"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." – Thomas A. Edison
Once upon a time, there was an abundance of apprenticeships established at numerous repertory companies and regional theaters across the nation. These systems were set in place to cultivate the talent in novice actresses and actors. This allowed the younger, less experienced individuals to obtain small parts in productions while observing and performing alongside older and experienced professionals. However, due to a lack of funding and support in the arts, programs such as these are currently limited. As a result, the emergence of graduate level acting institutions ensued, and their popularity increased with time, making them very competitive programs.
There are numerous misconceptions about "the MFA" that I would like to acknowledge before I list the reasons why one should be obtained. 1) It is a superfluously large financial commitment. 2) Three/four years is a long amount of time to study acting versus actually being out in the "real world" and acting. 3) The financial promise, once the program is complete, is slim compared to law or medical school. And 4) All of these famous actors/actresses went to this school, so it must be the best. I want to go there.
My third piece of advice to you is this: Do your research!
In relation to misconception #1—numerous graduate programs offer their accepted students partial or full tuition coverage in the form of scholarships or financial aid. Some programs even pay their students, through a stipend, to cover school related expenses. So if financing the MFA is your largest concern, you have options. If a program likes you enough to pick you out of the hundreds they auditioned, they are going to do everything in their power (usually) to make sure that you can attend. Misconceptions #2-3 will be addressed later in the post, but as for #4—schools, just like anything else in the world, change over time. To get a more accurate sense of the caliber of the students that come out of a specific program, take a look at how recent alumni are doing in terms of work.
And now, the top 5 Reasons to get an MFA:
1. "The best way to learn is by doing." You could either spend your days working two jobs by day and going on auditions by night (with no promise of ever getting a chance to perform) or you could spend your days being fully immersed in a program that focuses on the actual practice of performance.
2. Collaboration and Ability to Establish Networks. If accepted into an MFA program, you will be placed in a small class of talented actors, directors, playwrights, dramaturges, etc… handpicked from the HUNDREDS that applied! You, along with your peers, have the potential to be the next Denzel Washington, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, or Peter Brook. So when a director/actor/writer is needed, you have access to an endless supply of individuals who all received the same quality education that you did. Additionally, you are being taught be the industry's finest, who are still actively working in their respective fields. The amount of connections that they possess is endless.
3. Training promotes longevity. If you look at the famous actresses and actors that have had some of the longest careers, a large number of them hold an MFA. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Elizabeth Banks, Angela Bassett, Bradley Cooper, Viola Davis, Sigourney Weaver—are just a few. With the proper training you can smoothly transition from stage to film work and obtain a variety of roles. Which leads to…
4. Versatility. In a quality MFA program you receive detailed vocal, physical, and emotional training. I say emotional because a great performer is able to access their emotions instantly, and it takes a great deal of training to achieve that effortlessly. With guidance, an actress/actor can play both a Shakespearean character and a role in one of Tennessee Williams' plays, convincingly. After 3-4 years of training, you will have a leg up on the thousands of people who think they can "make it" on good looks alone.
5. Personal Growth and Development. There is a lot to be learned about yourself when studying acting. The work you do to prepare for a role extends beyond the parameters of the stage and into your personal life. An actress/actor is an artist, and the body is the instrument through which the art is transmitted to the outside world. Work in "the MFA" puts you in touch with your body but also your psyche. You leave the program, heck you leave each day, a little more mature, a little more self-aware, than you once were.
The day I was admitted into my MFA program, Dr. Bill Coco (director of the Theater History Department) asked me something along the lines of "Are you prepared to dedicate the next three years of your life to working hard in this program?" My answer then, and every day since has been "Yes!" Though an extreme amount of hard work, "the MFA" has the ability to afford you opportunities that are once in a lifetime.
Next week's quote: "If you reject the notion that this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election."- President Barack Obama