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“I look at the school, and anyone who tells you they don’t is lying to you,” says producer Todd Black, who helped cast the Meryl Streep film Hope Springs. “I’m gonna look much faster at a kid from a top school than from the University of Southern North Dakota.” To find out which schools give the most bang for the buck, The Hollywood Reporter polled Casting Society of America members and theater insiders. Some schools were chosen for their illustrious alumni or curriculum, but the bottom line is, these 25 schools offer the entree it takes to get a job. As Felicity Huffman has said of the “Tisch mafia” at her alma mater, NYU, “Without them, it is very possible I wouldn’t be a working actress today.”
ACT | San Francisco
The big draw for MFA students at American Conservatory Theater is the same thing that has drawn 7 million audience members to the Tony-winning theater’s shows: a resident company of top-notch professional actors. It is part of those actors’ job to mentor and network for the MFA students. In turn, MFA students mentor kids in the Young Conservatory program (YC alumni include Darren Criss, Winona Ryder and Nicolas Cage). Students also audition for real-world ACT productions — and get cast.
- Notable Alumni: Elizabeth Banks, Annette Bening, Delroy Lindo, Anna Deavere Smith, Denzel Washington
THE ACTORS STUDIO, PACE UNIVERSITY | New York
“It is a sacred place,” says Actors Studio Drama School alum Bradley Cooper. Where else could he have gotten an MFA where curriculum and faculty are chosen by Actors Studio Drama School presidents Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn? Students sharpen their gifts with the Stanislavski Method and get into founder James Lipton‘s celebrated seminars. The school is immortalized in a recent conversation on Fox’s Glee between Finn (Cory Monteith) and Rachel (Lea Michele). Finn: “What was that acting school on Bravo with the swear words and the cool dude that you made me watch?” Rachel: “James Lipton.” Finn: “Yeah. … I want to go to Inside the Actors Studio.” Rachel: “It’s just ‘The Actors Studio,’ but that’s great!” Casting directors agree.
- Notable Alumni: Chris Stack, Xanthe Elbrick
CALARTS | Valencia, Calif.
Travis Preston, dean of the California Institute of the Arts School of Theater, calls CalArts “the hub of a vast network of artistic and professional relationships that traverses the globe.” Students get to work with the likes of the Wooster Group, Andre Gregory, Magnetic Fields composer Stephin Merritt and avant-garde dramatist Richard Foreman.
- Notable Alumni: Don Cheadle, Ed Harris, Condola Rashad, Eliza Coupe, Alison Brie, Katey Sagal
CARNEGIE MELLON | Pittsburgh
The most creative time in Zachary Quinto‘s life wasn’t playing Spock; it was learning the trade at Carnegie Mellon University. “It was a four-year playground,” he says. Adds alumna Holly Hunter: “I loved to be able to take a script apart in purely technical terms to learn about a character using this very pragmatic tool. That’s where I learned it.” CMU grads have won six Oscars and 96 Emmys.
- Notable Alumni: Ted Danson, Rob Marshall, Steven Bochco, Paula Wagner, Patrick Wilson, John Wells
DEPAUL | Chicago
DePaul University benefits from being in what some consider the nation’s second-best theater town. The 6-to-1 student-faculty ratio helps, too. “There’s something in the water in Chicago,” says producer Laurence Mark. “It’s a great place for actors, and so is DePaul.”
- Notable Alumni: Gillian Anderson, Kevin Anderson, Judy Greer, Karl Malden, Joe Mantegna, Elizabeth Perkins, John C. Reilly
FLORIDA STATE | Sarasota, Fla.
Why go to Sarasota to study theater? All 12 of the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory MFA candidates get a full tuition waiver from Florida State University, an assistantship to defray living expenses, a year’s study in London, experience at the Asolo Theater and Equity actor’s union eligibility.
- Notable Alumni: Paul Reubens
GUILDHALL SCHOOL OF MUSIC & DRAMA | London
In addition to living in one of the world’s great theater cities, Guildhall actors rub shoulders with up-and-coming musicians (Jacqueline du Pre, James Galway). “Guildhall gives a broad training — it’s not prescriptive,” says alumnus Dominic West. “We’re able to be versatile.” Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery says, “Getting in was like winning the lottery.”
- Notable Alumni: Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor, Joseph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Eileen Atkins, Orlando Bloom
THE JUILLIARD SCHOOL | New York
“Regardless of how painful, how challenging, how terrific, how confusing it is,” says alumna Laura Linney, “this school will prepare you for just about anything.” A major theater director says, “In language skill and script analysis, no other grads are as prepared. Juilliard actors somehow are more marketable — the first-round draft picks.”
- Notable Alumni: Viola Davis, Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Kelsey Grammer
LONDON ACADEMY OF MUSIC AND DRAMATIC ARTS | London
Why does LAMDA look so good on your bio? Since 1861, its grads have captured four Oscars, 16 Golden Globes, 36 Olivier Awards, 19 BAFTAs and 12 Tonys.
- Notable Alumni: John Lithgow, Donald Sutherland, Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Swoosie Kurtz
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF DRAMATIC ART | Kensington, Australia
For the 4 percent of applicants who pass their audition for a spot at NIDA, the odds of stardom soar. “I mean, I loved NIDA and hated it,” Mel Gibson says in a documentary about the school. “At times, it was very frustrating and hard and depressing and all this kind of stuff, but if you were prepared to stick with it, the rewards were really good.”
- Notable Alumni: Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis, Baz Luhrmann, Hugo Weaving
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY | Evanston, Ill.
Northwestern’s vaunted undergraduate drama program puts acting in a liberal-arts context. In 2011’s commencement address, alumnus Stephen Colbert said: “I loved being a theater major. It gave me an excuse to brood, to grow a beard, to wear black at people. I didn’t want to play Hamlet, I wanted to be Hamlet.”
- Notable Alumni: Warren Beatty, Zach Braff, Seth Meyers, Ann-Margret, David Schwimmer
TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS AT NYU | New York
New York University’s BFA and MFA programs would be great anywhere — but because they’re in New York, NYU can give its students an inside track to the big time. “When Mike Nichols revives Death of a Salesman, NYU probably knows very early and knows who’s casting,” says one producer. “NYU actors are incredibly intelligent,” adds a regional theater director. “And my favorite physical actors are NYU MFAs. The clowning curriculum is unbeatable.”
- Notable Alumni: Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael C. Hall, Jeremy Piven
ROYAL ACADEMY OF DRAMATIC ART | London
Founded in 1904, RADA radiates a royal reputation. Some classes involve one teacher and three students. The Beatles are famous because their RADA-trained manager, Brian Epstein, taught them to be dramatic. RADA can put talented nobodies on the radar.
- Notable Alumni: Anthony Hopkins, Peter O’Toole, Joan Collins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ralph Fiennes, Vivien Leigh, Mike Leigh
RUTGERS | New Brunswick, N.J.
The acting BFA program at Rutgers University accepts 9 percent of applicants, who spend their third year at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Both BFAs and MFAs do annual showcase performances in New York.
- Notable Alumni: Calista Flockhart, Sebastian Stan, James Tupper, Kristin Davis
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, PURCHASE | Purchase, N.Y.
The Conservatory of Theatre Arts BFA acting program at SUNY’s Purchase College is run by Gregory Taylor, an eminent film scholar.
- Notable Alumni: Edie Falco, Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci
SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY | Syracuse, N.Y.
In 1978, says Syracuse drama professor Gerardine Clark, the BFA program attracted 250 applicants. “Now we get 900 a year. Our grads are noted for being sui generis.” Aaron Sorkin started as Clark’s musical-theater student. The key to the program: student access to the Syracuse Stage, a theater enticing 90,000 playgoers a year.
- Notable Alumni: Frank Langella, Taye Diggs
UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE | Newark, Del.
Students of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program get tuition waivers and a $16,500 stipend. “It has only one class of students at a time, and each gets full attention,” says its director, Sanford Robbins.
- Notable Alumni: Tom Hewitt, Linda Balgord
UCLA | Los Angeles
UCLA BA and BFA drama students benefit by being at a red-hot center of the study of film, TV, animation and digital media and close to Hollywood. “The opportunity to attend performances on a world-class level presented by UCLA Live [now known as the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA], Royce Hall, the Geffen Playhouse and the Film and Television Archive provides a context that is exhilarating for the study of theater,” says theater department chair Michael Hackett.
- Notable Alumni: Tim Robbins, Eric Roth, Nicolas Cage, Jack Black
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOL OF THE ARTS | Winston-Salem, N.C.
Ex-New York Shakespeare Festival artistic director Gerald Freedman has created an undergrad drama program where students get guest instruction from the likes of Sam Waterston, Patrick Wilson and UNC alums Mary-Louise Parker and Chris Parnell.
- Notable Alumni: Joe Mantello, Tom Hulce
UC SAN DIEGO | San Diego
Home to the Tony-winning La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego is a launchpad into the real world. “UCSD actors are the best auditioners,” says Seattle Repertory Theater artistic theater director Jerry Manning.
- Notable Alumni: Danny Burstein, James Avery
USC SCHOOL OF DRAMATIC ARTS | Los Angeles
“USC is in Hollywood’s front yard,” says alumnus Todd Black. “Its acting students know they have to make a living, so they’re trained in TV, feature films, Internet work.” Adds board member Laurence Mark, “USC gives you the skills and confidence to be bold and take informed risks.”
- Notable Alumni: Forest Whitaker, Swoosie Kurtz, Eric Stoltz, Kyra Sedgwick
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN | Austin, Texas
UT acting students get a boost from Austin’s famous film festival and independent film scene.
- Notable Alumni: Marcia Gay Harden
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON | Seattle
Half of Washington’s Professional Actors program students find work within a year of graduation (e.g., Kyle MacLachlan and his first movie, Dune), and half are still performing 10 years after graduation.
- Notable Alumni: Jean Smart, Joel McHale, Pamela Reed, Rainn Wilson
WESTERN AUSTRALIAN ACADEMY OF PERFORMING ARTS | Perth, Western Australia
Actors put on 300 performances a year at WAAPA, and the experience pays off. “I am totally indebted to WAAPA for [my] career,” says alum Hugh Jackman. “There is a genuine camaraderie. Acting is not a solo sport.”
- Notable Alumni: Frances O’Connor
YALE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DRAMA | New Haven, Conn.
Generally considered the most prestigious U.S. drama school, founded in 1924, it was dissed by one source as “posh and uncommercial.” Retorts Dean James Bundy, “The best advertisement for Yale School of Drama is the breadth of its graduates’ distinguished achievement in every theatrical discipline.” Also, grad Sigourney Weaver‘s films have grossed more than $5 billion worldwide. For art or commerce, no MFA is quite the calling card that Yale’s is.
- Notable Alumni: Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Paul Newman, Patricia Clarkson, Frances McDormand