Performing arts entertain and illuminate, providing an escape into a fictional world. At the same time, theater can be a creative space for representing, communicating, and challenging social norms. Theater professionals may produce, direct, manage, write, or act in live performances. Academic theater arts scholars interpret and teach drama and dramatic theory.
A master's degree in theater arts prepares you for a role in theater, either on stage, behind the scenes, or in the academic world. The two-year programs support diverse career goals and lifestyles--it's possible to earn a master's degree online or on campus, focusing on nearly any aspect of the performing arts.
WorldWideLearn.com introduces you to the landscape of today's graduate theater arts programs and takes you through the planning process step by step. Focus your goals and access the resources you need to achieve your potential as a theater professional.
Guide to Master's Degrees in Theater Arts
Theater arts has been a staple of cultural expression since antiquity. Live performance offers an effective means of reaching and moving an audience through dialogue and physical movement. Graduate education combines classroom learning with studio practice and drama productions. The discipline spans fields as diverse as critical drama theory and business management, with courses in theater history, production, acting technique, playwriting, screenwriting, and more.
Professional and Academic Master's Degrees
Graduate theater arts programs feature a selection of master's degrees to meet different professional goals.
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
The MFA is an applied fine arts degree emphasizing studio practice and theater performance. Academic scholarship rarely enters into the curriculum.
Master of Arts (MA)
The MA is an academic humanities degree culminating in an academic research project and master's thesis. The curriculum focuses on the history, literature, and critical theory of the performing arts. The MA can serve as a stepping stone into the theater arts PhD program and an academic scholarship and teaching career.
Master of Science (MS)
The MS is also an academic degree, but emphasizes the production, management, and performance aspects of theater arts. The MS culminates in an applied project in a specific performing arts specialty such as scene design, lighting design, directing, or acting.
In addition to choosing a master's degree, you can also focus your studies on a specific role in the performing arts.
Fine arts and professional practice master's degrees focus on the creative and technical roles--on stage and behind the scenes--that make a theater production happen. Specialization options include:
- Screenwriting and Playwriting
- Costume Design
- Lighting Design
- Scene or Set Design
- Directing Technical Production
- Theater Management
Academic theater arts degrees approach theater as a humanities discipline rather than a fine arts practice. Specializations emphasize the study of theater arts such as:
- Theater History
- Dramatic Theory
- Theater Education
The specialization you choose will likely influence your professional opportunities. Look for a program with the resources and emphasis to match your personal goals.
A master's degree in theater arts offers a versatile credential for professional performing arts careers, academic scholarship, and even business management roles.
Professional MA and MFA graduates can move seamlessly into acting, directing, and production roles in the performing arts or entertainment industries (cinematic arts, television production, etc.). Theatrical production job titles available to master's degree graduates include:
- Choreographer (dance or fight choreographer)
- Designers: Lighting, Set, Costume, Sound
- Directors: Director, Artistic Director, Musical Director, Technical Director
- Producer, Production Manager, Stage Manager
Specialized careers within these roles include pyrotechnician, master electrician, and vocal and drama coach. The movie and television industry features additional specialized roles such as rigger and special effects designer.
Theater management careers attend to the business side of the performing arts, with job titles such as box office manager, business manager, house manager, marketing and PR, fundraising, or development.
Academic careers typically require a PhD in theater arts, after which you may qualify for university professor and academic scholarship positions. The master's degree is sufficient for some theater education and writing roles such as theater critic.
Competition for theater arts jobs can be intense, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Business management and behind-the-scenes production careers are more accessible than acting and directing careers, but appeal to different skills and personalities. To learn which path is right for you, visit WorldWideLearn.com's Career Resources. You'll find career planning and assessment tools to help you plan your professional path.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Theater Arts
If you have a clear sense of where you're heading professionally, you can make the most of your graduate study. Use this perspective to choose the right master's degree program and establish yourself as a theater arts scholar.
Step One: Find the Right Graduate Theater Arts Program
Sort through your graduate theater arts program options by taking into account each of these criteria in turn:
Accreditation is an important baseline measure of quality and the value of your degree. The National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST), a division on the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), is the preeminent accreditation agency for professional theater arts. But, you'll also find regional and national accrediting agencies. Look for approved accreditation agencies on the U.S. Department of Education website.
WorldWideLearn.com partners only with accredited educational institutions. Search Degrees by Subject for links to graduate theater arts programs.
The National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) maintains an online database of members. Search for a master's degree in theater arts.
2. Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degrees
You can earn a master's degree online or on campus. This decision can focus your program search from the outset. Online degrees remain a novelty in theater arts, since many programs emphasize studio practice and involvement in local productions. Campus degrees, meanwhile, limit you to a specific geographical area.
Take into account the following factors in deciding on a program format:
- Professional objectives: If theater performance and production is your goal, hands-on participation in local productions is a critical element of the graduate student experience. Campus degrees offer more immediate access to production experience. Online degrees may make up for the distance by arranging internships with local theaters. Online master's degrees work better in the context of theater business management and academic coursework.
- Lifestyle: Online degrees offer a convenient, self-paced format ideal for busy adults juggling family and work obligations. Campus programs, by contrast, offer access to camaraderie and collaborative learning through student productions.
If your career and lifestyle criteria are in conflict, look for a hybrid campus-online program. These theater arts master's degrees can accommodate working professionals while providing access to the benefits of local residency. You'll take courses online and complete temporary residencies for studio practice and performance.
3. Academic Programs
The critical element in your program research is the availability of resources in your field of interest. Explore each program carefully, taking into account the following factors:
- Courses and Degree Specializations
- Degree Format and Requirements
- Performing Arts Facilities and Local Theater Companies
- Research Facilities such as Library Collections
- Faculty Expertise and Background
- Student Life
- Local Performing Arts Scene
Your interests often determine how you prioritize these factors. Fine arts practitioners value associations with local theater companies and a vibrant theater culture. Academics require faculty mentors in their specialization area and access to a research library.
School Web sites publish detailed information about degree requirements, course descriptions, local theater productions, and more. You'll also find links to faculty information, including a list of performances and publications.
Informational interviews can give you a candid look at the academic experience and unique emphases of a particular program. Meet with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students. If possible, combine local interviews with a campus visit.
4. Program Quality
Finally, zero in on the five or six programs that offer the best value for your educational investment. Factors that play into this quality assessment include:
- Faculty Credentials
- Academic Rigor
- Student Demographics
- Support Services
Look for competitive programs that admit students with academic backgrounds similar to yours.
Admissions Counselors have access to useful data about admissions and placement. Ask for information about selectivity (average admitted students' GPA and test scores), graduation rate, employment after graduation, and student background.
Reputation: Experts in the field offer the most reliable insight into the top programs in your field; ask an undergraduate advisor, a theater company director, a theater critic, or another contact for direction. Official theater arts program rankings are good resources, but are hard to come by. Many programs boast high rankings in U.S. News & World Report, but the publication has not included theater programs in its annual ranking since 1997.
Step Two: Apply to Graduate Theater Arts Programs
The next step in the application process turns the tables: it's time to prove to each program's admissions committee you're the right student for their theater arts master's degree program. Though each school's application process varies, expect these standard steps:
1. Complete Eligibility Requirements
Prerequisites for graduate study in theater arts include:
- A bachelor's degree in theater arts or a related field, with a minimum GPA
- Prerequisite courses, if your degree is in an unrelated field
- Standardized tests such as the GRE (and TOEFL, for international students)
- Theater performance or production experiences
2. Prepare Application Materials
A master's degree application typically begins with a basic information form, and includes these supporting documents:
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation
- Test scores
- Statement of Purpose
- Audition or writing sample, depending on the program
- University financial aid application
Several of these materials rely on other people or reporting agencies. So, make sure you begin your application well in advance of the deadline.
3. Finance Your Master's Degree in Theater Arts
A master's degree in theater arts is an investment in your professional future. Fortunately, a number of financial aid resources exist to help you cover the cost of this investment. In addition to university financial aid, you may find funding options through federal government programs, private foundations and civic nonprofits, private arts patrons, and even, in some cases, through your employer.
Explore your financial options by:
- Meeting with financial aid advisors at your top schools and submitting university financial aid applications
- Filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which covers federal financial aid programs ranging from Pell Grants to Stafford Loans. Also look into National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) programs
- Applying for private scholarships
- As a last resort, applying for a low-interest student loan through a bank
Online master's degrees help you avoid some of the cost of going back to school--you can earn a master's degree online and continue working while you earn your degree.
Step Three: Network, Network, Network
A graduate theater arts degree not only exposes you to a body of knowledge, but also involves you in a close-knit theater community. Whether you pursue an academic or professional practice path, you can benefit from building a strong network of professional peers. Establish yourself within the theater community by:
- Joining Performing Arts Associations: Major national associations include the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), American Association of Community Theater, and Shakespeare Theatre Association of America. In addition, you can find a local performing arts association and theater companies in nearly every metropolitan area.
- Reading Journals: From Shakespeare Bulletin to Modern Drama, you can find journals representing every aspect of the theater arts. Project MUSE includes a list of journals in Film, Theater, and Performing Arts.
- Attending Theater Performances, Director Talks, and Conferences: The best way to become involved in the local theater arts is to attend performances and conferences. Theater companies and universities sponsor these events.
In theater, as in the entertainment industry, connections trump all. Establish yourself within the local theater scene, and start building your professional network.
A master's degree in theater arts puts you on track to a career in acting, directing, production, or academic scholarship. You can deepen your understanding of the performing arts while you develop your artistic talent. Whether you earn a master's degree online, on campus, or on stage, planning your graduate study can help you make the most of the opportunities ahead.
- "Actors, Producers, and Directors," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- CalArts School of Theater.
- Careers in Theatre, University of Wisconsin La Crosse.
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
- Graduate Degree Programs, Portland State Theater Arts.
- Journals by Discipline: Film, Theater, and Performing Arts, Project MUSE.
- Master of Arts: Theater Studies, Central Washington University.
- Member Lists, National Association of Schools of Theatre.
- School of Theater: The MFA Programs, Florida State University.