I often wrestle with how much money I should reinvest in myself and my business. With enough income to afford it and clear, measurable returns manifested in my business earnings, what’s “worth it” isn’t ultimately too hard to determine- at least in retrospect. I wish I could say the same of my experience as an actor. Income is rarely if ever in surplus in “the biz” and classes are a necessary and costly expense. With a few rare exceptions (the callback coaching session that lands a Broadway booking), return on investment is nearly impossible to quantify, so naturally, I struggle with how to respond when asked, “How much should actors spend on classes?”
Today, I’m sharing some guest insights from actor and musical theatre coach Raja Burrows to help quantify which career investments are worthwhile for actors. Please join me in welcoming him to the blog today.
I don’t think I’m blowing anybody’s mind when I say that being a professional actor is a costly endeavor
. Even excluding opportunity cost, the literal dollars you end up spending in service to your craft cannot be taken for granted – headshot reproductions, resume printing, printer ink – those little things add up.
The most obvious of these costs is the cost of taking class. Whether we heard it in school ad nauseum or not, it fairly quickly becomes apparent that our education doesn’t stop just because we’ve graduated. Once we accept that and start looking at classes seriously, it becomes further apparent just how easy it is to hemorrhage money.
Dance class three times a week? That’s almost $200 per month. Wanna take a class taught by a casting director involved with Hamilton? Get ready to drop a Benjamin.
How Much Should Actors Spend on Classes?
Before you decide to take a class or private lesson, you have to know what you hope to get out of it. Ask yourself, what is my likely return on investment?
Taking class “just to stay in shape” or “because it’s been a minute” is likely to leave you more frustrated than fulfilled. Be especially wary of classes and teachers with lots of hype and a hefty price tag. I don’t care who people say is the best – it may not be the best for you right now. It may be, sure but do your research. If possible, go and observe a class you’re interested in taking. If that’s not an option, e-mail the teacher and talk to him or her about your goals. In the event that neither of those things are possible (as may well be the case with casting director classes), talk to people who have taken the class before and get the lowdown. But you should never, ever walk into a class you have paid money for without a clear idea of what the teacher’s process is like and how that class will help you level up in a specific area.
Now, I want to give a quick rundown of the various types of training that are out there, as well as what I feel would make them “worth it” to you or not. To be clear, this list is both subjective and incomprehensive – I’m not going to list any specific classes because everyone’s class experience is unique. Instead, I’m going to be talking about the broad categories that many classes fall into.
Should Actors Spend on Dance Class?
- Cost: $15-18 per 90 minute class
- Worth it if: You want to get better at dance. This is by far the most solid bet in terms of types of classes you can take. As long as you have a rough idea of your skill level, you can get basically whatever you need or want out of a random dance class. You may like some teachers better than others, but generally speaking, you can’t really go wrong with a level-appropriate class at any of the big dance studios.
- Avoid if: You don’t want to get better at dance. This may seem obvious, but it tends to get overlooked. Lots of people take dance classes because they feel they “should” and end up hating dance even more. Save yourself the agony and spend that money on a new play and a great cup of coffee instead.
Should Actors Spend on Scene Study/ Monologue/ Musical Theatre Technique Class?
- Cost: $250-400 per month
- Worth it if: You want to improve your acting fundamentals or want help navigating a new genre. Scene study and monologue classes can be hit or miss but they are terrific if your background is in musical theatre and you want to learn Shakespeare (or, alternatively, if your bread and butter has been Macbeth and King Lear but you find yourself drawn towards broad comedy of late). With a teacher who really gets you, you can make incredible strides in a very short amount of time. That said, if the teacher’s communication style doesn’t jive with yours, then you are going to be a very sad and angsty panda. This is not a slight against you or the teacher – it just means that it’s not a good fit. This is one of the biggest places where doing your research is an absolute necessity.
- Avoid if: You are trying to book more short term work. This may end up happening, sure, but it should be considered a happy accident rather than par for the course. Obviously, the end goal of anything a professional actor does career-wise is booking more work, but I wouldn’t take a scene study or musical theatre technique class for two months and then expect to be cast in the first thing you go out for.
Should Actors Spend on Audition Technique Class? (with a working casting director a.k.a. “pay to play classes”)
- Cost: $75-100 per class, usually one or two classes total.
- Worth it if: That casting director is currently casting a project you are INSANELY right for. It’s also worth it if that casting director seems to be involved with most of the shows you’re interested in. These classes aren’t great for honing your acting chops but are wonderful for getting a sense of “what does this specific casting director like?” If you know deep in your heart that you’re perfect for a certain show but are having trouble getting that across, a class like this is very likely worth the money.
- Avoid if: There’s nothing out there you’re unbelievably right for or you’re still in the process of clarifying what you bring to the table. Classes like these offer almost nothing in terms of guaranteed bang for your buck, but they come with a big potential upside (i.e. learning how to nail a specific, high-profile audition). Also, don’t go nuts with these – be super strategic. Don’t take a class with someone just because he or she is a higher-up at a big time casting office. Their opinion is not gospel, they are individuals too. They may hate something you do really well and that other people love. That information is only useful, then, if they’re in charge of a project that you’re already ideal for.
Should Actors Spend on Audition Technique Class? (not with a working casting director)
- Cost: $75-100 per class, usually 4-6 classes per session.
- Worth it if: You were a mechanical engineer in college but you love acting and have decided life is too short to be anything but joyful. Or, alternatively, you haven’t done an actual audition since you were 16 when you tried out for your high school production of Man of La Mancha.
- Avoid if: You are literally anybody else. I want to clarify here that I’m talking specifically about classes that are built around mock audition scenarios where everyone watches and learns from each other. To be blunt, these classes are almost always a colossal waste of time and money for anyone who got a Bachelor’s degree in performance or went to a two-year conservatory. Why? Because there’s no such thing as “audition technique.” Your only job in life, ever, is to be a person. You just don’t need to practice walking into rooms or talking to accompanists or interacting with the people behind the table. You walk into rooms and talk to people all the time; doing these things in an audition setting is no different. The accompanist thing, though, is a little trickier (and super important- it’s borderline comical how bad most people are at talking to accompanists). Still, if you’re working on a song with a coach or voice teacher, ask them “what should I tell the accompanist when I bring this into an audition?” This is not rocket science, people. You don’t need someone telling you how to interact with other humans, I promise.
Should Actors Spend on Improv Class?
- Cost: $400-500 per session, usually 8 weeks total, three hours per week.
- Worth it if: You want to get in touch with your own process or are generally feeling “stuck.” Improv classes are the exception to the rule in terms of “don’t take class just to take class.” They won’t make you funnier but they will help you bring a lot more to the table as an actor (or entrepreneur or chef or really anything you want to get better at). If you’re new to the city especially, I would recommend taking an improv class right off the bat. I have almost no regrets when I look back on my years in this city so far, but waiting a whole year to take my first improv class is probably the one thing I would have done differently.
- Avoid if: Paying rent and buying groceries are tough for you right now. Remember when I said before that your only job in life, ever, is to be a person? Well, a big part of “being a person” is paying rent and buying groceries. As much as I think improv classes are a worthwhile investment in terms of your growth as a human being, they are absolutely a luxury and not a career necessity. Granted, nothing is actually a career necessity, but improv classes super duper aren’t.
Should Actors Spend on Private Voice/ Acting Lessons?
- Cost: $80-120+
- Worth it if: You want to get better at singing or acting. There are a lot of terrific teachers out there. There are also a lot of teachers that have no idea what they’re doing and are a complete waste of time and money. Do. Your. Research. A great teacher for someone else might not be a great teacher for you. The human instrument is by definition the opposite of one-size-fits-all so it’s absolutely critical that you have as clear an idea as possible about where you are in your process and what you hope to get out of the work. Obviously, asking for a free lesson is going to get you close to nowhere, but lots of teachers offer half-hour lessons or fifteen-minute consultations to see if a new student is a good fit. Trust me, as someone who spends lots of time on both sides of that interaction, a good fit goes a long way and many teachers are happy to make time for that.
- Avoid if: You don’t have a specific idea about how you want to grow as a singer or actor. If you’re feeling stuck vocally or theatrically and want to get better, it behooves you greatly to take the time to reflect on what you want to work on. A vague “I suck and need someone to make me suck less” is going to do you no good – you are likely to find yourself $500 to $1000 dollars in the hole before you start to feel any improvement if you take this wishy-washy approach. Do yourself the favor of giving yourself time to get more clarity before spending your hard-earned cash.
Should Actors Spend on Career Coaching? (Style Coaching/ Book Building/Life Coaching)
- Cost: $50-100 or much, much more.
- Worth it if: You have an excruciatingly clear idea of what you need to work on but are aware that, for whatever reason, you can’t fix it yourself and need an expert opinion. To use myself as an example, I recently went to a personal stylist because I felt my wardrobe needed an upgrade. I went to her with about five different Pinterest style boards I’d made and said “here’s where I’m at right now, here’s what I like about my wardrobe, here’s what I’m looking to improve in it, here are the ways I think my wardrobe can be improved, what do you think?” As a result, she was able to find me some terrific clothes that look great on me and fill in specific gaps in my wardrobe that were in need of addressing. Because I had such a clear idea of how I needed help, I was able to actually get it. If I had walked in there without that clarity, I likely would have walked out of there a whole lot more broke and a whole lot less beautiful. (YES. NAILED IT.)
- Avoid if: You are even 2% unclear about what you need the so-called expert’s opinion on. As a book building coach myself, I make it very clear that I do not offer rep suggestions. I mean, I might, but it’s not my forte. The thrust of my work as a book building coach centers around helping people use their existing book effectively as they’re working through a type transition. Alternatively, there are plenty of great rep coaches out there who focus on finding singers tons of new material but don’t do as much in the way of the holistic hippy-dippy thing. If you know you need tons of new rep and inquire about my work, it will become instantly apparent that I do not offer what you’re in the market for and you’ll be on your way. But if you’re unclear and it turns out that you actually wanted rep suggestions but came to me because you assumed my expertise extended to that as well, you are going to walk away disappointed.
At the end of the day, your primary responsibility is to be an informed consumer. Thanks to the internet, you can find out just about anything you could possibly want to know. Of course, you’re never going to know exactly how something’s going to turn out until you actually do it. But you never want to feel blindsided, especially with so much money on the line. The real key to being “strategic” in this profession is know thyself. If you know what you want, then you can take practical, implementable steps towards getting it. Ultimately, it’s worth it to take the time to figure that out as opposed to spending your money and hoping the answer falls in your lap.
Raja Burrows is an expert Typologist and off-Broadway actor/singer. As a coach, he has worked with musical theatre actors in New York City and across the country, with a keen eye towards maximizing each singer’s personal ownership of every audition. He has extensively studied Jungian Typology, Myers-Briggs, and Keirsey, and can help you discover how to maximize your inherent strengths and feel confident in any audition scenario you find yourself in. You can visit him at rajaburrows.com as well as on his own blog at thejollyraja.wordpress.com.
- How much do YOU think actors should spend on classes and which are most worthwhile – or not?