Should a Degree Influence Casting?
October 12, 2012 by Dennis Baker
Hey guys, my name’s Clara. I’m a long time reader, first time guest blogger (well, here, anyway). I’m friends with a bunch of amateur, semi-professional and professional actors and recently a debate was started over brunch. I think, and maintain, that an actor with a four-year degree (or better) should get a little extra consideration by those behind the table at auditions.
For argument’s sake, let’s say after callbacks two actors are in contention for a lead role. All other things being equal (implausible, I know), who should get the role: the actor with a degree or the yeoman?
Almost every actor (I use this world for both genders) has taken acting classes at some level, though not all will have earned any sort of degree. Actors with a degree on their resumes should get extra consideration throughout the acting process and here’s why:
A large part of a degree program is learning how to do research. An actor who has graduated with a bachelor’s degree or better has had to develop and implement research on text, character, historic eras and much more. They will also have a larger knowledge base to start with, making it easier to communicate via historical and industry references.
Take, for example, the upcoming “Anna Karenina” set in the high society of Russia in the late 19th century. Actors must embody appropriate posture and mannerisms and have an understanding of a now defunct social hierarchy or they will be unable to best serve their character and thus the story as a whole.
Anyone who has been in the academic side of the arts has had to analyze a script (probably many) and justify their findings. Imagine a screenplay based on a book: the book may be 600 pages of dialog and description where the screenplay will be 120 pages, mostly white space. An original screenplay, however, will not have source information for the actor to consult; they’ll have to glean valuable information about their character primarily from dialog. While this skill isn’t exclusive to trained actors, it has already been taught and honed to degreed actors.
A thorough actor will make use of the tiniest details in a script and recognize that punctuation, for one, is a tool and therefore a choice of the writer. The meaning of three simple words can change entirely based on punctuation. This is perfectly illustrated by author Lynne Truss in her book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” – which punctuated one way could indicate the diet of a panda bear and another way a well-fed gun enthusiast.
Every actor is different but you’re more likely to get quality, timely memorization from an actor with a degree than one without. Theatre actors are even more likely to memorize. Well taught actors realize how difficult it is to discover moments in a character or between characters with a script in hand. While film is certainly more forgiving than theatre in this regard, since an actor only needs to get through a scene at a time as opposed to 120 minutes in front of an audience, memorization is still invaluable.
Actor Steven Epp told Minnesota Public Radio, “You’re only really able to enter that level of the character or the journey of the play or the emotional moments when you’re beyond, so beyond thinking about the lines.” Knowing the dialog frees up your mind to do the creative work of creating and portraying a character.
In most degree programs students have to learn at least a little about all of the disciplines in their field. Actors will have to take courses on production, scenic design, lighting, directing and so on. Participating in all of the different elements of the creative process and developing an understanding of the importance of each role should (and generally does) create a sense of respect for collaborators. Degreed actors who understand the needs of the project are likely to be less “all about me” and understand they’re only one cog in a bigger machine.
Obviously, these are generalizations. People are people and as such aren’t always going to fall neatly into one category over another. While you are unlikely to have two actors up for the same role with only a degree as a tie-breaker, I think I’ve illustrated that you should give an extra look to actors who have completed at least a four year degree.
Clara Richman is from Minneapolis, MN, raised by parents at the opposite end of the education spectrum: her father, an elementary school principal; and her mother, a middle school substitute teacher. Now living in San Diego, Clara draws on that dichotomy when writing about education.