“Should I get a college education?”
I’m ambivalent when an aspiring actor asks about getting conservatory training (an acting degree). Focused specialization when you are young may be right for some, but many working actors I know did not take this route and it may offer expensive blinders you may regret in addition to a substantial encumbrance of debt.
If you consider the bang-for-your-buck you get with an acting degree, remember that only a sliver of those who pay for it ever end up with acting careers. So a degree isn’t a guarantee of a career. Works for some, just not for most.
I’m not fond of early and narrow specialization, as many who are young and passionate about “The One Thing They Love” generally don’t yet know who they are or what they are really good at. They may waste a lot of time and money prematurely committing to what seems like “The One Thing,” when in fact they may end up passing up many alluring avenues of enrichment that would have emerged had they only taken time to explore their life a bit.
If you are one of the lucky few who have always known who you are and what you have to become, then hats off to ya.
Whether or not you choose to study acting formally, I want to make a pitch for a broader liberal arts education as a practical choice for aspiring actors (well, for anyone, really).
A liberal arts education is a great prep for any mode of professional acting (especially if the college’s Theater Department casts non-major students in shows). Non acting-focused study for an aspiring actor may seem counter intuitive. The argument against being essentially, “What practical use is there to a degree in Underwater Basket Weaving when you want a career in something else?” (Or some variation of that.)
My liberal arts education included classes in fine art, music, biology, German language, philosophy, psychology, religion and one theater class. I was a dabbler— all over the map. I sang, performed, wrote a lot of papers as well as live performance pieces, and even composed a full-length musical, which had nothing directly to do with my major. I wasn’t trying to become an actor, even though I was performing a lot. In fact, I didn’t view college as prep for a vocation at all, though it ultimately proved perhaps the best vocational prep I could have wished for.
College is a transformational moment in your life. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, you have a brief window to unfurl and pump up your wings so you are able to later fly. The exploration and enrichment provided by the smorgasboard of opportunity at college fills your wings.
My major was in Philosophy, even though I had no desire to teach or become a professional philosopher (whatever that means). I didn’t consider myself particularly gifted (See: My thesis) and I didn’t expect a direct career payoff. I just liked reading and writing and talking philosophy.
I also studied the German language for a few years as well and spent a year living in Germany on an exchange program, even though I had no desire to be a translator or teach German. I never took the language certification because…why? I just enjoyed the language and the access to philosophy, theater, movies and music it offered. I enjoyed gaining another perspective.
My college experience was an enjoyable feast for me, but I lacked a larger post-graduation plan. In fact, upon graduating, I had no aspirations or goals in life at all (ah, youth!).
So what was I left with upon graduating with my liberal arts college degree?
I graduated with a basic grasp of the “Western Tradition” from numerous angles (history, art, music, philosophy, theater, etc.). I also had a well ingrained habit of pursuing what I liked to do, rather than what I felt I was obligated to do. I wasn’t focused on any practical or monetary payoff. I emerged able to write well, analyze ideas, perform on stage, think critically and skeptically on my own. I was able to pursue my own curiosity. My stance towards the universe was open and essentially played out like an improv.
In short, I had a broad education that was for me a Swiss Army knife multi tool that I could apply any way I wanted. This readiness enabled me to nimbly move (or stumble) in many directions after graduating— to “go with the flow” while remaining active in my life’s navigation.
What at first glance may have seemed like a “wasted” or “impractical” five years of study, in fact continues to pay off in my life personally and professionally on a daily basis.
I can’t take credit for much of how well things have played out for me and my career (although I’d like to). I think there is a lot of luck involved in any life. But I will say that my broad exposure in college to many ideas and areas of interest and a habit of experimentation and trying what seemed fun was vital to my later ability to bring something that is uniquely mine to my acting, a career that chose me as much as I chose it, years after graduating college.
I was practiced at surfing my own weird wave, so to speak.
Professional creativity tends to select for a unique (as opposed to a generic) and confident creative voice. My education afforded me access to many voices within me, some dormant in my youth, some that have emerged as my life slowly decanted. This eventually led to a career uniquely suited to who I am, what I love and what I do well.
The range of ideas and verbal skills typically encountered in any liberal arts education- history, art, psychology, language, science, writing, etc., provide a lifetime of content and context that any performer can draw upon. My philosophical studies also help me daily with analysis of meaning, my German studies afforded me an awareness of grammar- all invaluable to an actor (and a voice actor), it turns out.
My German studies also enabled me to book the role of Klaus on “American Dad.” Thank god I studied German and not acting!
You don’t just analyze external events in school, you analyze words and meaning, you deconstruct society, you analyze the human condition, you inspect and explore your inner self. You make things- art, papers, performances. You explore and travel (hopefully). You compare narratives that you unpack, synthesize and reassemble. This is very much what an actor does.
An actor is like a lens that focuses the complex light of the interior and exterior world onto a stage or screen or microphone. If you’ve tasted and explored that world with your education, you have a more powerful and rich beam to shine.
My liberal arts education opened me up to trying new things with confidence. I was also able to more confidently navigate change and unexpected opportunity upon graduating.
One thing you can say for certain about The Future, is that it’s all about unexpected change and opportunity. All the rest is guesswork.
This is what my liberal arts education gave me. And it’s why I recommend that most young people finish studies through college, provided that kind of education is something that ignites your curiosity and connects you with a broader range of what you love doing, while expanding what you know of the world and who you are.