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What You Need to Know About Theatre Programs and Admission

Interested in pursuing Theatre in college? Learn about admission, auditions, curricula, degree options, and so much more with this comprehensive guide!

So you’re going all in on a 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 may need to work in other fields to support your theatrical goals, but that’s common for many majors. Your first (or second) paying job isn’t always in your field of study. Know that the only way you’ll even have a chance at long-term success in theatre is if you fully immerse yourself in the study of it. Here's what you need to know about pursuing this field with success.

Theatre Arts and Drama programs

I believe that a broader degree is essential for creating a solid base in the theatre arts at the undergraduate level. That might mean you study voice, dance, acting, and/or light, costume, and set design rather than just one area. 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. 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.

  • 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.

Breakdown of theatre degrees

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 in acting or theatre, 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 area 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. Here are the five types of degrees you might pursue:

  • 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.
  • A PhD is the terminal degree in Theatre Arts and Drama. This is someone knowledgeable in all areas of theatre arts and drama with specializes in Theory, History, and Criticism.

Related: 5 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in an MFA Program

Questions about curriculum

As you're looking into programs you're interested in, you should be asking yourself a lot of questions that lead you to notice particular details. For instance, a school with graduate degree offerings may mean fewer mainstage opportunities for undergraduates, but it also usually means the faculty will have more professional theatre experience. Here are some other things you may ask as you do your research:

  • How often is each course taught?
  • What specific performing arts majors can you pursue?
  • What styles of theatre are taught?
  • What partnerships does the program have with professional theatre companies and organizations?
  • Are there international theatre opportunities or summer theatre?
  • Is there a professional theatre company on campus?
  • Who are the faculty and what are their backgrounds?
  • Are there guest performers?
  • How many directors will you have a chance to work with?
  • How many performance spaces are there, or how flexible is the space on campus?

Look into all these things as best you can through a school's website and campus visits. See how integrated they are into the curriculum—theatre should always be experiential. Anything that you can't find out yourself you should as a college representative about. 

The theatre program admission process

First, you have to be accepted to a 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 specifically. This doesn’t always hold true, but this is how many of the 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: Where to Find the Best Monologue for Your College Audition

A professional portfolio and performance

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. 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.

Focusing on you, not the competition

Success at your high school is great, but your audience has most likely been packed with family and friends who love everything you do. 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 for admission. While that ultimately might be your goal, uplifting yourself is the way to do it. 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 just guess what a program you're interested in wants; call them up and discuss what they’re looking for in an applicant and what you could do to make yourself more appealing.

Keeping your ego in check

The “triple threat” is a term often 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. Be realistic about your talents, but also don't let that stop you from developing your skills. Do theatre everywhere and anywhere you can—at all levels and in all areas—because that’s how you show your commitment, grit, and determination. Don’t waste a moment on anything other than your dream.

Related: Out of the Spotlight: All About Behind the Scenes Majors and Careers in Theater

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 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 and securing admission to a great school in our Performing and Visual Arts section.

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