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If COVID-19 sounded the death knell for theater and production, it didn’t manage to snuff out acting schools, many of which were quick to adapt (Zoom-based writing collaborations! Radio plays!) to the changing landscape. With the light now at the end of the proverbial tunnel, those schools are deftly mapping out the path back into the classroom. (Columbia is even throwing in a free year.) What the pandemic year has proven is that the appetite for content — and the actors necessary to bring it to life — has never been stronger. As training grounds brace for a sharp increase in applicants, The Hollywood Reporter consulted with insiders, alumni and casting pros for its annual ranking of the best places to earn an acting degree.
Juilliard (New York)
Classes have been conducted in person since November 2020 at Juilliard, where a four-year BFA acting program and a four-year MFA acting program are offered. Students from both levels of this most elite of conservatories cross paths in studio work (voice, movement, scene study, etc.). Recent grads include In the Heights‘ Corey Hawkins and Search Party‘s Brandon Micheal Hall. On the faculty end, a nine-month search led to the hiring of Derrick Sanders, founder of Congo Square Theatre, dedicated to work “rooted in the African diaspora,” as the new associate director of the school’s drama division. Students recently made waves protesting a planned $2,000 tuition increase to about $51,000. The final year’s tuition is waived for grad students. (All tuitions cited are annual.)
Yale (New Haven, CT)
The school, which operates in partnership with the Yale Repertory Theatre, offers a three-year acting MFA only and features one of the starriest lists of graduates — including WandaVision‘s Kathryn Hahn, Watchmen‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and 2021 Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Tuition is $34,000 — but the school boasts that 85 percent of students receive financial aid.
NYU - Tisch (New York)
As New York theater and TV and film production perk back to life after a year of stasis, this school, which is actually two separately run schools — Tisch Drama and the Graduate Acting Program — benefits greatly from being right in the heart of the action. Tisch has a proven track record at both the undergraduate (My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Rachel Bloom) and graduate level (Moonlight‘s André Holland). Carl Cofield joins the latter, three-year program this fall as department chair. He was previously associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem. A new performance facility at 181 Mercer St. is nearly complete and will feature NYU’s first professional-level proscenium, a fly-loft theater for student production, plus rehearsal and training spaces. Tuition for undergrads is $59,000; grad school is $65,000, with financial aid available (on average, students receiving aid are responsible for covering 30 percent).
University of North Carolina School of the Arts (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
The four-year undergrad program is among the premiere training institutions to offer a BFA in acting. The program was among the most innovative in getting its students on their feet throughout the pandemic, with a combination of filmed theater, radio plays and socially distanced in-person shows. Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) and Billy Magnussen (Made for Love) are alums. Tuition is $23,000 for out-of-state, $6,500 for in-state, with scholarships available.
UC San Diego (San Diego)
Graduate students work closely with the top-ranked La Jolla Playhouse at UCSD, where Toby Onwumere (The Matrix 4) got his MFA. The school puts a strong emphasis on mounting new plays, working in close partnership with the Wagner New Play Festival. B.A.s in theater are also offered, and students have access to the school’s five theater spaces (four of which are shared with the La Jolla Playhouse). Undergrad tuition is $15,000 for California residents and $45,000 for out-of-state; grad students have their tuition waived and are given a monthly stipend of $2,500.
London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (London)
12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor and Stranger Things‘ Joseph Quinn both graduated from this institution, the oldest drama school in England (founded 160 years ago). Three degrees are offered to prospective students: a three-year B.A. in professional acting, a two-year MFA in professional acting, and a one-year M.A. in classical acting for the theater. Tuition is about $30,000.
Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh)
The first school in the United States to offer a degree in acting remains one of its very best. Only a BFA in acting is available — a four-year program with an emphasis on musical theater that boasts Gary Kline, one of the finest vocal teachers in the world, on the faculty. Matt Bomer (The Boys in the Band) and Ming-Na Wen (Mulan) are graduates. An assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, Valeria Martinez, has been appointed to oversee representation at the university’s College of Fine Arts. Tuition for undergrads is $58,000; grad school is $36,000, with some scholarships and aid available.
Another of London’s vibrant training grounds has put its graduate program on hold as it reconfigures a new version “eligible for U.K. government funding” to make it more affordable. But its B.A. in acting is still going strong — an intensive, three-year cycle that has produced the likes of Michaela Coel, the powerhouse behind HBO’s I May Destroy You. Tuition is $30,000.
The Old Globe & USD (San Diego)
This MFA program accepts just seven students per class for a two-year, year-round immersion into classical and contemporary theater studies. During the pandemic year, Sam White, artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream via Zoom — the virtual production was viewed by public schools throughout San Diego and Detroit. Tuition is fully covered for each student accepted and a monthly stipend is given to help toward living expenses.
Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island)
The MFA’s usually the thing at Brown, where students tread the boards at the affiliated Trinity Rep. But grad admissions are on pause for the 2021-22 school year as the school gets back up to speed post-COVID-19. (Second-year and third-year students continue in their training and are offered an additional year of schooling at no cost.) The undergrad program is in full swing, however, and the school has produced the likes of Laura Linney and John Krasinski, a playwriting major who graduated in 2001. The drama school is the only Ivy League institution that fully covers tuition for graduate students. Undergraduates can expect to pay $58,000, however.
UCLA (Los Angeles)
Though the MFA acting program is not accepting applications for Fall 2022, the four-year B.A. in Theater remains open. This remains the best L.A.-based degree acting program, where everyone from Jack Black to Chad‘s Nasim Pedrad has studied. Graduate tuition is $11,000; undergrad is $13,000 for California residents, $43,000 out-of-state.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (London)
Taron Egerton and Cynthia Erivo are just two of the multitalented stars to come out of this famed conservatory, which offers a three-year B.A. in acting and a one-year master’s acting lab. The undergraduate stream is divided between “exploration,” “assimilation” and “application.” Whatever that means, it’s working — RADA produces some of the finest actors in the world. Out of 4,500 annual applicants, only 14 are chosen. Tuition for international students is approximately $30,000, with some aid available.
University of Tennessee (Knoxville, TN)
With the affiliated Clarence Brown Theatre resuming live performances in November (a new production of A Christmas Carol), this Southern jewel of a program — which offers a B.A. in theater and an MFA in acting — is back on track. The school’s Carousel Theatre will be replaced with a state-of-the-art facility due for completion in 2023. Alums include How to Get Away With Murder‘s Conrad Ricamora and Tramell Tillman, soon to be in Apple TV+’s Severance. Tuition is waived for grad students, plus an annual stipend of $16,000 is offered; out-of-state tuition for undergrads is $31,000.
American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco)
The MFA program is on hiatus (in-person training for its class of 2022 continues, however), but for those dying to get their feet wet at the school that trained Brie Larson and Zendaya, this West Coast institution is offering 15-week programs called “San Francisco Semester” that will return to in-person instruction in Fall 2021. Tuition is $30,500.
USC (Los Angeles)
USC’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood mean students there might get a visiting lecture from someone like Lisa Kudrow, Bryan Cranston or Tony Shalhoub, all of whom have stopped by to share some wisdom. The school offers a B.A. in theater and an MFA in acting. New Amsterdam star Ryan Eggold, Saturday Night Live‘s Beck Bennett and Ozark‘s McKinley Belcher III all attended. Tuition is $58,000.
National Institute of Dramatic Arts (Sydney)
This force from Down Under produces some of Hollywood’s biggest talents — from Baz Luhrmann to Cate Blanchett and Succession‘s Sarah Snook. The program is three years and offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts. It also gives students an Australian actor’s union membership, the equivalent of an Actors’ Equity card in the U.S., meaning grads can immediately work professionally in both countries. Twenty-four students are accepted. Tuition is $24,000.
Columbia University (New York City)
This MFA program gave every student in the acting department a year on the house due to COVID-19. It has also beefed up its BIPOC faculty, hiring Scott Whitehurst to oversee its Shakespeare in the Schools initiative and Nikkole Salter to teach text analysis. Recent grads making it in the biz include Tamera Tomakili (currently shooting HBO’s Showtime) and Marcel Spears (a series regular on CBS’ The Neighborhood). Tuition is $72,000. In the third year, it drops to roughly $14,000.
Case Western Reserve (Cleveland)
Over 1,100 hopefuls audition every year to land one of eight coveted spots in this MFA program, which offers students professional stage opportunities at the affiliated Cleveland Play House. It’s a three-year intensive program that features a strong lineup of guest artists (playwright David Henry Hwang, for example). A new performance space, the Maltz Performing Arts Center, opens later this year. The program is tuition-free plus a stipend is offered.
Cal Arts (Santa Clarita)
This Is Us star Ron Cephas Jones joined the faculty this year to teach acting at CalArts, where Cecily Strong, Alison Brie and The
Chi’s Tiffany Boone studied. A four-year BFA and three-year MFA program are offered, and professional opportunities are available
to students through the affiliated CalArts Center for New Performance. The program — close to L.A. — also features interdisciplinary opportunities with other departments (like the cutting-edge digital media program). Tuition is $53,000 for graduate and undergrad.
Florida State University (Sarasota, FL)
A three-year MFA program operating in conjunction with the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the program chooses 12 students each year to participate in a rigorous training and performance schedule. The Asolo season has already been announced, beginning in November with Everybody, a modern spin on the 14th-century morality play Everyman. Upon graduation, all students will walk away with an Actors’ Equity card. Tuition is $19,000 out-of-state, and free for graduate students.
An undergraduate theater major and two-year MFA in acting are available, with grad students performing annually at a Summer Stage season at the school’s Evanston campus. Billy Eichner got his B.A. in theater there in 2000; four years later, Lily Rabe (appearing next in American Horror Story: Double Feature) did the same. Tuition is $57,000.
Southern Methodist University (Dallas)
Brian Baumgartner acquired the building blocks for what eventually would become The Office‘s Kevin at this institution’s Meadows School of the Arts. No time was wasted during the pandemic year, either, as SMU and Clark Atlanta University collaborated, via Zoom, on Good Trouble, a cycle of six original short plays about race that premiered virtually in April. Tuition is $45,000 for undergrads. A full-ride scholarship is offered to all grad students plus a stipend.
University of Missouri - K.C. (Kansas City, MO)
Chicago Med star Nick Gehlfuss trained at this conservatory MFA acting program, among the strongest in the Midwest (a B.A. in theater is also offered). The program works in partnership with Kansas City Repertory Theatre as well as other regional theaters, giving both grad and undergrad students professional acting opportunities before a diploma touches their hands. Tuition is $25,000.
Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, GA)
The School of Entertainment Arts at SCAD puts a big emphasis on its facilities and has undertaken the construction of a “Hollywood-style film backlot” on its 10-acre campus. The BFA and MFA programs have produced a striking number of working actors, including recent grads MK Smith, Charmaine Shaw and Christian I. Noble, all of whom can currently be seen in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad for Amazon Prime. (A total of 70 SCAD alumni and current students worked on the production in some capacity.) Tuition is $38,000.
Purchase College, SUNY (Purchase, NY)
Edie Falco, Parker Posey and Stanley Tucci are just three of the starry names to attend this school’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, which offers a BFA in acting that gives students performance opportunities at the Purchase Repertory Theatre. Recent grad Colby Hollman was plucked out of rehearsals for his final student production to appear in AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. Out-of-state tuition (including room and board) is $33,000; New York residents pay $23,000.
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