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Do I need an MFA?

by Velina Brown



Q: I applied to a bunch of MFA programs and didn’t get in, and now I’m bummed out and unsure of what to do next. To be honest my confidence has been shaken. If none of these programs would take me what are my chances of making it as an actor?


A: First of all, let me say there are good reasons to get an MFA, but it is not a requirement to be an actor. In fact, most actors do not have MFA’s. The first thing you have to do is get crystal clear on why  and if you want the degree, and if it makes sense to spend your time and money on the degree in light of your ultimate goals. Also remember, being buried in student loan debt is not necessarily the way to launch your acting career. I know actors who never acted again because of the pressure to get any job to pay off those loans.


If you do decide to reapply you must turn your first experience of applying to your advantage, and not allow yourself to get psyched out. When you say “If none of these programs would take me what are my chances of making it …”  I say, STOP! Cancel this line of thinking. Acting is full of rejection, and a working actor auditions for far more jobs than he or she books. Your grad school application process is in keeping with the over all challenge of being an actor.


When I was working with the Denver Center Theatre Company I met a third year student in the MFA program who had auditioned four times before being accepted. I was inspired by her perseverance because I have often used the self imposed “three strikes you’re out” rule, and her story made me wonder if that fourth try would have made all the difference. I have a friend of a friend at Yale who auditioned six times to get into the advanced training program. SIX TIMES! You’ve only tried once. Remember -  there are colleagues and competition out there who are not giving up easily. 


James Carpenter a highly regarded, constantly working actor does not have an MFA and says, “My school has been the school of the boards, of practice, and I find I'm still learning, will always be learning, and hope to never stop.”


“My success in the Bay Area might be entitled "The Idiots Happy Fortune" -- not accomplished without some degree of skill or talent, but had I not gotten onboard at Berkeley Rep when I did, at the beginning of a new Artistic Administration, I might still be looking for work.  As it was BRT was just blooming and I was lucky enough to work with and observe some fine, talented actors and directors and eventually achieved enough of a "profile" in the area that I was considered on a regular basis for roles at many of the theaters in the area.  It's a tight market here and I'm damn glad I don't have to try to break into it now--it might be a different story.”


On the other hand Michael Torres, also a highly regarded actor and one of the founders of Campo Santo Theatre Company, with an MFA from A.C.T., says, “The impact having an MFA has had on me is significant. Everyday for just about 3 years I was working with world-class theater artists, then there were the new artists that came to talk to us like Octavio Solis.” Later Torres met the late Luis Saguar, Sean San Jose, and the three of them founded Campo Santo. “(But)  I knew I could not survive on Campo dollars. So I decided to cash in on my MFA and teach. In 2004 I was hired as the Chair of Theater Arts for Laney College and have since slowed down my acting due to the demands of full-time instruction, directing shows at the school, and incubating emerging theater companies. I am having the best time and have had the best of times and a lot of it goes back to that MFA.”


Both of these actors are well respected, doing well and enjoying their careers. One is a full time actor, the other splits his time between acting and teaching. So whether you decide to continue to pursue the degree or not, eventually get into a program or not just know that either path can be fulfilling and successful. Good luck.


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