The Top 10 Graduate Playwriting Programs for 2018-19

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Each year, OnStage Blog takes a deep look at the many theatre programs across the country. With thousands of prospective students and families researching what makes one program a better fit than another, we feel it's important to provide as many resources as possible. 

As we've mentioned before, OnStage Blog's rankings are based on a rating system that looks at a number of different factors that should be considered when looking into these schools. In case anyone has any questions about our ranking process, we've described it here

In the past four years we've been doing these rankings, one area of theatre we've neglected to cover is writing. Shame on us for that. Because any theatrical professional knows that the writer is absolutely vital to the creative process. They set the tone for everything that follows. 

So it's about time we started recognizing the excellent playwrighting and screenwriting programs around the country. These schools are doing an incredible job of producing the next generation of writing icons by not only teaching them traditional writing techniques but also how to write for modern day audiences. 

Here are our picks for the 10 best Playwriting Programs for 2018-19. For this list, we're doing only graduate programs.

10. UC San Diego - San Diego, CA

Highlight: The centerpiece of the UCSD Playwriting MFA is the Wagner New Play Festival, which occurs every spring and in which all MFA playwrights have a play produced. First year students have a workshop production. Second and third year students receive fully-staged productions. Productions are directed by MFA directing students, faculty directors, or guest directors. MFA playwrights have the opportunity to collaborate with MFA actors, designers, and stage managers during the festival.

The Wagner New Play Festival has grown to be a nationally recognized showcase and incubator of important new voices. The Festival is attended by artistic directors, literary managers, and producers from across the country as well as agents. Plays that were first produced in the Wagner New Play Festival have gone on to be produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New Plays, the Roundabout Underground, the Huntington Theatre, and Second Stage. 

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

Highlight: The third year’s focus is the formation of all the students into a repertory group. While continuing with their common and specialized courses, students will develop and collaborate on the dramatic material that will be presented: a weekly series of scenes, one-act plays, and if possible full-length plays, some written by program playwrights and all of them directed by program directors and acted by program actors.

8. Northwestern University - Evanston, IL

Highlight: Esteemed faculty include Rebecca Gilman whose play, Boy Gets Girl, received an Olivier Nomination for best new play and was included in Time Magazine’s list of Top Ten plays of the decade. Gilman was named a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for The Glory of Living. She is a member of the Council of the Dramatists Guild of America. She is also the recipient of a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Award, Northwestern’s highest honor for teaching. 

7. Fordham University - New York, NY

Highlight: The Fordham/Primary Stages MFA in Playwriting program is a unique hybrid, offering emerging writers the opportunity to develop and produce their work in a rigorous Fordham setting, while simultaneously fostering professional relationships with Primary Stages, an award-winning Off-Broadway theatre company.

6. The University of Texas at Austin - Austin, TX

Highlight:  UT-Austin offers the only M.F.A. in Playwriting program in the country to provide specific coursework, professional counseling and practical experience in the teaching of playwriting in both academic and community environments. The program aims to develop each step of the writer's process, from the initial conception of new work, through development and revision, to production and further professional growth.

Graduate playwrights at the university have access to an unparalleled breadth and depth of production and play development resources, including the biennial Cohen New Works Festival; mainstage, workshop and lab seasons; ongoing professional development workshops; and annual premiere productions in UTNT (UT New Theatre).

5. Carnegie Mellon University - Pittsburgh, PA

Highlight: Central to the curriculum is Theater Lab, in which writers, directors, and actors from across the School of Drama collaborate throughout the year on new work. New plays by graduate playwrights receive workshop productions, performed by the School of Drama's acclaimed student actors. Dramatic writing MFA candidates may also have the opportunity to teach undergraduate courses in playwriting or screenwriting. The Sloan/CMU Script Competition awards $35,000 in prizes to current CMU students each year for original screenplays and TV pilots. 

4. The Juilliard School  New York, NY

Highlight: Under the direction of Marsha Norman and David Lindsay-Abaire, the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program offers one-year, tuition-free, graduate level fellowships to four or five writers. Selected playwrights may be invited to continue their studies through a second academic year, thereby completing a total of 52 credits for the two-year fellowship period and earning an Artist Diploma in Playwriting. Playwrights and actors come together through Play Labs, staged readings, and workshop productions, providing an essential experience for our promising theater artists.

Alumni include David Auburn, Katori Hall and Julia Cho. 

3. Brown University - Providence, RI

Highlight: The Brown/Trinity MFA in Acting and Directing is located at Trinity Repertory Company in downtown Providence, where Playwriting students study closely with members of the Trinity Repertory Company and often devise and perform with Acting/Directing students. Signature events include "Writing is Live". This event celebrates the diversity and strength of new theatrical voices while simultaneously exploring the meaning of text in performance.  Performance writing takes forms complete and incomplete, narrative and imagistic, compact and durational. As such, the festival plays with the idea of the live, allowing the development and evolution of new work in conversation with the writer, directors, actors, designers, and audience.  All are collaborators in the exciting life of the new performance script. 

Students in their third year also participate in an Immersive Retreat, with an acting company outside Brown/Trinity as well as a one-week intensive with NY actors, directors, and dramaturges, in cooperation with the Flea Theater’s resident company.

Alumni include Nilo Cruz, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Sarah Ruhl. 

2. New York University - New York, NY

Highlight: The Rita and Burton Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing cross-trains students in all areas of dramatic writing with concentrations in Film, Playwriting, and Television. In the first year, all graduate students take introductory workshop classes in the three mediums of playwriting, screenwriting and television writing. They are required to write an original full length play, full length screenplay, half hour TV spec script and one hour TV pilot.

Courses include "Business of the Business". This course is designed to familiarize students with the basics of the business of writing for theater, film and television.  It will include an overview of the theater, film and television industries; from off-Broadway to Broadway theater, independent to studio film, web to network and cable TV. Case studies and examples from across the three mediums will be used to illustrate financing, development, contracts, rights, unions, production and distribution. 

Alumni include Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, Annie Baker and Winnie Holzman.

1. Yale School of Drama - New Haven, CT

Highlight: Yale School of Drama’s Playwriting department is one of the oldest in the country. Drama 50 is a 3-week classroom workshop in theatrical collaboration and composition for first-year actors, designers, directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights. The purpose is twofold: to challenge each student artist to develop their flexibility and fluency as a contributing member of a professional theatrical collaboration, whether as an actor, designer, director, dramaturg, or playwright; and to challenge the ensemble to collaboratively create an original emotionally and intellectually charged theatrical event.

First-year playwrights in the spring semester participate in a three-week lab on new one-act plays with actors, directors, and dramaturgs. The New Play Lab has no design elements and minimal technical support, and is presented exclusively for the faculty and students of the School of Drama. In the third year, the program culminates in the Carlotta Festival of New Plays. On this platform the playwright has an opportunity to develop work as close to professional practice as possible.

Alumni include Lynn Nottage, Amy Herzog, David Henry Hwang and Lewis Black. 

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Full Disclosure: Our playwriting research team consisted of a current MFA student, three playwriting alumni, one current playwriting educator, one artistic director and one admissions professional. They're associated with the following schools - University of New Mexico, Villanova University , University of Arkansas, Queens College, CUNY, SCAD and Princeton University. To avoid conflict of interest, they did not adjudicate their associated programs.