Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Drama School?

“Should I study at an acting conservatory if I want to be a voice actor?”

There is no one path to learning what you need to know to be an actor or even a voice actor. 

Some actors are “street trained,” getting their lessons  by “doing” rather than by “studying.” Others get focused artistic training at a drama school before hitting the “real world.”

Acting school (“conservatory”) means a few years of sheltered study at a college or university’s Theater Arts program. You graduate with a performing arts degree and hopefully a good grasp of stage acting, at least. An academically trained actor is learning skills that could get you work at a Shakespeare festival or perhaps Broadway, best case. It could also lead to work in academia or in local theater. You probably won’t receive a broad overview of the different ways an actor/ performer could earn a living.

Most who earn a degree in acting don’t go on to earn a living acting.

I also wouldn’t expect to learn the nuts and bolts of establishing and maintaining a life as an artistic entrepreneur from a conservatory education. These matters are left for later and may be seen as too mundane or practical to bother with.  An acting school may have “real world” guest actor lecturers on occasion, but acting school is otherwise a sheltered focus on the “art of acting.”

Since many seem to think they need to go to acting school if they want to become a voice actor, there are a number of potential disadvantages to starting down this path that I wanted to point out:

1. You’re probably not in for a “well-rounded” education. An acting conservatory may discourage or forbid study of other areas of learning that are deemed irrelevant or a distraction. It may have a level of focus that comes with the expense of blinders you may not want to wear just yet in life. Indeed, you may be passing up the only window you will have in life to try numerous subjects out for a few sheltered years.

2. Acting school can be very expensive. A student can graduate saddled with substantial debt. If you go to med school, you graduate with substantial debt into a career of high demand that typically is high paid. If you go to acting conservatory, you graduate into a career that is typically low demand and often impoverished.

3. An acting conservatory may teach a narrow or lopsided view of the performing arts while ignoring the “real world” business side of the career.  The student can graduate with little or no business sense and an inflexible idea of what being a performer can be.

4. Worse, the program may not be constructive or a positive experience. Some acting conservatories are overly competitive (they cut students who don’t make the grade) or they may have teachers who seem only able to break down students’ confidence, rather than build it up. I know actors who have endured all of this. Frankly, it crippled their love of performing irreparably. For some, competition inspires creativity. For others, high stakes competition in the arts- especially at an early age- can cripple creative growth and enthusiasm.

A young impressionable undergrad may not have the personal “armor” to withstand the stress or cut-throat culture of an acting conservatory. Some styles of acting are almost a kind of therapy that breaks down the performer emotionally and dredges up all sorts of demons so as to have these on tap for stage use.  A kid may not be ready to handle this.

If the student survives to graduation, they may be able to perform Shakespeare and Checkov, while being ill-equipped to thrive as an artistic entrepreneur in the modern entertainment market.

All that said, training of this type is probably is necessary if you are dead-set on a career as a stage actor. If you are “Broadway bound,” you will absolutely need the kind of “triple threat” training you can get at a good conservatory (a “triple threat” is actor-speak for someone who excels at acting, singing, and dancing). 

Yes, there are acting schools/ programs that may be well worth it, but if you are considering conservatory acting training, do your homework and make sure you know what you are getting for your time and money and confirm that the program offers what you need to pursue your career! Speak to alumni– ask lots of them about the current state of the school’s program– how it all runs and which teachers are great and which to avoid. Interview the profs and head of the department. Check out the program’s shows, sit in on classes. Check out any post-grad theater companies and see what work they do. What sort of real-world community and support is affiliated with the school after gradation, if any.

Drama school is a major investment and it deserves a close look before you leap! If a school or teacher has a problem with this amount of scrutiny, move on!

And don’t be swayed by the school’s press release either: A few super-stars on the school’s alumni roster or celebrity guest lecturers may not indicate the current program’s efficacy or the competency of its current teacher line up. What matters is who is teaching NOW and what their program offers you NOW. Also, consider that a really talented graduate of their program could well have it “hit it big” no matter where they studied!

All these considerations aside, formal acting training often yields a performer whose style is, well, more “formal.” A performer who is trained in the improvisational realm of standup/improv/music, etc. often has a “looser” more natural style of performing (though perhaps lacking a broader grasp of their acting abilities). A drama school grad may be able to read a paragraph trippingly off the tongue, but the speech is too precise to sound “real” in a V.O. session. Not that this adjustment can’t be learned, but it can be a hindrance.

I believe a good education IS worth the time and money. If you love acting- especially stage acting- and want that training and can afford it at a good school, knock yourself out. But weigh the advantages and disadvantages of specializing early at an expensive acting conservatory if voice acting is your focus.

Other more time- and cost-effective paths are open to you if voice acting is your goal.

2 Responses »

  1. Number 4 is spot on!!! I went through this very situation, the group of teachers that possessed the Theater Department were borderline mentally abusive to all who dare get an education. I sometimes feel repulsed when I think about getting on a stage. Hoping Voice Acting will be a more constructive way of expressing myself and being creative.

  2. I trained as an actor at the Royal Central School Of Speech And Drama in London, and have been a professional voice actor for eleven years. And I can tell you you’re comments are bang-on.

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