College Program Guide

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Show Business looks at some of the top theater and drama programs in the country.

Unlike many youngsters who find themselves bitten by the acting bug at an early age, Penelope Lagos didn’t hop on the first bus to Los Angeles like some starry-eyed greenhorn out of a Guns N’ Roses video. Instead, the New Jersey-bred performer took the more practical route, earning a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Rutgers University. The decision, Lagos notes, not only broadened her options as a performing artist but also as a member of an increasingly competitive workforce.

“My education has allowed me to pursue acting full-time and make a living,” says Lagos, who splits her time between acting jobs and working as a tutor. “I am able to be flexible with my schedule, attend auditions regularly and be available when I do book an acting gig. Tutoring college-level English would not have been an option for me had I not gotten a college education.”

The thought of sitting in a classroom for the next few years may not immediately excite some eager performers who are hoping to rule the show business world by the time they reach their early 20s. After all, many well-known actors began racking up professional credits in their early teens or younger. Still, a look at the resumes of some of our most proficient contemporary thesps reveals that, like Lagos, these actors took the time to develop their skills in the classroom. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Julia Roberts attended the Actors Studio; Adrien Brody and Kim Cattrall studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The same holds true for stars of the small screen: Tina Fey has a BA in drama from the University of Virginia, while her “30 Rock” costar, Alec Baldwin, has one from NYU. The list goes on and on, but it doesn’t take long to get the idea.

Aim High, Stay Competitive

At a time when reality television has distilled the audition process, reducing it to a cheap ploy for ratings and an excuse to gather around the water cooler the next day, serious actors must work harder than ever to separate themselves from the herds of dilettantes who camp out at the Meadowlands for the latest “American Idol” cattle call. Having a BFA or MFA on your resume says to casting directors that you are dedicated enough to your craft to devote years of your life (and thousands of your parents’ hard-earned dollars) to studying it.

For actors looking to earn a BFA, New York is home to some of the most renowned undergraduate programs in the world. Consider, for instance, Five Towns College, which is located in Dix Hills on Long Island, 45 minutes from New York City. The school recently nabbed the American Theatre Museum’s Award for Excellence in Theatre Education. Jared Hershkowitz, head of the theater department, says, “Five Towns offers innovative and professional Bachelor of Fine Arts training in theater, musical theater and film.”

New York may be the theater capital of the world, but many schools across the country offer top-notch undergraduate programs for performing artists as well. From Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon to Chicago’s DePaul University to California’s Cal State Fullerton, future actors, writers and directors have virtually limitless choices. School administrators are quick to point out that where you begin your academic journey is one of the most important career-based decisions you’ll ever make, and each program’s unique offerings should be weighed carefully. Cal State Fullerton, for example, offers a first-class theater and dance department, according to author/professor Dr. Jim Volz, who teaches at the school. It also has the distinction of being a stone’s throw from the unrivaled entertainment Mecca that is Los Angeles. “We’re perfectly nestled in Orange County — between the mountains and the ocean and the myriad professional theaters, casting agents and Hollywood film companies that are so important to the working actor, director, designer or craftsperson,” says Volz.

Once you do earn your BFA, there’s no reason to stop there. These days, much of the academic community’s top brass believes that completing an MFA program will make entertainment professionals that much more competitive and that much more marketable. “The artist’s work produces civilization and culture, and the artist can do that better with the knowledge and craft from a graduate-level education,” says Andreas Manolikakis of the Actors Studio Drama School’s MFA program at Pace University. “Our unique program, in which actors, directors and playwrights train side-by-side for all three years of the MFA, gives each student a much broader view of the dramatic arts — and a much greater ability to function practically in all areas of the profession.”

Robert LuPone, director of the New School for Drama, adds, “I think it’s important to attend grad school because your competition is. In my day there was a BFA and that was enough. Now, in such a competitive industry, you need all the help you can get.”

Realistic Goals for a Realistic World

For performers who are just setting out on their path, the idea that you might actually not achieve superstardom is probably unthinkable. (Typically, artists don’t develop a healthy amount of cynicism until after the first two or three years of constant rejection.) Still, it’s never too soon to keep a fallback career in mind, and Lagos notes that college will equip you with the tools to do so. “The percentage of actors who make it big is slim, and being realistic about your career is important,” she says. “It’s always better to have more options than not enough.”

The same holds true for actors who may decide to pursue a career not just in the performing side of the arts, but also in arts education and even arts administration. Schools like the City University of New York, which runs the Creative Arts Team’s Paul A. Kaplan Center for Educational Drama, take this into consideration when preparing students for the future. Chris Vine, the academic director of the Creative Arts Team’s MA in Applied Theatre, says the program explores theater that addresses social and educational issues in a wide range of settings. “As more theater companies and education- and community-based organizations, both nationally and internationally, employ teaching artists and artist facilitators, this degree puts its students at the top of their game,” Vine adds. “It makes them appealing and qualified candidates for these selective positions. It opens up many more opportunities for theater professionals to use their skills in exciting and meaningful work across a wide range of different fields, such as arts education, health education, youth work, criminal justice and community development.”

Not for the Timid

To say that college is difficult may be overstating the obvious, but many young performers are not quite prepared, physically or emotionally, for the demanding schedule of a drama student. New York actor Ashley Wren Collins, who has an MFA from Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, recalls how some of her fellow students struggled with the challenging curricula of top-tier drama departments. “Many people do not like the experience,” Collins says. “Immersing yourself in acting every single hour of the day and every day of the week for two or three years is exhausting. It’s not for people with little patience or passion.”

But Collins is quick to add that, for her, the hard work and grueling schedules paid off. She has since gone on to work steadily as a professional actor, appearing in major films like Miramax’s “Kate and Leopold” and TV shows like “Sex and the City” and “One Life to Live.” She says the sense of community she discovered while in school has helped her along the way. “Never underestimate the power of your alma mater,” she adds.

Many school administrators echo Collins’s belief that attending a theater or drama college program will challenge students in ways they hadn’t considered. However, the skills students attain in college are not only worth it, they’re essential for developing a realistic view of the performing arts industry. The stereotype that acting is easy, or that an actor’s life consists of hanging around movie sets surrounded by a doting entourage and a cache of prescription pills, is quickly shattered. Students are equipped with the knowledge that acting is a tough life — for those who make it and those who don’t. With that in mind, Hershkowitz adds, the theater arts program at Five Towns does much more than prepare students for the life of an actor. “Our program balances artistry and performance with excellence in scholarship,” he says. “It provides integration of coursework, productions and additional activities, fostering creativity, critical thinking, quality and professionalism.”

Choose Wisely

With so many colleges to choose from, the idea of settling on one can be daunting. Actors and educators alike stress the importance of picking a school that suits your needs, both professionally and personally. “Where you choose to go to school is just as important as who you choose to surround yourself with,” says Collins, who chose U Penn because it offers a first-rate education within a close-knit community.

Conversely, choosing a school that is adjacent to a major entertainment hub can have its obvious advantages. “Because we are located in New York City, we have a faculty of working professionals,” says LuPone of the New School. “Our instructors bestow our students with experience and professionalism. Our artists graduate with an understanding of who they are and where they can fit in the industry, thanks to a professional development program that prepares the student for the profession as it exists today.”

On the West Coast, Volz, of CSU Fullerton, agrees that being situated near an entertainment hub can give students a tactical advantage that will carry over into their professional lives. “CSUF’s training ranks high on a national basis,” he adds. “Our alumni are spread throughout the entertainment business as writers, producers, Broadway stars, regional theater mainstays and solid working professionals throughout the industry.”

No matter where you choose to spend your college years, whether it’s at an Ivy League school like Columbia or a small-town college like Muhlenberg, what you take from your experience will help your acting career in ways that are impossible to predict. No one is more aware of this fact than Penelope Lagos, who recently landed the lead role in a comedy pilot — not because of what she learned on stage, but because of what she learned in the classroom. “The role is based on Greek mythology, and I was able to bring a lot to the table at the audition because I had studied Greek mythology in school,” she recalls. “Acting projects are based on life experiences, and college is a great place to get those experiences.”

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Originally published in Show Business Weekly, November 2009

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