MOST SERIOUS MUSICAL theatre and acting students begin looking at college options some time in their junior year of high school, arriving quickly at a list of schools to visit in the fall of their senior year.

Everyone considers the most well-known schools as they begin making a list. More than 2,000 students a year audition for as few as a dozen slots at each of these schools, so look at a variety of programs.

Several lesser-known programs also offer excellent theatre training with a solid track record, and others are just emerging that offer good professional preparation. Some programs have a more liberal-arts orientation, where a holistic education in humanities, science, and traditional college subjects accompany the hardcore theatre skills courses many theatre students desire. Any of these programs can be good choices, depending on your level of preparation, learning style, and what you hope for in a college experience.

While summer may offer you more free time to make college visits, schools rarely operate at peak level then. Make on-site visits when you can observe classes, talk with students and faculty, and see a production — typically during the academic year. This will help you make sense of the choices before you.

With so many options, ask the right questions while you’re there and take good notes so you don’t forget anything important. With luck and preparation, come spring break, you will have been accepted to one of your choices, and you can revisit your notes to know if it’s right for you.

When you make your college visits, don’t forget to ask these four questions so you can accurately compare each school’s responses:

QUESTION 1: WHO ARE THE FACULTY MEMBERS?

Very little in your education matters as much as the people who will teach you. Great teachers come in many forms. Some have professional careers behind them, while others have solid training and academic credentials. Great teachers communicate skills and concepts in a way that speaks to you and understand the career you’re pursuing well enough to prepare you for it. Not all great teachers work well with every student — this is a deeply personal relationship.

Begin by reviewing faculty bios on school websites, observing classes, and talking to alums. Find out if grad students or full-time faculty teach most classes. You can also ask what percentage of the faculty is adjunct or part-time versus full-time. Do the singing teachers love musical theatre or are they forced to teach musical theatre students? The same applies to dance teachers. Do these people know the classic and current repertoire, or will they be struggling to catch up to you? These faculty members will become confidantes, advisors, and, sometimes, lifelong mentors. Get to know them.

QUESTION 2: WHAT IS THE CURRICULUM?

Every school decides what classes you need to take to be prepared as a working artist when you graduate. No two schools have identical curricula as no one-size-fits-all prescription for training exists. The special skills and interests of the current faculty and the very difficult balancing act of fitting all your classes into just four years define a program’s curriculum. One school may offer stage combat or acting for camera, but another may not. However, all good musical theatre programs offer some combination of the following.

  • Acting: Both with and without music, in a range of styles and periods.
  • Singing: Classical, musical theatre, and pop styles.
  • Dance: Ballet, jazz, tap, theatre dance, modern. This area can vary widely from school to school. Find out what levels are available. If you’re a strong dancer, then you need to improve — can this school help you do that?
  • Musicianship: Music theory, choral singing, sight singing, piano skills.
  • Theatre history and theory: Traditional theatre history, musical theatre history and repertoire, script analysis.
  • Technical theatre: Stagecraft, stage makeup, backstage crew assignments, stage management.
  • Liberal arts courses: Math, science, English, social sciences. These courses that form the core of most traditional college curricula have been phased out of many B.F.A. programs in favor of pure craft courses. Decide what kind of career path is right for you.
  • Special topics: Stage combat, acting for camera, puppetry, playwriting.
A student participates in the technical theatre challenge at the International Thespian Festival.
A student displays her technical theatre skills at the International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

QUESTION 3: WHAT ARE MY OPPORTUNITIES WHILE I’M AT SCHOOL?

Opportunities to perform, direct, choreograph, write, produce, etc. can be among the most profound you’ll experience in college and may help define the direction you take in your artistic life. Some specific aspects of this question include:

  • Can you audition and perform your first year or do you have to wait?
  • Are you guaranteed roles?
  • Can you perform in plays and musicals?
  • Can you double major or take a minor in another subject?
  • Are study abroad or internship opportunities available?
  • Are students allowed to direct?
  • What kinds of guest artists come to the school?
  • Is there an industry showcase in any major city?

QUESTION 4 WHAT HAPPENS TO STUDENTS WHEN THEY GRADUATE?

Show business is tough at the best of times, but one important measure of a good program is the success of its graduates. Ask about what kind of work students get when they graduate, five years out and in the long-term. Most good programs can boast a handful of successful students, which can reveal a program’s genuine effectiveness.

If the school does a showcase, find out what happens as part of the showcase and what kind of success students have had in attracting industry attention. Also, ask what kind of financial responsibility a student has to the showcase. Some schools expect a graduating class to raise as much as $50,000.

Finally, ask about graduates who do not stay in show business. It’s common for three-quarters of all theatre graduates to move into related or completely unrelated fields within 10 years of graduation.

These four questions about faculty, curriculum, opportunities, and graduates can help you gain valuable insight into a program’s culture, expectations, and effectiveness. Take good notes and you’ll be able to select the college theatre experience that is right for you.

This story appeared in the November 2016 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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