Majoring in Theatre: Picking a College

I’m not sure about you, but when someone asks me what I plan to major in and I say theatre, nine times out of ten the response (if it’s not disdainful or some variation of “you can actually do that?”) is something along the lines of “Ooh, like Juilliard?” And then when I say “no, there are more theatre programs and drama schools out there besides Juilliard”, they say “but you still plan to apply to Juilliard, right? I mean it’s the best, right? You have to apply to the best.” Eventually, it really does start to wear you down and almost make you doubt – am I really applying to the right places?

First off, I must acknowledge that any response to such a question, and any further questions inspired by it, is one entirely of opinion – based off knowledge, experience perhaps, but still an opinion. However, this is an opinion article, so while I urge readers not to take my word as anywhere close to fact or final judgment (I’m a student like all of you; I don’t have any authority to make such audacious pronouncements) I do wish to share my thoughts on the matter to perhaps start an open discussion.

Photo by HsinJuHSU/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by HsinJuHSU/iStock / Getty Images

What is the right or the best school or program for one to apply to anyway? After all, everyone’s heard the old sayings and stories about Tisch, Juilliard, RADA and LAMDA. Everyone’s seen the ‘top 10’ and ‘top 25’ rankings out there on the internet citing big names like Carnegie Mellon, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, University of Michigan and more. Everyone else says these are the best schools – that these are the places which you should be sending your applications to. But what makes them so ‘good’ in the first place?

Some like to rate schools and programs on metrics such as the amount of Broadway or West End stars they’ve produced, arguing that such statistics clearly indicate that certain schools have better, higher quality, and more effective instruction. You’ll often find many a senior high school student looking at theatre programs gawking at the statistics and staring in awe at the amount of graduates this or that school or program are currently on Broadway or the West End, and perhaps more often you’ll find many an admissions officer or counselor touting their school’s ranking as ‘number two for number of graduates currently employed on Broadway’ in an attempt to sell their program to potential applicants. However, do such statistics really indicate the quality of instruction of a given program? After all, adherents of well-known ‘top’ schools like to argue they do, while proponents of more ‘unknown’ schools (and I don’t mean that in an offensive manner, I simply use the term to refer to theatre programs/schools which the public tends to be less aware of) usually offer the counterargument that a school’s performance on this or that ranking system or metric doesn’t actually say anything about the quality of instruction and/or the faculty, often offering anecdotes or stories of experiences where specific teachers, coaches or instructors from their program or school helped them achieve their true potential, perhaps contrasted with a more negative experience from a ‘good’ teacher from a ‘top’ program.

I believe both arguments have some degree of merit. No matter what one may believe to be the ‘actual’ quality of instruction of a theatre program or school that is relatively well-known or that is often considered ‘one of the best’, the fact remains that their reputation in the public eye and awareness of them within the general public and the industry remains significant. Perhaps ‘bigger and better’ programs simply have the clout to hire or attract staff, particularly those in high demand (think veteran actors with multiple Broadway credits under their belt), in ways smaller and lesser-known programs simply may not be able to. Considering that, maybe it might make sense to argue that the ‘top’ schools and programs might have better faculty and thus perhaps better instruction. Yet, it would be disingenuous to say that top schools must have better faculty and hence instruction than other programs. There are many more factors that go into a teacher’s decision to join a certain school or a school’s decision to hire a teacher than merely name or reputation, and, of course, there are an abundance of incredible teachers teaching everywhere from the highest ranked schools in the industry to the new and unknown programs accepting their first batches of students.

And in regards to rankings themselves – just as it would be logical to argue that top schools attract better teachers, I argue that it is equally logical to argue that they simply attract better students – that their reputation or their name brings the best of the best to their doorstep already, as in those students with such great talent and potential that they would already be a step ahead on the road to the Great White Way. In that way, perhaps such metrics are a self-fulfilling prophecy – higher-ranking schools get students who are more likely to succeed, helping boost their rankings, and so forth. And yet, that says absolutely nothing about whether the instruction one themselves would receive should they go to said school would actually help them succeed, whether the instruction they’d receive at Juilliard or Tisch or CCM would actually allow them to exploit their own potential to the fullest and give them specifically the best shot at a successful career. Some students thrive in a conservatory environment, others in a more liberal arts oriented program; some might do well with academic programs, using the knowledge they learn in the classroom to good effect in guiding their careers, their performances and their passion, while others might do better with more training-oriented or practical programs, learning through experience how to truly utilize their skill and potential as a performer. And you can’t tell any of that from rankings and metrics.

At the end of the day, I say it’s nigh-impossible to judge the quality of a specific school’s faculty from rankings or hearsay. The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” comes to mind – I say that we students should look upon rankings and metrics and recommendations and opinions with a pinch of salt, that we should make our own judgments, visit campuses and talk to staff and faculty of prospective programs ourselves to make the best decisions for our own careers, to find the best fit for ourselves so that we can pursue our passions as best as we can and be able to truly enjoy making art in the process.