4 of the Best Undergraduate Theatre Programs in the U.S. (And the One I Chose)

4 of the Best Undergraduate Theatre Programs in the U.S. (And the One I Chose)

By Wendy Tafur N.

If you consistently got good grades in school and want to challenge yourself doing university in the U.S., like me, you will probably start by doing a quick Google search of “The Best ____ Programs.” Now, whether or not you think you’ll be accepted in those programs is a different story, but it’s a good place to start.

Some of the universities that consistently showed up in my search for the best theatre programs include, in no particular order: Juilliard, Northwestern University, University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University, New York University, Rutgers University, Syracuse University, California Institute of Art, Boston University, DePaul University, and University of Washington.

However, that does not mean that these are objectively the best or that you shouldn’t look into other universities, because, as I’ve said in previous articles “the best” for someone might not be the best for you. It depends on your own goals and what you expect to get out of your program.

So out of all of these, which ones did I like the most and considered applying to?

New York University (NYU) - Tisch School of the Arts

The Tisch Drama Program differs from the rest because they combine “rigorous conservatory training with an empowering academic curriculum.” Their program is heavy on the studio practice and different approaches to acting, music theatre, production, design, theatrical management, and directing. Their belief is that through showing you different approaches, you will be able to find your individuality and what fits you best. The interesting part about Tisch is that while this practice is emphasized on their website, they pay as much attention to what they call a “theatre studies curriculum” and general education in the humanities and sciences.

Each year, the department offers about 150 performance opportunities. In my opinion, this is one of those programs where if you choose to apply, you must be sure that this is what you really want to do, because Tisch’s goal is to prepare you to be able to make a career out of theatre. Moreover, the “studio system” is not your choice—you apply to the department, and they place you in a studio for conservatory-type training for the first two years. However, after that time, you can choose to advance your training in that same studio or another.

Of course, there are also options for electives, and it’s located in arguably one of the best cities in the world for theatre. I would be lying if I said this isn’t on my grad school list as well.

Northwestern University

When I was applying, I wanted a university that was good at both creative writing and theatre, so Northwestern was one of my top choices. Even now, I’m considering it for grad school in the U.S. as well. Northwestern’s theatre program is very appealing because of it’s broad approach—practice, history, and theory. According to their website, their faculty’s expertise include acting, dancing, directing, choreography, playwriting, music theatre, theatre history and criticism, and sets, light design, and costume, just to name a few. Moreover, they are so near Chicago that it is a good opportunity for students to actually experience the theatre-scene and start getting involved in the community.

The university itself provides networking opportunities for students through events such as their New York Showcase and Chicago Showcase. For the New York showcase, a select group of students performs for an invited audience of New York talent agents and casting directors. The Chicago Showcase is a similar opportunity but for graduating seniors.

University of Southern California (USC)

USC’s Theatre Program can’t even be explained as just one. USC School of Dramatic Arts offers multiple degrees including a Bachelor of Arts, BFAs in: Acting for Stage, Screen, and New Media, in Contemporary Musical Theatre, in Design (scenic, lighting, and costume), Sound Design, Stage Management, Technical Direction, and a Bachelor of Arts in Visual and Performing Arts Studies. The last is more of an interdisciplinary degree with USC’s six art schools.

Similarly to Tisch, I would say this type of program is aimed more at those of you who are completely sure of what you want to study. In USC’s case this is especially important because you can only apply to a total of two different degrees, so you can’t just be interested in theatre, there must be a specific area of theatre that you want to focus on. At first, this aspect of USC made it seem better for me because I thought that I only wanted to study acting. I didn’t want to be set designer; I wasn’t interested in other areas as much, so why should I have to take classes or electives on them?

As time went by, I ended up not even applying to this program for the same reasons. I started thinking about how I’d never had any theatre experience before, so how would I know that I don’t like other areas? What if I tried acting and changed my mind? I still think this is an amazing option for those of you who are sure of your passion. I respect that one of their main objectives in their theatre is to show a collaborative art with a social impact. But if you’re more hesitant, I would say find something a bit more flexible.

University of Washington (UW)

UW’s School of Drama believes that ideally theatre artists should have a liberal arts undergraduate major in drama and follow that with a graduate conservatory education. This is why almost half of their program, as they explain on their website, is dedicated to theatre history, theatre literature and criticism and then that is balanced with other courses on all elements of production. The idea of theory with a conservatory-type of education seems similar to that of Tisch School of the Arts, but the balance is completely opposite. Tisch is more conservatory combined with some liberal arts education; UW is a liberal arts education in drama with the conservatory aspect more focused on their BFA program. For this reason, since I wasn’t considering a masters degree immediately after my undergraduate, I wasn’t at first as interested.

However, because I loved Seattle I started looking more into the major and realized there are actually some areas that can be emphasized: General Drama, Drama Performance, and Drama Design. Moreover, UW has plenty of opportunities for students to be involved in mainstage productions, studios, and workshops. They also have an Undergraduate Theater Society which is run completely by students—this would be a great experience for complete involvement for students in what they call, “a self-sustaining theater club.” The BA also offers opportunities for portfolio development, so generally I would recommend this program for those who are expecting to follow the BA with an MFA or just want a strong background in theater.

Nevertheless, the one I ended up attending was,

Seattle University

Seattle University’s Theatre program offers “a conservatory style experience within the framework of a broad-based Jesuit liberal arts education.” Like Tisch, it follows that conservatory style, and like UW it also emphasizes a liberal arts education. As an alumna from this program I can honestly say it is a very immersive experience. Part of the curriculum to graduate with a Theatre BA is to obtain five production credits: each credit is only attained after being a part of one of the three shows that the department puts up every quarter. This involvement can be in acting, working at the costume shop, working as a wardrobe assistant during the show’s run, stage managing, working in the set, or any area that is of interest to the student. It’s a significant time commitment for one production credit, but it also forces us as students to actively get involved in a production.

As I mentioned, I was at first attracted to USC’s focus on a specific area of theatre. But, I know I made a good choice with Seattle University’s Theatre Program because it allowed me the opportunity to explore every single area. I got most of my production credits working at the costume shop, which I didn’t even know I would love.  I truly feel like I was able to find that I wasn’t just interested in acting, but every aspect of storytelling.

It’s a very small program, that is true especially in comparison to UW, which is so nearby, but I do not regret my choice.

I wasn’t completely certain about doing theatre and I also wanted to study English before I came to the U.S., so I avoided schools that were completely dedicated to theatre. But, now that I am in love with it, I’ve had the chance to research on some more programs that are specific to theatre, acting, or performing arts. If this is what you’re looking for, I would also recommend looking more into conservatories or academies such as New York Film Academy or AMDA. Both train artists in areas such as Acting, Music Theatre, Performing Arts, and have programs for younger artists in high school who want to try it out for the summer. For AMDA, students even get to make the choice between a degree program or a conservatory program for their desired area, so it would be easier to train in the way that fits your needs.

As I’ve said before, the best for me might not be the best for you, so the best way to know for sure is to do your research and ask current students or alumni about their experiences. Now you know mine.

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Wendy is an international student from Ecuador who just graduated from Seattle University with a double major in Creative Writing and Theatre. She’s excited to share some of the stories of things she’s learned in her time in the U.S.!

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