A question that I hear from time to time from serious students is: should I go to an MFA program? As I do when any such life decisions are laid at my feet, I evade. It’s just not my call. However, having gone to a conservatory myself, I can make some observations.
First of all, I will say that my three years at Yale were invaluable, and I am very glad I went, and very glad I stayed (although don’t think there weren’t times when I wanted to leave!).
The second thing I’ll say is that although Yale was a great experience, there were parts of the Drama School that were stagnant or deeply problematic. And that is bound to be the case at most institutions.
This brings me to my third observation: when you go to such a program, you are buying the whole enchilada, stagnant parts and all. As long as there is only a stagnant bit here or there, that’s probably ok. But if something is rotten in a more substantial portion of the institution (as was the case in my undergrad Drama department experience), you may find that it is more than you can stomach.
A large part of the appeal of these programs is that they relieve you of the obligation to support yourself while attending. A lot of this relief, however, may come in the form of loans. (This is not true of the program at the National Theater Conservatory at the Denver Theater Center: every student gets a free rids PLUS a stipend. My former student nt Dawn Scott is there. Go Dawn!) Investing in yourself through education is something I think is mostly a good idea, but incurring massive piles of debt, in this day and age especially, is not something to enter into lightly.
Another appeal of such programs is that they provide a curriculum, which relieves you of the burden of figuring out WHAT you should actually learn. If the curriculum is well-designed, great, but even at the Drama School, I saw the actors spending a lot of time doing stuff that in the end didn’t help them much, and there were much more valuable things that they could have been studying. Remember, when you go to one of these programs, you buy the whole enchilada, the good and the bad. I can’t stress that enough.
I think an acting student with a little initiative can forego a conservatory and take charge of his or her own training, and really benefit from doing that. He or she can shop for classes and instructors that serve him, and get advice about what disciplines to study besides acting itself that will support them in their efforts. It takes a bit more initiative and resourcefulness, but offers a great deal more autonomy as well. In a conservatory situation, there are authority figures that you will be beholden to for the entire time you are there. Missteps in that kind of a setting can have long term ramifications.
If you can get into a truly first-rate program, you should probably go. Otherwise, I would try to educate yourself as much as possible about the programs you are considering, including visiting and watching classes, if possible. Go into it with your eyes open, and try to be sure that you are entering into something you truly want, rather than fleeing the responsibility to take your destiny into your own hands.
Either path, conservatory or a la carte, can work, and it’s going to be a personal decision for everyone. It’s just good to bring as much care and clarity to making that decision as you can.