Acting School & CareersHow to Become an Actor

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Become Team
November 9, 2020

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.

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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.

Actor Careers Basics

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.

State

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.

Step 1
Jump into theater in high school
The path to acting careers can actually begin in high school plays and musicals. Drama classes can introduce students to performing, different methods and schools of thought in acting, writing their own material, and different approaches to characters, along with stage and costume design. High school drama classes and productions allow students to develop their skills and experience what it feels like to perform in front of a large audience. They are also very important in preparing students for the inevitable countless auditions that await them once they venture into the world of professional acting or head off to a college or university drama program.
Step 2
Get experience outside of school
Seek out small playhouses and theaters in the local area and audition for various roles. Even if it’s as one of the extras, it will be experience behind the curtain, which is what matters as acting skills continue to be honed.
Step 3
Get educated
Although a college education is certainly not mandatory to succeed as a professional actor or actress, some aspiring performers may benefit from a formal college or university drama degree program. Post-secondary drama programs can be found at almost every major public and private college in the United States, as well as at most community colleges. These classes will not only hone skills, but will help aspiring actors understand what happens behind the scenes, such as contracts and business dealings. Classes might include theater history, stage production, dance, music and the like. College productions may also provide aspiring professionals a chance to be seen by agents and producers who may be looking for promising new talent.
Step 4
Practice makes perfect
Continue going on auditions and working as much as possible in the acting world. Acting workshops and small theater companies keep performers in top form by providing an environment in which they can stretch their creative muscles and practice their craft. They also provide one of most effective networking opportunities available. Join a theater team, continue networking and be patient; it can take years to get the big break, but it is possible for some actors to receive a steady stream of work.
Step 5
Build up an acting resume
Act as much as possible, in as many roles as possible. Build up a resumé filled with a variety of performances, including theater productions, commercials, working as an extra, music videos and anything else that gets attention.
Step 6
Hire an agent
When a bit of momentum starts to build, it’s time to call in some help. An experienced agent can help actors succeed by offering a huge network of contacts, helping them avoid rookie mistakes and getting auditions that might not be available otherwise. Though not all actors will have an agent, those who want to work with the largest theater or movie companies will need to have one.

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.

Acting School

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.

Skills Gained

Understanding behind-the-scenes roles Filmmaking techniques 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.

Skills Gained

Stitching and other sewing work Measurements Visual perspectives Operations of machines

Entertainment Careers

Students are exposed to a wide variety of performing arts career options.

Skills Gained

Resumé and portfolio preparation Audition techniques Interview preparation

Acting Fundamentals

Acting exercises, memorization, improvisation, various acting techniques and oral projection are studied in this class.

Skills Gained

Improvisation Memorization techniques 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:

Dramatic Techniques

Physical coordination, proper singing postures, changes in speech and intonation, voice projection, the Alexander method and other techniques are taught in this course.

Skills Gained

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

Shakespeare Text

As the name implies, this course focuses on the unique demands of Shakespearean performance.

Skills Gained

Uses of rhythm, meter and rhyme Delivery of metaphor Transforming written text to spoken word

Performance Projects

These courses allow students to perform their own scripts while overseeing production, costume, makeup, set and all other elements.

Skills Gained

The ability to handle diverse responsibilities Connecting theory with practice Time management Casting and direction

Audition Workshops

Students will engage in professional casting calls with oversight from faculty while learning interviewing, improvisation and more.

Skills Gained

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.

Skills Gained

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.

Skills Gained

Creating various approaches to the same material Taking direction The role of experimentation in defining a script

Dramatic Interpretation

Students prepare for scenes, songs, monologues and other presentations to create a well-rounded performance.

Skills Gained

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.

Skills Gained

Writing resumés 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.

Skills Gained

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.

Skills Gained

Understanding international aesthetics What “tradition” 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.

Skills Gained

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.

Skills Gained

Walking a fine balance between tragedy and comedy in the same script Understanding the impact of laughter Making use of “mob mentality” 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 Coach

2015 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 Designer

2015 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.

Actor

2015 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.

Director

2015 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.

Producer

2015 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.

Skills

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

Microphones Tripods Digital cameras Personal computers Video recorders Apple Final Cut Pro Motion capture software Website development software

Credentials

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

Announcer
-11%
Median Salary (2015):

$30,080

Education/Training Required:

On-the-job training

Producer or Director
9%
Median Salary (2015):

$68,440

Education/Training Required:

Bachelor’s degree

Musicians and Singers
3%
Median Salary (2015):

$50,336

Education/Training Required:

On-the-job training

Multimedia Artists and Animators
6%
Median Salary (2015):

$63,970

Education/Training Required:

Bachelor’s degree

Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators
11%
Median Salary (2015):

$55,740

Education/Training Required:

Bachelor’s degree

Dancers and Choreographers
5%
Median Salary (2015):

$35,048

Education/Training Required:

Formal training

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.

Backstage

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.

SAG-AFTRA

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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