THR Ranks the 25 Best Drama Schools for an MFA

6:30 AM 5/20/2016

by THR Staff

New York or L.A. (or Wisconsin)? Stanislavski or Meisner (or Disney)? Picking an acting school can be a Hamlet-like melodrama all its own, as THR surveys the experts to rank the best places to get a graduate degree.

Illustration By Sam Island

There are enough schools offering master's degrees in the performing arts to fill every page of this magazine — about 17,000 students get an MFA degree a year. Of course, a lot of those diplomas aren't worth the parchment they're printed on, much less the average $38,000 annual tuition. Still, a degree from one of a select group of institutions — in the U.S. and abroad — can give graduates a solid foundation for a career, or at least a decent shot at being taken seriously by casting agents. To find those schools and rank them in their proper order, THR talked to deans, teachers and other insiders and triangulated their input with reporting from the magazine's own staff. The results are below.

Written by Seth Abramovitch, Ashley Cullins, Mia Galuppo, Scott Johnson, Borys Kit, Andy Lewis, Kendal McAlpin, Brian Porreca, Bryn Elise Sandberg and Tatiana Siegel

  1. 25
    25

    Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University

    New York

    Critics say it's an MFA mill — and a cash cow for Pace and The Actors Studio, which recently renewed their partnership for another 10 years. But if these fourth walls could talk! There's no denying the history of a place where Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan taught the Stanislavski method to the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Plus, students get to sit in the audience during Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio and listen in as James Lipton asks movie stars, "What is your favorite curse word?"

  2. 24
    25

    University of Wisconsin

    Madison

    Wisconsin might not appear to be a theater lover's mecca, but this solid program is known for its folksy touch. The student body consists of 62 graduate students split among five specializations, including acting and costume design. Joan Cusack is an alum, as is The Leftovers actress Carrie Coon.

  3. 23
    25

    University of North Carolina

    Chapel Hill

    The second-oldest theater school in the U.S. — founded in 1925 — it partners with the PlayMakers Repertory Company, one of the nation's oldest, most esteemed touring groups (Tom Wolfe used to write for it; Andy Griffith was one of its actors).

  4. 22
    25

    Boston University

    Boston

    Its undergraduate school is an actor factory — alums include Julianne Moore, Jason Alexander, Uzo Aduba, Ginnifer Goodwin, Rosie O'Donnell and Marisa Tomei — but the MFA program concentrates on offstage crafts, offering postgraduate degrees in playwriting, costume design and directing. During the summer, the school will break ground on a $50 million performance-arts center with a new studio space and state-of-the-art production facilities. It's scheduled to open in 2017.

  5. 21
    25

    Brown

    Providence, R.I.

    Its partnership with the Trinity Repertory Company is one of the biggest draws to this Ivy League postgraduate program; it's one of the last acting schools in the U.S. to offer MFA students three-year internships at a professional theater. But Brown's BFA acting program seems to churn out more stars, including John Krasinski, Laura Linney and Emma Watson (who studied English literature, not acting).

  6. 20
    25

    USC School of Dramatic Arts

    Los Angeles

    It has a new name (it used to be the USC School of Theatre) and a new dean (David Bridel). And though it still is not as well known as the university's film school, it has turned out a whole lot of famous performers, including Todd Black, Tate Donovan, Patrick J. Adams (Suits) and Danny Strong (who appeared on Gilmore Girls and now is a writer-producer on Fox's Empire, which he co-created).

  7. 19
    25

    UC Irvine

    Irvine, Calif.

    This small school, located on a former buffalo ranch in Orange County, accepts only eight students a year but cranks out working actors: Alums now performing on Broadway include Beth Malone (Fun Home) and Teal Wicks (Finding Neverland, which closes Aug. 21).

  8. 18
    25

    National Institute of Dramatic Art

    Kensington, Australia

    Toni Collette, Mel Gibson — if you're Australian and famous, chances are you went here. NIDA announced a slew of new courses (including one in cultural leadership) in 2015, and in April it launched a partnership with NYU's Tisch that will have students from those schools work together to create an original television comedy.

  9. 17
    25

    University of Washington

    Seattle

    Only six students are admitted each year (from hundreds of applicants). Once they're in, the Stanislavski-slanted program teaches acting as a 9-to-5 job (really, those are the hours) with rigorous demands to graduate: A minimum of seven productions, a dialect project and two solo shows are required before receiving a diploma. Alums include Joel McHale and Kyle MacLachlan.

  10. 16
    25

    DePaul

    Chicago

    This intimate program — which boasts a 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio — puts on 40 productions a year and offers such popular courses as African Dance and American Funny: Stage Comedy From Groucho Marx to Tina Fey. It also draws some big guest speakers: F. Murray Abraham and Faye Dunaway both have taught master classes.

  11. 15
    25

    American Conservatory Theater

    San Francisco

    Courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

    Annette Bening, Benjamin Bratt, Elizabeth Banks, Denzel Washington and Harry Hamlin (pictured) earned MFAs at this 51-year-old school in the heart of San Francisco. If that weren't enough, its acronym is ACT.

  12. 14
    25

    Carnegie Mellon

    Pittsburgh

    It doesn't offer an MFA in acting, but there is a strong postgraduate program for production, writing, directing and other theatrical arts — which explains why seven graduates are nominated for Tony Awards this year (including two for Hamilton).

  13. 13
    25

    Rutgers

    New Brunswick, N.J.

    It's the only school to offer a yearlong exchange program — with Shakespeare's Globe theater in London. Recent graduate Mike Colter stars on the Netflix series Jessica Jones (Sebastian Stan, who has a BFA from Rutgers, also is part of the Marvel universe, having appeared in the Captain America films).

  14. 12
    25

    Royal Central School of Speech & Drama

    London

    One of the most difficult schools to get into — more than 5,000 applicants a year compete for 45 spaces — it's alma mater to everyone from Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave to Kit Harington and Karla Souza. A recent $4 million government grant means the 106-year-old institution soon will get new studio space and rehearsal venues.

  15. 11
    25

    CalArts

    Valencia, Calif.

    The brainchild of no less an educator than Walt Disney — he unveiled the idea for the school in a short film shown at the Mary Poppins premiere in 1964 — CalArts remains closely associated with the Disney family (grandnephew Tim is chairman of the board of trustees, which includes such power players as Tom Rothman, Alan Bergman, Rodrigo Garcia and Don Cheadle, BFA 1986). It's a well-funded institution with great assets (like the REDCAT arts center in downtown Los Angeles), even if some say its program is a bit "crunchy granola" for actors and "better for playwrights."

  16. 10
    25

    Bristol Old Vic

    Bristol, U.K.

    Laurence Olivier founded the "fruit school" — so nicknamed because its first campus was a single room inside the city's fruit-and-vegetable market — in 1946. Each year the postgraduate program takes only 14 international and 28 EU students who audition by performing scenes (from one classical play and one modern play) and singing. Once in, the daily training is rigorous — 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. — but it obviously delivers results. Alums include Jeremy Irons, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Olivia Williams and Mark Strong.

  17. 9
    25

    A.R.T. at Harvard

    Cambridge, Mass.

    Its acting program might not be as renowned as others on this list, but it has a major Broadway director on the faculty — Diane Paulus — and students get to spend a semester in Russia studying at the Moscow Art Theatre. This year, graduates finally will get a degree that says Harvard, or at least Harvard Extension (the degrees used to be from the Moscow Art Theatre).

  18. 8
    25

    Columbia

    New York

    Location, location, location — plus an Ivy League name — make this school a magnet for talent. Guest lecturers have included Cate Blanchett, Stephen Sondheim, Mandy Patinkin, Cynthia Nixon and Edie Falco (the latter is set to give this year's graduation address May 18). Plus, it's the only school on this list that offers an MFA in theater with a joint JD degree from Columbia's law school — perfect training for that obligatory first New York acting gig on Law & Order: SVU.

  19. 7
    25

    The Old Globe & University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program

    San Diego

    There was a name change in 2015 — it became the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, named for Darlene Shiley, a longtime benefactor — but the odds of getting in remain the same: slim. Each year, only seven students are accepted (about 2 percent of applicants) to this joint venture between the university and the city's esteemed Old Globe theater (where students participate in a renowned summer Shakespeare festival).

  20. 6
    25

    UC San Diego

    San Diego

    Grads are guaranteed a residency at the Tony-winning La Jolla Playhouse (which operates three theaters in partnership with the school), though recent alum Ricardo Chavira was able to find a job on his own: He recently was cast opposite Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant in Netflix's upcoming Santa Clarita Diet.

  21. 5
    25

    UCLA

    Los Angeles

    Unlike many schools on this list, UCLA also has a killer film department, which means ample opportunity for MFA actors to find collaborators with cameras. But its stage program is no slouch: Four alums are working on Broadway right now (Alida Michal in Anastasia, Aleks Pevec in Something Rotten!, Joanna Jones in Gotta Dance and Katie Boeck in Spring Awakening).

  22. 4
    25

    Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

    London

    Courtesy of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

    Alan Rickman (pictured, class of 1974) served as vice chairman until his death in January. Other famous grads of the venerable 112-year-old British institution include Anthony Hopkins, Glenda Jackson, John Hurt and Clive Owen. This year, plans were announced for major renovations, including a redo of the school's Chenies Street studio (a new 300-seat theater will be named for alum Richard Attenborough).

  23. 3
    25

    Tisch School of the Arts, NYU

    New York

    Courtesy of NYU Tisch School of the Arts

    Pascale Armand, class of 1999, recently received a Tony nomination for Eclipsed, which was written by fellow alum Danai Gurira. Billy Crudup, Debra Messing (pictured), Michael C. Hall and Garret Dillahunt also got their MFAs on Tisch's Greenwich Village campus, right next door to The Public Theater (where Hamilton debuted) and a zillion other off-Broadway venues. But Tisch isn't only about stage acting: In 2017, it will launch a five-week intensive Acting for Film and Television curriculum for second-year students.

  24. 2
    25

    Yale School of Drama

    New Haven, Conn.

    Courtesy of William Baker

    Just how good is Meryl Streep's (pictured) alma mater? Some of its students land big roles even before they graduate (Jonathan Majors, class of 2016, recently was cast in ABC's upcoming gay-rights miniseries When We Rise). No other school's repertory theater has sent more shows to Broadway (11) or amassed more Tony nominations (40) along the way. It also might be the only MFA program to get thanked at the Oscars (alum Lupita Nyong'o mentioned Yale in her acceptance speech for 12 Years a Slave).

  25. 1
    25

    Juilliard

    New York

    When it comes to the performing arts, no school has a bigger or better brand name. Robin Williams went here (he was roommates with Christopher Reeve), along with Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, William Hurt, Jessica Chastain, Laura Linney, Oscar Isaac, Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins and Hamilton's Phillipa Soo. Juilliard's MFA program is fairly new — until 2012, the school offered only BFAs — but it's hard to find a more distinguished faculty, which includes renowned writers (Rabbit Hole's David Lindsay-Abaire, House of Cards' Beau Willimon) as well as buzzy television showrunners (New Girl's Liz Meriwether). Plus, its campus is in New York City, the red-hot center of the theater world, giving it a slight edge on its prestigious rival in far-flung New Haven.

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