduate program have students that are not serious actors; instead, they are professionals in other careers who are looking to improve their presence, skills in speaking in public, etc. Being in a graduate acting program allows you to be surrounded by like-minded individuals that you can grow and learn from throughout your years as classmates. Any program worth their salt will offer classes in several different acting techniques, voice, a variety of movement courses (fencing, acrobatics, ballet, jazz, etc), singing, bodywork, speech, and Shakespeare. Most programs will also have workshops on castings, cold reads, and audition preparation, as well as classes on how to navigate the acting business. The large variety of subjects ensures that you will reach your fullest potential.
The connections you make in graduate school—with your professors, visiting artists, and fellow students—are paramount when it comes to building a career. Hopefully your professors will be working professionally in the theatre world, whether it’s as actors, producers, directors, theater managers, etc. Having professors who are active in the artistic community guarantees that you are getting the most current information on all the happenings, deals, and trends in the business. I cannot tell you how many auditions and jobs I have received from casting directors based off of recommendations from teachers. Visiting artist and directors can also be an excellent source of future work; there have been several alumni from my program who, right after graduation, found work with past directors and producers who have done temporary work at Harvard, whether as workshop leaders or visiting directors. Also, keep in mind that your classmates might one day be for whom you are auditioning; furthermore, alumni from your program will be out working and auditioning as well, and seeing as the acting community is quite small, those connections can be extremely important.
In addition, most graduate programs are affiliated with a professional acting company, allowing their students to interact with—and hopefully take classes and workshops from—top actors, playwrights, and directors. For example, Harvard is paired with the American Repertory Theater, one of the top three theaters in the country and led by the Tony award winning director Diane Paulus. While I was a student at Harvard, American Repertory Theater was commissioned by the Gershwin estate to reproduce Porgy and Bess; it starred Audra McDonald, was directed by Diane Paulus, with a book by Suzan Lori Parks, and it won several Tony Awards. This connection between Harvard and American Repertory Theater grants me the opportunity to be associated with two Tony award winners and a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Talk about an opportunity to make some great connections!
My grad program gave me the amazing experience of performing and studying at Stanislavski's theatre, The Moscow Art Theatre. Make sure your MFA experience gives you just as many incredible opportunities.
You can graduate from most master’s programs with your Equity card, something that can take years to earn in the acting world. In addition, most programs will offer their graduating class a showcase at the end of their time at the school, a chance to perform in front of casting directors and agents in New York and Los Angeles. Granted, you can audition for showcases or get a group of friends together and create your own; however, it is much more difficult to get a good caliber of agents and directors to come see a showcase that is put on by a group of actors than it is to get them to come to one hosted by a reputable graduate acting program.
4. Back-up Plan
With a master’s in theater you open up a myriad of career opportunities outside of acting. Teaching on a collegiate level, running a theater company, working in casting…the list goes on. Attending graduate school allows you the peace of mind of knowing that you can have a stable career with a steady income while still pursuing your passion of acting. Not to mention that you can still have a career in your chosen field. No offense towards any waiters out there—you guys bust your butts, and I have nothing but respect for all of you hard workers.
5. Advantage in Auditions
More than ever, theater companies are looking for actors with graduate degrees. I worked for a theater company in Los Angeles before graduating from University of Southern California, and sitting in on their auditions was an enlightening experience; whether or not an actor attended a graduate program spoke volumes in the eyes of the casting director and the producer. Hiring an actor with a master’s degree guaranteed the director that the actor knew how to project onstage, analyze a script, scan Shakespeare, move onstage with a knowledge of composition, and above all, had the dedication and drive to complete several years of rigorous training. True, casting directors in film look less at graduate training; however, most film actors start off on stage, and if you want a career on stage, obtaining a master’s degree is a good start.
All that being said, it is important to say that graduate programs are not for every actor. You have to be willing to commit two to four years of your life, six days a week, twelve hours a day, to training. This means picking up your life and moving to a different state, maybe even a different country like our program requires, and possibly putting relationships on hold. It is a large sacrifice, and it is up to each actor to determine whether or not the sacrifice is worth it. Graduate programs require 110% dedication, and believe me, it will forcibly take it from you if you do not offer it up willingly. However, if you put it all on the line and go into a program with an open mind, sensitive heart, and thick skin, the rewards can be monumental. I thank God everyday for the opportunity I had to study what I’m so passionate about, and that’s all I have to remember when I’m confronted by a shocked face and a questioning attitude when I describe my degree. After all, there are so many opportunities for women these days…I could even be a weather girl…but I prefer being an actress.
Tips on auditioning for a graduate degree:
-Get a coach, or at least have an acting teacher help you with your monologues. You have to have an outside eye: it is vital for your success.
-Know your type. They are trying to fit you within a company of actors, so the clearer you are in marketing yourself, the easier you make their job. Are you the leading lady, ingénue, character actor, villain? Have your friends and teachers help you out with this. What actors share your type? Once you determine this, look at their line of work and find material that will showcase your type and your strengths.
-Be confident! Don’t look at the process as facing a firing line of judgmental auditors; instead, look at it as an opportunity to show a group of people what you love to do. We have all seen performances where the performer is so nervous and unsure of themselves that it makes the audience nervous! Instead, go in with confidence that you are prepared and ready to allow the auditors to relax and enjoy their job, instead of feeling nervous for all the actors coming into the room. All of this, of course, rides on the fact that you must be prepared! The last thing you want to think when you go into a room is that you didn’t do all your homework.
-You will be nervous. There is no way around that. Acknowledge the nerves, and use them. In other words, find a way that your character might be nervous. Most monologues, or good monologues anyway, deal with a character who is tackling a pivotal moment in their lives; they are confessing their love, confronting an enemy, chasing an important opportunity…wouldn’t your character be nervous as well in these situations?
-Get moving. A few months before your audition tours, start doing a physical activity. Most programs have a call back process that will require you to think quickly on your feet, and your body needs to be acutely attuned and ready to act on quick impulses. Build up your movement vocabulary by taking classes in Pilates, dance, yoga, aerobics, anything! If you are already active, choose a different activity—anything to increase your movement palette. I trained for a half-marathon before my auditions, and it was a great way to not only relieve stress, but also get my body ready for anything the audition process might throw my way.
-Try again. You might have to audition several times before getting accepted. Do not let that stop you! I had a friend who auditioned for a top graduate school five times before being accepted. Look at each audition as a learning experience. What do you have to lose?
Top Ten Graduate Acting Programs, in no particular order (courtesy of mfaactor.com):
U of Delaware’s PTTP
Other great and reputable programs not in the top ten:
DePaul University of Delaware, UMKC, CalArts, University of Southern California, University of California Los Angeles
Some things to consider when comparing graduate programs (courtesy of mfaactor.com):
Recommended reading to prepare for the audition process:
-Acting is a Job: Real-Life Lessons about the Acting Business by Jason Pugatch
-Audition by Michael Shurtleff
-Auditioning on Camera by Joseph Hacker
This book deals a lot with on camera auditions, but you can still use these incredibly helpful hints for graduate auditions. Joseph Hacker was one of my professors at USC, and I found his teachings invaluable to me when I went through my audition process.
-Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting by Moni Yakim
-The Expressive Body: Physical Characterization for the Actor by David Alberts
-The Stanislavsky trilogy: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role
-The website mfaactor.com is an incredible source that is loaded with information on different schools and tips on the audition process.
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You are probably wondering this blog is about. Well, it's about anything that everything that I find inspiring, helpful, and curiosity building.
Curiosity is my favorite state of being, and I've become a treasure hunter and a trash hoarder, collecting all sorts of articles, artwork, and accessories that fuel my inspiration and creativity.
This will also be a place for me to document my life as an actor and coach in Los Angeles. If performing is your passion, I hope that this blog becomes a place for you to learn from my mistakes, grow from my accomplishments, laugh at my witless choices, and share in this crazy, unpredictable, beautiful, life in the arts.