SPOILER ALERT: Please discontinue reading if you think acting is luck of the draw and all about getting one hit in which you blow up. This post is not for you.
The top MFA programs are going tuition-free which is good news. The bad news is that the competition is ferocious. Yale, Juilliard, NYU have access and resources as a result of so many famous graduates who write checks to those schools on the regular. These institutions are known for producing, Oscar, Tony and Emmy winning actors and writers. What that means to the would-be MFA applicant is that, they are looking for students who are: 1. camera-ready commercial types (which in our industry means TV pretty able to play 16-25) or 2. folks who have prior training and/or professional work experience that demonstrates that this is going to be a person with a life-long career. In both cases, they are looking for applicants who they know will be working, wealthy actors who will support the school and heighten the school’s reputation. That support also allows them to provide you with amazing professional tools. These are the Ivy League of Acting programs.
If you look at a program in which, half of your graduating class is now teaching the technique you learned in school instead acting, there’s your first clue that this is not a competitive program. The folks that fall into category 2 have professional credits. If you have not worked as a union actor in a union house consistently, what you have is experience in is amature theatre. That will not cut it for grad school. Your competition are folks who graduated from Interlocken (the world’s premiere boarding Arts Academy), folks who’ve been acting in cities like Chicago where the quality of theatre rivals NYC, or folks who were the gifted BFA students at competitive programs like Carnegie Mellon. Your competition is composed of “already fierce” actors. They’re going to grad school to up their game (so they can move to TV, film, broadway), smooth out their technique so that they have a more glossy portfolio than their current one; make business connections and learn how to balance being an artist with being a business person. But make no mistake, these people are generally bad-ass actors already before they arrive at the first day of class.
I say this because, every year, I get a slew of requests from students who have taken one acting class in a small town or acting in non-professional theatre, telling me they are determined to go to grad school. My response is that if where you’ve been training and acting is not NYC, then it don’t count. If you’ve taken a couple of summer acting classes, that’s fine, you are totally on your way, but you are not a competitive MFA applicant. Not yet.
Folks who are on the agent, manager, casting directors A-lists have MFA’s. They have invested years of time and money to get them into those programs. You cannot compete with an actor who’s been working professionally in union houses for years. Acting makes you pay your dues one way or the other. My biggest recommendation is to turn off the TV and stop watching reality TV shows or listening to friends and family (who ain’t never acted professionally nowhere, no matter how well-intentioned they are) about having big dreams and luck. Your first step is to find a NYC studio (with a track record of getting folks into grad school) and spend a couple of years training there to learn how to really act. Then you can think about grad school. If, during those two years, you’re not in rehearsal at least four times a week and class at least 5 times a week, the training is wasting your time.
The second step is to find an actor who has a career you admire and ask to shadow them for a 3 month period, so you get a real clear sense of the level of performance and skill that is required. Or apprentice (work for free) at a professional union house in a non professional company to get experience and exposure to the professional theatre. Professional actors who work learn 10 pages of sides the night before an audition, actors who work read 80 page scripts 2-3 times per week. Actors who work have spent countless hours working for free to hone the craft, actors who work do warm-ups daily job or no job. They eat, shit and breath acting and there is nothing else to distract them because nothing else matters. Actors who work quit their day jobs, if they’re getting in the way of auditions. This mind-set is a requirement for grad school certainly and absolutely the reality of professional working actors. If you’re aspiring to become one, your life should already look like a professional actors life in terms of focus and commitment. I tell students these things and they don’t believe me which is sad. All professions require internships (working for free for several years), advanced degrees, etc. Acting for the length of your career has absolutely nothing to do with luck. It has to do with hard work and a clear understanding that it is a honorable, but challenging and time consuming profession. The key here is that it is a profession, a career. It is not a hobby, not an interest, not a part-time job, it is not even a job: It is a vocation.
Grad school is not the only way into the profession. You can hire private coaches and teachers to train you over a 3-4 year period of time. That means duplicating with private teachers the amount time and work that you would have put into grad school which is a 60 hour work week with shows at night. You have to mirror that in your private coaching. Because without actual performance experience, class room time is not enough. It means after you train with those teachers, you then need to spend 3-4 years of performing in professional theatre for free to learn how to apply what you’ve learned. Either way, baby, you got to pay the piper. So you might as well do it right.
“It takes 15 years to make a good actor,” said my acting teacher, Maggie Flannigan, the very first day of grad school. I watched my classmates groan and giggle. I just sat that thinking, I’ve already read the summer reading list and turned in essays…bring it on. I’m paying this woman a lot of money to teach me this craft. I made a pact with myself then and there as I looked around that classroom at all of my commercial-looking, blue-eyed, blond hair, skinny-as-a-penny pretty classmates and thought, I gotta work like there is no tomorrow. I gotta work like this is my vocation. So I shut my mouth and did everything that was asked of me without question, because that’s why you hire a master teacher. 15 years later, out a class of 17, 3 of us are still acting. I’m one of the three…and I’m writing, producing, acting and coaching the things that no one ever told me.
That ain’t luck, that’s a hard won reward that I treasure every morning as I warm up, sit down to write before I report to set or the theatre or that next audition or grant application. Every day, I re-commit myself to the artist’s life by doing the things that it demands. That’s the real gold at the end of the rainbow.
P.S. Now I could totally be wrong about all of this because I am a Capricorn and we have a strong tendency to think that anything that doesn’t require a LOT hard work is bullshit. So please keep that in mind. Caps love to work hard at things that scare us out of our comfort zones and have zero patience for whiners. Relentless hardwork: That’s where we get our self-esteem and sense of purpose. So know that my thinking could possibly be suspect, but that’s highly unlikely because Capricorns are also always right! Ha! LMAO…
You need to buy some hair, Ms Vassar Grad!August 6, 2013Grad School Professors: Now that shaved head may be cool for a director, Ms Vassar Grad, but you need to buy you some hair.
April grows an afro and buy extensions, voila. Locks down her back.
Fast forward: 6 months post grad school
Director L. Lee Kenneth Richardson casts April as Beneatha in “A Raisin in the Sun”. Immediately following the first table read, he pulls April aside and says,
L. Kenneth: I cannot stand afro wigs, they always look fake. Would you consider cutting your hair?
April: Are there clippers in the costume shop, I’ll do that shit my damn self. Point me to it!
L. Kenneth: Well, alright, an artiste for her craft! Ha!
Fast forward 8 months later on the set of Third Watch. Edward Allen Bernero, director and creator of the show casts April in a recurring and says,
Edward: “Come watch your scenes. Look at how the camera makes love to your face. Don’t ever grow hair, it’s perfect just like it is. You are who you are and that’s what the camera loves and if anybody tells you to grow hair, go tell them to go screw themselves.
April: Thank you, you rock!
Fast forward a few years. I have never to this day, booked any job with long hair, not even a bob. Every on-camera job (and almost every theatre job w/the exception of one) that I have booked or been offered was someone looking at my headshot with no hair or I went into the audition with no hair.
Tonite I had about a months growth of hair and was like, ugghh…it’s too hot, so I went in the bathroom and shaved my head bald, threw on a dress and went to a show…I got stopped in the street non-stop by 25 year old men wanting to chat me up and one woman grabbed her husband who was staring at me during the concert and then she sees me in the bathroom and says,
Woman w/the Stunned Husband: “Geez, i don’t know what you’re doing to my husband, geez.”
I’m sorta speechless, because I’m wondering why everybody is tripping. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, because I haven’t been on a date in bit, but tonite wow, it was my lucky night…and then I had an “aha” moment. I like “me” the most when I’m bald. It feels like me (low-maintenance, minimalist, sorta earthy beauty). When I have the long hair, I feel like I’m giving the world what it needs to be comfortable. And then I’m uber uncomfortable w/all the unwanted attention that is about some long hair as opposed to it being about me, my heart, my warmth, my laughter… I get it…I’m slow but I get it….aha!
To become something new, you must do something new…leaving the old behind….August 4, 2013“When you’re ready, the spirit takes you to the Door of Locks. There are one hundred identical locks on the door and while you’re standing there, trying to fathom it all, the spirit reaches into your heart and takes out a key and says, “Every lock leads to a different place that lives within you. Some are dark places, some are light places, some are full of struggle and sorrow while others will shower your days with joy. Choose a lock. The key will fit any one of the them. Choose where your heart needs to go. Choose.
And that is what you must do–choose. Now, some people are hasty, ignoring the spirit’s warning about the nature of the locks and thinking that since the locks all look the same, they’ll all be the same. And some people don’t ask for the lock they truly want because it’s high up in a corner of the door or too low to the ground and they don’t want to be inconveniencing the spirit and they figure a lock’s that’s easy to reach will do just as well.
But it won’t do and if you settle for what is easy instead of what you truly want, you may never discover the hope that lives in your heart. So choose wisely and you choose well and you pick the lock that matters the most to you at that moment. Then the spirit takes the key that was plucked from your heart and slips it into that lock.
It changes you. It doesn’t matter if you end up in a place you didn’t know existed or in the village where you’ve lived your whole life. It changes you—and you will never again see the world in quite the same way.”
—Anne Bishop, Elandar Story