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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2016

The Actor's Path: Get an MFA or Not?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Jean Schiffman

Whether or not to get an Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in acting is a conundrum for emerging actors, now more than ever as MFA programs continue to proliferate (“They’re cash cows for the universities,” remarked one actor) and as tuition costs continue to rise. Various forms of financial aid notwithstanding, debts do accrue that can take years to pay off. “The average debt incurred for graduate school is about $100,000,” wrote a reporter in Back Stage—and that was back in 2013. One local actor says her friend just completed an MFA and is now $90,000 in debt. Still, the Yale School of Drama website notes that the average student “with high financial need” receives 79 percent of the cost of attendance over the requisite three-year program and that such a student can graduate with “as little as $9,000 in educational loans.” The tuition for American Conservatory Theater (ACT)’s MFA program is currently $26,750 per year, financial aid notwithstanding. So, as local actor and TBA advice columnist Velina Brown says, “It’s not just about whether you should invest the two or three years to get the degree but whether you want to carry the debt...for years to come.”

Actor and director Marilee Talkington. Photo: Jordan Matter


Costs aside, the decision of whether to go for a graduate degree can still be a thorny one. For example, Marilee Talkington, an actor who graduated from ACT’s MFA program in 2004, suggests that actors ask themselves a few key questions, such as: “Am I already acting regularly?” “If so,” she says, “then I know a lot of people who take independent courses to supplement what they’re learning hands-on onstage. If you’re onstage with really good actors you’re going to learn no matter what.” Talkington also suggests asking yourself if you’re the type of person who can withstand several years of intense challenge—or what she calls “getting ripped apart.” “Some people don’t have that sort of temperament,” she says, adding, “Some come out of grad school as better actors and some without training are amazing because they got their training on the job.” In other words, there are no guarantees that an MFA will make you a better actor.

Talkington herself, who grew up near Davis and went to U.C. San Diego as an undergraduate, did not at first consider getting an MFA. She tried her luck in Los Angeles; then, after having some bad experiences there, promised herself to get as much education as possible to be better prepared for the real world. She didn’t get accepted the first time she applied to ACT (after looking up schools in Consumer Reports) but took classes at Studio ACT and was accepted for an MFA the second time she applied. “Absolutely ACT made me a better actor,” she says. “I needed that structure, that immersion. I didn’t know enough about what I needed to learn to put a curriculum together on my own.” She says that most of her ACT classmates are still acting but she also thinks many with MFAs become disillusioned—after three intense years of study where you’re acting a lot and you get a showcase at the end, that still doesn’t mean your career will be handed to you on a silver platter. It took her three years to integrate all she learned. She doesn’t think she got a single audition because of the MFA on her resume, nor did she get a huge response from her showcase, or a big agent—although some of her classmates, whom she considers more “castable,” did have that experience.

Not satisfied with resting on her MFA laurels, Talkington’s current goal is to work with actors better than she is, to learn from them. But then she can learn anywhere: for example, at an audition at Berkeley Rep, she got a “little acting lesson,” she says, from Tony Taccone. She’s a regular onstage at such theatres as Crowded Fire and is opening in Mark Jackson’s Little Erik at Aurora Theatre in early February. She is also still paying back student loans; her debt is close to $50,000.

Like Talkington, Jomar Tagatac grew up in Northern California (he was born in the Philippines) and went to U.C. San Diego as an undergraduate. After college, he felt he needed more training, so he applied to NYU, ACT, Yale—the biggies—but knew by the second callback that he wanted to get into ACT. He says that as much as he hates structure in his personal life, he craved it in his school and professional life, and ACT’s focus on the text and on voice and movement was exactly what he needed. In the third year, he auditioned for ACT’s annual A Christmas Carol and was cast as young Scrooge. Afterward, he did his third-year showcase and went to New York, where he lived with some classmates—the big decision for him and his classmates had been New York versus L.A. But while he was there, he came back to San Francisco to audition for Word for Word’s school tour and ended up staying. He is currently appearing in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters at Magic Theatre.

After graduating with his MFA, Tagatac found that he was getting into workshops and readings often through word of mouth, and realized that he’d fallen into the new-work process. But he also thinks that sometimes, at the beginning of his post-academic years, he was getting auditions because of the MFA on his resume. “I think the MFA could possibly get me in the door easier than someone who doesn’t have one, but after that I have to prove myself,” he says.

And yes, it took about seven years to pay off his student loans, even though ACT paid for half of his tuition. “For a couple of years you can defer payment,” Tagatac says. “If you really want to pursue an MFA, that money shouldn’t be a hindrance.


Actor Maureen McVerry. Photo: Ray Renati


Actress/singer Maureen McVerry went a different route. After undergraduate work in acting at U.C. Berkeley and taking time off to travel (a break like that can be a good thing, she notes), she thought that applying to graduate school at age 25 would be bizarre. Instead, she took singing lessons, comedy workshops and scene study classes and started getting cast at places like Magic Theatre. In fact, she still takes voice lessons, via FaceTime, from a teacher in L.A. “I went to the school of hard knocks,” she acknowledges. “You can learn so much from watching a good director in the context of the rehearsal process, and good actors. You see what works.” She’s currently putting together a cabaret show called Love Will Kick Your Ass, which she’ll perform at the Oasis on March 6. She notices that many of her friends who did go on to graduate school no longer act.


Actor Arwen Anderson. Photo: Stephanie Mohan


Having gotten an undergraduate degree at Wesleyan, Arwen Anderson went straight into summer stock, where she acted alongside so many professional New York actors, and learned so much from them, that at the time she didn’t consider getting an MFA. Then she headed west, fell in love with San Francisco and took classes to meet people: coaching for monologues, Shakespeare and more. Eventually, two of her former Wesleyan classmates came out to the Bay Area, and for a while the three of them maintained a small theatre company. But when that folded, Anderson had to reconsider her career path: how do you jump from non-Equity to Equity, she wondered. Students graduating with an MFA automatically get an Equity card.

“I saw that happening to people I knew, such a direct line, and I’d been clambering up this ladder,” she says. “And part of me was hungry for that structure, someone paving the path for you.” It’s true that some university MFA programs offer the chance to initially connect directly to an affiliated or local theatre. But just as she was wrestling with whether or not to get an MFA, she was cast in a production at Aurora Theatre that made her Equity; that was followed by her first big gig, as a swing in the commercial show, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

Actor Rod Gnapp. Photo: Ann Marie Donahue


And the rest is history. Anderson now works all over the Bay Area as time permits—she and her partner, Rod Gnapp, are the parents of a two-year-old and take turns at accepting roles. Anderson acknowledges the camaraderie that exists among actors who came up together in an MFA program, their common language, but says, “I get to work with all those guys all the time. Maybe I don’t have those concentrated three years with them, but our community is so close, especially among those of us who get to work and keep working.” She’ll appear in Anne Boleyn at Marin Theatre Company in April. And during the three years that others were in MFA programs, Anderson went away and became an aerialist in the circus.

For his part, Gnapp—a regular at the Magic and other theatres around town—did get an MFA, back in the 1980s, at ACT, when the program was only two years in length, not three. He’d arrived at ACT with a solid grounding in inside-out acting, having studied for two years with a former director of New York’s Actors Workshop before starting to audition, but he wanted the more technical skills—voice, speech and scansion—and wanted to be a well-rounded stage actor who could work in both classics and contemporary plays. “For me, getting the MFA was great,” Gnapp says—he was completely immersed in theatre for the first time. He opens at ACT in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, directed by Loretta Greco, in March.

Actor and director Danny Scheie. Photo: Norbert

Then there’s actor/director Danny Scheie, who followed an entirely different path: getting a PhD in directing at U.C. Berkeley. At the time, he felt stuck as an actor—“not super relaxed,” he says. Berkeley didn’t offer an MFA in acting back then, but Scheie, who was 22, confesses, laughing, that he wanted to go there because his boyfriend was there. It turned out to be a good move. He came into his own as an actor quite rapidly, and got a job teaching acting at U.C. Santa Cruz, which he supposes was due to his PhD (his dissertation was on Shakespeare). “It was a little embarrassing,” he says. “I didn’t want people to think of me as a scholar, but as an actor.” The things that actors learn in MFA programs, like swordfighting, he had to learn on his own, but he says that, at this point, what he missed training-wise he’s learned in the school of hard knocks.

“I sort of followed life where it took me,” Scheie acknowledges. He thought grad school was fun, but, he says, “If you hated school, why go back to graduate school?” He’s not sure that if he’d gotten an MFA at, say, Yale, or Juilliard, it would have worked out any better; he works mainly as an actor these days, all over the Bay Area.

“If you’re already getting jobs or are very, very beautiful and the movies are calling, you might want to see what you can do in Hollywood and go to grad school later. No one size fits all,” he says, adding, “Most of my colleagues do have a graduate degree, and they think it’s made them better actors. I used to be jealous, not accepting of the eccentric pathway I took, but maybe I got to the same place anyway.” Scheie opens in March at Z Space in House Tour, written expressly for him by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.

Actor Ron Campbell. Photo: Momoko Shimokado

Clown/actor Ron Campbell, just finishing a run with Teatro Zinzanni in Seattle and heading back to the Bay Area, also took an eccentric route, but not an academic one. After college, Campbell went to New York and Paris, where he worked as a street performer. By the time he came back, the MFA idea was “floating around,” he says. He thought maybe having an MFA would help him get teaching jobs, but he didn’t pursue the idea, and nevertheless he has taught at universities (as well as at ACT), and found that no one asked for his academic credentials.

Campbell considers himself an outsider in terms of formal training, and says that in London he worked alongside colleagues from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the British acting schools and thought maybe that slowed them down a little bit—“They had a process they had to go through,” he says. “The street teaches you to be a little more malleable, to be on the balls of your feet.”

Campbell says that, after being in dozens of Shakespeare productions—and he’s worked extensively around town and with the Actors Gang in L.A. and at San Diego Repertory Theatre—he’s developed his own formula for tackling a script. For him, one of the greatest acting teachers is the audience itself. “They let you know what works and what doesn’t,” he says. Campbell is heading down to the Rep soon for a run of the solo show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe, by D.W. Jacobs, which he’s been touring for years, and to further develop a new adaptation of The Dybbuk.


Actor Velina Brown. Photo: Lisa Keating


Finally, actor/director Velina Brown says she reasoned early on that she didn’t need a degree to act but did need a degree for counseling, so she studied both acting and psychology, earning a Master of Science degree (with no student loan debt). “I see now that the value of graduate school for something like acting is the connections you make,” she says. Brown’s training was more à la carte; she ended up as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, also working regularly in the Bay Area. She is directing a segment of The Colored Museum at African-American Shakespeare Company and will appear in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons at New Conservatory Theatre Center in February.

Brown hypothesizes that if you’re an emerging actor with a slim resume, it would help to have an MFA—but after that, she says, “it’s more about what you’re like and what it’s like to work with you.” She points to the career trajectory of actors with and without MFAs: for ACT graduate Anika Noni Rose, it was a relatively rapid rise. For James Carpenter, not having an MFA didn’t hold him back. “You don’t know what the twists and turns of your life will be,” Brown continues, “but hopefully you’re following your passion. Although sometimes it’s hard to have that awareness when you’re a youngster.” Brown does offer some no-nonsense advice: “If you want to be in movies, get your ass to L.A. If you go to grad school, you’ll be six or seven years behind the person who went right after high school...It’s easier to go back to school, at least in theory, later. You don’t have to make that decision when you’re 20.”