So you’ve just received an undergraduate BFA or B.A. degree in acting or musical theater. Congratulations! Hats off to you. While this is an incredibly exciting time in your life and your stage or screen career is brimming with potential, it can get a little overwhelming deciding what to do with that potential. Should you stay at home and find a day job to save money before doing anything drastic? Should you hit the ground running and move to the big city? How do you even find auditions as a trained (but unemployed) actor with little professional experience?
The most important thing for an actor to maintain through uncertain times is craft. If you want to succeed, no matter what stage you are at in your career, you must continue your training. That might mean taking acting classes at a local studio or hiring a coach. For others, that means applying for graduate school to continue your studies.
One of the best ways to decide if graduate school is the right step for you is to consider what you’d be happy doing with your talent and knowledge. For some, an actor’s rigorous routine of day job, acting class, and auditioning while trying to make ends meet isn’t appealing. Moving to Los Angeles or New York City straight out of college can be a rude, challenging awakening.
If you can reflect and be honest with yourself and know that the hustle is not for you, consider adjusting your passion for acting to that of teaching. “Grad school is an excellent idea for many reasons. If you want to teach later at the college level, you’ll need, at the very least, an MFA and a Ph.D.,” says Backstage Expert Gwyn Gilliss.
You also have to be honest with yourself about your career’s probable trajectory. If you’re a character actor who won’t bloom until your 30s, getting a master’s degree is a great way to continue training. The right graduate program will also introduce you to people who can help you farther along in your career. “You’ll also make good connections that will help you get work in all media,” Gilliss says.
Training and networking aside, getting a degree from some of the nation’s top programs also bolsters your chances of booking a job thanks to name recognition alone. Have a school like Juilliard on your calling card looks good to producers, directors, casting directors, and agents before you’re even seen in the audition room. Programs that culminate in a graduate-level showcase can also lead to nabbing representation straight out of grad school or getting cast in Broadway-level theatrical productions.
If you’re thinking about pursuing a master’s degree as an actor, you’re probably looking at an acting MFA, a fine arts degree in drama, a theater arts degree, or a theater education degree. Expect to become not just a master as an actor, but to explore other creative facets of theater like directing, writing, and pedagogy.
With that in mind, Backstage is highlighting 19 master’s degree programs that should be on your radar. Find out how to audition as a prospective graduate student, what each program looks for in its students, what a school’s extracurricular or professional opportunities are, and everything else you’d need to know.
- American Conservatory Theater
- Boston University
- Brown University/Trinity Rep
- California Institute of the Arts
- Carnegie Mellon
- Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine
- DePaul University, The Theatre School
- NYU Tisch School of the Arts
- Pace University’s Actors Studio Drama School
- Rutgers University
- The Juilliard School
- The Old Globe + University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
- University of Washington
- University of Wisconsin
- USC School of Dramatic Arts
- Yale School of Drama
As a Tony-winning regional theater and educational institution, ACT—the largest theater company in the San Francisco Bay Area—has an indomitable foothold in the heart of its city’s burgeoning theater scene in Union Square. The key to an ACT education is diversity; actors in its MFA program study and perform both classic and contemporary texts from around the world to mold them into “citizen artists” who are engaged with their greater community. They also enjoy hands-on professional experience with the theater and individualized attention from instructors. The theater’s position in the local arts scene also attracts guest speakers and performers from far and wide.
If you’re an actor looking to add a creative hyphenate to your area of expertise, Boston University’s graduate program may be for you. While its BFA program specializes in acting (just ask graduates like Julianne Moore, Uzo Aduba, and Marisa Tomei), its MFA program specializes in the deeper craft of theater, offering programs in design, playwriting, production, production management, directing, and theater education.
As one of several Ivy League institutions on this list, Brown’s three-year MFA in acting is particularly competitive, as students are faced with cuts after year one; moving on to their second year of interdisciplinary studies in acting, voice, and movement is by invite only. Thanks to the university’s partnership with Trinity Rep—which employs many graduate students as understudies in its regional stage productions—young actors have the chance to graduate with their Equity cards in hand.
The acclaimed arts school founded by Walt Disney perfectly balances an education both theoretical and practical, featuring three years of rigorous coursework in acting, voice, and speech with a special emphasis on movement and physical expression, as well as individually designed performance opportunities, on-camera intensives, and advanced scene study. The result? Versatile actors who are engaged with the world around them and who possess the skills needed for success.
Priding itself on being the first conservatory training facility in the U.S., Carnegie Mellon has been producing “innovators, practitioners and industry leaders” since 1914. But its graduate-level education is not for everyone. Truly embracing an interdisciplinary curriculum, this program is for theater-makers who are looking for more than just acting courses—it offers master’s degrees in various areas of design, technical directing, dramatic writing, costume production, and stage and production management. If you are an actor with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts who is looking to expand your theatrical prowess and begin creating your own work at the professional level, Carnegie Mellon may well be for you.
This three-year graduate acting program out of UC Irvine fosters mastery in stage and camera acting, voice, speech, and movement while expanding a traditional conservatory curriculum to include seminars in script analysis, acting theory, acting pedagogy, and dramatic theory and criticism. Above all else, though, the Claire Trevor School fosters individuality. In addition to the campus productions staged each year (graduate actors are expected to complete six performance projects over six semesters), students are also given an “in” to audition for professional productions and festivals through the summer months, such as the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Shakespearean Festival, the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and more.
This New York City-based Ivy seeks “the bold, the curious, the fearless, the actor of indomitable spirit.” If you fit the bill, listen up! The three-year program offers a wide variety of techniques and courses, and an exploration of texts both contemporary and classic to fit to each graduate student’s individual needs. That deep dive takes place over the course of four semesters; a student’s final year is all about prepping for the professional world with a yearlong practice course and series of professional development workshops. It all leads to both an L.A. and New York City showcase in the spring of the third year.
Over its three-year curriculum, DePaul’s MFA acting program trains actors to be artists of the world, sharpening skill sets developed in undergraduate studies to finer emotional precision while fostering expertise in classic and contemporary texts. Course study also involves a deep dive into the business of acting and how to make a career last. And thanks to the university’s location in the heart of Chicago’s thriving theater and arts scene, third-year graduate students are connected with industry professionals. It all culminates in a showcase for the program’s students in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
This program has a bevy of notable graduates, including Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Marcia Gay Harden, Corey Stoll, Debra Messing, and Michael C. Hall. This three-year master’s program is built on continuity (the graduating class will form a tight-knit company while also having many of the same professors through their time at NYU) while still maintaining an element of surprise as “the skill level demanded of their students” heightens. This program, in particular, is known for its in-depth film acting training and for theater actors, its third-year collaboration with Lower Manhattan’s Public Theater.
Rooted in the Method acting system first developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, this three-year program out of the Actors Studio Drama School in NYC begins its first year by pairing writers, directors, and actors all in the same curriculum to develop a “shared language” between tomorrow’s collaborators. Years two and three focus on taking the established instrument—the artists themselves—and training them to create characters of their own.
While many collegiate-level acting programs hinge on a four-year degree for undergraduate studies and three-year for graduate, Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts enacts a 3.5-year program for both levels of study. Built on the foundations of a true theater company, this program has actors (both undergrad and grad), playwrights, directors, set designers, and more learning and working alongside each other in the theater arts for seven semesters. While there is a shared curriculum between these practices (including theater history, global theater, and career transition), the heft of one’s degree is earned through core classes, which emphasize speech and movement alongside Meisner, Chekhov, and classical training in the acting track. Further aligning with this “company” mentality, productions utilizing all departments are developed and put on, and when it comes time for graduation, professional showcases are staged in New York City.
We can’t talk MFA programs for actors without including about the Juilliard School. Though the inaugural graduate class of eight students was introduced in 2012, the esteemed institute’s MFA drama degree has already changed the game of what acting programs can offer. (It’s no wonder, considering its roster of Drama Division undergraduates includes Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Laura Linney, Kevin Kline, and Christine Baranski.) The four-year conservatory program is structured around a complementary pairing of BFA and MFA drama students who all work together in acting, voice, and movement studies. Graduate students have advanced studies of their own, including seminar programs in production, directing, playwriting, pedagogy, and theatrical trend studies in addition to specialized acting courses, ultimately building the foundation to bridge the actor’s studies to his or her professional pursuits.
When the Old Globe Theatre founding director Craig Noel was in need of classically trained actors to take on the Shakespearean texts his theater was known for, he couldn’t find them on the west coast. And if they weren’t coming to him, he decided to build them from the ground up; shortly after, he partnered the Old Globe with the University of San Diego to make what would become one of the most respected—and competitive—classically skewed master’s programs around. Seven students are chosen from hundreds of applicants annually for the two-year program, which demands a full schedule of classes, workshops, and rehearsals six days a week during the school year, plus professional stage work at the Old Globe through the summer months. One’s master’s degree is then capped with an original, final solo performance thesis that “demonstrates technical expertise and theatrical expression.”
Graduate students out of UCLA’s Interdisciplinary Theater MFA Program in Acting are incentivized to create the “theater of the future.” The degree covers theater, film, television, and digital media, and lasts for eight quarters, one year of which will focus on acting for the camera, microphone, and motion capture in addition to the typical conservatory-style courses in voice, movement, and speech. Collaboration, too, comes to play a major role in the university’s master’s course of study, as students of playwriting and directing join acting students for a quarter, inciting collaboration through the rest of their time as students.
Established in 1925, the Department of Dramatic Art out of UNC Chapel Hill is the second-oldest collegiate acting program in the country. Its three-year, graduate-level Professional Actor Training Program (PATP) is one where actors are given both the necessary skill set and emotional tools to act successfully for stage and screen, and the knowledge and connections necessary to make a living doing it. Chapel Hill has rich ties to the local Equity/LORT theater, Playmakers Repertory Company; in fact, graduate students are accepted on a basis of how well they will fit as a member of that theater’s community. Furthermore, students are eligible to receive their Equity card prior to graduation thanks to their involvement with this nationally recognized theater.
The MFA-level Professional Actor Training Program out of University of Washington’s School of Drama has been around for over 40 years, molding actors to succeed in the arts after graduation and maintain a creative sense of wonder. Students meet for general course study for three years, ultimately accumulating the experience of at least seven stage shows, two original solo productions, a dialect project, and ongoing classes in scene and technique study for both stage and screen acting. Plus, professional acting opportunities abound in this corner of the country; students often audition and book summer gigs with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, ACT (A Contemporary Theatre), Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
None other than staff-favorite (and Emmy-nominated star of “The Leftovers” and “Fargo”) Carrie Coon graduated from this highly regarded but often overlooked graduate program in the Midwest. A student actor’s three years at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Theatre and Drama are defined by an in-depth study of acting and directing, as well as “integrated programs such as Theatre for Cultural and Social Awareness and Theatre for Young Audiences,” so graduates come out with a better understanding of the world and social climate around them and how their talents as actors and theater-makers can correlate and contribute to that climate. “Special focus,” its description reads, “will be given to fundamental studies, collaboration, and entrepreneurial opportunities preparing students for the changing landscape of the professional theatre.”
Fusing a classical, conservatory-style approach and a more contemporary, physical approach over its three years, this program out of the University of Southern California produces individualized, self-starting talents who innovate and create through the performing arts. Broken into four main objectives—creative, corporeal, scholarly, and collaborative—this program prepares graduate students to leave USC’s L.A. campus with the skills, knowledge, and stamina to succeed on the stage and screen thanks to a series of capstone events, a three-play repertory thesis project, and extended audition workshops with Hollywood casting directors, agents, managers, directors, and producers. Few schools can claim to have such a deep-seated well of talent and alums working just outside their campus who are ready to give back to the school that made them.
The Yale School of Drama’s master of fine arts in acting program is consistently ranked atop the list of the world’s finest programs for a reason—and it’s more than just because of alumni like Meryl Streep. Like at many of the schools on this list, collaboration between theatrical disciplines like writing and direction is a key component of Yale’s three years of graduate study. Unlike the others, it has the Tony-winning Yale Repertory Theatre at its back, where all acting students are required to understudy at one point, nabbing them their Equity cards upon graduation.
*This post was originally published on May 1, 2017. It has since been updated.
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