The 25 Best Drama Schools for an Acting Degree

6:00 AM 5/26/2017

by Seth Abramovitch

THR consulted with deans, teachers, students, actors and other insiders to put together this year's ranking of top schools to get an MFA.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Ivanov at LAMDA in 2000.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Ivanov at LAMDA in 2000.
JOHN HAYES/LAMDA

Getting a Master of Fine Arts in acting isn't cheap — the average three-year degree costs about $114,000. Then again, that's a little less than what the average TV star makes shooting a single episode — so do the math. Choosing the right school, however, can be as tricky as trigonometry. Is it better to attend one in New York or Los Angeles? How about Tennessee? What matters more: an Ivy League diploma or an Equity Card? To help sort through all these equations, THR consulted with deans, teachers, students, actors and other insiders to put together this year's list of the top 25 drama schools.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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    Yale School of Drama

    New Haven, Connecticut

    Yale produces more Oscar nominations than just about any other school (it's easy when 20-time nominee Meryl Streep is an alum!). Paul Newman, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand and Angela Bassett all passed through its campus (and affiliated Yale Repertory Theatre) on their way to becoming screen icons. Grads still consistently find work, with the school enjoying a hot streak lately among actors of color: While you already know Lupita Nyong'o (class of '12), keep an eye out for class of '13's Winston Duke (he recurs on Modern Family and will be in Marvel Studios' Black Panther) and class of '15's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (he's Black Manta in the now-filming Aquaman).

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    Juilliard

    New York

    Oscar Isaac backstage at a Juilliard production in 2004.
    Oscar Isaac backstage at a Juilliard production in 2004.
    HENRY GROSSMAN/JUILLIARD

    Its MFA program is a relative toddler — just launched in 2012 — but Juilliard's undergrad drama division has been molding the talents of superstars (including Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver) since 1968. Despite suffering a huge loss in 2016 with the death of the school's drama director, James Houghton, from stomach cancer at age 57, Juilliard's superb teaching staff, New York location and ongoing partnership with the Houghton-founded Signature Theater ensures grads will have a big leg up breaking into the big leagues.

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    NYU Tisch School of the Arts

    New York

    There's no question this school produces a dizzying number of notable alums: Christopher Guest, Debra Messing, Peter Krause and Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, to name a few. As with Juilliard, its Manhattan location puts students in front of the people who can give them work. Plus, it just launched an intensive five-week curriculum for film and television acting. One caveat: Its tuition ($61,622 a year) is among the highest on this list, so grads may be saddled with higher debt.

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    Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

    London

    If you're thinking about leaving the U.S. for a couple of years — and these days, who isn't? — then you're unlikely to find a better training ground than this 113-year-old London institution, where the classical education leans on "heightened text" (think Shakespeare and Greek tragedy) over contemporary drama. Its most famous alums tend to be British (Mark Rylance, Clive Owen and Ralph Fiennes), but a few American actors have learned a thing or two there as well (Allison Janney and Jon Cryer).

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    UC San Diego

    San Diego

    Its association with the La Jolla Playhouse — a pro theater on campus where countless Tony-winning productions have been conceived, including Thoroughly Modern Millie and Jersey Boys — makes this program in San Diego one of the best. And the Tonys keep coming: Alumnus Michael Greif (from the directing program) is nominated this year for his work on Dear Evan Hansen, while white-hot Broadway star Jefferson Mays is up for his third acting award for Oslo (he already took one home for I Am My Own Wife, which began, funnily enough, at the La Jolla Playhouse).

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    Brown

    Providence, Rhode Island

    For starters, it's Brown — the elite university whose undergrads include John Krasinski (theater arts major), Laura Linney (acting), Emma Watson (English lit) and Carol director Todd Haynes (semiotics). But students get more than Ivy League parchment at Brown's MFA program. The university's three-year degree — provided in partnership with the well-regarded Trinity Repertory Company — offers one of the most rigorous curricula around. The Fiasco Theater, whose innovative Into the Woods reboot is currently touring the nation, was founded by graduates of Brown's program.

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    London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art

    London

    Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo all attended England's oldest drama school, which was founded 156 years ago. Non-U.K. students are rarer but do exist: Donald Sutherland and John Lithgow are grads. This year, the school more than doubled the size of its London campus with a new $36 million training center, complete with new theaters and a state-of-the-art film and audio suite.

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    American Conservatory Theater

    San Francisco

    This nonprofit theater company and conservatory has a storied 52-year history, having set Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Anna Deavere Smith on their career paths. The program boasts a strong faculty of working artists and a close connection to its home theater. However, in March, Carey Perloff, American Conservatory Theater's artistic director for 25 years, announced her retirement, which leaves its future in question.

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    Guildhall

    London

    Located next to London's Barbican Centre — home to the London Symphony Orchestra — Guildhall's drama department has produced an impressive roster of stars, including Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Orlando Bloom, Damian Lewis and Ewan McGregor. The buzz among West End directors is that the program has upped its game in recent years — especially when it comes to voice and movement work — providing a strong alternative to RADA and LAMDA.

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    USC School of Dramatic Arts

    Los Angeles

    In 2016, multidisciplinary director David Bridel took over as dean and brought a slew of refreshing changes to the program (a musical theater lab, a partnership with Funny or Die) and some high-profile hires (Emmy-winning and Tony-nominated actress Kate Burton, daughter of Richard). Its Hollywood adjacency puts a special focus on screen acting, and its faculty is among the most diverse anywhere.

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    University of North Carolina

    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

    One theater insider praises the "seriousness" of the program at the nation's second-oldest theater school (it was founded in 1925). A tight partnership with PlayMakers Repertory Company, a highly regarded regional theater, means students "will get onstage and speak lines," often under the guidance of top directors brought in from New York.

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    CalArts

    Valencia, California

    Condola Rashad in a 2007 CalArts production of 'Las Meninas.'
    Condola Rashad in a 2007 CalArts production of 'Las Meninas.'
    STEVEN A. GUNTHER/CALARTS SCHOOL OF THEATRE

    Despite a reputation of offering a "loosey-goosey, hippy-dippy" approach to training, as one pro actor puts it, this school offers cutting-edge combinations of tech and theater. Daniel Passer, Cirque du Soleil's lead clown and comedy conceptualist, joined the faculty this year. Famous alumni include Alison Brie, Cecily Strong and Don Cheadle.

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    Rutgers

    New Brunswick, New Jersey

    "It's close to New York without actually being in New York," says one Broadway actor of this school's convenient geography. It also has an outside-the-black-box thinker with its creative director, David Esbjornson (he directed The Normal Heart at New York's The Public Theater and the world premiere of Angels in America), and an exchange program with Shakespeare's Globe theater in London.

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

    San Diego

    This joint venture between The Old Globe — a 1935-built Tudor temple based on Shakespeare's original theater — and the University of San Diego offers a two-year, classics-heavy education. It's a highly selective program that allows just seven students per class (about 2 percent of applicants). Jim Parsons is a grad.

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    UCLA

    Los Angeles

    Like USC, it offers a camera-heavy curriculum thanks to the school's strong film department — which means students get plenty of opportunities to act onscreen. Ben Stiller, Milo Ventimiglia, Jack Black and Mariska Hargitay all got their degrees here.

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    National Institute of Dramatic Art

    Kensington, Australia

    Australia's most prestigious acting school boasts some top names from Down Under: Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington and Baz Luhrmann (who graduated from the acting department, not directing).

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    University of Missouri, Kansas City

    Kansas City, Missouri

    Well-integrated with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, this program is run by a "first-class artistic director," according to the dean of a (much-higher-ranked) competing school, in the form of Eric Rosen, who has mounted work at Steppenwolf in Chicago and The Public Theater in New York.

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    DePaul

    Chicago

    John C. Reilly (right) and Larry Yando in a 1987 DePaul production of 'Curse of the Starving Class.'
    John C. Reilly (right) and Larry Yando in a 1987 DePaul production of 'Curse of the Starving Class.'
    Courtesy of THE THEATRE SCHOOL AT DEPAUL UNIVERSITY

    DePaul, where Gillian Anderson and John C. Reilly were undergrads, has a sleek facility in Chicago encompassing two theaters, construction shops and rehearsal studios. But it accepts more MFA students than other programs, offering a less intimate experience. Also, without a partnership with an Actors' Equity theater, students will have a much harder time scoring that all-important union card come graduation.

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    UC Irvine

    Irvine, California

    This small school in Orange County is as much a boot camp as it is an acting conservatory. The curriculum includes five hours of physical training a day, supplemented by a heavy dose of acting theory, script analysis and dramatic criticism. Beth Malone, Tony nominee for Fun Home, is a graduate, as is Patrick Sabongui, who has made inroads in Hollywood with roles on Homeland and The Flash.

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    University of Tennessee

    Knoxville, Tennessee

    Conrad Ricamora (How to Get Away With Murder) is a recent graduate of this three-year program, which offers its eight students per year a full-ride scholarship plus a living stipend. Add to that the promise of up to 11 main stage productions, working with such pros as Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water), at the affiliated Clarence Brown Theatre, and Tennessee becomes an attractive option, with no student debt and an Equity card awaiting candidates at graduation.

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    University of Washington

    Seattle

    The highly regarded and well-connected Todd London (he spent 18 years overseeing a playwright-driven theater company in New York) enters his fourth year as executive director of this three-year program. U-Dub has produced a few stellar grads through the years, including Jean Smart, Kyle MacLachlan and Joel McHale.

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    Southern Methodist University School of the Arts Division of Theatre

    Dallas

    Kathy Bates (center) in a 1969 SMU production of 'The Trojan Women.'
    Kathy Bates (center) in a 1969 SMU production of 'The Trojan Women.'
    Courtesy of SMU MEADOWS SCHOOL OF THE ARTS DIVISION OF THEATRE

    SMU's modest-sized program offers an excellent three-year training, with plenty of performance opportunities at the affiliated Dallas Theater Center, which was the winner of the 2017 Tony for best regional theater. Stanley Wojewodski, dean of the Yale School of Drama from 1991 to 2002, is the current theater department chair. Kathy Bates and Stephen Tobolowsky are graduates.

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    Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training

    Sarasota, Florida

    Sure, Florida State has a reputation for being a party school, but its acting MFA program is serious business. Also, every student in the three-year program receives a full tuition waiver plus a stipend — and in the second year, an all-expenses-paid chance to study in London.

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    Savannah College of Art and Design

    Savannah, Georgia

    SCAD is the only school on this list with its own in-house casting department. It's also the only one run by a former casting director (Andra Reeve-Rabb, who used to be a CBS casting director). Not surprisingly, the school has placed hundreds of students in film and TV roles shooting in Georgia.

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    Columbia

    New York

    It's an Ivy League school in Manhattan with a great guest speaker program. That's the good news. But several insiders complain that it's "poorly run" and leaves grads "in tremendous debt." Despite this, a new facility that's opening in the next year and the hiring of former Yale acting teacher Ron Van Lieu suggest the program is taking steps to right the course.

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