Studying Theatre in College: What You Need to Know

by
Vice President of Enrollment Management, Stephens College

So you’re going all in on the Theatre degree? Great, because so many people say they want to be in theatre but major in something like Education or Business. Would you say you want to be a physicist but study Music or English Literature? No!

That’s not to say you shouldn’t pick up as many skills as possible along the way, because you’ll probably need to work in other fields to support your theatrical goals. But that’s common for most majors. Your first (or second) paying job isn’t always in your field of study. But know that the only way you’ll even have a chance at long-term success in theatre is if you totally immerse yourself in the study of it.

(And yes, I spell theatre the French way. I think of “theater” as the building and “theatre” as the craft.)

Keep your ego in check

Success at your high school is great, but your audience has most likely been packed with family and friends who love everything you do. Also, everyone else pursuing Theatre programs has probably had this same level of success. Worry about being the best you can be, not about beating out others. You’ll see students waste their time just trying to devalue the “competition,” but there’s a way to be considerate while being competitive. And don’t guess what a program wants...call them up and discuss what they’re looking for in an applicant and what you might do to make yourself more appealing.

Related: How I Learned to Make It in College Theater

Build your résumé

The “triple threat” is a term used to describe someone who is an accomplished singer, dancer, and actor. Many believe they’re triple threats, but few actually are. It’s that balance between confidence and reality. I’m an actor and singer but a much better director and historian, and though I’ve done stage design/tech, you wouldn’t want to hire me for that position. It took me a long time to get there, and I often compared myself to those around me.

Some accomplishments in many areas with real talent in some is also premium because you have a true sense of partnership. Do theatre everywhere and anywhere you can, at all levels, and in all areas, because that’s how you to show your commitment, grit, and determination. Don’t waste a moment on anything other than your dream.

Related: Behind the Scenes: Backstage Majors and Careers in Theater

Auditions and portfolios

Ask a program representative for advice on pieces they would enjoy seeing performed when you’re offered an audition for a program. They’ll have seen your selection a billion times, so work like crazy on them rather than spending months choosing pieces and leaving yourself little time to perfect your performance.

Related: Where to Find the Best Monologue for Your College Audition

Tech portfolios are about artistry, precision, and perfection in quality. Take your time detailing your work on electronic portfolios. No typos. No mistakes. A detailed knowledge of the basics of the design field coupled with some production-rooted knowledge will go a long way. Spend the money on photography and materials to show your best work. The more professional they look, the better.

Questions about curriculum

How often is each course taught? What styles of theatre are taught? What partnerships does the program have with professional theatre companies and organizations? There can be some on the books that haven’t been offered for years, but you won’t know unless you ask. Graduate degree offerings may mean fewer mainstage opportunities for undergraduates, but it also usually means the faculty have more professional theatre experience.

Are there international theatre opportunities? Or is there summer theatre? Or a professional theatre on campus? Who are the faculty and what are their backgrounds? Are there guest artists? How many different directors will you have a chance to work with? How many performance spaces are there, or how flexible is the space on campus? Look at all these things and see how integrated they are into the curriculum—theatre should always be experiential.

Are you in the program?

First you have to be accepted to the college or university, so you’ll have to apply just like everyone else. Then you’ll apply to the Theatre program you’re interested in. This doesn’t always hold true, but this is how many more elite programs do it.

Many programs hold auditions at various festivals across the country, while some of the more elite programs also attend the National Unified Auditions. Each school generally has only so many slots they’re trying to fill, so more selective programs with an abundance of applicants might hold special callbacks or invitations to audition at their campus.

Other schools may audition and accept in a rolling admission style, with your final decision to come no later than May 1. Look at and apply to a range of schools and programs. Try for programs that have vast performance opportunities and maybe slip one or two elite schools into the mix.

Related: Choosing a Performing Arts School

Degrees in Theatre Arts and Drama

I’m including a brief overview of graduate degrees here because it helps when plotting out your course. I believe that a broader degree is essential for a creating a solid base at the undergraduate level. That might mean you study voice, dance, acting, and/or light, costume, and set design rather than just one area. If it’s not a BFA program, choose applicable general education courses that can apply to your major.

So much pressure is off if you think of your undergraduate degree as preparation for graduate school. Many more doors are open to you with a graduate degree, which allows you to focus after learning the broader aspects of this expansive discipline. That’s true whether it’s moving from a BFA to an MFA or any other academic areas of theatre. The degrees are meant to build on one another. If it’s acting you want, act everywhere and in all kinds of roles so you build your résumé, which will allow you to get admitted to a premier graduate program.

Overall, there are two ways to study theatre, which often overlap with one another. These areas certainly aren’t mutually exclusive—both areas need one another for a full understanding.

Related: Pre-Broadway: Colleges With Excellent Musical Theater Programs

Theatre (or Performance/Production)

This can be broken down into diction, music, and spectacle. Diction is acting, voice work, articulation, accents, and singing; music refers to dance, stylized or classical movement, and physical control; and spectacle is composed of all the technical and design elements.

Drama (or Writing, History, Theory)

This can be broken into plot, character, and thought/theme. Plot is the story and script; character is exactly what it sounds like—character types and character development; and thought/theme is essentially the “moral” of the story.

In order to be a good actor, you must understand the script and motivations placed in context. The same goes for the designer who must understand how everything fits together with the director’s vision. All together, this creates the art.

Breakdown of theatre degrees

  • The BFA is meant to be a pre-professional degree in any number of fields across performance or production elements of theatre, and you’re meant to work professionally after receiving this degree.
  • The BA is usually the Theatre program within a liberal arts college or university. Most often, this is a generalist degree with some area(s) of focus.
  • An MFA is the terminal degree for many areas such as Acting, Dance, Scene Design, Light Design, etc. As long as you show talent, you’ll be sought after if you have a BFA and MFA in the same subject area.
  • An MA focuses on advancing depth and knowledge in areas of theatre arts and drama (usually less performance or production based) and is more academic in nature.
  • A PhD is the terminal degree in Theatre Arts and Drama. This is someone who is knowledgeable in all areas of theatre arts and drama with specialties in Theory, History, and Criticism.

Independent performance training programs

Performance training (not always accredited or with transferable credits) and certificates (non-credit, non-degree) can be useful specifically when looking for specialized training. Some go for these programs because the focus is on performance.

Theatre programs at colleges and universities

Some think a school that has both a BFA and an MFA in Acting means BFA students will get fewer performance opportunities, while others believe the professionalism of MFA students will improve the faculty. Here’s my way of figuring it out: do the MFA students have undergraduate degrees in Theatre? If so, you’ll see greater depth and professionalism, which may serve you well.

Related: Should You Get An MFA?

Think about everything you do and how it can contribute to your theatre education. There can and should be things you honestly find of value and interest because they reflect the true you. Volunteer, observe, act, build, sing, design, manage, write, read, and direct at all and any levels.

In professional theatre, there is a mile-long line of clones of you. Why do you stand out? Are you authentic and true to yourself? For each job you get, you will be disregarded for a hundred others. So prepare yourself to use and sharpen your talents and skills in ways you haven’t begun to imagine.

Find more information about Theatre programs in our Performing and Visual Arts section.

Dr. Brian Sajko has a BA in Theatre from the University of Dayton, an MA in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota, and a PhD in Theatre from Bowling Green State University. He was a tenured full professor of theatre arts and drama, taught PreK–adult, has directed over 150 productions at the college and professional level, was founding associate artistic and managing director of The New Harmony Theatre (a small equity summer theatre), and is a full member of SDC (the union for theatre directors and choreographers).

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