"Study, find all the good teachers and study with them," Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman once said, "Get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or the money. Do plays. You have to love it." The love of performing, combined with the academic rigor of perfecting a craft, is why master's degrees in theater and drama exist. People who enter a Masters of Fine Arts program often already have several years of undergraduate study in drama or a related field under their belt. Indeed, every degree program on this list requires the applicant to have a bachelor's degree in hand, often in a discipline that demonstrates an interest in the performing arts.
A master's degree in theater or drama can be a stepping stone to doctoral studies or the gateway to a career. Graduates can get a credential and teach at a college or university. College drama instructors earn an average of $82,560 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many others with an MFA in acting find themselves on stage or in front of a camera, performing on television or film, or in regional, national, and Broadway and off-Broadway theater. Some graduates use their talents to promote a cause, such as social justice. We all see the big stars on the screen, but the majority of performers are pulling in wages that range from $24.40 to $39.05 an hour.
The ten colleges and universities on this list offer the best master's programs in theater and drama in the United States. The length of the programs ranges from a year to three years. All require an audition to apply, most performed live in front of faculty or staff. The programs provide an intensive study of the history, methods, and application of performance. The experience is a constant cycle of classwork, tryouts, rehearsals, and performances. Several programs collaborate with professional theaters, allowing students to show what they've learned in front of a live audience. And what they learn is different for every student, but likely similar to the way Meryl Streep once described the craft: "Acting is not about being someone different. It's finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there."
The researchers and writers at Best Master's Degrees don't make recommendations based upon preference– we back our rankings with science. Here's a quick breakdown of how we organize ranking data:
- Finances (40%)
- Academic Rigor (35%)
- Student Gratification (25%)
Nearly half of the data used to score each ranking involves finances and are acquired from sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Education, Glassdoor, and PayScale. Financial data encompasses the cost of tuition, fees, and class supplied; the average price of living; access to financial aid and social services; and lastly, the projected annual salary acquired from degree outcomes and income for loan repayment. The second largest category of information involves the quality of education, how competitive degree applicants should be for consideration, and how exclusive a degree program is overall. The final 25 percent of collected data is dependent on student and alumni reviews from sources such as PayScale, Rate My Professor, and Students Review.
Want to Learn More?
The amount of information available for specific degrees is plentiful, and Best Master's Degrees aims to provide as many resources as we can. Check out our Methodology page for more information and resource links.
#10 – Brown University
MFA in Acting
Brown University isn't just Ivy League; it's one of the oldest institutions of learning in the states, founded in 1754 – before the American Revolution. It's also one of the nation's best universities – No. 14, according to U.S. News & World Report. The private university's urban campus in Providence, RI, is about an hour southwest of Boston. Brown's MFA in Acting program is three years in intensive study of performance art. Each year has a one-word theme: Realism, Verse, and Style. As the student moves through the program, he or she shifts from acquiring skills to applying them with numerous productions and workshop. Brown's master's program collaborates with Trinity Repertory Company to give students on-stage experience. A combination of understudy work and performances with the company allows the graduating student to acquire an Equity card. Applicants must do an on-campus audition. Additional application requirements can include three letters of recommendation and a one-page personal statement.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $54,320
#9 – DePaul University
DePaul University's MFA Acting degree draws its energy the university's home of Chicago. DePaul, a private institution in the heart of the City of the Big Shoulders, is a large school with an undergraduate enrollment of more than 14,000. The master's in acting at DePaul is a three-year program. DePaul runs on a quarter system, so the program consists of 148 credits because one and a half quarter credits are equivalent to a semester credit. The first year of the program builds up the student's abilities and motivation as an actor. The second year of the program opens things up with readings of dramatic literature, studies of the discipline's genres, and development of ensemble and single-student creations. The final year deepens the connection to the profession, as the student works with professionals and participates in company-created plays and independent films. The student is also expected to do three papers based on research or reflection, which combined form the master's thesis. Application requirements include a resume, a photo (though it doesn't have to be a professional headshot), three recommendation letters, and an audition through DePaul's online system.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $19,032
#8 – CUNY Brooklyn College
MFA in Performance and Interactive Media Arts
CUNY Brooklyn College calls the East Midwood neighborhood of the New York City borough its home. The public college, part of the City University of New York system, has strong roots in the arts. Alumni include Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes," and actor Jimmy Smits. Former faculty include F. Murray Abraham, Oscar-winning actor in "Amadeus" and legendary beat-poet Allen Ginsburg. Students who enroll in Brooklyn College's two-year MFA in Performance and Interactive Arts are professionals in an arts field or have a professional goal in mind. Students become proficient at using technology to extend their craft and allow for collaborations in different artistic disciplines. The program consists of 46 semester credit hours. In the second year, students create a collaborative production that is presented in a professional location and serves as the thesis. Applicants must have an accredited graduate or undergraduate degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Other requirements include a portfolio of creative work, in any medium, recommendation letters, and satisfactory TOEFL scores.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $10,770 / $19,920
#7 – Northeastern Illinois University
MA in Communication, Media & Theatre
Northeastern Illinois University is an urban campus located on the northern edges of Chicago, south of Evanston and Skokie. NIU, which has an enrollment of just under 9,000, emphasizes cultural and ethnic diversity. The university's Master of Arts in Communication, Media, and Theatre is aimed at teachers, aspiring educators, or students eyeing advanced corporate jobs. The master's program consists of 30 semester credit hours and begins only in the fall semester. In addition to teaching roles, it prepares graduates for careers such as public relations, marketing, research, or theater management. There are 15 credit hours of core courses. Students earn the remaining 15 hours from a selection of 16 electives ranging from Instructional Communication to Comparative Performing Arts. A thesis or comprehensive exam caps the program. Applicants must have completed 15 accredited undergraduate credit hours in communication, media, or theater-related coursework, and passed them all with a âB' average. Applicants must also submit a sample of writing.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $7,273 / $14,548
#6 – Emerson College
MA/MFA in Theatre Education and Applied Theatre
Emerson College is in the center of Boston, an easy walk from the city's theater district. Emerson offers two approaches to drama studies with its MA/MFA in Theatre Education and Applied Theatre. Both the Theatre Teacher Education or Theatre and Community track provide an avenue for developing knowledge in the theater arts, and in teaching and learning about theater. Students can earn an initial licensing as a Massachusetts theater teacher at the K-12 level. Students in the MFA program can qualify to teach college-level drama. Some graduates pursue doctorates in theater or other fields. Others use theater for social justice efforts and community activism. The MA program consists of 36 semester credit hours and takes one to two years of full-time study to complete, on average. The MFA program has 48 credit hours and can be wrapped up in 18 months to two and a half years. Both programs begin in the fall. Application requirements include artistic and professional resumes, three letters of recommendation, and an essay of 500 to 1,000 words describing short and long-term professional goals.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $30,024
#5 – Yale University
New Haven, CT
Yale University has long established itself as one of the nation's most prestigious institutes of learning. U.S. News & World Report gives Yale the No. 3 spot among best universities. Yale's School of Drama encourages full residency during the MFA Acting coursework. No transfers are accepted, and there are no summer classes. Yale estimates that 86% of current students in the MFA Acting program are receiving financial aid. The application process includes an audition in New Haven, Chicago, or San Francisco. The school doesn't do auditions in New York. The drama school's complex has three theaters ranging from the 200-seat Iseman Theater to 636-seat University Theater. The school runs Yale Repertory Theater, where students can ply their craft. Note that the MFA Acting is only one of several tracks in the drama school. Others include Sound Design, Directing, Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Playwriting, and Stage Management. Students in the different disciplines will collaborate for several productions. Application requirements include a resumÃ©, a statement of purpose, a current photograph, and three letters of recommendation. One letter should be from a director with whom the candidate has worked.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $42,100
#4 – Pace University
New York City, NY
Pace University's Actors Studio Drama School is in the Lower Manhattan campus, located near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The private university has about 13,000 students. The drama school is home to the "Inside the Actors Studio" TV show starring James Lipton, dean emeritus. The MFA Acting program features the Stanislavski System and Method forms of instruction. It is a three-year program with a theme for each year: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role. The first two years are preparation for the third year of participating in the school's repertory theater. Acting students collaborate with those studying direction, design, and playwrighting to create audience-quality productions. The end of the course includes an industry showcase, in which acting students can show off their skills to theater, movie, and television professionals. Program applications must have an approved bachelor's degree in hand. Other application requirements include an audition, along with a personal statement, a photo, two letters of recommendation, and an artistic resume.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $30,408
#3 – University of San Diego
Master of Fine Arts in Acting
San Diego, CA
The University of San Diego is a private institution run by the Roman Catholic Church. Don't confuse it with San Diego State University or the University of California-San Diego – it's a smaller campus, with about 9,000 students, located in the city's Mission Bay district. The Master of Fine Arts in Acting program is a collaboration between the university and the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park. The program is very selective, choosing about seven students a year to take part in a focused, two-year study of classical theater that totals 60 semester credit hours. The instruction applies the Stanislavsky technique of acting. The Old Globe performances and studio productions at the university are the program's primary teaching tools. Students are expected to attend classes, workshops, and rehearsals six days a week. A solo performance serves as the thesis project. A bachelor's degree from an accredited institution is required to apply to the program. After an application is complete, the candidate must wait for an audition. If the candidate becomes a finalist, letters of recommendation may be requested. Auditions can include callbacks.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $26,712
#2 – New York University
Master of Arts in Performance Studies
New York, NY
New York University's Master of Arts in Performance Studies is through the Tisch Institute of Performing Arts, located on the NYU campus in Greenwich Village. The Big Apple's vibrant arts scene informs the master's program, which studies all forms of cultural enactments, along with the positive change they can trigger. Students learn how to think critically about the power of theater, visual art, activism, digital performance, as well as the performance of day-to-day life. NYU's program is well-suited for those who plan to go on to doctoral studies in performance or other fields. But it also prepares graduates for careers as choreographers, performance artists, directors, designers, and others in the professional arts. The master's program consists of 34 "points" taken over three consecutive semesters that start with the fall semester. There are two required courses and the rest of the coursework consists of electives, all of which must meet a grade of âB' or better.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $42,888
#1 – University of California-Irvine
MFA in Acting
The University of California-Irvine is a public research institution located in the southern reaches of the greater Los Angeles area. It's about 15 minutes from Newport Beach and less than half an hour to Disneyland. UC-Irvine ranks No. 33 on U.S. News & World Report's list of best universities. The university's MFA in Acting is through the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Many of the program's graduates are currently performing on screen or stage in regional, national, or Broadway and off-Broadway programs. Some are teaching drama at the university level. The annual Santley Showcase is done each spring in New York City and Los Angeles, giving graduates a chance to meet and network with industry professionals. The master's program is three years of intensive training, Monday through Thursday for all nine quarters. Performance is a big part of the practice. Each year, there are three faculty-directed productions, along with four productions directed by graduate-level students, plus eight to ten workshop productions. An audition is the pivotal part of an application to the program. After a candidate applies, he or she will be contacted to set a city and time for an audition.