The Top 25 BFA Acting and Performance Programs in 2019

I am a big fan of the website OnStage Blog.com! I wish I had access to the kind of information they provide when I was looking into potential colleges and universities that offered a professional actor’s training program. When I was applying to schools, the better training programs were part of an exclusive organization called The League of Professional Actor Training Programs. At that time, they League included such schools as NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Julliard, CalArts, Webster, ACT, etc. The League no longer exists (for a number of good reasons), but these schools and many others continue to provide some of the best professional actor training in the country.

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, it’s important to provide as many resources as possible. 

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.  As opposed to other college ranking publications, this ranking is determined by people experienced in the specific fields. The individuals who conducted the research include current and former educators, students, alumni, and working professionals in the areas of dance, design & technology and performing. Also, as opposed to other college ranking publications, colleges don’t pay Onstage Blog to be ranked. This is KEY! These rankings are focused on what it is most important to those pursuing a career in the theatrical arts by those who know these industries. 

SO WHAT IS THE PROCESS IN RANKING THESE SCHOOLS?

From what I’ve learned, the research period begins every year on May 1st. The schools are divided up among the research team and for the next three months, they look at every school on their list.  Their research includes thoroughly reading a school’s website, calling both their theatre departments and admission departments, talking with alumni, contacting professors and in some cases, even taking a campus tour. 

However, this is all done without the school’s knowledge. When colleges are being adjudicated, they tend to put out their best impression which can lead to hiding flaws and issues. So the research team does everything as if they were prospective students and parents. This way they get the most honest impression of a college’s program. 

It’s important to note that some of the members of the research team have attended, attend or work for some of these institutions. So to remove any conflict of interest, their alma maters and employers were not assigned to their lists.

After looking at each school, team members are asked to fill out a scorecard and rate each school from 1 to 10 in the following categories:

  • Quality of Facilities
  • Cost / Scholarship Opportunities
  • Quality of Faculty (Terminal degrees, professional experience, and full-time vs adjunct)
  • Admissions / Auditions / Selectivity
  • Quality of Curriculum 
  • Career & Alumni Support
  • Performance Opportunities

All the scores are loaded into a matrix spreadsheet where the rankings are determined. One category you won’t find is reputation. I’ve seen too many rankings where you see the same schools at the top based off nothing but their reputation of being the best. Because of Onstage Blog’s system of scoring, if these schools are truly the best then you’ll see them at the top. But don’t expect to see the same old schools you see on every other site claiming the top spots. 

You also won’t see “Presence on Broadway” either. OnStage Blog doesn’t feel working on Broadway is the only standard of career success for a theatre professional, and I agree. Most casting directors I know have told me that where one went to college very rarely makes a difference in the auditions decision process. 

We are truly at a crossroads when it comes to training for actors. It would be a lie to say that receiving your BFA in acting or performance carries the same weight that it did thirty or forty years ago. There are plenty of pathways to a successful career without attending a top college program. 

However, I agree with OnStage Blog and would also still argue that there is value in receiving your BFA. While studio training or private coaching will yield benefits, there are much more opportunities within some of these college programs. Also, the benefit of having a college degree in this day and age also comes with its benefits as well. 

When taking a look at this year’s roster of top BFA programs for acting/performance, OnStage Blog considered a lot of different aspects. But one thing they were looking for more than previous years is how these programs are properly preparing their students to tackle the different acting platforms available today. Are they focusing on just theatre or also acting for the camera? What different types of performance opportunities will students have? These types of factors are more important than ever for the acting student in the coming new decade. 

So here is our list for the Top 25 BFA acting/performance programs for this year. 

25. Nebraska Wesleyan University – Lincoln, NE 

NWU Theatre produces roughly 47 shows running on 200 nights each year. Compare that to the production schedules at other schools on your list. NWU faculty direct as many as 14 productions each year, including four musicals and four cabarets. Add to that the 20+ shows directed by NWU students—including full-length musicals like Oklahoma!, Company, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Theatre students also write and produce their own plays.

24. The University of Central Florida – Orlando, FL

Drawing upon the teachings of Stanislavski-based methodologies, as well as other successful practical acting techniques, the professional acting program offers an organic approach to performance training. The program begins with a focus on the fundamentals of acting: development of imagination, self-awareness, improvisation, voice production/diction and movement.

23. The University of Minnesota – Minneapolis, MN

The University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program offers an undergraduate training curriculum, which leads to a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree. In a unique actor training partnership, The University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts and the Guthrie Theater combine outstanding academic preparation with the artistic vision of the internationally known Guthrie Theater.

22. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Champaign, IL

As one of the resident producing organizations at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Department of Theatre produces six or seven fully mounted productions each academic year and three each summer. The theatres and workshops of the Krannert Center serve as laboratories for theatre students, who have the opportunity to learn and to work alongside an outstanding staff of resident theatre professionals and visiting artists, preparing performances in theatre, opera, and dance. In addition, the department sponsors a small experimental theatre space for student-written and student-directed productions.

21. The New York Film Academy – Miami, FL and Los Angeles, CA

Highlight: “In the second semester, students will build upon what they learned in semester one. Expanding upon the techniques and skills learned in Movement I, students will continue their exploration to refine their ability to express character and emotion through the body. Acting for Film I introduces students to the skills necessary for creating a fully-realized performance. Acting Technique & Scene Study II continues the exploration of relaxation, sensory awareness, and creative choice-making and individual performance elements in exercises designed to enhance students’ ability to synthesize their own practical techniques for performance on screen or stage. Students will also continue their liberal arts studies with courses in Film Art and Public Speaking. (Full disclosure: this is the one school on the OnStage Blog list that I don’t believe should be in the top 25. At best, I believe they’re in the top 100).

20. Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, NJ

The acting program also features a one-of-a-kind training opportunity with the third year spent at Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare’s Globe in London immersed in the study of classical Acting culminating with a performance on the Globe stage.

19. Webster University – St. Louis, MO

In order to ensure that the best opportunities are available to the students, significant partnerships are in place with the outstanding performing and visual arts organizations in the region. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis are housed on campus and perform their seasons in the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and the St. Louis Municipal Opera (the Muny) as well as Variety Children’s Theatre and Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre have partnership programs available to students. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra has curricular programs jointly offered with Webster.

18. Azusa Pacific University – Azusa, CA

APU’s BFA program is designed for students who desire to act professionally in theater, film, and television. Azusa Pacific’s proximity to Los Angeles provides students opportunities to be taught and directed by professional actors and directors. In the fourth year of their training, seniors act in a web series or film with a professional director and participate in an industry screening in Los Angeles, ensuring that they leave the BFA program with relevant experience and professional contacts in the field.

17. Baldwin Wallace University – Berea, OH

Baldwin Wallace’s close proximity to Cleveland and its nationally ranked theatre and arts organizations offers outstanding learning and performing opportunities. You’ll benefit from BW’s formal alliance with Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater (GLT), which is one of the few recognized, active partnerships between an equity theatre and undergraduate program in the US. Also important will be audition opportunities with GLT’s partner theatres — the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

16. University of North Carolina School of the Arts – Winston Salem, NC

You will also take part in a year-long project, Keys to the Kingdom, in which the class presents a season of independent work alongside the main-stage productions to encourage and explore artistic entrepreneurship.

15. Emerson College – Boston, MA

After completing the Actor Training Core you’ll have options: you can continue in the BFA Theatre & Performance program, or, should you find your interests becoming more singularly focused, you can audition for our BFA in Acting. If accepted, you would spend your Junior and Senior years in 14 hours a week of structured training, expanding on the foundational work of the Actor Training Core.

14. California Institute of the Arts – Valencia, CA

The second year is devoted to the study of classical text in performance. In addition, there is an increased focus on defining, developing and deepening craft and individual vision. In the third year of training, students engage the modern classics as well as contemporary and world dramatic literature. The third and fourth years are devoted to on-camera technique as well as advanced scene study, all meant to address the growing importance of media to the actor.

13. The University of Connecticut – Storrs, CT

Program offers outstanding performance opportunities through the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT), the performance wing of the Department of Dramatic Arts. At the CRT, students work with professional actors and directors on the way to earning membership points in Actor’s Equity, the American union for professional stage actors and stage managers.

12. SUNY Purchase – Purchase, NY

The acting BFA program is one of five in the nation that meets the standards of the Consortium of Conservatory Theatre Training Programs. In the fourth year, graduating seniors are presented to an invited audience of agents, producers, and casting directors in New York City and Los Angeles.

11. Millikin University – Decatur, IL

Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre is an exciting concept in undergraduate education. In partnership with the Millikin Center for Entrepreneurship, the School of Theatre and Dance has created a laboratory environment where students can “play, experiment, and explore.” Through course work and practical application, students’ skills are put to the test in this student-run business venture. From selecting a season to directing, designing, and performing, from marketing and audience development to managing financial responsibilities, students engage in all aspects of running a small theatre company.

10. Carnegie Mellon University – Pittsburgh, PA

At CMU, students have the opportunity to study abroad at an international conservatory program in the first semester of their senior year. School of Drama students have studied in programs such as NIDA in Sydney, the Moscow Art Theatre, London’s Drama Centre and other approved schools in France, South Africa, China and South Korea. Alumni include Zachary Quinto, Holly Hunter, Cherry Jones and Matt Bomer.

9. SCAD – Savannah, GA

For a truly unique experience in performing arts training, students should definitely look to the south at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art & Design. The program is the perfect blend for students looking for training for the stage and screen. In addition to a full theatrical season, students will have plenty of opportunities to act in the front of the camera. In fact, the school was award an Emmy for one of its sitcoms last year. Also, taking advantage of the film and television production boom in Georgia, SCAD is the only school with a professional casting office. This way students can gain expereience auditioning and being cast in major productions. Last year, SCAD cast students in over 200 roles.  Alumni include DeRon Horton (Dear White People) and Kayli Carter (Godless).

8. Boston University – Boston, MA

There isn’t a better option in the college mecca of Boston for aspiring actors than the program at Boston University. Their program features immersive studio classes in voice, speech, movement, and Alexander Technique provides the foundation for the Acting major and encourage students to develop a profound connection to themselves. Students are exposed to a wide range of acting and movement techniques and are encouraged to embrace the unknown and to be open to new and varied approaches to the creative process. Also features guaranteed casting in the School of Theatre’s 35+ Productions each season, twice a semester beginning in the sophomore year. These rehearsal and performance opportunities provide students the opportunity to apply the dynamic work of their classes in practice. Alumni include Emily Deschanel,  Ginnifer Goodwin, and Dan Fogler. 

7. Syracuse University – Syracuse, NY

After their first year, students may try out for various production opportunities, including department main stage productions, Syracuse Stage co-productions, numerous student- and faculty-sponsored productions, and Syracuse Stage productions in appropriate roles. Students may earn Equity points through work with Syracuse Stage. Facilities include The Syracuse Stage/Drama Theater Complex, also known as the Regent Theater Complex, which houses the Department of Drama and Syracuse Stage.  Alumni include Frank Langella, Julia Murney, Vera Farmiga and Emily Batsford. 

6. Pace University – New York, NY

Courses include The Industry for the BFA Actor. This course prepares students for the business side of the entertainment industry and what it takes to be a working actor in New York. Students learn how to prepare for auditions as well as general meetings with agents and casting directors and how to effectively market themselves. Alumni include Dominique Fishback, Dominick LaRuffa Jr. (Producer, An American in Paris), and Michelle Borth.

5. The University of Miami – Coral Gables, Fl

No college in the country is rising our rankings faster than the University of Miami. In addition to incredible facilities, such as the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, students will have a wonderful opportunity to meet with gain knowledge from an impressive roster of guest artists. Recent guests include Angela Lansbury, Andre DeShields, Aisha Hinds and Jason Danieley.  Alumni include Charles Grodin and Ray Liotta. 

4. NYU Tisch School of the Arts – New York, NY

What makes NYU Tisch’s program special is the amount of opportunities students will have. Upon acceptance into the Department, students are placed into one of eight different primary studios where they begin intensive conservatory training towards a strong foundation in technique. Students remain in their primary studios for two full years (four consecutive semesters). Once primary training is completed, students have many options for advanced training. It is important to understand that you are applying to Tisch Drama and not to a particular studio. The studio placement decision lies with the Department. Those studios include the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Atlantic Acting School, The Meisner Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Alumni include Alec Baldwin, Rachel Bloom, Jessica Hect and Miles Teller.

3. DePaul University – Chicago, IL

A traditional acting powerhouse that is always changing for the better, The Theatre School’s BFA degree in acting prepares actors to work on both stage and screen. It develops actors who are imaginative, skillful, expressive and vibrantly alive. It is rooted in the Chicago tradition, emphasizing physicality, truth in action, communication, collaboration and spontaneity. The first year introduces the actor to a broad range of techniques and experiences, defines a way of working and provides a set of skills. The next three years focus on developing and refining this way of working – adding skills and technique – while helping each actor discover and apply those which work best for him or her. For instance, the third year of training emphasizes working with classical texts and heightened language. Using plays by Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, third-year actors join the emotional, physical and imaginative life of the role with the technical skills needed to express that character to its fullest Alumni include Joe Mantegna, Gillian Anderson, John C. Reilly and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery. 

2. The University of Southern California – Los Angeles, CA

There is plenty to be excited about what USC has done with their School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA in Acting for Stage, Screen and New Media connects the foundation of classical theatre with innovative training for the contemporary performing artist, including on-camera techniques, voice over, motion capture, the digital landscape for actors and much more. USC’s main stage season will include about 25 productions a year. These productions, with the exception of the spring musical, are only available to School of Dramatic Arts majors and minors. In addition, students will produce about 18 Independent Student Productions (ISPs) a year. The program concludes with showcase performance for seniors in the spring.  Alumni include Forest Whitaker, Stark Sands, Daryl Hannah and SNL’s Beck Bennett. 

1. The Juilliard School – New York, NY

While the school is highly selective, their training model for actors is unrivaled in today’s academic world.  Students’ first year is known as the Discovery Year; a year to discover their blocks and possibilities. In every discipline—voice, movement, improvisation, scene study—students begin to acquire tools and practice techniques that can strengthen and deepen the instincts they already have and open up new practices of awareness, expression, and imagination.  The Drama Division typically accepts 18 students per year comprised of 8-10 undergraduates and 8-10 graduates who will work through the four-year acting curriculum together as a group. Alumni include Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Issac and Adam Driver.