The other side of the coin. A degree in acting.

Yesterday, I wrote a lengthy post about studying the humanities. Today, let’s puncture a myth, though.

A few years ago, I was in a production of the musical 1776 that included several young actors who were in high school or college. One of these young men (the show has a lot of men – they were the Founding Fathers, after all), who I shall call Oscar (because nobody his age is called Oscar any more), was studying at a local state university. He was a year away from graduation, and was very excited about getting his degree and starting his career. One night, during a break in rehearsal, I asked him what he was studying.

He seemed surprised. “Acting,” he told me.

I was surprised. I had been acting and directing for a few years at that point, and Oscar was the worst actor I’d ever seen. He still is. Nobody else is close. His line readings were wooden, he had no physicality at all (the fact that his character sat motionless in a chair for most of the show was fortuitous blocking indeed), and he absolutely could not look anyone in the eye. The director, the other actors, no one. Ever.

I recovered, though, and asked my follow up: “What are you planning on doing?”

Same answer, of course. “Acting,” Oscar told me proudly, “I’m going to be an actor. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. And once I have my bachelor’s degree in acting, I’ll be an actor.

I mumbled good luck to him and walked away, wondering how he’d made it to his senior year at a credible university without anyone telling him to reconsider his career choice. There was, to put it mildly, no way he would ever be a professional actor. Hell, he’d have trouble getting cast in amateur theater. (And I run into him now and then, and he’s done only a few plays since, in very small roles, none of them professional.)

So, potential actors, if you’re on your way to a bachelor’s degree in acting or performance, please know that in the cold, cruel world that awaits you, very few people with the power to cast you professionally will care. What they care about is skill, about work ethic, about passion… and whether you look the part and don’t have a funny-sounding voice. There are so many factors, and only rarely will your sheepskin from State U. matter.

Why bother then? Well, here’s why: Going to college to study anything — including theater — means you’ll be with dozens, even hundreds, of like-minded students, with whom you can share your ideas and your passion. There will be facilities, such as stages and black boxes and costume shops and workshops with tools and resources you don’t have and that are expensive to buy or rent yourself. There will be teachers, like me, who love theater and love sharing the joy of creating theater with students like you. And unless you’re planning on doing just one-person productions and turn the lights on yourself, it does help to have a lot of people around to make up a cast and crew.

Just don’t confuse the end result, your college degree, with a license to be an actor. You’re still going to have to prove yourself, over and over again, and the fact that you have a degree itself won’t be a big difference maker. But the work you did to get it will.

Author: Tom Kephart

Actor, director, writer. Social media guy. Higher ed drone. Sings for beer in karaoke bars.