Experience v. Sheep Skin; Verdict?

This week: Lesson Learned: The Past Haunts

I’m peeved at my younger self and irked by academia.

I was recently contacted by a performing arts school to teach a business of acting course.

  • I’ve taught at NYU
  • I’ve spoken on the campuses of Yale, Temple, James Madison, Northeastern, The University of The Arts and numerous other training programs for performers
  • I’ve worked on multiple Broadway productions
  • I’ve been associated with the casting of films for 20th Century Fox
  • I’ve toiled long nights and days for HBO multiple times
  • I’ve been at the casting table for television series for Carsey-Warner, CBS and NBC
  • I have numerous producers and  regional theaters as clients
  • I’ve directed at a Tony award-recognized regional theater
  • And I’ve written a goddamn book about the business of acting that has been published by Random House and is presently being used by colleges and universities

But then in the interview came the question, “Did you go to college?” I replied truthfully, “No.”

To which I was told my lack of a certificate from a secondary institution of learning would prevent me from teaching at this particular school.

When I was younger I didn’t have the grades nor the money for college. I made my journey the hard, old-fashion way; through work. That was my only choice.

I then asked if the person who previously taught the course at this particular school had been a published author, worked on Broadway, cast for major studios and was a member of SDC like myself, “No”, was the reply.

Uh-huh. O.K. I get it… a college degree matters more than nearly 30 years of practical professional experience. F**k me.

I dedicated an extensive chapter to the subject of schooling in my book ACTING: Make It Your Business. I forewarned actors that without a B.A. or the bank-busting M.F.A. they would be penalized years later in their career.  Just look to me as an example. An actor cannot always be an actor 24/7. One way for an actor to earn extra money (and get on a health insurance plan) is by teaching. Without the diploma you can teach at non-accredited studios and schools. No degree? No teachy at colleges and universities (unless a MAJOR exception is made by the hiring academics… which is rare… they like inviting only those who are members of the degree club).

Lesson? Go to school folks. Without the sheep-skin, you’re screwed if you want to teach at accredited schools later on.

Now to be an actor do you need a degree? No. To be successful must one have a framed document from an institution of learning validating your worth? Well… here’s some parchment-less people who DIDN’T get graduating degrees (meaning they dropped out) or they never attended a secondary institution of learning:

  • Bill Gates (Founder of Microsoft)
  • Halle Berry (Actress)
  • Michael Dell (Founder and CEO of Dell Computers)
  • Henry Ford (Founder of Ford & inventor)
  • Mary Kay Ash (Founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics)
  • Steven Spielberg (Producer & Director)
  • Hans Christian Anderson (Author)
  • Rachel Ray (Television host & author)
  • John D. Rockefeller (America’s first billionaire)
  • Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook)
  • Ben Affleck (Actor & screenwriter)
  • Woody Allen (Screenwriter, playwright, director, producer & actor)
  • Andrew Jackson (U.S. President)

The list prior is just a small, small portion of successes  for whom without graduating degrees or a history of academics beyond high school went on to have notable careers and legacies. Now, I’m not equating myself with them. But I do ponder this. If one of the group prior with life-long expertise and practical experience (but no diploma) wanted to share their knowledge with others embarking upon a similar career would a college or university reject any one of these successful individuals from teaching on-staff on their campuses? Can you imagine a chair of political science address Andrew Jackson over a century ago with, “I’m sorry sir. Without a college education you’re experience as a congressman, army commander, military governor and this nation’s 6th Commander in Chief; none of that employment history qualifies you to teach politics to our students. You need a degree for that.”  I  can easily envision such an occurrence unless the school believes the non-accredited success to be a marketing coup for student recruitment then suddenly an honorary degree is printed. Academia can be both coveting and whoring about who gets in the teacher’s lounge and who doesn’t. And it’s not just the tenured that holds this snobbery.

Several years ago my agent — for my work as a director — got me two meetings with two separate regional theaters on the same day within an hour’s driving distance of each other. One; a national leader in presenting musicals. The other; a small stage tucked away in a town hall located on a very distant, winding back road. The latter theater I had never heard of during my thirty years in the business. At the large venue with multi-million dollar budgets there was no inquiry of my academic history. At the tiny-theater-in-Timbuktu the producing artistic director soured and abruptly ended our meeting when he learned that I did not go to a college or university for my craft.

Back to the school that recently snubbed my experience for their want of a sheep-skin stooge. As a parting gift  — when sent off on my way from the interview (held at a Starbucks) — I was told that I could be invited to give a workshop or lecture to the same students I was not allowed to teach on a week-to-week basis. Really? No comment.

‘Nuff said.

My best,


Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.


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