In a lengthy elegy published by the New York Times, the paper mourns the looming downfall of many of the city’s boutique acting schools that have trained film and theater greats for the last century.
Rising rents and changing market conditions are driving many of these old landmarks out of business, something that’s easy to see as a tragedy to art and history.
It’s always sad when we reach the end of era and things we’ve grown used to have to change. And it’s okay to grieve for the loss of things that are no longer as important as they used to be. But it’s also worth looking at these changes in context, for once we understand the reasons behind painful transitions, they can be as inspiring as they are tragic.
In the present case, the studios highlighted by the Times are exclusive and expensive. The Neighborhood Playhouse, one of the schools in jeopardy, charges $33,000 for a two-year program. Other schools charge comparable amounts. If you have the money, such boutique education may be valuable, but most kids who want to be actors are not rolling in dough.
Fortunately, they don’t have to be any more.
The acting schools that are now closing had their heyday in the 1920s, when the world was a very different place. If you wanted to be an actor in the ’20s, your options were pretty limited. Not only did you have to find someone to train you, but you also needed to build networks of contacts to help you break into the industry.
At that time, schools like the Playhouse were the most efficient way of accomplishing these two things. Word of mouth and personal recommendations were important, because there was simply no other way of getting information.
Today, everything is different. We have the internet, social media, YouTube, Skype, an almost infinite variety of ways to send and receive information from anywhere in the world. There are inexpensive, even free, online courses for aspiring actors.
The Masterclass website offers in-depth advice from some of the industry’s top professionals. Backstage.com offers many resources, including advice for how to learn acting without a class. YouTube tutorials are everywhere. And sites like Meetup offer an easy way for improv and theater groups to get together to practice their art.
Are these things a substitute for a professional, multi-year acting course in New York City? Perhaps not, but they certainly give more options for students with different budgets, in different locations. Acting need not be the sole province of the well-heeled and well-connected. The system is being democratized.
It’s also increasingly the case that New York and Los Angeles are no longer the only places where an aspiring actor can find success. Due to the high costs of living and unfavorable tax structures, filmmakers are increasingly turning to locations like Atlanta and Vancouver as a way to make movies without breaking the bank, providing opportunities for actors in those cities.
Part of the problem is that the New York government has done everything in its power to increase the cost of living, making it hard for small businesses to succeed under the best of conditions, but the decentralization of education in general is a more important factor that is not limited to the acting field.
Colleges and universities are less important than they once were, as students discover new ways to acquire knowledge without having to put up with one-sided indoctrination or the restrictions of a brutally politically correct environment.
I don’t deny that it’s a little sad to see century-old institutions of art and culture being washed away by the tide of technology and progress, but it’s also exciting to see what’s going to come next and the ways in which all of us, not just a select few, will have the opportunity to realize our dreams in the future.
The most interesting stories aren’t told in the headlines. They’re in the FOOTNOTES!
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