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A successful career in acting requires equal parts talent and practice with a bit of luck thrown in. Actors at work can be seen and heard everywhere: TV, the big screen, the theater, on the Internet, in videos and on podcasts. They portray characters from the past that have impacted history, and they portray characters that are destined to impact pop culture in the future. Some dabble in a variety of entertainment mediums, while some stick to the stage, use their voice to create new worlds or dedicate their lives to the silver screen. Some make up the cast of extras that round out a production, while some achieve levels of fame that makes them a household name.
This guide serves as a starting point for anyone seriously interested in the world of professional acting. It includes a brief description of the real working life of actors and actresses, a rundown of the skills one must develop to succeed in this highly competitive field, and a list of steps to consider in pursuit of an acting career.
What Does an Actor Do?
To put it very simply, an actor works to portray a character in a movie, play, television show, theater production or any other variety of performance. But that's not all there is to this interesting job.
Actors audition for roles and, if selected, perform those roles to bring the characters to life. Their work might be on a movie or television set, in a theater, during a live event or any other place where performance is needed. They might work on any level of the profession, from being an extra in a larger cast to appearing in starring roles.
Actor Salaries & Job Growth
Actor Salaries Across the US
Where actors happen to make the most money depends greatly upon their expertise, roles and geographical location. Areas where the performing arts are a prominent typically offer higher pay than rural areas, or those far away from production facilities. This tool can help aspiring actors research average earnings by location.
Actor Job Growth
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that acting careers will increase by 10 percent nationally between 2014 and 2024. Though the field will still remain strongly competitive, some states may offer more roles than others. The job growth for actors is highlighted below.
Steps to Becoming an Actor
Actors often take meandering roads to their ultimate career; therefore, the steps to becoming an actor aren't as clear cut as they might be for other professions. Here's what most will go through to reach the pinnacle of their profession.
Acting School Programs & Concentrations
|Career Goals & Educational Needs||Associate||Bachelor's||Master's||Stand-alone courses or workshops|
|I really enjoy acting and I am ready to take things to the next level. I am truly committed to doing what it takes to see my name in lights, but I am also realistic, and want a proverbial fall-back plan hiding in the wings.||
|I had a great time in high school plays, and I know I can sing and dance with the best of them. I know that I need further education to make myself stand out, but I'm not yet sure which direction I want to take.||
|I have acted in the past and have had some success, and I would like to take my talent to the next level--perhaps even crafting and directing productions. I need a degree that will teach me new techniques and open up a world of ideas while I focus very strongly on one particular part of the acting world.||
|It's time to launch my acting career in earnest. I need training from experts in the business, but money is tight right now. I need to find a program within my budget.||
Preparing for an Acting Career
Acting Schools & Theater Degrees
Many different institutions offer actor training and theater degrees. Here are some of them.
These dedicated schools are designed exclusively to teach aspiring actors. Students work closely with seasoned actors, theater directors, producers and others who can show them the ropes and skills they need to stand out during casting calls.
Performing Arts Schools
Performing arts schools are ideal for students who know they want to work in the performing arts, yet haven't decided how. There are classes for actors, dancers, choreographers, singers, comedians and more.
Community Colleges & 2-Year Schools
Some community colleges offer associate degrees in theater, drama and other performing arts fields. Trade schools, meanwhile, tend to offer more specialized diploma or certificate programs in areas like set or costume design.
Universities & 4-Year Schools
A large number of colleges and universities offer bachelor's or master's degree in acting, theater, drama and similar areas. These programs provide a well-rounded education for students who want to make a lifelong career in the performing arts.
Types of Theater & Acting Degrees
The world of acting is large and diverse, and so are the educational backgrounds of those who work in it. Any of the following degree paths can prepare students to succeed in the acting industry. Here's what they can expect from each program level.
Associate Degrees in Acting & Theater
Students pursuing associate degrees can expect to take two years of coursework, including general education classes along with more targeted classes for actors. This provides a firm foundation for students who want to eventually move into bachelor's degree programs or directly into the acting world. Here are some common courses:
History of Cinema
This course fosters appreciation of cinema, including genres, narrative devices, themes, film theory, promotions and more.
Understanding behind-the-scenes roles
Grasp of relationships between film and literature
Basic Costume Construction
Students will learn how to design period- and stylistically-appropriate costumes that support character development.
Stitching and other sewing work
Operations of machines
Students are exposed to a wide variety of performing arts career options.
ResumÃ© and portfolio preparation
Acting exercises, memorization, improvisation, various acting techniques and oral projection are studied in this class.
Conveying emotion, interaction and characterization
Bachelor's Degrees in Acting & Theater
Bachelor's degrees in acting, drama, theater and fine arts are liberal arts programs designed for those who want to enter the performing arts. Performing arts schools tend to offer fewer general education courses than colleges or universities, but both options take about four years to complete. Students will be required to work with various productions, whether on-screen or backstage. Here are some of the more common classes taken at this level:
Physical coordination, proper singing postures, changes in speech and intonation, voice projection, the Alexander method and other techniques are taught in this course.
How to project voice in large spaces
Inhabiting a character with physical quirks or vocal impediments
Implementing the full spectrum of physical movement techniques that bring characters to life
As the name implies, this course focuses on the unique demands of Shakespearean performance.
Uses of rhythm, meter and rhyme
Delivery of metaphor
Transforming written text to spoken word
These courses allow students to perform their own scripts while overseeing production, costume, makeup, set and all other elements.
The ability to handle diverse responsibilities
Connecting theory with practice
Casting and direction
Students will engage in professional casting calls with oversight from faculty while learning interviewing, improvisation and more.
Switching point-of-view mid-scene
Improvising based on a very small set of requirements
Proper interview techniques with casting agents
Master's Degree in Acting & Theater
Students who choose to pursue master's degrees can expect to dive into very specialized training, depending upon their choice of major. Common options include drama, set design, playwriting, film, theater, television, acting, directing and more. Most master's degrees taken through colleges and universities take up to three years to complete; for master's degrees at performing arts schools, three to four years is standard. Some schools offer online master's degrees with the recognition that students might also be busy working actors, though they may be required to perform in a play, musical or the like.
Below is a list of courses students might find in the acting track. Please note that courses will vary widely, depending upon the major.
Traditions in American Theater
This courses looks at the in-depth history of theater and may include lectures and discussions with award-winning actors and playwrights.
Tracing the heritage and tradition of theater
Connecting current events with theater work
Acting techniques that are unique to the theater medium
Bringing Scripts to Life
This course focuses on the various ways a script can be read and interpreted, the role of direction in creating a vision for the final product and storytelling techniques.
Creating various approaches to the same material
The role of experimentation in defining a script
Students prepare for scenes, songs, monologues and other presentations to create a well-rounded performance.
Interpreting the same work in a variety of different acting mediums
Working with others on improvisation
Highlighting points that agents and casting directors find appealing
Practical Business of the Stage
This refresher course covers everything that happens off the stage, like casting, auditioning, producing reels, rehearsals and more.
Writing resumÃ©s and cover letters
Understanding author contracts
Landing an agent
Taking advantage of support systems in place for actors
PhD in Theater & Performing Arts
Acting PhD options are generally more student-driven than master's programs. Many curricula require only acting, drama or theater seminars, allowing students to select or design all remaining coursework. Each PhD program also requires a dissertation, which is fairly standard for this level of education. Many PhD programs encourage students to study a specific aspect of theater or drama that truly interests them, such as various methods, histories of cinema and theater, and cultural roles.
The PhD is ideal for those who want to truly master a particular style or method of acting, those who want to teach others the ropes, or those who want to bolster their resumé before moving into behind-the-scenes work, such as that of director or producer. They usually require six years of study.
Here are some common seminar themes found in PhD theater, drama or acting programs across the nation:
Celebrity and Theories of Performance
This seminar combines the cognitive sciences with the world of acting, focusing on the psychology of certain pieces (such as Shakespeare) and the influence celebrity brings to the role.
An understanding of what casting directors really see
Seeing the performance through the eyes of the public
Learning to influence and change the viewing by tapping into the psychology of the viewer
Cross-Influences of Theater
How does a Shakespearian play in China compare to the same piece in the United States or Australia? What cultural influences change the performance? These questions form the basis of this course.
Understanding international aesthetics
What âtraditionâ means to global societies
Being cognizant of ethics and psychology of cultural-based performances
Cognitive Approaches to the Arts
Students will explore the research and scholarship at play in scripts and performances to develop a better understanding of strengths and weaknesses.
Investigation of a work to spot weak points
Bolstering writing with current research in mind
An interdisciplinary approach to works that seek to speak to a broad audience on a narrow topic
The Use of Humor in Tragedy
This course shines a spotlight on the human tendency to laugh instead of cry, and how playwrights over the centuries have used that as a method to convey troublesome issues without overburdening the viewer.
Walking a fine balance between tragedy and comedy in the same script
Understanding the impact of laughter
Making use of âmob mentalityâ to heighten emotion
Acting & Theater Concentrations
Working as an actor isn't the only role up for grabs. Those who choose to pursue an acting degree can turn that hard-won education into any of these potential careers, with 2015 median wages reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Acting Coach2015 median wage: $36,691
An acting coach works with actors to help them bring characters to life. The acting coach is well-versed in all areas of acting methods and techniques, and has the ability to convey them in such a way that the actors can use them on set. Acting coaches might work with performing arts schools or take on individual clients.
Set Designer2015 median wage: $49,530
Set designers work closely with producers and directors to create a set that is true to the time period and feel of the script. The work requires a strong knowledge of architectural trends as well as the ability to build, paint and otherwise work with physically erecting set pieces.
Actor2015 median wage: $39,104
An actor plays a role in a variety of entertaining mediums, including theater, television, movies, live performance, radio and more. Their work is not only for entertainment, but often also for information or instruction. Many actors are quite versatile and can add singing, dancing, writing and even directing to their list of talents.
Director2015 median wage: $68,440
Most directors work closely with everyone on set, especially actors and producers, to create a character arc that is true to the vision of the script. Directors might work in a variety of areas, including theater, television, movies and the like.
Producer2015 median wage: $68,440
Producers handle a great deal of behind-the-scenes work, including issues with casting or extras, financial flow for the production, design and sound on the set, and other creative decisions. Producers are usually weighing the needs of the production against the budget set to finance that production.
Components of a Successful Career: Skills, Tools & Technology
Actors aren't usually overnight successes; they tend to go through many years of auditions, rehearsals, bit parts, and ups and downs before breaking into the acting world. Here are some of the skills that can help them succeed, and the tools and technology they might use when they get there.
Since much of acting is conveying emotion, setting a scene and otherwise connecting with the audience, top-notch speaking and reading skills are imperative.
Actors are in a very creative profession, and they have to be able to keep up with other creative types. That means letting ideas flow like water, offering unusual points of view, and keeping their creativity going with other mediums, including writing or singing.
Memorizing a script in order to perform long, unbroken scenes is a must for any actor in any area of entertainment.
Acting may entail being on set for many long hours or handling several hours of stage work without a break, especially during live performance. Being in good physical condition is the key to handling it.
There are many actors out there and far too few roles for them. It can be easy to give up when faced with near-constant rejection; the best actors learn early on to simply keep on trying.
Tools and Technology
Apple Final Cut Pro
Motion capture software
Website development software
Though there are no clear-cut credentials for actors, there are some options for areas that support actors, or that might enhance an acting career. For instance, the film editing certification or the digital video certification can help an actor transition to other careers in the field. Credentials should be chosen based on what actors might want to do if they choose to move behind the scenes.
Related Careers at a Glance
Producer or Director9%
Musicians and Singers3%
Multimedia Artists and Animators6%
Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators11%
Dancers and Choreographers5%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Acting School and Career Resources
Ace Your Audition
This site connects actors with monologue for auditions.
Actors Equity Association
This labor union for actors provides help with benefits, working conditions, contract negotiations and more.
The Actors Fund
This organization helps actors with common issues, including housing, healthcare, social services and financial assistance.
A clearinghouse of pertinent, up-to-date information for actors, including casting calls, news, advice and resources.
National Association of Schools of Theatre
This organization of schools, colleges, universities and conservatories strives to provide a top-notch educational experience through proper accreditation.
National Endowment for the Arts
This independent federal agency offers funding for a variety of arts across the United States, including theater productions.
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists brings together two powerful unions to provide important protections and information to those in the entertainment industry.
Related Careers at a Glance
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