So You Have a Theater Degree

Holly DerrOriginally posted at Ms. in the Biz

Got your B or MFA from a theater program? Congratulations! Looking at 30 years of consolidated loan payments even as you get further and further away from the training you’re still paying for? Take heart! Your training matters, even in Hollywood. Just ask Winona Ryder, Felicity Huffman, Alison Brie, Holly Hunter, and Laura Linney — all of whom have theater degrees.

In many ways, the worlds of film, television, and web series seem like water to theater’s oil – they only mix when you really shake things up. But even though you may never have to call upon your ability to perfectly execute an historically accurate Restoration curtsy, many of the skills you learned and practiced in theater school can be of use. Here are a few of the things that set trained actors apart in Hollywood:

1. Dialects.

Being able to walk in to a first audition and perfectly execute a specific dialect is not a skill that every actor has, yet that very skill is in high demand. You can be ready at a moment’s notice to perform the wide variety of accents employed in The Walking Dead, which vary both by geography and class; you are ready for any of the increasingly popular genre TV shows set in mythical lands where everyone speaks with some version of an accent from the British Empire, like Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland; and you’re perfect for geographically and culturally specific dramas like Justified (set in Kentucky) and Nashville. Sure, those productions can afford to hire a dialect coach, but the ability to nail it in the audition gives you a decided edge. It also makes you especially appealing for smaller-budget productions. So rest assured, those hours spent learning IPA (no, I’m not talking about beer) may come in handy yet.

2. The Method of Physical Actions.

Often confused with American “method acting,” Stanislavsky’s Method of Physical Actions is actually a way of creating character and telling story through movement. Stanislavsky’s system – though rarely practiced in its complete form – creates a carefully designed physical script that an actor can replicate exactly, night after night. What does this have to do with film? An actor who has trained in the System can hit her mark on every single take while also varying the inner emotional experience, providing editors and directors with a million different pieces that can be fit together perfectly without anyone having to worry about continuity. Looking to refresh your memory of the process? Check out the new, improved translations of Stanislavsky’s acting bible An Actor’s Work.

3. The Method.

Derived from the Russian Method of Physical Actions, the American Method focuses on the actor’s internal experience. Though onstage it all too often leads to an overwrought, self-indulgent performance, on film, it can be a powerful tool for generating the kind of inner intensity that the camera craves. If you studied the Method, you are ready for your close up.

4. Script analysis.

The actor’s job, whether on stage or screen, is to realize her specific character in as much detail as possible. Too often for screen actors, this means coming in, executing your role (often without the other actors in the scene even being there), and getting out of the way. Theater actors have a distinct advantage here: Years of scene study means that you can realize not only your character, but also realize your character’s function in the whole story. Trained to take the text as a whole into account, even when appearing in only one scene, you can make sure your performance integrates seamlessly into the whole. The key? Do your own dramaturgy.

5. Collaboration.

Remember how, after spending two to three years shut up together in a dark room, you and your classmates had to perform a thesis or final project? And you had to do it like professionals, even when playing opposite the person who broke your heart last year who’s now dating your best friend/costar in a production directed by the professor of whom you’re terrified? Compared to this, the fact that in Hollywood we often have to work with people we don’t like, many of whom are narcissists with incredible power to make or break you, is small beans.

6. Vocal training.

Looking for a place to use the training you got from one of the top voice teachers in the country and practiced doing the likes of Shakespeare and Moliere? Look to the voice-over world. Some films and television shows can get away with Mumbly Joe as an actor because the close up on the person’s lips makes them understandable. But without a body, all you have is your voice, so use your training to make a few bucks from corporate America doing voice overs, or put some effort into breaking in to animation. And don’t forget to warm up. All together now: Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…..


No, you can’t make a living in it. But you can make a living as a commercial/tv/film/web actor while also performing live in classics, new plays, experimental theater, and international festivals. If you haven’t looked into yet, do it. Many Los Angeles theaters have figured out a way to work around the schedules of working actors to mount productions of artistic integrity and intellectual and/or political value. You can not only practice the expensive skills you paid for in your theater program, you can also connect with other actors, directors, and producers invested in doing both.

I’m not saying that the day you pay your final installment on your loan you won’t have trouble remembering what exactly you did during that all-too-brief period in your twenties. You probably will. But you will also undoubtedly have used what you learned, whether in a career in the theater, in film and television or as a well-rounded human being capable of understanding the connections between all of the liberal arts and of factoring those understandings into the way you live your life as a friend, a citizen, and a human being.

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