Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States

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Nine Top Drama Schools in the United States

Broadway performance
Jersey Boys Broadway performance. Rob Kim / Getty Images

Whether it's on a Shakespearean stage, under the bright lights of Broadway or with a director hollering "Cut!", acting jobs are doled out based on training, experience, and networking. Who you know and who you trained with play a big part. So students who are serious about the acting profession don't look for just any college or grad school. They look at conservatories or universities with top-ranked drama programs and legendary alumni in cities known for their theater scenes.

Needless to say, the best ones are difficult to get into - and the process of applying carries many of the same issues and challenges faced by would-be music majors. First, there's the university vs. conservatory question. Then, the application process involves far more than mere paperwork. Most good drama programs require an audition - two monologues, for example, from contemporary theater for actors, monologues plus a singing audition for musical theater applicants - and an interview. (You may find these theater audition tips and parental survival advice helpful on that score.)

On the following pages, you'll find a guide to nine of the best theater conservatories and university programs in the United States. Page through or use the quick links below.

  • Three drama conservatories, including Juilliard
  • NYU's Tisch and other top theater programs at East Coast universities
  • USC and other top theater programs at West Coast universities
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Juilliard, A.C.T. and CalArts

Lincoln Center
New York City's Lincoln Center is home to the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School. PredragKezic / Pixabay / CC By 0

Conservatories are not good choices for teens who like acting -- emphasis on the "like" - and are thinking (thinking?) about declaring a drama or musical theater major. If that's your kid, he should be looking at universities with a good drama program - and a good everything else too - because students who attend drama conservatories are obsessively, passionately devoted to the theater and cannot imagine doing anything else. Saying they "like" the theater is rather like saying you "like" to breathe.

So let's start with three of the top theater conservatory programs - schools in three different cities and with three very different outlooks - then make our way to top-notch drama programs on university campuses. You'll find links to the schools themselves embedded in each description.

  • The Juilliard School: One of the world's most highly regarded conservatories for music, dance and drama, this New York City-based school is also one of the most competitive, both during admissions and after enrollment. Live auditions, typically held in January and February, are required and include four memorized monologues and a singing audition as well. Juilliard is known for its stringent requirements, incredibly high expectations and high stress. The school offers BFA and MFA programs in acting, and a very selective, one- to two-year playwriting program. Here's the big caveat: This school is extremely difficult to get into. Your child will be competing against stellar performers from around the world. And you can erase any ideas inspired by TV's "Glee" and Rachel Berry's freshman triumphs at the fictional NYADA. It does not matter how great you think your kid is. At Juilliard, fourth years get the performance spotlight. The first two years as an undergraduate focus on developing skills; any performances are rehearsal workshops. The third, Shakespeare-centric year includes limited performances on a small stage.
  • American Conservatory Theater: This San Francisco theater offers a small, highly competitive MFA program, accepting eight to 12 graduate students per year. Among the former students: Elizabeth Banks, Annette Bening and Benjamin Bratt. It's an unusual program, though. You do not need to have a bachelor's degree in order to apply, and there are two other training options for younger students (up to age 19) and actors considering graduate work. The Summer Training Congress offers intensive two- and five-week summer courses to students and professionals, ages 19 and up. The Young Conservatory is open to students ages 8-19, and its alumni include Milo Ventimiglia, Winona Ryder, Nicolas Cage and Darren Criss.
  • CalArts: Founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961 as the California Institute of the Arts - and promptly nicknamed CalArts - this school specializes in the visual and performing arts. It's ranked among the top 10 arts schools by U.S. News & World Report and its location 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, its top-notch faculty and its performance spaces and facilities make it a must-see. CalArts offers both BFA and MFA program in acting, as well as programs in writing, directing and design.

Now for the university programs...

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Top Theater Programs at East Coast Universities

Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, with its gateway arch, is surrounded largely by NYU buildings and plays an integral role in NYU campus life. Jean-Christophe BENOIST / Wikimedia Commons/ CC By 3.0

Fabulous as New York's Juilliard School may be, the East Coast offers many other terrific drama programs too. It's worth pausing first, though, to consider this: Going to school in the middle of Manhattan confers an undeniable advantage - you're surrounded by actors, artists and the cachet of Broadway, after all. But undergraduates may be better served at a smaller school, say some actors, including Peter Dinklage, where they will get more individual attention and actual stage experience. Dinklage went to Vermont's Bennington College, along with actors such as Alan Arkin, Carol Channing and Justin Theroux. (If you're interested in hearing more on that topic, Dinklage went into great detail about it during his Bennington commencement address in 2012, when he compared his college experience to those of theater students at NYU.)

That said, the following three theater programs on major East Coast campuses top any list for serious actors, especially those seeking MFA degrees.

  • Tisch School of the Arts: Every theater and musical theater student know about NYU - or they should. New York University is renowned for its undergraduate and graduate performing arts programs, especially its programs in drama. Its alumni are a who's who of Oscar and Emmy winners, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. Woody Allen, Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie took courses here, Felicity Huffman got her BFA here and Tony Kushner his MFA. And its location in New York City cannot be beat. Admission at this private university is highly competitive and requires stellar GPA and test scores - to gain admission to the university as a whole - as well as auditions and recommendations to get into the arts school.
  • The Actors Studio Drama School: Yes, that one - the one affiliated with James Lipton. The Actors Studio at New York's Pace University offers an MFA program in drama that focuses on the Stanislavski system and method acting, with a curriculum whose creators include Ellen Burstyn, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino. Taking dance classes? Those are taught by members of Alvin Ailey. Needless to say, competition is fierce to get in. Auditions are held in New York City each winter and Los Angeles in April.
  • Yale School of Drama: Another graduate program only school of theater, Yale University offers an MFA degree in acting, design, directing and other theater production disciplines, and it works with the Tony award-winning Yale Repertory Theatre in much the same way a medical school and teaching hospital work in partnership. Live auditions are required.

And on the West Coast...

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Top Theater Programs at West Coast Universities

USC campus
David McNew / Getty Images

The MFA program at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater is undeniably stellar, but the West Coast's major universities offer terrific theater programs as well, especially in Los Angeles, where proximity to the film and television studios offers plenty of opportunity and a roster of amazing guest lecturers. Here are three possibilities to explore:

  • USC School of Dramatic Arts: You don't have to look far to see USC alumni: They're onscreen at the local cineplex and onstage at the Oscars, collecting statuettes for, among other things, "Argo." USC's theater program offers a great mix of conservatory intensity in a larger university setting - guest lectures by renowned film directors and football games too. The school's five theaters present more than 20 theatrical productions per year, and there are both undergraduate and graduate programs. In addition to weathering a competitive audition process, applicants must get into the highly competitive university too.
  • UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television: As you might have guessed, this fellow Los Angeles university also tops the rankings, with similar industry connections, renowned alumni (Beau Bridges, Elizabeth McGovern, Carol Burnett, the list is endless) and an interdisciplinary curriculum that melds the entertainment and performing arts worlds. Don't get too thrilled by the size of the program - with more than 300 undergrads and graduate students, it's one of the larger theater schools, but its acceptance rate is a highly competitive 8.2%. Students must be accepted to both the incredibly competitive university and the theater program.
  • University of Washington School of Drama: This huge (50,000+ students) public university in Seattle boasts an impressive theater program that dates back to 1919. Today, more than 300 drama undergrads and graduate students study here, and its alumni go on to perform in local theater companies as well as in film. Kyle MacLachlan and Jean Smart are among the many graduates of this program. Again, students must be accepted into the university as well as the drama program.