In January and February, many high school seniors across the United States are feverishly applying to colleges, hoping for that acceptance letter. In addition to the general application, those who want to pursue theatre degrees must also negotiate auditions, interviews, portfolios, and more. And just as importantly, they must consider the type of degree as well as the type of institution.
A college – whether a community college or a four-year school – is a collection of departments and divisions. For example, the theatre department might be within the fine arts division which also houses dance, music, and visual art. In contrast, a university is a collection of colleges. Various departments and divisions are housed within colleges, and applicants often apply both to the university at large as well as the college they want to study in. As an example: My undergraduate institution was a four-year college, so I only submitted one application. When I went on to graduate school at university, I had to apply to the university and the graduate college.
Just as not all institutions are the same, not all degrees are the same. Below are the most common degrees in higher learning available for theatre students in the United States.
Please remember that these are general course descriptions and it’s very important to take the time to research your school choices to see exactly what is offered!
A Bachelor of Arts degree, available from any four-year college or undergraduate university, is focused on the liberal arts, meaning a holistic and comprehensive education. Students not only take courses in their major and minor, but also a wide range of general studies. Theatre students earning a BA will have broad exposure to theatre, from history and literature, to acting, to technical theatre. The goal is to be well-rounded in the discipline, although some schools offer “tracks” for the BA that will allow the students to focus more specifically on a specialty such as directing, performance, or stage management. Some Theatre BA programs require auditions or interviews for admission and might grant scholarships based on an applicant’s performance.
Students who pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree still complete general studies requirements (math, science, etc.). However, they have a narrow focus on a skill or discipline within theatre, and have very few courses beyond that discipline. A student studying musical theatre will have courses in acting, vocal performance, and dance–but probably very few courses (if any) in technical theatre or design. Almost all BFA programs require auditions, interviews, or portfolios. For students who are planning on a career in performance or continuing on to graduate school, the BFA degree is very appealing. However, the BFA is not offered at every college or university, and acceptance can be very limited.
Finally, some schools offer a Bachelor of Science degree to students studying technical theatre or education. Very similar to the Bachelor of Arts, a BS is holistic, but delves deeper into technology, business, or educational science. For example, the B.S. at Skidmore, a top ranked program, is a pre-professional degree that offers conservatory level training within the broad values of inquiry of the liberal arts. Students are not only technicians, but also actors, playwrights, designers and more.
Associate’s Degree & Certificates
High school students who want to go to college, but are not ready for a four-year school, might choose an Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree. Community colleges, technical or trade schools, and conservatories all offer these two-year degrees. Students might also earn certificates of completion, which are not collegiate degrees but still recognize skills and learning in a specific field so that the student can become licensed, such as an esthetician.
At a community college, students complete a course of study that will allow them to transfer to a four-year college or university to pursue a Bachelor’s degree. They will complete general studies in math, language, arts, and more, as well as classes in theatre. The AA and AS degrees are strong stepping stones into the job market as well.
Technical or trade schools have a very focused curriculum, and while we might think of the advertisements for schools in auto mechanics or information technology, theatre students can also pursue training in entertainment technology such as projection, animation, or audio-visual sciences. People skilled in hair and makeup often earn degrees or certificates in aesthetics or cosmetology from trade schools as well.
Conservatory students have a program much like BFA students, but all of their courses are in the chosen discipline and meet much more frequently. There are very few (if any) general studies courses because the conservatory program is designed to accelerate students into the job market. To learn more about conservatory programs, check out Where Should I Go For Acting Training? The 4 C’s of Conservatory vs College.
For college graduates who want to earn more specialized training, graduate school is a top priority. A Master’s Degree is a two- to three-year program focused on a single subject or discipline. Applicants must have earned a Bachelor’s degree, although their undergraduate major might differ from their desired Master’s focus. A Master of Fine Arts degree is the most popular for theatre students who study performance, design, directing, playwriting, etc. The MFA is considered a “terminal degree,” meaning that there is no higher degree to pursue in this discipline. A Master of Arts program is another option, and generally encompasses the humanities (such as literature or history), although a university might offer an MA degree in arts management or administration.
The final degree available to theatre students is the Doctorate of Philosophy, or PhD. This is education and coursework beyond Master’s Degree, and very few schools offer doctorate-level degrees within theatre. Students choosing a PhD in theatre likely focus on history, dramaturgy, or theory–almost never on performance or technical theatre. Usually they have a period of two or three years of coursework and research to prepare for exams. PhD students assemble a committee that guides them through exam preparation, and once they are completed (and passed), the student advances to candidacy and is considered “ABD”–“All But Dissertation”. The dissertation is a book-length paper on a specific research topic which can take a year or more to finish.
Want to learn more about colleges, degrees, and auditions? Search the StageAgent college directory or read our blogs College Auditions: Preparing to Shine and Choosing a Drama School: Advice from A.C.T.’s Conservatory Director.