ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Throughout this academic year, we're following a group of students who graduated from high school a few years ago in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. We're asking about the choices they've made and about the cost and value of higher education. Today, two young men who took very different paths and who both find themselves chasing ambitions and dreams in the arts in New York City. Both are banking on their talent, but they're also pursuing high-priced educational programs to refine that talent.
JAKE MEILE: We're at my new school, American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
SIEGEL: Jake Meile went from high school to what's become the most popular destination for Montgomery County High School graduates, the local community college. For three years, Jake did mostly theater and decided to become an actor. With very low tuition, no loans but not even an associate's degree, he has now moved on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Midtown Manhattan. Tuition and the cost of living in New York come to about $50,000 a year. We sat down to talk at a busy coffee shop a few blocks from the conservatory, and I started by asking about the difference between the two learning experiences, community college and the Academy. Jake said the biggest difference is being taught acting as an art now, not just a collection of skills. His ah-hah moment of the semester was being able to cry in a scene.
MEILE: And once I got past it, it just felt like a whole, huge weight lifted off my shoulders, like a new side of my acting that I'll be able to tap into for other roles.
SIEGEL: Do you remember what the scene was?
MEILE: Yeah, my wife, she was cheating on me with the other couple's husband. And the scene itself was, you know, me confronting her, telling her that I knew about it and then just kind of begging her to stay. She was trying to leave, and it was just - it's also hard for me 'cause, you know, I haven't been married to anyone for 15 years ever. So it's, like - we're taught to tap into something that you can relate to as...
SIEGEL: What do you tap into for this sense of betrayal and anger?
MEILE: Yeah, for the sense of betrayal it's...
SIEGEL: What do you do?
MEILE: It's basically - actually, one of the things we do is you take the word betrayal and you think and you just let your mind wander on the word betrayal and any experience that you've gone through that made you feel the feeling of betrayal. And our teacher had us write down every definition of the word betrayal we could possibly use and take those feelings and put them into your body. And then you have that feeling. And then when the lines hit and if you're fully breathing and you're relaxing into your body, the stimulus will - it'll hit you harder. And you'll be able to react a lot more naturally and fully because you're not tense and you're not holding things back.
SIEGEL: It does seem to me that if we were to say, well, going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts costs tuition and the cost of living in New York, we can subtract from that the cost of psychoanalysis since you're going through...
MEILE: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
SIEGEL: ...An exploration of yourself during this time.
MEILE: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like a happier person in general. It's easy to be able to get over things that I realize now are just kind of - it's just a human emotion that happens and you can just take your emotions and let them happen and then not judge them and not judge yourself and just - you can just live your life, and it feels a lot better. It just feels a lot more relaxing and you leave yourself alone a lot. And that's what we're getting trained to do because when you're performing, that's the biggest thing that stops you is your judgment about yourself.
SIEGEL: Yeah, it sounds like you've had a very demanding, very positive...
SIEGEL: ...Semester here.
MEILE: Absolutely. It's great.
SIEGEL: You're happy with your choice?
MEILE: Yes, very, very, very happy. And I'm happy I took the time to make the choice.
SIEGEL: From the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Jake Meile plans to spend two years, they offer an associate of occupational studies degree, it's about a 10-minute walk to a recording studio owned by New York University. Our next student followed his bliss year to prepare to become a music producer.
EVAN BONHAM: I'm Evan Bonham. We're at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU.
SIEGEL: When I met Evan back in August at his family's home in Bethesda, Md., he was planning to graduate after the fall semester. He has an internship and a capstone project to finish. But since then, he's changed his mind. His project now includes launching his own record label, and he's decided to stay on as a student through the spring taking a light course load. Why the change?
BONHAM: Really, for me, it was about just continuing developing my project. So mainly, I'm in here in the studio, which if I was in the real world paying for studio time, it would be much more than if I was paying for tuition. So I have the access to the whole faculty here, to the studios, so I can get my projects done as well as being a student part-time.
SIEGEL: I think the phrase is you would pay even more...
SIEGEL: ...Than you're paying for...
BONHAM: Yeah, correct.
SIEGEL: ...I mean, 'cause it's not free, your access to the studio.
BONHAM: Exactly, exactly.
SIEGEL: Well, can you give us a sense of what you're up to here?
BONHAM: Sure - so, yeah, this is actually another remix I did. It's an ambient techno DJ named Heathered Pearls, and this is actually for a remix contest that he had.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVAN BONHAM SONG, "WARM AIR ESTATE")
BONHAM: So we had the percussion, the high hats and the vocals. I mean, I just kind of added my own layers into it. Then I was thinking, OK, I want to kind of make this more into like a dance-y track. So, I mean, I started to add my own percussion. So right here, I recorded high hat, the claps, some shaker and then I said, OK, let me make this more really ambient, so I added an organ. And then I had my friend play cello to make it more melodic. So I came up with these different elements and then I just really, like, brought everything together.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVAN BONHAM SONG, "WARM AIR ESTATE")
SIEGEL: And you submitted it?
BONHAM: I did. Unfortunately, I didn't win, but the winner was very - their track was really good.
SIEGEL: A vital tool here for you is a laptop?
SIEGEL: And a hard drive?
SIEGEL: And some software?
SIEGEL: If you had a very well-appointed garage back home, where you simply spent all your time at this but didn't have any teachers or any experience of NYU, what would be the difference?
BONHAM: Anybody can honestly learn how to produce music on their laptop watching YouTube videos, reading books on production, for that matter. But really what the whole basis of coming to this institute was learning how I can walk into any studio right now and basically run a session - how to use different programs to make music, how to work with an artist, how to make money off of making music, you know?
SIEGEL: I know this is very hard for you to figure, but do you feel it's been worth it? Do you feel that the investment in your future has been...
BONHAM: ...One hundred percent. All the perks of a huge institution like NYU, the network building, where you can really meet one-on-one with your professors and get advice will really help you grow as your career is progressing.
SIEGEL: That's NYU senior and aspiring music producer, Evan Bonham. He told me that he's been offered a job at the company where he interns. We'll be in touch with him as the year progresses. Tomorrow, three young women and their appointment with real life.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.