“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.
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.
I’m not fond of early 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 that would emerge had they time to explore.
Whether or not you study acting, I want to make a pitch for a broader liberal arts education as a practical choice for aspiring actors. It’s a great prep for any mode of professional acting (especially if the drama 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 paying tens of thousands for a degree in Underwater Basketweaving?” (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 sang, performed, wrote a lot of papers as well as live performance pieces, and even composed a full-length musical. I wasn’t trying to become an actor, even though I was performing a lot.
My major was in Philosophy, even though I had no desire to teach or become a professional philosopher (whatever that is). It wasn’t that I thought I was great at it or that I expected a career payoff. I just liked it. 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 just enjoyed the language and the access to philosophy, theater, movies and music it offered. I liked gaining another perspective.
My college experience was an enjoyable feast for me, but I lacked a larger post-graduation plan. In fact, I had no 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, perform on stage, think critically on my own and pursue my own curiosity. My stance towards the universe was open and essentially played out like an improv.
This lead me in many directions after graduating and continues to pay off in my life personally and professionally.
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 performing.
I was practiced at surfing my own weird wave, so to speak.
It turns out that most acting tends to select for a unique as opposed to a generic creative voice. My education afforded me access many voices within me, some dormant. The range of ideas and areas of study typically encountered in a liberal arts education- history, art, psychology, language, science, etc., provide a lifetime of content and context that any performer to 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, it turns out.
You don’t just analyze external events in school, you analyze words and meaning, you deconstruct society, you analyze the human condition. You make things- art, papers, performance. 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 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.
I see my liberal arts education as having provided me a sort of “swiss army knife” brain. I was open to try new things with confidence and navigate change and unexpected opportunity without fear upon graduating.
This is what my college education brought to 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 and what you know of the world.