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The long sleep of the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating to the acting world — but in a silver lining, it forced a creative reset at many of the world’s best drama programs. Colleges and conservatories have used the downtime to reconfigure, rebuild and rehire. Diversity, among both faculty and students, has transcended buzzword status to become an enthusiastically implemented goal. New theaters and facilities have been erected. And after a year or more of remote learning, the return to in-person study has resulted in a wave of unbridled creativity. Call it a spring awakening. With that in mind, The Hollywood Reporter has consulted with educators, alumni and industry execs for its annual ranking of the best schools for an acting degree.
New Haven, Connecticut
What since 1925 has been known as the Yale School of Drama is now the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale. The change might have something to do with a $150 million gift to the program from the David Geffen Foundation. “I knew Yale was the right place to begin to change the way we think about funding arts education,” said David Geffen (who taught a course at Yale in the late 1970s) in presenting his endowment. The upshot is that the world-class graduate acting program that produced Meryl Streep (1975) and Frances McDormand (’82), among many other acting legends, is now completely free — for the lucky few (15 to 17 students per year) who are accepted. And that’s worth applauding.
The Juilliard School
Juilliard offers two four-year streams — one undergrad and one graduate. Both programs immerse students in an intense conservatory environment where they binge on classes dedicated to singing, speech, voice, physical comedy and acting for the camera. The results speak for themselves: Recent graduate successes include Julia‘s Brittany Bradford (2018), The Tragedy of Macbeth‘s Corey Hawkins (’11) and Che Diaz themself — Sara Ramirez (’97). Unlike at Yale, however, students will likely come away with dreaded student loans to repay — to the tune of $51,000 per year.
Pictured above: A 2019 performance of Paradise Blue at The Juilliard School.
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
Count Broadway’s Raúl Esparza (’92) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (’89) as alumni of this thrumming creative hive in Greenwich Village. The drama schools at NYU — both the undergraduate Tisch Drama and the three-year Graduate Acting Program — are among some of the most exciting programs in the world. They are also among the most expensive, running around $60,000 per year (some financial aid is available). Still, the investment may be worth it for some, particularly for the connections students can make there via alums like Mahershala Ali, Daniel Dae Kim and Sterling K. Brown, who return for guest lectures. “In the past three years, each of our students has landed agent and/or manager representation upon graduation,” a school rep says.
University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
UNCSA provides only an undergraduate degree, but there’s no arguing its students find work. The school now teaches on-camera acting all four years of the program — and recent grads are feeling the benefits. Briana Middleton (’22) was cast by George Clooney in The Tender Bar, while Jeremy Gill (’21) got a part in the upcoming Cat Person. Tuition is $24,000 annually, with aid available.
Pictured above: Students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts perform a dress rehearsal of Indecent during the 2021-22 school year.
UC San Diego
The playhouse is the thing at this prestigious training ground in sunny Southern California. Namely, the La Jolla Playhouse, a theater co-founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck that has launched multitudes of Broadway-bound productions (Jersey Boys and Memphis among them). MFA students perform in professional productions at the Playhouse — which means they graduate with an Actors’ Equity card in hand. Their tuition is waived, as well.
London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art
The oldest drama school in the British Isles was founded in 1861. In the more than 150 years since, LAMDA has churned out some of the best actors to ever tackle William Shakespeare and other classical texts. Succession’s Brian Cox graduated in 1965; most recently, Matt Doyle, an American LAMDA grad, won a 2022 Tony for best featured actor in a musical for his work in the revival of Company. Undergrad and graduate degrees are offered; tuition is $30,000 annually.
Pam & Tommy’s Lily James (’10) is a graduate of this renowned acting conservatory, where only an undergraduate degree is currently available — a three-year program that trains actors to “move with confidence between stage, screen, digital and audio platforms and classical, contemporary and experimental repertoire.” Tuition is $34,000 annually.
The Old Globe and USD
The two-year, Shakespeare-dominated MFA stream at the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program is led by actor, director and choreographer Jesse J. Perez (who co-starred in the 2003 film American Splendor). Tuition is completely covered — but only 2 percent of applicants are accepted to each class, with seven students each.
Providence, Rhode Island
This Ivy League training program — associated with the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company — has reinstated its MFA program after a one-year COVID-19 pause. That’s great news for aspiring graduate students, who see their whole tuition waived and perform in professional Trinity shows like Death and the Maiden, mounted in May by award-winning visual artist and director Eddie DeHais.
UCLA is in the midst of building its program back up to pre-pandemic robustness. Its graduate program is back on track after a two-year pause. The grad acting class recommences in fall 2023. Its alumni, meanwhile, can be found all over film and TV, from Olly Sholotan (’19), who plays Carlton on Peacock’s Bel-Air, to Zuri Adele (’16), who stars on Freeform’s Good Trouble. Tuition is $30,000 annually for residents, $60,000 for nonresidents.
Carnegie Mellon University
An outstanding training ground for musical theater performers (though nonmusical training is also offered), the School of Acting and Music Theater at Carnegie Mellon is an undergraduate-only, four-year program that has produced the likes of Billy Porter (’91) and Zachary Quinto (’99). Tuition is $36,000 annually.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Without RADA, there might be no Loki. That may be overstating things, but Tom Hiddleston honed his chops at this venerable acting institution, which was founded in 1904 and counts the Platinum Jubilee lady herself — Queen Elizabeth II — as its royal patron. The school offers a three-year B.A. in acting and one-year M.A. Theatre Lab. Tuition in $26,000 a year.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom star Colman Domingo joined USC’s School of Dramatic Arts this year as a guest lecturer and master artist, and will transition to a full-time professor appointment this fall. And he’s not the only famous faculty: The Dropout‘s Kate Burton, Transparent‘s Alexandra Billings and Ordinary Joe star David Warshofsky also find time to teach at USC — which benefits greatly, of course, from its location in the global center of the entertainment business. Tuition for undergrads is $58,000 annually; grad students receive a 75 percent discount.
Pictured above: John Ritter in a University of Southern California student production circa 1967.
National Institute of Dramatic Art
The acting program at NIDA, Australia’s finest drama conservatory, is led by John Bashford, who trained Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch when he served as associate principal at LAMDA. NIDA’s track record is no less impressive, with Sarah Snook (’08) and Cate Blanchett (’92) among its constellation of star graduates. A three-year BFA program is offered, with tuition about $23,000 per year.
Pictured above: Cate Blanchett in a 1992 production of Electra for the National Institute of Dramatic Art.
Case Western Reserve University
This three-year MFA program — which waives tuition and provides a stipend — has been on the rise in recent years. A new auditorium, the Maltz Performing Arts Center, opened in fall 2021, and the school has added a full-time dance instructor, former Alvin Ailey performer Kenya Woods, to the faculty. On-camera training has been expanded to a 15-week film acting class, a 10-week film audition class and a seven-week voiceover intensive. And students earn their Equity cards at the affiliated Cleveland Play House.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Established in 1936, UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art is the second-oldest theater department in the U.S. and offers a strong MFA program integrated with PlayMakers Repertory Company. Six to eight actors are accepted to each class and receive tuition waivers and stipends. As of fall 2022, the school will launch a new minor in musical theater performance. The lighting grid in the school’s Paul Green Theatre has been completely overhauled and a new system to help the hearing impaired has been installed, with funding from an anonymous donor. Billy Crudup (’90) and Wyatt Cenac (’94) are alumni.
Winning Time‘s Tamera Tomakili (’19) and Dickinson‘s Joey Odom (’19) are two recent success stories to come out of this MFA acting program, which “defines itself by its location in New York City.” Translation: In this business, it’s all about who you know, and the Columbia network is a broad and powerful one. But expect to pay for the privilege: Tuition is $72,000 annually.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Grammy- and Tony-nominated Broadway veteran Michael McElroy (The Wild Party, Big River) was tapped in fall 2021 to lead the school’s undergraduate musical theater program. (A nonmusical BFA stream is also available.) Fun fact: Darren Criss attended and starred in A Very Potter Musical with his fellow U. of M. acting students before graduating in 2009.
Florida State University
Ramone Nelson, who made his Broadway debut this year in MJ the Musical, graduated from FSU in 2021 with a BFA in musical theater — a joint program offered since 1981 through the School of Theatre and College of Music. Tuition for the four-year program is $19,000 per year. The graduate program is fully covered, however, and is affiliated with the prestigious Asolo Rep, Florida’s largest Equity theater.
University of Missouri — Kansas City
Kansas City, Missouri
Bull‘s Donnie Keshawarz (’98) earned his MFA at “Kansas City’s best-kept secret” — a rigorous conservatory training program affiliated with Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Tuition is $25,000 per year for undergrad and graduate programs.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Sharon Ott, a force in the theater world and former artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, joined VCU as its theater department chair in 2017 and has been steadily improving the program ever since. She is now acting as artistic director. The school offers a B.F.A. in Theatre program, with concentrations in performance and musical theater, among other disciplines. Tuition for the four-year program B.F.A. program is $38,000 annually for out-of-state students, $16,000 for in-state.
The MFA degree — founded in 2019 — is a fully funded, two-year program based out of brand-new facilities in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s downtown Chicago campus, where faculty and alumni alike are making their marks in Hollywood and on Broadway. Assistant Professor Masi Asare was nominated for a Tony Award as the co-lyricist for the breakout musical Paradise Square, while Selina Fillinger, a 2016 graduate now based in L.A., wrote the Tony-winning play POTUS and is currently working on the third season of Apple’s The Morning Show.
Savannah College of Art and Design
New hires at SCAD include Florida Man star Isaiah Johnson and husband-and-wife Broadway veterans Tiffany Evariste (Aladdin) and Mike Evariste (The Book of Mormon) — who are putting undergraduate and graduate students through their paces in state-of-the-art rehearsal and broadcast studios. Recent successes include Christian Magby (’16), who was cast opposite Demi Lovato in the NBC pilot Hungry, and Kayli Carter, who recurred on the most recent season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Tuition is $38,000 per year.
Pictured above: A Savannah College of Art and Design performance of Ragtime during the spring 2015 semester.
Southern Methodist University
Every odd-numbered year, the theater division at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts accepts eight graduate students for acting training that “stands within the Stanislavski tradition.” They get a full-ride scholarship plus $12,000 stipend. Also available is a BFA in theater, such as the one The Flash star Candice Patton earned in 2007. Cost for the undergraduate program is $45,000 per year.
Purchase College, SUNY
Purchase, New York
Casting director Susan Shopmaker (Sound of Metal) joined the faculty and teaches a course on the business of acting. And grad Chris Perfetti (’12) is on a hot streak, now starring on ABC’s Abbott Elementary. Tuition for the BFA program is $33,000 per year, including room and board. Twenty students are chosen.
This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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