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  • James Stranahan

How to Choose the Right Performing Arts School

Back in high school, I went through the hell that is senior year. You’d think it would have been junior year, but senior year wasn’t any better. I was stuck that fall with applying to colleges, including writing those application essays that every student complains about. While my friends talked about Berkeley, MIT, NYU, and Dartmouth, I had my sights set on something different: the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. That was my dream school, and I was thrilled beyond description when my acceptance letter came. I had an amazing time there and learned a lot that would help me as I went on to establish myself as an actor and producer in Hollywood. For anyone who would like some advice on how to choose a performing arts school that will deliver what you’re looking for, I’ve got some suggestions based on my own experiences.


First, the location you choose really does matter. Most big schools are, unsurprisingly, located in places like Los Angeles, New York, London, and Berlin. Where you go can have a lot to do with what you plan to do once you graduate. I chose LA because I wanted to start networking with people who knew Hollywood insiders, and the AADA was full of those people. It was also on the doorsteps to Hollywood lots, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to position myself close to them.


Second, look hard at who you will be learning from. Any school worth its salt will have teachers who are experienced in the industry and who have the training to back it up. Spend some time going through their profiles so that you can understand where they studied and what their specialities are. How long have they been with the school? What performances have they given lately? What is it that they can teach you so that you take your abilities up to the next level?


Third, try to understand who has recently visited the school to give special lectures or talks. Personally, when I was at the AADA, I couldn’t wait until a famous director, actor, or screenwriter visited to tell us about their experiences. I was in the front row, listening to every word they said, and I found their information to be just as useful as what I learned in classes. If a school isn’t able to bring in these kinds of visitors, you should probably consider going elsewhere.


Fourth, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the school having state-of-the-art facilities. Don’t take their word for it, though - try to visit the campus so that you can see for yourself what’s going on. Do a little research ahead of time and know the tech that’s being used in the industry, then see if the school has it. Be sure, too, that you’ll actually be taught to use it. How many classes or opportunities are there to really get used to the technology? Ideally, you’ll graduate knowing how to use it instead of having a vague idea of how to turn it on and off.


Lastly, be sure that the school offers a lot of group projects. There may be only a few actors in a scene, but out of sight are dozens of crew members, including the director, the lighting people, costume designers, screenwriters, and countless others. Knowing how to do your job within such a complex work environment and how to work with all these people so that a movie goes forward is important. The right school is going to give you a lot of projects to complete with other people so that you can learn this before you even graduate.


Wherever you choose to go, make the most of your time there. Get to know everyone, and try out for every production. They will be some of the best years of your life, so learn everything you can and have a wonderful time. Your big career in the performing arts is on the verge of happening. Good luck!



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