Choosing an Undergraduate Theatre Department


best-colleges-us-news-and-world-report-121005Back in 2010, the New York Times published an article about Cortney Munna, a recent graduate of New York University who had run up a debt load of $100,000 in order to complete her undergraduate degree. Ms. Munna was struggling to make her student loan payments, and the Times reporter questioned the ethics of NYU’s financial aid office in allowing a student to run up so much debt. Theatre blogger Jason Holtham, writing on Isaac Butler’s blog Parabasis, contacted Ms. Munna and dug a bit deeper into the situation. It’s harrowing reading. Since then, the student loan crisis has garnered national attention, and increasingly people have begun questioning whether college is “worth it.” Organizations like have sprung into existence offering a separate educational pathway, and MOOCs are starting to be explored as a delivery system.

If you have been reading any of my Clyde Fitch articles, you know that I am concerned about the shape and value of theatre and arts education in this country. I suggested in “A New Education for a New Theatre” that we need to rethink how we approach education, and stop encouraging the mindset that makes theatre artists dependent on others to “allow” them to use their talents.

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I teach at a public liberal arts college in North Carolina — the University of North Carolina at Asheville. I have been here since 1998, and prior to that I was Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University, a largish (17,000 students or so when I was there) comprehensive state university. My educational background has all been public: the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, a HUGE (50,000 + when I was there, bigger since) Research 1 university; masters degree from Illinois State; and a doctorate from City University of New York Graduate Center. I also attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when I was 20. So my educational background encompasses direct experience of just about every form of university except private ones, and my indirect experience through friends and colleagues encompasses those as well. In my spare time, I read books about the education system and teaching (if you really want to know what a college ought to look like, read John Tagg’s and Peter Ewell’s The Learning Paradigm College). In short, I am pretty well-informed about the education system in this country. However, perhaps more than any of my other articles, this one will strongly reflect my own personal biases. So weigh this against the opinions of others.

So I feel the need to speak out in order to warn other young people and their families before they make the same mistake as Ms. Munna and and many, many others have made. No, I’m not talking about the financial aid process, which is problematic, but rather about the more insidious issue that serves as its foundation, that is widely subscribed to by many young (and not-so-young) people considering a career in theatre, and that is illustrated by the following quotation in Holtham’s interview:

I probably could have gotten a pretty good package at a SUNY school, but for me, I believed a top school would be worth the debt…

There, in twenty-six words, is the Minotaur at the center of the theatre educational labyrinth: branding.


Ms. Munna and her mother fell victim to the biggest scam in education, one that is propagated by “rankings” published in U. S. News and World Report, Princeton Review, Kiplinger, Forbes. Ranking colleges and universities is big business, one that the colleges themselves support by advertising their rankings on their websites. But what do the rankings really tell us? Mostly, they tell us about brand awareness.

mythsIf you do any research into the college rankings, you quickly find that 25% of the data used in the rankings are based on hearsay: “peer assessment surveys” in which college presidents (or their designees) are asked to rank the quality of hundreds of universities on a scale of 1 to 5. On what basis can such an assessment be made? I don’t care how active and connected a university president is, nobody has enough firsthand, substantive knowledge to accurately and fairly rank 250 universities. So if these presidents don’t have firsthand knowledge, how are they arriving at their ranking? By the college’s “reputation,” of course — in other words whether they have heard of the college, and heard of it positively. Put another way: branding.

The effect of branding is noted by well-respected education researcher Alexander Astin, for instance, who, according to Barbara F. Tobolowsky, expressed

concern [that the] stability of rankings suggests that myth and institutional perceptions may have as much to do with the rankings as the methods used to determine them. In fact, the methods for assessing quality reflect a bias toward institutional size, student test scores, and the number of “star” faculty.

Tobolowsky goes on, “Astin and others question this definition of quality, because it has nothing to do with the student’s college experience or learning.” In other words, a university’s reputation is little more than “folklore” that “affects students’ college choices as well as the perceptions of institutional raters. Therefore, according to Astin, rankings reflect the myth of quality, rather than the reality of it.”

But exactly what are the rankings based on, aside from “peer assessment.” Check out the methodology used by U. S. News and World Report:

1. Peer review (25%)

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2. Student selectivity: acceptance rate, top 10% of HS class, SAT scores (15%)

3. Faculty resources (faculty salary, % faculty with terminal degree, student/faculty ratio, class size (<19 students, and >50+) (20%)

4. Graduation and retention rates (20%)

5. Financial resources: i.e., annual budget divided by number of students (10%)

6. Alumni giving (5%)

7. Graduation rate performance (5%)

Take a look at those criteria closely: how many of them give any indication of what your experience is likely to be in the classroom? If a faculty member gets paid a lot, will you know it — especially if he is teaching only a couple grad classes a year, and you, as a lowly undergrad, are being taught mostly by grad students? How does that salary relate to the cost-of-living for the area where the university is ($100,000 in NYC is much different than $100,000 in Berea, KY). If the alums are giving a bunch of money, will you see any of it, or is it being funneled into faculty travel and research costs? Is the number of students a college rejects really an indication of quality, or just the effects of branding? And what about “legacy admits,” people who are accepted because Daddy or Mommy graduated from the school in the past — what effect do they have on “student selectivity”? For every legacy admit, another qualified student had to be rejected.

None of this is what Ms. Munna considered when she and her mother chose a “top college.” What they bought was the NYU brand, plain and simple. They bought the educational equivalent of a BMW — prestige based on a combination of name recognition and high price. And they were reassured in their selection by ranking services whose criteria are ultimately irrelevant to her experience in the classroom. She didn’t buy a “top education,” she bought a “well-known brand.” There is a big difference.

Furthermore, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A TOP COLLEGE. It is a stupid idea, one that assumes a even wash of quality over all aspects of the university. There might be “top departments” where there are great professors who pay close attention to their students, and right across the hall there might be an equally dismal department filled with dead wood faculty members who haven’t had a new thought for a decade but who have tenure and a high salary. There might be a great professor teaching the subjects that really interest you, but who is surrounded by departmental colleagues who are total losers. None of this is accounted for by rankings and so-called “reputation.”


So if rankings are useless, how do you choose a college? There are lots of websites that will give you advice, but I am going to speak from my personal experience, and I’m going to tailor my advice to people who want to go into theatre.

But let me get this out of the way first: generally speaking, I don’t endorse BFA programs (cue protests from BFA professors). In my opinion, the kind of “pre-professional training” such programs offer is too narrowly focused for the undergraduate experience. In order to be a theatre artist, and not just a cog in the theatrical machinery, I believe you need to know a lot about a lot of different stuff — not just theatre. Once you have become an educated human being, there will be plenty of time to specialize. Right now, become a person who knows enough to be able to understand and interpret whatever a play throws at you. This is particularly true if you are a playwright!

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Moving on.

The first thing I’d recommend is that you start with a list of all the public schools in your state. These are the Best Buys for your area (no, not the big box electronics stores, the bargains). Your parents have been paying taxes for years so that you can get an in-state tuition rate — don’t throw that out the window out of a mistaken assumption that “state schools” are inferior to private schools — they aren’t. Then do your research using the questions below. If none of the public schools meet your needs, then add in the private schools and the out-of-state schools. Warning: once you do that, the number of schools increases astronomically, so you need to have some personal criteria to help narrow it down — e.g., school size, school type, demographic context (big city, small town, etc), cost of living (in case you move off campus), tuition cost and financial aid options, etc. Using your list, go on-line and research the following:

1. How big is the department? A big department provides a lot of competition, and often (but not always) a lot of opportunities. It is very easy to get lost in a big department, especially if you don’t get cast right away (this is particularly true for actresses, for whom there are usually fewer roles in the season and more competition for those limited roles). But the variety and activity can be stimulating and inspiring. Small departments can allow you to become involved and known very quickly, and garner a lot of experience and personal attention. Remember: the most important connections you make during your education are not with the professors, but your fellow students. They will be who you will (or will not) work with in the future. They are the future, your profs are the past.

2. Is there a graduate program? Graduate programs can really affect the amount of attention, opportunities, and resources available to undergraduates. If there isn’t a graduate program, that means you will receive the full attention of the faculty. If there is, then you need to consider several other things:

a. Who teaches the lower level classes? Go on the website and get a list of the department faculty, and then compare those names to those who are teaching the 100- and 200-level courses (you can usually find the current schedule on the university website — check the “current students” link). If the names don’t match, cross this school off your list — you’re only there to generate tuition income.

b. Who is cast in the shows? Ask for programs from the last season of plays. Usually, grad students and faculty members are identified in the program — often, all candidates for grad degrees have an asterisk, and the faculty names you already know. If the major roles and positions are taken up by grads and faculty (or guest artists), cross this school off your list — you will spend your undergrad career playing little roles or serving on running crews.

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3. What does the curriculum look like? Are the types of classes being offered of interest to you? This question is much harder to answer as a high school student, because you may not really know enough to evaluate accurately. But if the department devotes a lot of resources to, say, musical theatre and you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, this might not be your place. If you have a teacher at school with a theatre background, or somebody else who is knowledgeable you can ask, have him or her look over the course list. A program that is based on Meisner is very different than one based on Bogart or Boal.

4. What plays are being done? Generally speaking, the plays being done, and the way they are being done, will reflect the orientation of the department. Look at production photos, read any reviews you can find, check out the years the plays were written. A department doing a lot of classics is very different than one doing Sarah Ruhl and Neil Labute. If the production photos look like the acting is broad and stupid or the staging is goofy (you know what I mean), cross it off your list. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent, and you don’t want to acquire any bad habits.

5. Don’t be swayed by a list of “working” alums. The likelihood is that any alums who are working, or even “famous,” were trained by different faculty members than you’ll be trained by. The reputation of a department is usually at least a decade older than its current status. If the same profs who taught these folks are still around, then give the alum list a little weight, but not much.

6. What is the faculty doing? Conventional wisdom is that faculty members who are doing Big, Important gigs all over the country are better than those who aren’t. My wisdom: don’t believe it. Faculty who are doing gigs elsewhere are not around and focused on you. They are using the university as a steady income source while they have their theatre career. This is particularly true at universities whose home is one of the major theatre centers (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), and who will often employ as adjuncts artists looking to supplement their income, but whose commitment to teaching is tenuous. If you’re hoping that knowing them will open doors, then you aren’t looking for a good education, you’re just buying access, and this guide isn’t for you. I want you to develop as an artist, not a prostitute. Don’t get me wrong, a little outside activity is important — after all, you want profs who are alive. Find out if they have written any articles or done any presentations. Do they have a blog? Read it. Are the shows they’re doing going up in the summer — that’s good. During the school year — not so good. As far as the quality of the faculty, finding info about teaching is hard to do. I’m going to wince a little and suggest that you peek at some of the online “rate your teachers” sites. Don’t pay attention to individual comments, but look for patterns. You’ll have to do most of this kind of research when you visit.

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7. What does the general education program look like? Wha??? Who cares — you just wanna do theatre, right? Wrong. General education is your first major, and it needs to add value to your education, not just be a series of hoops to jump through. And you need to take this part of your education seriously. Yes, even Math. Again, if you want to become a theatre prostitute, then you don’t need any education at all — just head to NY or LA and start pounding the pavement and taking scene study classes. But if you want to become an artist, then you need to have a brain that is filled with as much learning as possible. Read Tony Kushner’s essay “A Modest Proposal” if you don’t believe me. Take it seriously — Kushner is right. So look at the gen ed requirements: do they seem coherent? Are they just a cafeteria menu of stuff — one from Column A, two from Column B — or do the classes seem to make some sort of sense as a whole? Make sure that you are required to learn about other times and other cultures — as an artist, this is absolutely crucial.

8. Visit. You wouldn’t marry someone you’ve never met, and an undergraduate program lasts longer than many marriages these days. This is why you need to do a bunch of research on-line in advance, because you don’t have the time or the money to visit a dozen schools. If you’ve done your research, and reflected on what you are looking for, you should have your list narrowed down. Once you’re there, do the following:

a. Sit in on a lower-level and an upper-level class. Choose these classes yourself according to your research, don’t let the faculty choose for you. If you’ve discovered that grad students teach the lower-level class and are considering this school anyway (fool), make sure you sit in on one. And then ask to observe a class in an area of interest for you. Again, you choose. What you’re looking for is a number of things: is the teacher engaged with the students, or just lecturing or doing things by rote? Are the faculty members honest and caring? By honest, I mean do they push for excellence and level with students who don’t make the grade? By caring, I mean do they do it in a way that is sensitive and encouraging? More importantly, are students being taught the underlying concepts of what they are doing, or are they just being coached? Some acting teachers, for instance, think an acting class is directing students to do a scene better, but when the scene is over the students have no idea how to apply what they did to the next scene. Unless you want to spend your career being dependent on directors to tell you what to do, you need to be empowered to take control of your artistic choices, and that means understanding why, not just how.

b. Hang out in the place where theatre kids hang out. You will likely be shepherded around the department by a student currently in the program. That’s nice, and you can get some insights from them, but know that they have been chosen because they are going to put a positive spin on everything. Find the place where the students hang out, and eavesdrop. Who is bitching about whom? Which faculty member just finished brutalizing someone in class? What kinds of things are being discussed — ideas from class and rehearsals, gossip, brainstorming? Who do students think is an idiot? Don’t believe everything you hear, but add it to your database.

c. See a show. Always visit when there is some sort of show going on, even a lab show. How is the acting? The design? The direction? Is there a noticeable difference between the abilities of grads and undergrads? Are there a lot of bells and whistles, but the production is mostly empty? Would you have been proud to be involved with such a production? Does it reflect your values? During intermission, do more eavesdropping. Try to find theatre students and hear what they’re saying about the show.

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d. Have a one-on-one meeting with a faculty member. If nobody is “available,” head for home — this is an absentee faculty. Ask them hard questions. If they look offended by having to answer, head for home — these are arrogant bastards who think they are God’s gift to theatre education. Hint: they’re not; nobody is. Ask them to put the show you saw into context: is it in the top 10% they’ve seen here over the past five years? Top 25%? This can help you understand how to look at the show. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we’d hoped, but it was a good experiment. Ask about departmental scholarships or workstudy jobs. Ask about internships or student projects.

e. Go to a gen ed class. Are they huge lecture classes? Smaller? Is there an attempt to make things interesting? Who is teaching — grad students, adjuncts, or profs? Are the students passive or engaged?

f. Visit the town. What’s within walking distance of campus? Is there public transportation, or do you need a car? Is there an arts scene? Is there a coffee shop where students seem to hang out? If there isn’t much happening in town, that isn’t a reason to reject the college. It just means that you need to find out whether the college makes up for it with their own on-campus options, which can make up for a less-than-vibrant place.

g. Don’t get overawed by facilities. Yeah, the theatre may be state-of-the-art, but do undergrads get to work in it, or is it locked up except when the faculty are around? A crappy hole in the wall that is available for student creativity may be more important — in fact, probably IS more important — than a shiny new building. And the rest of campus — well, pretty buildings are nice, but it won’t take long before you won’t really see them anymore. It is more important what is going on in them.

Now that you have done all this, follow your gut. You’ve done your research, and that’s all in the back of your mind, but listen to what your heart is saying. If there are two schools that seem equally good, choose the cheaper one. Carrying a huge debt as you start a career in theatre is a really, really bad idea. But I suspect that, when all is said and done, your choice will be clear.

And then, once you get there, work your butt off. Wring every drop of knowledge you can find out of your teachers and fellow students. And learn all aspects of theatre, including the skills needed to produce your own work. Prepare yourself to become an artist, not an employee.

Good luck!