What is an Acting Degree?

Acting is much more than it appears to be, because great actors act so naturally that their skills and years of training are invisible. But the fact is that acting is a complex art.

Degree programs in the field seek to break down this complexity and teach students the intricacies of the craft, from voice and movement to emotion memory to improvisation and impulse to dramatic analysis. Acting, though, is a craft that can never be perfected, which is likely why so many of the greats in the business work until their dying day. They, too, in essence, are students of acting.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Acting – One to Two Year Duration
Acting associate programs combine courses in the major with some liberal arts classes in subjects such as English literature and composition and the social sciences. At this level, programs typically focus on either acting for the camera or acting for the stage. The standard core curriculum spans the essentials of auditioning, rehearsing, and performing, vocal production and body movement, and character and scene study.

Bachelor’s Degree in Acting / Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Acting – Three to Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in acting offer greater choice than do associate programs. Some blend film and television acting with the critical foundations of stage technique, while others focus on a specific art form, such as musical theatre.

At some schools, the curriculum explores not only the artistic facets of acting, but touches upon other areas related to the craft, such as screenwriting, pitching, directing, video editing, lighting and stagecraft, and career management. Programs may also teach skills needed for voiceover and hosting.

Here is a sample bachelor’s level acting curriculum:

  • Preparing for the Journey – learning to open up to the possibilities for acting by exploring core concepts such as trust and play
  • Acting: Ready and Responsible – discovering the difference that thorough text analysis makes to the actor’s work; basic acting skills and tools; the actor’s vocabulary
  • Camera: Objective in Performance – learning that authenticity (relaxation and spontaneity of body and voice) in pursuit of scene objectives is the key to success when acting for the camera
  • Performance Studies 1 – how to appreciate, dissect, evaluate, and discuss the work of actors and filmmakers at the top of their field
  • Movement: Your Body – working with alignment, breath, release, and neutral exercises
  • Speech: The Basics – the basics of speech and phonation; the mechanical movements required for sound creation; the International Phonetic Alphabet; the power of language
  • Voice: Breath, Body, Voice – developing the courage and trust necessary to explore a new relationship with the instruments of breath, body, and voice; moving beyond existing physical and vocal habits
  • Improvisation: Character and Spontaneity – developing a heightened awareness of the scene, the circumstances of the scene, and ability to generate laughter effortlessly
  • Rehearsal Labs – preparing for an audition, a scene, a class, or a gig
  • Scene Study – creating a dynamic and powerful scene for presentation; creating an honest and authentic character
  • Movement: Exploration – focusing on spatial awareness, the many uses of space and its impact on the body and relationships on stage and screen
  • Voice: Sound – breath, range, power, placement, support, language, energy levels, grounding, imagination, and storytelling all come together to help students understand the capabilities that lie within their own voice and how it pertains to their work as an actor
  • The Embodied Voice: Sound into Song – students experience the freedom to extend their sound into singing, and begin telling larger stories that include music, ensemble work (group song), and the technical requirements and acting fundamentals needed to perform
  • Speech: Accents and Dialects – students discover how to alter their nationality, age, culture, size, status, period, gender, and even their species; discovering the right accent for every character; how accents develop and why we have them
  • Camera: Television – a hands-on experience which allows students to navigate the technical demands of acting on a film set while drawing upon acting fundamentals to block, rehearse, and shoot high stakes ensemble television scenes
  • Audition: Knowing the Room – understanding the audition room and the expectations and standards of a professional, on-camera audition; understanding the role of the casting director, the typical protocol, and the key components of an audition
  • Performance Studies 2 – students will write an essay comparing and contrasting the work of two actors of their choice, and draw direct lines from the acting they study on screen to their own daily studies as an actor
  • Acting: Writing Your Story – students discover deep personal connections between themselves and how they relate to the text / script; they create a personal monologue using truthful stories and emotion memories from their lives
  • Acting: Expand Your Range – various acting exercises to help students realize how they habitually limit their range of expression; students will begin to expand their acting choices by uncovering their potential for endless possibilities of authentic expression
  • Movement: Mask Behind and Beyond – the ancient craft of mask; exploring animal character study, neutral mask, full character mask, and half mask
  • Voice: Breath, Presence, Language – students experience how practical body, breath, and voice work can enhance their emotional connection with the script and their scene partner(s), and help them be fully present in each acting moment
  • Camera: Feature Film and Edit – students develop an awareness of the editing process that can both change and enhance their performances and perception of what it is to be camera savvy; they fill various crew positions and handle film set equipment to produce a number of scenes; after shooting is complete, they assist in editing the projects and eventually view all edited scenes on the big screen
  • Audition: Exploring Television – mastering the demands of a mid-sized television and commercial audition
  • Storytelling through Song: Integrating Acting and Singing – developing one’s story through individual songs; creating the inner monologue that supports and drives the need to communicate through song
  • Acting: Experimentation and Performance – students will be challenged to let go of their way of seeing the world, to transform into a character that sees the world differently, and to keep experimenting; they will sharpen their scene study and text analysis skills and deepen their character work
  • Movement / Camera: Special Skills and Special Effects – students learn elements of combat and fighting and explore physical extremes of pain, injury, fantastic situations, and costume; they play the entire range of dramatic characters, from the average person to superhero to animals to zombies
  • Voice: Integration – students explore the dynamic link between their voice and acting and discover how powerfully these two aspects of the work influence and inform each other
  • Acting: Ensemble Monologue – through an assigned monologue, students confront the relationship between their own life experiences and those of the character they play
  • Acting: Return to Impulse – students explore ‘genius,’ the profound relationship with true impulse that is a key element in elevating a performance to greatness
  • Industry: Voice Acting – exploring the art form of voice acting through recording sessions in many different areas of the discipline including an audition, audio book, animated character, and a multi-voice commercial
  • Audition: Exploring Film – preparing for the potentially career-making opportunities in a significant feature film audition
  • Speech: Text and Rhetoric – discovering how vital argumentation is for breaking open the action of a scene; experimenting with different characters’ vocabulary, how it affects their speech, and how they use language to affect other characters
  • Industry Prep: The Business of Acting – students prepare a business plan to support the transition from student to professional actor, and to develop the skills to navigate the industry from a business perspective; discussion of topics such as demo reels, online presence, industry trends, headshots, resumes, agents, casting directors, formulating and executing a marketing plan
  • Industry: Promo Reel and Screen Test – students create their own promotional reels which will be shot in an audition / screen test format and will be used to promote themselves to agents upon graduating
  • Industry Prep: Actor-Entrepreneur – developing a website, navigating social media, pitching projects, accessing funding bodies, applying for grants, collaborating with the industry, promoting and producing independent theatre, driving film and TV projects
  • Camera: Final Film Project – students produce and act in their camera final film project; they apply all of the acting skills they have learned, as they audition for, research, and rehearse their role; they participate in production and wardrobe meetings leading up to these projects

Master’s Degree in Acting / Master of Fine Arts Degree in Acting – Two to Three Year Duration
Master’s programs in acting vary considerably from school to school. All aim to foster mastery in acting, voice, speech, and movement, but the master’s curriculum is almost always specialized. Consider this wide variety of degrees offered at the master’s level:

  • Master of Acting for Stage and Screen
  • Master of Theatre Acting
  • Master of Acting for Screen
  • Master of Physical Acting
  • Master of Performing Shakespeare
  • Master of Classical Acting
  • Master of Fine Arts in Professional Voice Practice
  • Master of Contemporary Acting
  • Master of Actor Training and Coaching
  • Master of Actor Musicianship
  • Master of Performance Studies (this degree is more theory and research focused)

Degrees Similar to Acting

Animators are artists. Their art is producing images or ‘frames’ that, when combined in sequence, create an illusion of movement called ‘animation.’ Degree programs in the field teach students how to use animation software and hardware to create characters and stories for the motion picture, television, and video game industries. Typical components of the curriculum include two-dimensional and three-dimensional art and animation, storyboarding, life/human and background drawing, layout, and digital painting.

Broadcast Journalism
Students of broadcast journalism learn how to report, produce, and deliver the news for television, radio, and other broadcast media. Their studies typically include communication theory, electronic media production, mass communications law, and media and society.

Classical Studies
The study of the languages, literatures, philosophy, history, archaeology, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome is the focus of a degree in the classics.

Degrees in dance prepare students to work in various aspects of the dance world, from performance to choreography to teaching. Degree programs may focus on a specific genre – like ballet, jazz, contemporary, dramatic, or folk – or they may take a more general approach. Programs exist at the Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s levels.

In English degree programs, students read, study, and write about the literature and culture of the English-speaking world. Coursework also includes the history, linguistic structure, and use of the English language.

Film Production
Degree programs in this field teach every stage of film production, from conception to distribution. Coursework includes securing screenplay rights, identifying financing sources, finding locations, negotiating with film distributors, hiring casts and crews, and managing production budgets.

Depending on the level of degree, programs in this discipline may include courses in music history, theory, composition, ear training, and performance, as well as production techniques and methods and the business of music.

Music Theory and Composition
The typical music theory and composition curriculum is focused on the process of creating music through the elements of sound (overtone, timbre, pitch, amplitude, and duration), melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure/form, and expression (dynamics, tempo, and articulation).

Speech Communication and Rhetoric
Degree programs in speech communication and rhetoric focus on the study of human communication. Students of the discipline examine how we communicate one on one, within organizations, and in the larger contexts of politics, cultures, and societies. Coursework includes public speaking, speech writing, and analysis and criticism of examples of persuasive speaking or writing.

Theatre Arts
Theatre arts degree programs teach the performing arts and the fields that support them. Some curricula may focus on a specific area, such as acting, dance, or music. Others may address more than a single aspect of the live theatre industry, covering a range of topics including theatre history, dramatic literature, playwriting, directing, and/or self-promotion. Still others may focus on or include the technical/supportive disciplines of lighting, scenic design, costume design, and make-up.

Skills You’ll Learn

Students of acting learn a set of skills that is welcome not only in the world of theatre and cinema, but beyond. They bring the following to any kind of work they do:

  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Ability to concentrate and learn quickly
  • Self-confidence / positive self-image
  • Motivation and dedication
  • Ability to work both independently and collaboratively
  • Memorization
  • Respect for deadlines
  • Pride in ‘getting it done right’
  • Adaptability
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Ability to bounce back after disappointment
  • Persistence
  • Physical stamina
  • Enjoyment of their work
  • Enhanced cognitive function in older adults, often associated with pursuing the creative arts

What Can You Do with an Acting Degree?

To be in front of the camera. To be on stage. To be in front of an audience. To be an actor. Those, of course, are the goals of any acting student. But it is important to recognize that the skills developed by acting majors can be put to use on other career paths as well, only some of which are closely aligned with the performing arts. Here is a snapshot of the perhaps surprisingly diverse employment options open to graduates of acting programs:

  • Actor
  • Arts Administrator
  • Booking Agent
  • Box Office Manager
  • Community Arts Worker
  • Continuing Education Acting Instructor
  • Narrator / Audio Book Narrator
  • Voice Coach
  • Voiceover Actor

As noted in the sections above, acting programs can vary significantly. Depending on the specific curriculum completed, grads may come away from their studies with sufficient knowledge to be considered for these positions or related assistant positions:

While the following roles would require further education, certification, and/or on-the-job training, the communication and creative thinking skills gained in learning to be an actor lay a foundation for acting majors to pursue them:


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