I know a lot about U.S. colleges because, well, it is my job to know. But I'm always learning more, because there is always more to learn. Recently, I've been delving into the nitty gritty of theater programs at colleges in the U.S. And wow -- there are some amazing programs out there. But admission to many of these programs is by audition only and that makes them "out of reach" for many students who have a serious interest in theater, both as an academic area of inquiry and as a possible career path, but who haven't had access to the kind of training and experiences that would prepare them for the "admissions audition." So are there any programs out there for them -- the ones who aren't precocious child stars and who aren't going to make the cut at Juilliard just yet? Yes, in fact there are. And many of these programs are also amazing. Really.
Take these 5 colleges (presented in alphabetical order) -- each has a dynamic theater program with an enviable track record of graduates who go on to success in theater and NONE of them require an admissions audition!
Columbia College, Chicago, IL.
Columbia claims that with 12,000+ students and more than 120 programs, it is the largest and most diverse private arts and media college in the U.S. and I suspect that it's true. (Important note here: Columbia is NOT a for-profit college.) Columbia is truly a haven for artists of all stripes. It is a wildly energetic and creative place to be. Columbia takes full advantage of being located smack dab in the heart of the city of Chicago -- a city with more than 200 producing theaters. Columbia employs numerous working professionals as adjunct faculty and creates distinctive offerings for its students in collaboration with some of Chicago's best-known theater companies. For example, students may do a full semester in Comedy Studies through a collaboration between Columbia and Second City, Chicago's world-renowned comedy improv company. Furthermore because of Columbia's size and access to adjunct faculty, the breadth of courses available is quite astonishing. There are 19 Acting III "Styles" courses available -- including Shakespeare, Latino Theater, Camera Techniques, Brecht just to name a few. Columbia works hard to prepare its graduates to enter the world of professional theater and thrive. One of the ways it does this is to produce a Senior Showcase annually, which attracts directors, agents, producers, casting agents and production managers. But Columbia does not "gild the lily" about the challenges faced by those who aspire to make a career in the performing arts and on its FAQ page offers this answer about the availability of jobs for its graduates, "If while at Columbia College you learn your craft, which includes how to get the job, yes there will be work for you after graduation...but initially it may not necessarily be paying work." That being said, Columbia boasts a good track record of graduates going on to successful performing arts careers (presumably with paying work!).
Emory & Henry College, Emory VA.
Emory & Henry has developed a very interesting and creative model for a theater program. They have a traditional theater major open to students who want to make theater the focus of their undergraduate studies, but who are not necessarily interested in going on to career in theater. But they also have a pre-professional program that allows students to choose a "track" in their upperclass years -- the four tracks available are acting, directing, production/design and musical theater. This pre-professional program is operated in collaboration with Barter Theater, a professional LORT C Equity theater company. This opens up a wealth of opportunities generally only available to those in conservatory programs in major cities -- namely students get to serve as understudies in professional productions, attend rehearsals and master classes, and participate in talk backs with directors, actors and crew. These "off-campus" opportunities complement the on-campus opportunities, which include four major productions each year and five student showcases each semester. E & H takes the pre-professional orientation of this program seriously and devotes significant time and resources to helping graduates get their "big breaks" -- upperclass students are carefully prepared for participation in the Southeast Theater Conference spring professional auditions -- an annual event where aspiring actors have the opportunity to audition for 90+ professional theater companies at one time. Emory & Henry students typically do well in this audition process and graduates of their program are found in many noteworthy companies across the country and have been admitted to and graduated from some of the best-known MFA programs in the U.S.
Muhlenberg College, Huntingdon, PA.
Muhlenberg describes its philosophy in this way, "On the stage and in the classroom, Muhlenberg's Theater & Dance Department is all about And." They go on to enumerate all the "Ands" that define their program. I have a few of my own that cause Muhlenberg to stand out as a program. First, the faculty at Muhlenberg is large AND talented. Most are academics AND theater professionals (with union creds to back up their claims). The sheer number of faculty in the department given Muhlenberg's overall size is a tribute to the strength of the program and the investment the college makes. Second, the program encompasses theater AND musical theater AND dance making it a triple threat. Few programs at small liberal arts colleges are able to be so broad in their pursuits. Third, Muhlenberg makes it possible for students to pursue theater AND a wide range of other interests -- since the theater major only requires 12 courses, there is plenty of space in a student's schedule for study in other areas of interest and even a double major is possible. Beyond the "Ands" that make Muhlenberg special are a few other noteworthy attributes. The student-run theater association at Muhlenberg is a full partner with the department in the big productions, but it also supports a huge number of other productions throughout the year and those productions are highly regarded by the Muhlenberg community -- it is what causes Muhlenberg to show up frequently in the top 10 colleges listed as places where college theater productions are popular (as ranked by Princeton Review in an annual survey of current students). Based on reports of what individual alums are doing, it seems that Muhlenberg graduates are well-prepared to go on to successful careers in the performing arts.
Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA.
As a Jesuit Catholic college, SCU is committed to educating leaders of "competence, conscience, and compassion who will help fashion a more just, humane, and sustainable world." That underlying mission infuses the theater program at SCU and makes it a place where artist-activists are nurtured and developed. So for the student who aspires to use theater to transform the world, SCU is a great place to be. In addition to a solid traditional curriculum that develops students as artists through academic study and productions, students are supported in their development as activists through coursework (Social Justice and the Arts), interactions with guest artist-activists who come to campus through the Justice and the Arts Initiative, and opportunities for action, such as the chance to spend 4-8 weeks of the summer teaching theater in Nicaragua with Teatro Catalina, one of the groups that have sprung up at SCU in recent years. While Santa Clara advertises that their graduates include "Emmy Award winners, Broadway directors and performers, designers, and administrators involved in every facet of the entertainment industry - from Carnegie Hall to regional theaters to film," it is SCU's focus on producing artist-activists that really makes the program stand out.
Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY.
Skidmore's motto is "creative thought matters" and in my experience Skidmore lives up to the promise. Creative types, be they scientists or actors, flourish at Skidmore. Their theater program reflects the regard Skidmore has for performing arts as a valid and important subset of a liberal arts education. Theater is serious and intense at Skidmore -- majors must complete 41 credit hours in theater courses, but it is not unusual for a theater major to complete 60 hours of theater course work. Since the total number of hours required for a degree is 120 hours, it is clear that a student is expected to "go deep" into the major. One of the features of the program at Skidmore is the opportunity for students to be a part of the Skidmore Theater Company and the corresponding seminar class every semester. You meet as a Company once a week and you develop your craft by doing. There is one studio production and one thrust stage production each semester, a lab production at the end of Spring semester, and numerous workshop productions (including senior projects) throughout the year. Perhaps the best indicator of how Skidmore grows and nurtures talent in its theater majors is the success they enjoy upon graduation -- the majority go on to successful careers in entertainment, a good number go on to the most selective MFA programs, and several have even go on to establish successful theater companies of their own in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
Comments or Questions?
Have a college to add to this list? Post what you know about colleges with great theater programs -- no audition required!
Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad. Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)