The Truth Behind Small Theater Programs

Noah Golden

From universities known for their large and respected theater programs to the college theater underdogs, On Stage writers have walked you through some of the best programs in the country. But what about schools not known for their theater program? Or even schools with very small programs? Are they worth talking about? Of course it depends on what you’re looking for but sometimes you can find great experiences in surprising places and theater departments in non-theater schools are a great example. 

I should back up. Three years ago I graduated from Quinnipiac University, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. It’s a wonderful school but one known for their large health sciences and communications departments. In fact, one has to look closely at the student body (of around 6,000) to find any semblance of an arts culture. But if one did take the time, they would notice a small-but-mighty theater department that produces about six shows a year and (usually) two student-directed ones. I don’t know the numbers off hand but I’d guess somewhere between five and fifteen students graduate each year as a sole theater major. I should also say that I was not one of them, I studied journalism and English but was, essentially, an honorary theater major having been involved in at least three shows a year and having taken a handful of classes within the department. But this isn’t really about me or my alma mater. What I learned about being in a small department will surely transfer to many other schools. While some might think being a part of a very small theater department was a hindrance to my classmates and I, I wholeheartedly found it beneficial in many ways. During my time there, I was very grateful to be a part of this community and even more thankful that I didn’t go to a so-called theater school. 


Well the first and most important reason is that it’s much easier to get involved. To put it simply, as a non-theater student I was able to be a large part of my school’s theater scene and get cast in multiple main stage shows, even during my freshman year. I can’t imagine that happening in a larger theater department – in fact, I know students at well-known theater schools who have never been cast in main stage shows even up to their senior year. Of course it isn’t a given, but there’s a much higher chance of getting more (and larger) roles in a small department. That’s something I never thought of when applying to schools and something you can’t learn during the usual college tours. You can get a sense of what theater classes they offer or what kinds of shows they produce but rarely will you learn what real opportunities there are for on-stage involvement. 

During the application process, I applied to and got into Emerson College, a really phenomenal school with a top-notch performing arts program, and I wholeheartedly believe that, had I ended up there, I would never have been given the opportunity to have starring roles in multiple shows. The competition is just too fierce and the politics mean that mainly seniors end up in starring roles. That is true for theater majors – I personally know a few theater majors who transferred from large, well-respected theater schools to smaller, lesser-known ones purely so they could get more on-stage time – so as a journalism major I especially would have had a very small shot. While the auditions at my school were tough, my first show there as a freshman had four other freshmen in starring roles. Instead of 50 people vying for each role, there was maybe five to ten. The odds, as they say, are much more in your favor. 

The same holds true for those wanting to stage manager or direct. In a small program, the ambitious and talented students raise to the top of the heap quickly. One of my classmates directed three shows of her own choosing starting in sophomore year. Another designed the set of a main stage show her junior year. Whether as an actor or tech crew, it basically boils down to if you want to be involved, you can be.  

But being noticed isn’t just helpful when getting cast or getting the opportunity to work behind the scenes. Being in a smaller department means you can have stronger and more meaningful relationships with your professors and directors. Not just were class sizes small but I got to know my theater professors very well even outside of class. They’ve helped my classmates with internships and, even though I wasn’t a theater major, I used the head of the theater department as a reference on my resume. While I enjoyed each theater class I took, it was the relationship with some amazing teachers that I really take with me, a relationship that was able to happen given the smaller size of the community. 

There are many factors that go into choosing a college or university and there is, of course, merit to going to a large school known for their theater departments. But if you are a non-theater major who wants to continue acting in college or get rejected from NYU or the theater school of your dreams, going to a school with a smaller program may be a blessing in disguise. It was for me.  

Photo: Rollins College