The Top 10 MFA Acting Programs in the Country for 2016-17

For many in the theatre business, getting your MFA seems to be a logical step in your education. 

For theatre students, where you attend can certainly have an impact on your career with the type of training you receive. It's also important to note that while each school listed here is excellent, a college degree doesn't guarantee success nor is one required to become successful in this industry. 

Here at OnStage, we take months to research the best MFA programs to come up with our own lists. We base it off tuition, curriculum, faculty, career support, basically everything you yourself would consider before making a college choice. We even have gone as far to call admission offices to ask them questions. 

We'll be doing rankings of most MFA leval degree fields over the course of the week. Today we kick things off with Acting. 

10. Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University - New York, NY

Photo Credit: Scott Wynn,

Photo Credit: Scott Wynn,

Notable Facts: 

- Guided by the methodology that has its roots in the “system” set forth by Constantin Stanislavski in his three groundbreaking books, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character and Creating a Role, the Actors Studio Drama School involves three years of intensive study in the dramatic arts.

- The three-year Movement program is especially designed to develop the stamina, fluidity, grace and power of the actor’s physical instrument. The work offers a series of exercises, improvisations and stages of movement inspired by the experiments and teachings of innovative masters of the theater. The program also consists of dance classes held at the studios of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and taught by their faculty.

- Throughout the three years actors, directors and playwrights learn to collaborate with each other in classes in which the actors act, the directors direct and the playwrights write. Collaboration among these three tracks is the heart of the MFA program and the Repertory Season at the end of the third year.

9. Brown University/Trinity Rep - Providence, RI

Photo Credit: Mark Turek

Photo Credit: Mark Turek

Notable Facts: 

- Brown/Trinity includes the MFA programs in Acting and Directing. Students in each of the disciplines have many opportunities to study and work with fellow students from other areas, including the MFA Playwrighting students and the PhD students in Brown's Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. 

- The primary focus in the acting training is in developing technically skilled, versatile actors capable of working in the variety of styles demanded by contemporary theatre. Directors are given the opportunity to develop their own vision, working in collaboration with actors, creating new work and rediscovering existing texts.

- Facilities include The John Street Studio, the focal point for the department's design initiative, and provides classrooms, studio space and support for designers at Brown and beyond. 

8. Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine - Irvine, CA

Leslie Lank as Chorus in After Troy / UC Irvine

Leslie Lank as Chorus in After Troy / UC Irvine

Notable Facts:

- UCI's graduate acting program is a highly demanding, three-year curriculum that trains its actors for all three years (more about this in a moment). This training is centered on a core curriculum - in acting (for both stage and camera), voice, speech, and movement - held Monday through Thursday from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm for all nine quarters of residence. In its rigor and professional standards, therefore, UCI's program functions as a conservatory, but they also take the Master of Fine Arts degree seriously, and therefore their program also includes seminars in script analysis, acting theory, acting pedagogy and in dramatic theory or criticism.

- UCI Drama faculty regularly either direct, perform, design, voice/ text/ dialect coach, stage manage, or artistic direct in professional theatres, on film sets, and in TV studios. And whereas we are all active professionals, we are all in residence at UCI, deeply committed to their students and their progress within the program.

- Graduate actors at UCI are required to complete six performance projects during their three years in the program. Of course students may act much more frequently than that. All casting is absolutely open and without regard to ethnicity or national origin. Actors may participate in all levels of production at the start of the first year ; students are not held from casting for a semester or two, as in many programs. UCI Drama's casting policies strive for reasonable role parity among graduate actors. In order to ensure fairness, the entire season is cast at the beginning of the academic year. This also enables their actors to project their workload throughout the year, on a quarter-by-quarter, show-by-show basis.

- Alumni include Alan Mingo, Jr., Jenn Colella, Grace Gealey and Beth Malone. 

7. A.R.T./MXAT Institute at Harvard University - Cambridge, MA

Notable Facts: 

- In the summer of the first year, students study the Stanislavsky System as a foundation for their acting training. This early training focuses on concentration, imagination, observation, relaxation, and action analysis of a test. Classes combine extensive exercises, structured improvisations (also known as etudes).

- Faculty include Tony winning director Diane Paulus who won the award for the revival of Pippin. Paulus has also directed Broadway productions of Waitress and Finding Neverland

- The A.R.T. Institute was established in 1987 by the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) as a training ground for the professional American theater. It is a two-year, graduate training program for theater professionals, operated in association with the Moscow Art Theater School (MXAT). The wide range of courses given by the international faculty offers students unique preparation for the multi-faceted demands of the professional theater.

- Each year, approximately twenty-three carefully selected students are admitted for a full-time, two-year program of graduate study in acting, dramaturgy, or voice pedagogy. 

6. The Theatre School at DePaul University - Chicago, IL

Notable Facts:

- Their faculty has spent many years developing successful, personal, and powerful curricula that mine a diversity of ideas from Stanislavski, Spolin, Grotowski, Shurtleff, Lessac, Linklater, Yoga, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais® Method, Laban, mask work, and more. Students are inspired through unique points-of-view within a comprehensive three-year progression of acting, movement, and voice and speech curricula.

- The third year puts the work in the context of the profession and connects the student to artistic and industry leaders. The actor’s entrepreneurial spirit is further refined through company created works and independent cinema experience. Courses integrate the work of the first two years into practical professional application and introduce the business aspects of the profession: investigating self-promotion, the acting business, making industry contacts, theatre company creation, as well as producing theatrical work.

- Every student receives quarterly evaluation and feedback from the faculty each year. Students’ evaluations are based on discipline, collaboration, professional potential, and progress in the program. The acting program is divided into two phases—the Probationary Phase (first year) and Production Phase (second and third years). First year acting students receive an Invitation to Return into the Production Phase of the program. The first year of the acting program has a capacity of 10 students with no predetermined limit of students invited into the Production Phase.

5. Tisch School of the Arts at New York University - New York, NY

Notable Facts:

- The arc of training at Graduate Acting is a constantly evolving, but fully integrated, series of classes, based on the respective disciplines of Acting, Voice and Speech, and Movement. On any given day, students will experience all three disciplines and over the course of three years, students will have many of the same teachers, who are constantly ratcheting up the stakes and increasing the skill level demanded of their students. So, the arc of training provides an energetic balance between continuity and surprise, between assurance and obstacle, between confidence and challenge.

- Each year Grad Acting commissions two word premiere new works by established writers. These plays are written specifically for their students after a research period where director, playwright, designers, and actors all explore ideas and issues for the play. Recent playwrights include: Sarah Ruhl, Lucas Hnath, Mona Mansour, Christina Anderson, Rajiv Joseph, Adam Rapp, Rhada Blank, Keith Reddin, and Qui Nguyen among others. Many of these play have continued into production beyond NYU.

- In Year 3, Graduate Acting students work with Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and Master Writer Chair Suzan-Lori Parks in a collaboration class with NYU Graduate Dramatic Writing and Design Students along with emerging professional directors. This class focuses on the collaborative process of developing new work and the way great collaboration can lead to better scripts.

4. The Old Globe/University of San Diego - San Diego, CA

Notable Facts: 

- Students have performance assignments continuously throughout the program, and their work is carefully monitored by voice, movement and acting faculty advisors.  Because the program trains only actors, studio productions are chosen exclusively to serve actors - not directors, designers, or playwrights.

- Additionally, a variety of workshops and master classes are offered in such areas as scansion, improvisation, acting as a business, period styles, stage combat, audition technique, and acting for film and television, among others.  There are also many opportunities for students to work with The Old Globe's impressive roster of visiting artists.

- The Graduate Thesis Project, an original solo performance piece, is the program's capstone assignment.  Scheduled as the final academic requirement, it is often the students' most creative and personal performance event.  Under the careful guidance of faculty advisors, the student is encouraged to develop a project which demonstrates technical expertise and theatrical expression.  After graduation, many students have expanded these projects into successful, fully-realized professional productions.

3. The American Conservatory Theater - San Francisco, CA

L to R: Tony Award nominee Manoel Felciano, A.C.T. core acting company and faculty member René Augesen, Emily Kitchens, class of ’10, and Richard Thieriot in the West Coast Premiere of Clybourne Park. Photo by Kevin Berne.

L to R: Tony Award nominee Manoel Felciano, A.C.T. core acting company and faculty member René Augesen, Emily Kitchens, class of ’10, and Richard Thieriot in the West Coast Premiere of Clybourne Park. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Notable Facts:

- A.C.T.'s conservatory boasts 10 studios and a black box studio theater, and shares its rehearsal spaces with A.C.T.'s mainstage productions. Classrooms, studios, and administrative offices are fully integrated— student life is an integral part of A.C.T.'s life—and students have the opportunity to interact daily with company actors and staff. They also recently opened The Strand Theatre. Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood, The Strand Theater provides A.C.T. a much-needed second space in which to produce and present dynamic and intimate work from multiple disciplines.

- A.C.T. is the largest theater company in the San Francisco Bay Area and employs more than 800 people each season, from teachers and artists to technicians and administrative staff. During the past four decades, more than 300 A.C.T. productions have been seen by close to 7 million playgoers in the company's magnificent Beaux Arts–style theater located in the heart of San Francisco's Union Square theater district.

- A.C.T. continues to nurture its legacy as one of America's most respected regional theaters and to expand its reach to include new areas of dramatic literature, new communities, and new international collaborations, as well as innovative interpretations of classical work. Central to A.C.T.'s vision is the philosophy of lifelong education. A.C.T. is committed to nurturing artists from diverse backgrounds, and to embracing the challenging dynamics of training and performance that lie at the heart of the institution.

- Alumni include Elizabeth Banks, Annette Bening, Carlos Bernard, Benjamin Bratt, Nicolas Cage, Danny Glover, Camryn Manheim,  Anika Noni Rose, Anna Deavere Smith, Denzel Washington, and Milo Ventimiglia.

2. The Juilliard School - New York, NY 

Notable Facts:

- The Master of Fine Arts in Drama is a four-year conservatory program in actor training. Each year 8 to 10 students will be accepted in the MFA program. These students will participate in advanced courses in addition to working side by side with undergraduates in certain skill set areas as well as performance.

- The Graduate Seminar track runs through the curriculum for all four years of training, encompassing a variety of topics including, production, directing, playwriting, pedagogy, and current trends in American and World Theater.

- New work is critical to the development and evolution of their craft. An essential component of work within the Drama Division is their intersection with their distinguished Lila Acheson Wallace Playwrights Program. students will interact with the playwright fellows throughout their time at the School. 

1. Yale School of Drama - New Haven, CT

Notable Facts: 

- The first production opportunity comes at the end of the first term with the presentation of collaboratively created projects. Actors work with directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights from their class to create theatre pieces based on source material assigned by the faculty. After this project, students in good standing enter the casting pool for school productions and are cast alongside second- and third-year actors.

- Not only is each class of actors a working ensemble as it trains, but also each actor works as part of a larger company consisting of all three classes of actors. That company works within a still larger ensemble consisting of members of all eight departments of Yale School of Drama. Actors work with directors, dramaturgs, playwrights, designers, managers, stage managers, and technicians and develop collaborative relationships that continue throughout their three years and indeed, in many cases, throughout their professional lives.

- Yale Repertory Theatre serves as an advanced training center for the department. All acting students work at Yale Rep as understudies, observing and working alongside professional actors and directors. Many students have the opportunity to perform in roles on the Yale Rep stage, depending on their appropriateness to the parts available. Through work at the professional theatre, those eligible students who are not members of Actors’ Equity Association will attain membership upon graduation.