A fine arts program can enrich an actor’s education, but can it aid a career? 
Troy Lavallee in 'The Magnificent Cuckold' (2007)

Troy Lavallee in 'The Magnificent Cuckold' (2007)

Troy Lavallee knew he wanted to act in New York, so after graduating from Boston College in 2001, he enrolled in the three-year Master of Fine Arts program in acting at Columbia University. “Having come from a liberal arts school,” he says, “I wanted to just be able to focus on that. Live, breathe, sleep, eat that: acting, acting, acting. And it was that, and all that I could have hoped for. I mean, it was really intense. It was like a 70-hour-a-week job that you don’t get paid for.”

Since graduating from Columbia, Lavallee has been steadily building a career and has hit a few milestones along the way: He received a New York Innovative Theatre Award in 2005, was written up in The New York Times, and performs standup comedy regularly at Carolines on Broadway. He has yet to sign with an agent, however, and is carrying a debt load greater than many home mortgages: Including his undergraduate loans, he owes approximately $500,000. Asked if the MFA has been worth it, he answers with a nuance and ambivalence familiar to many who have contemplated, pursued, or earned a fine arts degree.

“Once in a while you run into the occasional agent or casting director that will appreciate the MFA,” Lavallee says. “But for the most part, the buyers and sellers don’t even know what that means. So in that respect, I can’t say that it’s helped. And I can’t say that because of the MFA I’ve been able to support myself, because I haven’t. I bartend and manage bars 50 or 60 hours a week, in addition to acting. But in terms of the training and what I’ve learned from it and how I feel when I walk into auditions and when I do shows? Then it’s priceless in the way that it’s helped.”

Back Stage spoke with three other students with experience in BFA or MFA programs. All praise them for their academic and practical richness, but they concede that a degree is not for everyone and that no program can teach everything an actor needs to know to have a career.

For Some, a Must

Karla Kash

Karla Kash

“If you’re only interested in being a performer or a superstar, just move to Hollywood and try it,” says Karla Kash, an actor, director, choreographer, and college professor. “But if you truly love the craft of acting and you want to be an actor who is trained in theatre and you want to work in professional regional theatres, then an MFA is a must.” Kash graduated from Brandeis University in 1999 with an MFA in acting. The Ohio native was studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, when, halfway through her undergraduate education, as her love for theatre grew to include the classics as well as musicals, she realized that she wanted and needed more training.

“I was equally as passionate about directing and educating actors,” Kash says. “I remember thinking that one of my mentors in college had what I wanted: She was an Equity actress who was still working professionally, but she was teaching acting and movement classes at the university as well as directing.”

Kash knew that an MFA would allow her to teach in the future. She chose the MFA program at Brandeis, which accepts a small number of students every three years, because in addition to offering her financial assistance, the program gave her the opportunity to teach. She was also certified as an actor/combatant by the Society of American Fight Directors. Kash is now a visiting assistant professor of musical theatre in the BFA program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I love that I get to do what I love all day long and make a living doing it,” Kash says. “I direct, choreograph, fight-choreograph, and act for a living, and that is all I ever wanted. My training at Brandeis was the key component in shaping me into the theatre artist I am today.” She recently directed Jerry Springer: The Opera at StageWest in Des Moines and is currently interviewing for permanent teaching positions at other universities.

Nothing Is Free

Ted Stephens III

Ted Stephens III

Ted Stephens III felt that if he wanted to work full time as an actor, he needed the focused training of a master’s degree program. Though he minored in theatre at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, his bachelor’s degree is in marketing and public relations.

At the urging of friends, Stephens attended a large combined audition and was eventually accepted by the University of Florida, whose three-year, 13-student MFA program would essentially pay for his training by providing a stipend, a graduate assistant position to teach undergrads, and a fellowship.

“I’ll admit that I was a little bit naive,” Stephens says. “I think going into the program, I didn’t know how hard it was actually going to be. We did four shows a year at St. Ambrose, as opposed to four shows a semester at a place like U.F.”

Although free of the financial pressure of paying for grad school, Stephens paid his dues in sweat: Sixteen hours a day of training, studying, and teaching was standard. But more challenging than the schedule, he says, was the program: “I got to U.F. and my first week there was cast as Laertes in Hamlet. I had never done Shakespeare before in my life. I was accustomed to contemporary realism and playing ingénue roles in musical theatre.” Stephens says he got his “ass kicked” every day, but he also gained “a stronger desire to understand myself and who I am – a stronger sense of self. I think a sign of any good graduate program is that when you walk away from it, you recognize where you were and where you are now, not just as an actor but as a person.”

Private in Public

Sean Edwards

Sean Edwards

That sort of inner transformation is exactly what Sean Edwards was looking for when he entered the BFA theatre program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif. “I feel like in my time at CalArts, I’ve kind of come full circle as an artist,” Edwards says. “In the first year they try to get you out of your comfort zone and kind of break you down in terms of who you are. So you’re really thinking about your identity and stripping away that identity.” A common exercise involved revealing an emotional experience that the actor had never shared with anyone before. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “They ask you to dig pretty deep. But for me it was one of the best things that I did for myself.”

Edwards attended a high school program at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied music and drama. In his senior year, the school flew him to Chicago to audition for several college theatre programs, including Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, Otterbein College, and CalArts. He wasn’t accepted at CalArts the first time: “They asked me if I was interested in coming, and I said I didn’t think so,” he recalls with a laugh. “So that pretty much blew it.”

But after a year at Otterbein, Edwards found that the Ohio liberal arts college wasn’t the right fit for him. He wanted a more challenging and experimental artistic environment, decided to try for CalArts again, and went to New York to audition. “A week later I got my letter in the mail, and they said I was accepted,” he says.

Edwards is now finishing his fourth year at CalArts. When he transferred, the school accepted his academic credits from his year at Otterbein, but his acting training had to begin anew. Although he found that discouraging, he says the switch has laid the foundation for what he hopes will be a successful career.

“I never imagined myself in California,” he says. “And I certainly never thought I would stay in L.A. But now that I’m in my fourth year and about to graduate, I think I will. I always thought I’d go to New York and pound the pavement and knock on doors and be a stage actor and live a tragic life for a while.” He laughs. “I mean, I can definitely still do that out here.”

The Hustler

Though Troy Lavallee’s New York life at Columbia wasn’t tragic, it certainly was dire at times. In his second year, the co-signer of his private loans was the victim of identity theft. As a result, Lavallee spent the entire year penniless, struggling to survive and keep up with his class work at the same time. He became a regular at a neighborhood bar where he would hustle patrons to buy him food or drinks or play pool to win money.

“I’d get to school around 8 a.m.,” he says, “stay there until class ended around 5, and then we’d have rehearsals until 10 at night. This was every day, seven days a week. And then I would just go straight to the bar and stay until they kicked us out, then sleep for a few hours and go back to school at 8 a.m.”

Lavallee was living in a basement apartment on West 91st Street, grateful that his landlords were lenient about the rent. “I’d borrow from every person I could. I guess looking back, it made me stronger, but at the time it was absolute hell. It was such a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. But I also would never do it again.”

What Lavallee values most from his graduate school experience are the things only Columbia could offer: learning the Linklater approach to voice from Kristin Linklater herself, finding a lifelong teacher in Anne Bogart (who helped develop the Viewpoints technique, among other achievements), and, perhaps most important, meeting and collaborating with MFA directing student Paul Bargetto, with whom Lavallee founded the company East River Commedia after graduation.

“I remember Anne Bogart saying back in the first year that if you can come out of grad school having made one relationship with someone – one artistic relationship that will last forever – that’s all you can ask for and more,” Lavallee says. “The relationship that I’ve made with Paul has really been the majority of the theatre work that I’ve done since graduation.”

Practically Speaking

Many programs discourage their students from acting in projects outside of school, but Edwards says undergraduates at CalArts are often able to pursue extracurricular work, if they can fit it around their academic schedule. “You can get creative and take classes outside of your métier, or major,” he says, “but you have to finesse it a little bit. The great thing about CalArts is that you can kind of make it what you want it to be.”

Edwards has done film and TV work while in school, in addition to college- and student-produced shows each semester, and is taking three classes in the filmmaking program this year. He says the added coursework has allowed him to better understand directors, as well as to form relationships with student filmmakers who, like him, will soon be out there working.

Lavallee entered Columbia’s MFA program immediately after completing his undergraduate education, taking no time to pursue his career prior to – or during – grad school. “Everything was so encapsulated in the graduate school experience,” he says, “and they didn’t give you time to do anything else.”

Kash also entered grad school directly after graduating from Wright State. Although she felt fortunate to be accepted into an MFA program right away, she thinks it would have been a good idea to spend a couple of years acting professionally before going to Brandeis. “I just happened to go because I was accepted,” she says. “Most people I know did not get accepted right after undergrad. I know a lot of programs seem to choose students with more experience, who are a little older.”

Stephens, on the other hand, worked for four years – in marketing and Web communications for St. Ambrose – before enrolling at Florida, and he continues to design websites part time to pay the bills while practicing his craft. He says dual experience prepared him better for life in the real world than grad school might have on its own. “I’m lucky that I have the business background,” he says. “That helps a lot with marketing myself. I think that some of my classmates who don’t have that experience will need to catch up on that.”

Although some programs don’t offer guidance on the practical aspects of an acting career, many, including the University of Florida and CalArts, showcase their graduating students to industry professionals in New York and Los Angeles. (Brandeis offers showcases in New York and Boston.) Students get the chance to audition for agents, producers, managers, and casting directors on the lookout for new talent.

In addition, the University of Florida and other schools encourage their students to spend their final semester as an intern in the city they intend to live in after graduation.

Stephens is finishing his MFA training at MCC Theater in New York, learning the inner workings of an Off-Broadway company by serving part time in its marketing office. At the same time, he is learning how to live, work, and audition in New York, but with the continued guidance of the university as he integrates himself back into the world of a working actor.

“I can learn from my mistakes here, and I have this kind of cushion,” he says. “I won’t always have that luxury. And that’s a tremendous benefit.”

The “2008 College Guide” was published in the March 13-19, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.