The 25 Best Drama Schools for a Master of Fine Arts
So you think you can act (or write or direct)? For the first time, THR surveys the experts and finds out where to get a postgraduate education — maybe even one that could land you a job.
This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This year, THR is lifting its annual ranking of the best drama schools to a higher level. The magazine is concentrating on the best places to get a postgraduate education (with one- to three-year programs) and for the first time is expanding the polling process to include not just casting directors but members of the SAG Foundation and the schools themselves (asking them to rank their competition) as well as other experts. The results are appropriately dramatic, with surprising additions to the list — including one top school located in a former Buick dealership and another on a buffalo ranch.
1. Yale School of Drama
New Haven, Conn.
Two words: Meryl and Streep. And if they weren't enough: Angela Bassett, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Giamatti … But the star power of its graduates isn't the only thing that makes Yale a top pick. No other school offers as many production opportunities. Yale Rep has premiered more than 100 plays, including two Pulitzer Prize winners and four finalists, and sent 12 shows to Broadway that earned more than 40 Tony noms (and eight wins). More recent grads (with good jobs) include: Empire's Trai Byers, Agents of SHIELD's Brett Dalton, How to Get Away With Murder's Aja Naomi King and new film star Marissa Neitling, who appears opposite Dwayne Johnson (who didn't go to Yale) in San Andreas.
New York City
Its acting program works hand in glove with its writing program, which churns out plenty of heavyweights of its own (including Pulitzer winner David Auburn). Last year, the ink was barely dry on Alex Sharp's diploma when he landed the lead in the Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Other famous grads — or in Kevin Spacey and Kelsey Grammer's cases, near-grads (they left after two years) — include Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
3. Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
New York City
This program "produces fearless actors" (according to chair Mark Wing-Davey) using an avant-garde curriculum mixing classical dramatic training with more esoteric studies — like, um, neuroscience. "We ask how we can avail ourselves of new tools and understandings," explains Davey. Grads include Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause and Marcia Gay Harden.
4. Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
It was born before feature films even were invented. But this 111-year-old British institution has trained some of the most famous actors in cinematic history: Vivien Leigh, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Glenda Jackson, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Jonathan Pryce … the list goes on and on …
5. Carnegie Mellon
The oldest drama school in America is better known for its undergraduates — churning out winners like Ted Danson, James Cromwell, Rob Marshall, Steven Bochco, Ming-Na Wen, Holly Hunter, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer (who picked up a Golden Globe this year for his turn in HBO's The Normal Heart). But its graduate program is gaining traction.
6. UC San Diego
A partnership with the Tony-winning La Jolla Playhouse means that everybody who gets in ends up with a job: MFA students are assured at least one professional residency at the theater.
7. Old Globe, University of San Diego
Only 2 percent of applicants are accepted into this demanding two-year program — that's just seven new students per year. The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons got his MFA there in 2001; now he's got four Emmys, a Golden Globe and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
8. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
Here's where Carrie Fisher learned how to speak like Princess Leia (with a "British accent that ebbs and flows like menstrual bloat" was how she once described it). Other grads who went on to make something of themselves include Laurence Olivier, Julie Christie, Kathleen Turner, Vanessa Redgrave and — more recently — Game of Thrones' Kit Harington, The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield and The Hobbit's Martin Freeman. "Central stands at the heart of training and research for our great British theater," says yet another grand alum, Judi Dench.
A partnership with the Tony-winning Trinity Rep (home to nearly 60 world premieres) is a huge plus for this Ivy League postgraduate program. Undergrad alums who've made their way to Hollywood include The Office's John Krasinski and Modern Family's Julie Bowen. But the graduate program has produced such theater luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes.
Ed Harris, who graduated from CalArts in 1975.
New Brunswick, N.J.
Partnerships with a renowned regional theater (the George Street Playhouse) and a much-farther-flung venue (Shakespeare's Globe in London) make this program a unique experience. MFA recipient Moritz von Stuelpnagel — class of 2014 — is a Tony frontrunner for best direction of a play for the hit Hand to God.
Calista Flockhart at Rutgers in pre-'Ally McBeal' days.
The school's film, theater and television programs are all under one roof — and often collaborate — which makes this campus, smack in the middle of the entertainment capital of the world, a smart choice for learning about showbiz. Grads: Richard Lewis, Eric Roth, Corbin Bernsen and Francis Ford Coppola.
12. UC Irvine
Located on a former buffalo ranch, this small, long-established program accepts only eight actors a year — four men, four women. Empire's Grace Gealey was among the lucky few; she got her MFA in acting here in 2010.
'Empire’s' Grace Gealey, who got her MFA from UC Irvine in 2010.
13. USC School of Dramatic Arts
USC is better known for its film school (see THR's 2015 Top 25 Film Schools list, coming in July) than its drama program. But plenty of success stories have had their start here, including Jay Roach, Shonda Rhimes and Stephen Sommers. And a new partnership with the Shanghai Theatre Academy in China has opened doors, as the Summer Institute for International Actors organizes student exchanges across the Pacific.
14. A.R.T. at Harvard
The American Repertory Theater — a huge deal on the national theater scene, with 17 Tonys (including one a year since 2012), 12 Drama Desk Awards, a Pulitzer and a Grammy — allows 23 students a year into its two-year program in Cambridge. Then it ships a bunch of them to Russia for several months of training at the Moscow Art Theatre School.
Steve Zahn (right) in the American Repertory Theater production of The Miser in 1989.
The 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio at this campus outside Los Angeles — founded in 1970 by no less an entertainment educator than Walt Disney — makes it easy to find a mentor. Graduates include Ed Harris, Don Cheadle and Alison Brie.
Don Cheadle, class of ’86, during his school days at CalArts.
16. Bristol Old Vic
The Old Vic is aptly named: The 250-year-old stage is the U.K.'s most ancient continuously working theater. But it's still pretty spry, sending a risky hit like Jane Eyre to the National Theatre last year. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School — founded by Laurence Olivier in 1946 — is mainly an undergraduate program but accepts up to 14 MA students a year. Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Mark Strong, Olivia Williams and Lydia Leonard (who just got a Tony nomination for Wolf Hall Parts One & Two) got their starts here.
17. National Institute of Dramatic Art
Springboarding off the success of its long-admired undergraduate program — which trained Mel Gibson, Baz Luhrmann, Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis and virtually every other Australian actor or director you've ever heard of — NIDA launched MFA programs for writing and directing in 2014. Its first group of graduate students recently finished the 15-month course in May.
The 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio makes this small program one of the more intimate acting-school experiences. But it attracts plenty of jumbo-sized speakers. Master classes have been taught by F. Murray Abraham and Faye Dunaway, and there have been lectures by David Mamet, Julie Harris, Jonathan Pryce, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Recent alums include Stana Katic (Castle) and W. Earl Brown (Deadwood).
19. Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University
New York City
Method acting was invented here; it's where Brando, Pacino and De Niro all learned to mumble. Students of the only MFA program sanctioned by the Actors Studio carry on the Stanislavski tradition, which makes this school, in the words of alum Bradley Cooper, "a sacred place."
New York City
"A brain trust for the American theater" is how the school's chair, Christian Parker, describes his program. And with guest lecturers like Cate Blanchett, Edward Albee, Alec Baldwin and Stephen Sondheim, he's not entirely wrong.
21. Boston University
BU's College of Fine Arts is housed in a Beaux Arts building festooned with gargoyles shaped like mechanics — it used to be a Buick dealership. But never mind. Inside is the MFA program in playwriting founded by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott that accepts only four or five candidates every year. The directing MFA accepts only one or two. But there are no acting MFAs; instead, BU's undergrad acting students get a postgraduate internship in L.A. (with the likes of CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler or Seinfeld's Jason Alexander).
22. Circle in the Square
New York City
"Circle," as it's known to students, is the only accredited training conservatory associated with a Broadway theater. If there's a school style, look for it in alums Felicity Huffman, Kevin Bacon, Idina Menzel, Benicio Del Toro and Lady Gaga. "Two things I learned while at Circle: that theater matters and that acting is an art form as great as any other," alum Philip Seymour Hoffman once said of the school.
23. University of Delaware
Many schools ruthlessly prune their students, culling the ranks from semester to semester. It's Survivor, with every performer fending for himself. At Delaware, though, the class is taught to be a troupe, a unit. That philosophy — developed by artistic director Sanford Robbins — seems to get results. Over the past 16 years, 94 percent of students seeking summer acting employment have managed to get it.
24. The William Esper Studio
New York City
Esper worked for 17 years with Sanford Meisner — the guy who trained James Caan and Robert Duvall — and taught the repetition-based technique to Jeff Goldblum, Amy Schumer and Sam Rockwell. Grad Timothy Olyphant calls the school "inspiring and invaluable."
25. University of Washington
Graduates (like Rainn Wilson, Joel McHale and Jean Smart) tend to get work; about 50 percent of students land gigs within 12 months of graduating. It took alum Kyle MacLachlan much less time, though. His phone started ringing the minute he picked up his diploma. One of the callers was Dino De Laurentiis, offering MacLachlan a star-making role in Dune. MacLachlan initially thought it was a crank call.