Anyone who has been on stage and experienced the thrill of performance can understand why students aspire to careers as performing artists. Success in the performing arts entails intensive training focused on the development of essential skills. Colleges that offer a performing arts education usually integrate it within a liberal arts degree program. Although beneficial to a student’s education, this makes a degree in the performing arts more challenging than most other liberal arts majors.
There are institutions that offer programs in only one or two of the three principal performing arts and others that offer all three. Typically, arts curricula require several foundational courses before a student is permitted to concentrate on a specialty. Four-year undergraduate programs lead to a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), or a Bachelor of Performing Arts (BPA) degree.
In this post, we’ll review a number of college programs for acting (drama) and related specialties. Students in these programs take courses in theater literature and history, methods of acting, costume design, playwriting, screenwriting, lighting, stage movement, voice, directing, theater/film technology, set design and related fields to learn different aspects of their art. They’re assigned diverse tasks, not just acting roles. They study all of the disciplines behind the mounting of a production.
After core requirements are met, students are offered a choice to focus primarily on acting or to concentrate on one of the related fields mentioned above. Dance and music majors undergo academic experiences similar to acting majors in order to achieve balance between the theory and practice of their art.
Among the many colleges with undergraduate programs in the performing arts, there are those that have earned exceptional reputations, which are described below. These colleges focus more on acting and dance than music, which has its own list of best colleges.
Brown University, Providence, RI
Brown’s School of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies is noted within the Ivy League for the excellence of its undergraduate BFA program. Brown places a high value on its students achieving a well-rounded understanding of drama as a discipline. Along with acting classes, students study theory and history. They then choose one of the program’s tracks, which include Theatre Arts, Performance Studies, or Writing for Performance. The program offers opportunities for crewing mainstage plays, participating in production workshops, taking part in Shakespeare on the Green performances, and viewing world premieres at the Trinity Repertory Company.
Among the more well-known graduates are John Krasinski, Emma Watson, Laura Linney, JoBeth Williams, Ira Glass, Joseph Bologna, and Bess Armstrong.
California Institute of the Arts, Santa Clarita, CA
CalArts is considered by many to be the best dance school on the West Coast as well as one of the top drama schools. The School of Dance offers a distinguished faculty and renowned guest artists. It provides numerous dance performance opportunities in its American College Dance Festival. The School of Drama is often chosen by students who wish to pursue a screen-acting career. All seniors must enroll in the Acting Studio for the Camera course, which trains them for auditioning and performing for cinema and TV. In their final semester, students perform in industry showcases in Los Angeles and New York.
The School of Drama’s successful alumni include Don Cheadle, Ed Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Baker, Laraine Newman, Michael Richards, Alison Brie, and director Tim Burton.
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
The oldest acting conservatory in the country, the School of Drama strives to impart to students the ability to embody their characters thorough analysis of the roles in which they’re cast. The School’s faculty consists primarily of established actors. There are 20 shows per year that provide many performance opportunities to students. The School enables students to perform their original works during a designated week when all classes are cancelled. Seniors have opportunities to perform before audiences of industry professionals in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh.
Well-known alumni include Holly Hunter, Ted Danson, Albert Brooks, Ethan Hawke, Jack Klugman, George Peppard, Jeff Goldblum, Cherry Jones, Judith Light, Blair Underwood, James Cromwell, Sada Thompson, Joe Manganiello, Leslie Odom Jr., Howard DeSilva, and Rene Auberjonois.
Catholic University of America, Washington DC
CUA’s Department of Drama, offering a BFA in Acting and a BA in Drama, is one of the oldest and most well-established in the country. The curriculum for the BFA in Acting is comprehensive in that it develops actors for all three major media: theatre, film, and television. It’s oriented to conditions in the 2020’s in which actors, in order to succeed, must be prepared for all three media. Actors are trained to be comfortable in all environments so that they’ll have the skills to start working immediately upon graduation. Washington provides plenty of opportunities for CUA students, who have many opportunities to intern at area theatres, experience the dynamic local theatre milieu, and engage in mentorship programs with area professionals.
Notable actors include Susan Sarandon, John Slattery, Helen Hayes, Laurence Luckinbill, Jon Voight, Jason Miller, Chris Sarandon, John Lescault, Ed McMahon, Siobhan Hogan, and Phil Bosco.
Coastal Carolina University, Conway, SC
The CCA Theatre Department offers four BFA concentrations: Acting, Musical Theatre, Physical Theatre, and Design & Production. It also offers a BA in Music with three concentrations: Commercial & Jazz Music, Music General Studies, and Music Performance. BFA acting students study eight levels of acting centered on the foundational work of Stanislavski. They take courses in on-camera technique, vocal technique, movement studies, script analysis, history, and criticism. The program focuses on self-exploration, characterization, and insight into each student’s best personal working methods. Students develop not only technical and artistic competence but also a broad knowledge of the theatre.
Well-known alumni include Michael Kelly, Bailey Hanks, Elise Testone, and Madelyn Cline.
College of Charleston, Charleston, SC
Student-centered learning is the focus of the College of Charleston’s Department of Theatre + Dance. Students are partners in an artistic community formed in the classroom, in the studio, and in productions. They study with faculty in classroom settings as small as five students. All students engage in the creation and development of each production. Abundant opportunities to perform enable students to gain experience in all aspects of theatre and dance.
Well-known actors include Robert Downey Jr., Erick Avari, Thomas Gibson, Matt Czuchry, Lea Michele, Jennifer Ferrin, and Alison Munn.
Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Founded in 1973, the FSU School of Theatre enjoys a national reputation due largely to its faculty of nationally recognized artists and educators. The School has been providing outstanding programs in Florida and around the world for nearly half a century. Its London Theatre Studies program offers a chance to work side by side with guest artists and eminent scholars and to participate in showcase opportunities in major cities.
FSU’s actors, directors, and writers include Alan Ball, Montego Glover, Paul Gleason, Davis Gaines, Leslie Flesner, Cheryl Hines, John Papsidera, Darren Bagert, Richard Simmons, Burt Reynolds, Heather Provost, and Amanda Watkins.
Julliard School, New York, NY
Often considered the best school in the country for drama and dance, the Juilliard School has a long list of notable alumni who have earned 105 Grammy Awards, 62 Tony Awards, 47 Emmy Awards, 24 Academy Awards, 16 Pulitzer Prizes, and 12 National Medals for the Arts. It’s an exclusive school that selects applicants with proven talent. It selects only a few outstanding students each year, none of whom are recent high school graduates. There are usually 20 students each in the BFA Acting Program, the MFA Acting Program, and the BFA Dance Program. The Dance Program conducts 15 public performances each year and the Drama Program produces several plays annually. There are annual showcases in both New York and Los Angeles.
Alumni include Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, William Hurt, Adam Driver, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Robin Williams, Viola Davis, Andre Braugher, Val Kilmer, Kevin Spacey, Wendell Pierce, Patti LuPone, Christine Baranski, Marcia Cross, Sid Caesar, and William Hurt.
New York University, New York, NY
On acceptance into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, students are placed in one of eight primary studios where they receive intensive training leading to a strong foundation in their art. Students remain in their studio for two years. The eight studios are the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Atlantic Acting School, Experimental Theatre Wing, Meisner Studio, New Studio on Broadway, Playwrights Horizons School, Production & Design Studio, and Lee Strasberg Institute. Once studio training is complete, students choose a specialty for advanced training.
Notable NYU actors include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Bell, Adam Sandler, Oliver Stone, Andy Samberg, Billy Crystal, Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga), James Franco, Bryce Dallas Howard, and its directors include Spike Lee, M. Night Shyamalan, and Martin Scorcese.
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Northwestern is one of the few schools of drama in the country that don’t require an audition for admission. Nevertheless, admission is still highly competitive with an admit rate of 15%. Students have many opportunities to perform in school-sponsored, student-run shows that select from among all undergraduates in casting roles. Seniors are invited to participate in showcases in New York and Chicago before audiences of industry professionals.
The School has educated many notable actors including Warren Beatty, Zach Braff, Stephen Colbert, Charlton Heston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Orbach, Ann-Magret, Claude Akins, Patricia Neal, Richard Benjamin, Robert Conrad, David Schwimmer, William Daniels, Anna Gunn, Jennifer Jones, Cloris Leachman, Mamie Gummer, Zooey Deschanel, Kathryn Hahn, Shelley Long, and Tony Randall.
Smith College, Northampton, MA
Smith is one of the best small colleges in the country for theater majors. Students attending Smith aren’t limited to the resources of their college alone because it’s part of the Five Colleges Consortium. Theater and dance majors at Smith benefit from the combined resources of four other nearby colleges: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This collaborative program affords students at Smith all the advantages of an institution many times its size while maintaining the intimate atmosphere of a small liberal arts college.
Graduates of the Five Colleges Consortium who have earned a reputation in acting, screenwriting, or directing include Donna Kane, Bill Pullman, Richard Gere, Wendy Wasserstein, Ken Burns, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Wallace, Lupita Nyong’o, Ken Howard, Shelley Hack, and Barry Sonnenfeld.
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
The home of the UF School of Theatre and Dance is the new state-of-the-art Nadine McGuire Pavilion. The School’s full-time faculty is complemented by a rotating guest faculty of accomplished professionals. It offers BFA programs in Acting, Musical Theatre, Set/Scene design, Lighting Design, and Costume Design as well as a BA in General Theatre. The School also offers BA and BFA programs in dance that have been designed to develop the talents and creativity of each individual dance artist.
Among well-known alumni are Faye Dunaway, Buddy Ebsen, Darrell Hammond, Bob Vila, Lyndon Smith, and Nick Green.
University of Georgia, Athens, GA
The UGA Department of Theatre & Film and the Department of Dance offer BA and BFA degrees within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. The Theater Department began in 1893 when UGA students formed what is now the Thalian-Blackfriars Dramatic Club, one of the oldest in the country. It’s now the official theatrical club of the University of Georgia with its own playhouse — the Seney-Stovall Memorial Theatre. A Film Studies major was added to the Department in 2006.
Notable actors include Kyle Chandler, Kim Basinger, Ryan Seacrest, Tituss Burgess, Josh Holloway, Wayne Knight, Jessica Stroup, and Sonny Shroyer.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance has an outstanding reputation in the performing arts. While pursuing a BFA in acting, students are trained for the physical and mental demands of theater by a faculty of working professionals that includes actors, directors, designers, and technicians. The School’s core curriculum consists of courses in acting, voice, dialect, movement, and stage combat. Students have many opportunities to perform for local, national and international audiences.
Well-known actors from UM include Selma Blair, Christine Lahti, Lucy Liu, James Earl Jones, Madonna, Darren Criss, David Alan Grier, Ann Davis, Margo Martindale, Gilda Radnor, and the playwright Arthur Miller.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
The high quality of UNC’s School of the Arts dance program is affirmed its alumni who have gone on to perform with the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Martha Graham Ensemble. Drama and dance students have many performance opportunities including senior showcases for industry professionals in New York and Los Angeles.
Notable actors include Mary-Louise Parker, Andy Griffith, John Forsythe, Louise Fletcher, George Grizzard, Jack Palance, Billy Crudup, and Sharon Lawrence.
Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT
Wesleyan’s undergraduate theater program is one of the most widely known and highly regarded in the country. The School has an impressive faculty and accomplished visiting artists. Wesleyan’s program also provides an honors track for top performing students as well as two esteemed awards for individuals, the Rachel Henderson Theater Prize and the Outreach and Community Service Prize.
Among its notable alumni are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael Bay, Kim Weyans, Beanie Feldstein, Patricia Wettig, Elisabeth Harnois, Dana Delany, Mike White, Bradley Whitford, and Joss Whedon.
Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC
Winthrop has the only comprehensive collegiate arts program in South Carolina that is nationally accredited in all of the visual and performance arts. The Department of Theatre and Dance fosters aesthetic, intellectual, and creative development in the performing arts within the context of a liberal arts education. Through course work, coaching, mentoring, and performing, students explore the social, historical, and technological aspects of theatre or dance. The Department mounts four stage productions (three in theatre, one in dance), two choreography showcases, and six studio productions each year. The Department also regularly hosts arts festivals, and students join faculty in travel to professional conferences.
Notable actors from Winthrop include Andie McDowell, Shanola Hampton, and Leigh Chapman.