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BA vs BFA - a must read article

arwarwarwarw Registered User Posts: 1,287 Senior Member
edited December 2012 in Theater/Drama Majors
I wanted to share this article.

It's a very comprehensive and objective piece outlining the pros and cons of these two very different approaches to the study of theatre.

My apologies if this article has already been shared here.

UP CLOSE | For thespians, Yale degree not enough | Yale Daily News
Post edited by arwarw on

Replies to: BA vs BFA - a must read article

  • ActingDadActingDad Registered User Posts: 680 Member
    Thanks for sharing. It is worth reading as there is some info to be gained but I found a lot of the criticism particularly the student complaints about the lack of professional training as a pretty unfair criticism of Yale. Anyone who chose to go to Yale's theater program over CMU should not be complaining about the fact that CMU students are better prepared to work in the field. As one student in the article pointed out, Yale tells them over and over again that the design of the program is not that of a professional training program. Last I checked, there is an MFA program at Yale that does that. I'm not sure its even mentioned in the article.

    If one is not prepared for an acting career after getting a BA at Yale, that is not the fault of the Yale BA program as no representation was ever made that the program was intended to prepare a student for such work. I'm sure someone at Yale would say that a student wishing to pursue professional work after getting a BA at Yale should be looking to Yale's MFA program or an MFA at another school. I mean its a bit stating the obvious that a BA in Theater at Yale is not a professional training program.
  • Gwen FairfaxGwen Fairfax Registered User Posts: 2,435 Senior Member
    This is great, arwarw. Very comprehensive. I do think that any good conservatory will offer a wide-ranging study of theater as history and literature, in addition to the hands-on training. I know that D will be studying everything from Sophocles to Shakespeare to contemporary playwrights, on the page and on the stage. (OK, I tried to keep that from rhyming, I did!) This is why I LOVE the fact that she's getting a BFA Acting! It will beat my degree in English Literature, for depth and breadth of study, by far.
  • NJTheatreMOMNJTheatreMOM Registered User Posts: 3,673 Senior Member
    That article makes some good points! Thanks for posting it. I don't believe there has been a link to it before.

    However....some of the people quoted seem to equate the benefits of conservatory preparation with things like being able to sing "Oklahoma" well (!), knowing about headshots, and having the advantage of showcases or professional networking opportunities. None of those are are intrinsic elements of conservatory-type preparation. Intensive performance training is the paramount benefit.

    Students at most BA programs who want to work professionally in theatre performance are pretty much going to have to supplement their training, one way or another. On the other hand, they will have the advantage of a broad liberal education, which many see as priceless. It is really the absolute ideal, even if it is not something that every student desires or wishes to pursue.
  • Times3Times3 Registered User Posts: 1,373 Senior Member
    A former student at our school is a senior theater studies major at Yale and has had a phenomenal experience. He turned down Tisch and Harvard (among others) and has never looked back. The depth and range of his performing and directing (and writing) opportunities at Yale have far exceeded what one of his h.s. classmates has experienced at another big-name conservatory (not CMU). Along with a semester at RADA and successful shows at the Edinburgh and NY Fringe festival (both written and directed by Yale undergrads), he's constantly been involved in major productions at school as actor, director, or co-producer--and he LOVES his academic classes, both in theater studies and in other departments. This kid was one of the very best actors we've ever had at our school, but also one of the very best students, and it was clear that he not only wanted but needed the BA path. I would be surprised if he didn't end up in an MFA program somewhere in a few years, but who knows whether it'll be in acting, writing, or directing. Just a different path, but indisputably a fantastic one for the right kid!
  • arwarwarwarw Registered User Posts: 1,287 Senior Member
    I found the two points below interesting. It seems like time/youth vs depth-of-study could pose a real dilemma for the serious student who also aspires to act on stage - especially a young woman. No?

    >>>>>>>But for those completely certain that they want to go into theater after graduating, the opportunities they receive at the undergraduate level are critical. And time may be of the essence.
    “Youth sells,” Scicolone said. “And if you’re graduating [from graduate school] at 26, you lose some of the prime years of your life as far as if you want to ‘make it.’”

    >>>>>>>Dorfman said she believes students will have time to receive the skills a conservatory can provide after they receive a thorough liberal arts education. DeRose agreed, referring to an instance from his time at Yale when Earle Gister, former chair of the acting program at the School of Drama, warned theater studies majors against specializing too early.
    “Both Gister and Judith Malina (the artistic director of the legendary Living Theatre) spoke to the undergrads and strongly, strongly urged our students to get a good liberal arts education, spend a few years working in the theater after graduation, and then, once they were sure this was what they absolutely had to do with their lives, go back and get the advanced training,”
  • amtcamtc Registered User Posts: 2,863 Senior Member
    And this is exactly why my daughter rejected her admission to Yale! Of course, as I stated in another thread, she also withdrew her application from CMU because they were too trade focused. It all goes back to finding the right school for your child.
  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse Registered User Posts: 26,432 Senior Member
    My son has been "in the field" for 4 years now. In his case getting into a BFA program at a major university rather than a conservatory or a BA Theater program was the absolute best decision. He was done with academics and school, and I doubt that he would have gotten through what most schools require for a BA. He barely got through them in a BFA program and in that regard would have been better off at a conservatory. But socially and amenties wise, he enjoyed and used the full university facilities that are often lacking at true conservatories. He has many friends in many disciplines .

    As for the later....this is a very tough field. Each job is temporary the way he wants to go it which means constantly looking for work, constantly auditioning. Even when you get a good gig, it is only as good as it lasts. I don't see how any training can pound that reality into kids' heads. You gotta live it to get it.

    I would have preferred that he had gotten a BA from a school, but for him, it was not the way to go. As to whether it would have helped him in terms of getting roles to have gone one route or another, i don't know. The kids in his very small class of BFA MT graduates seem to all be in the same boat with one kid who is doing well. Percentagewise, the odds are against these kids getting what they want regardless of where they did their training. I know a number of Tisch grads with all their Manhattan connections, show case exposure, and oh, so much talent still going from gig to gig, looking for that big one. The same as grads from just about every program.
  • gibbygibby Registered User Posts: 10,212 Senior Member
    ^^ That is the nature of the business, whether you have a BA, BFA, MFA or just a high school diploma. What surprises so many newbies is that even famous actors, such as Meryl Streep, spend countless hours looking for work. It's part of the job, even when you are a talented star.
  • DudeDiligenceDudeDiligence Registered User Posts: 281 Junior Member
    Nice article, but nothing really original in it -- that is, the "mission statement" of virtually every good BA Theater department will go on ad nauseam about their program stressing studying theater as part of an overall undergraduate immersion in the liberal arts and humanities, with, sure, plenty of opportunities for training and performance opportunities available for good measure. They don't hold themselves out as conservatories, conservatory-light, or any such thing; rather, they offer a different path to a theater/acting/directing/tech career for some (and, of course, simply a pre-med, pre-law, pre-business major for some others).

    What I didn't like about the article was the suggestion that some of the Yale undergrads were caught off guard by that. Sure, you have to make some allowances for naivete and inexperience, but for the most part, I think it's pretty reasonable that a student smart enough for a Yale acceptance can understand the very express mission statement of the department -- BA and not BFA; emphasis on academics. I'm quite sure that the great majority of BA students are well aware that their preferred path might sacrifice a bit of craft and nuts-and-bolts for this increased emphasis on the liberal arts underpinnings, and, that if a career in acting or some other theater related discipline is in their future, they'll likely need to supplement it during college (for example, with semesters away doing conservatory training and with gobbling up all the performance opportunities they can), and, for those so inclined, possibly supplementing it further by working in the field for a few years and then going back and doing hardcore conservatory work as part of an MFA.

    For my daughter, taking the BA path, as supplemented above, was her ideal path. I know she'd do it the same way if she had it to do all over again.

    (I also didn't like the article's implication that BFA programs were little more than trade-schools, with VERY limited attention given to the humanities. Yes, spending all that time with craft results in less pure humanities than a kid will get at Yale or other top BA programs. Duh. But, I would imagine most BFA grads would be insulted by the suggestion that they're going to school in any sort of trade-school vacuum, without the study of any context for their chosen art. That's clearly not the case. Less? -- sure; none? -- not even close to accurate.)
  • gibbygibby Registered User Posts: 10,212 Senior Member
    At some BA programs, such as Yale and Harvard, there is absolutely no oversight from the theater faculty on undergraduate student productions. Consequently, when a student director, set designer, actor or playwright makes a bad decision, egregious errors are made and whole productions suffer.

    I'll give you a real-world example: My daughter is at Harvard and is very involved with the theater community there. She recently appeared in the play "Bug." The production was produced and directed by students working on their own with zero faculty input. The play was presented at the Loeb Experimental Black Box which measures about 150 X 50 feet. The student director made a pre-production choice and created a proscenium stage that went the long way (100 ft).

    Now, "Bug" takes place in an SRO (single-room-occupancy) hotel and one of the themes of the play is claustrophobia -- people living on top of one another. But the director's bad spacial-choice created a hotel room larger than anything I've ever stayed in, including the presidential suite at the Waldorf Astoria! As a result, one of themes of the play went out the window. Meryl Streep could not have recovered from that kind of bad directorial choice. If there had been oversight from the theater faculty -- such as there is at a conservatory -- this kind of situation would never have occurred.

    So, the whole BA vs. BFA vs. conservatory is a trade-off from my perspective. BA's (and some BFA's) get a more well-rounded liberal arts education, but have less overall guidance from theater faculty about whether they are making "good" choices. This lack of oversight can send many acting students in the absolute wrong direction and have a detrimental effect on an acting career, if a student chooses to purse an acting career immediately after graduation. In certain situations, depending upon their colleagues capabilities, it's almost setting the student up for abject failure upon graduation if they go into the biz.
  • KatMTKatMT College Rep Posts: 4,035 Senior Member
    "So, the whole BA vs. BFA vs. conservatory is a trade-off from my perspective."

    Agreed... but the trade-off is not necessarily just about BA/ BFA... (which are not all made alike and vary in terms of major focus and quality)... trade-off -- big school/ small school; urban/ suburban/ rural; academic rigor/ training environment; etc... I feel like a bit of a broken record on this, but I realize that many on CC who red threads are new, and do not go back are read previous threads from over the past 6+ years... those of us who have been here on CC for a while often have a broader perspective of past posts and opinions on topics. ... generally, speaking BA programs will offer a more well rounded liberal arts approach to training and a BFA will offer a more single focused approach to training with liberal arts not being as strong... BUT there are BA programs that do offer professionally focused training within the liberal arts context, and there are BFA programs that offer a broader liberal arts curriculum in support of the professionally focused training. This is why it is important to explore fully the environment and opportunities at all of the schools on your list.

    "BA's (and some BFA's) get a more well-rounded liberal arts education, but have less overall guidance from theater faculty about whether they are making "good" choices."

    This may well be the case at some schools, but this is not necessarily the case at ALL BA or BFA programs. For example, I teach in an auditioned (portfolio reviewed) BA program that has an active student directed space... 3 - 6 productions per semester, plus at least one short play festival of student directed works (from the directing class) each year. All of the directors, designers, musical directors and choreographers (with musicals), actors etc... on these productions are students. Students who want to direct in the space go through a rigorous proposal process (akin to writing a grant proposal). The program faculty and the co-sponsoring student organization vote on the proposals each semester. The students have a faculty advisor from birth of the proposal through the end of the production process, and passed proposals are given full departmental (financial) support. After the productions close we have a post mortem where faculty and students can read one page responses to the production, and a discussion is mediated by the faculty advisor. The goal of this is to encourage students to take risks within a supportive environment.

    This year the student directed productions in this space are/ have been:

    Awake & Sing
    Grey Gardens
    DFEST Fall 2012: Festival of 19 Student Directed and Designed Short Plays

    Gruesome Playground Injuries
    They're Playing Our Song
    25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
    DFEST Spring 2013: Festival of 12 Student Directed and Designed Short Plays

    I do not post this to be about the opportunities where I teach, but as an example of a BA program that is mentoring students on student produced work. I am sure that other schools (BA and BFA) provide opportunities and mentor students on student produced work as well.

    Students here also have the opportunity to assist on the mainstage series (5 - 6 productions per year), and advanced designers may be given the opportunity to design with faculty mentorship and guidance. Stage managers, performers, run crew, etc... are students on these productions. Directors (and many of the designers) are faculty and guests. Again, I am sure these kind of opportunities are also available at other programs.

    Research the programs, look at the online catalogs, talk to current faculty and students, as well as alumni. If you do not know any, contact the program and ask to be put in touch with people. Assume nothing. There are SOOOOOO many different types of programs, and while BA and BFA programs are often different in focus, it is not always in the way you would assume. I often describe programs as laying on a line (like a time line) with very liberal arts focused BAs on one end and more "trade school" like BFAs on the other... as you move toward the middle you will see more and more similarities between BA and BFA programs in terms of training and focus, and programs at the center may be VERY similar with some BFA programs and BA programs looking VERY much a like.

    This does not even include the BM programs (in Music Theatre) and the Theatre programs that offer a BS degree... these degrees will also vary significantly from school to school.

    In the end it is all about the academic/ social/ training environments in which students feel they will thrive the most over their college careers. Ask lots of questions, visit if you can, and (once acceptances are in) decide which of the schools will provide the environment you are looking for. It is almost always a compromise/ trade off but after weighing pros and cons (an evaluation financial viability), go with your gut Compromise if often part of life, and only you and your family can weigh the importance of the variables in your decision making process.

    You are all entering an exciting time! Enjoy the journey.
  • KatMTKatMT College Rep Posts: 4,035 Senior Member
    Ps... sorry for the typos above.... that is what I get for midnight posting. :-/

    Sent from my DROID RAZR using CC
  • DudeDiligenceDudeDiligence Registered User Posts: 281 Junior Member
    At some BA programs, such as Yale and Harvard, there is absolutely no oversight from the theater faculty on undergraduate student productions. Consequently, when a student director, set designer, actor or playwright makes a bad decision, egregious errors are made and whole productions suffer.
    So, the whole BA vs. BFA vs. conservatory is a trade-off from my perspective.

    Kat is a theatre insider and already said it far more eloquently than I could, but of course there are trade-offs, however EXACTLY what is being traded-off isn't nearly as black-and-white as some people would like to think. Interested students need to read descriptions -- better yet talk to those who have attended -- and it becomes crystal clear that the bright-line shorthand descriptions of BA=X and BFA=Y are at best a starting point, and at worst a total disservice to those attempting to make a selection of what is best for them. Research is paramount. Due diligence is king.

    When describing my daughter's thinking and path a few posts above, I talked about "gobbling up all the performances opportunities they can" as a way (with additional outside training) to help a given student who wants a more traditional liberal arts education to perhaps narrow the craft and nuts-and-bolts gap that they might have relative to a BFA student. Presupposed in my comments about performance opportunities is the concept of "quality" opportunities. Sure, there are performance opportunities (many of them student run), with little or no guidance, that may fall short by cost-benefit analysis (although many student run performances can also be GREAT learning experiences a well). Actually, I wasn't even thinking specifically about student-run performances when I mentioned getting out there and performing. In my daughter's case, her BA Theater program was a bit of a rarity in that her theater department's official performance arm is a small equity theater, resident right on campus. So, once again talking about how these lines are sometimes blurred, in each of her 6-7 performances during her roughly 3 years on campus (she was away for training for about one year cumulatively), she worked with a very accomplished and dedicated faculty, fellow students, AND ALSO professional actors, directors, stage managers, costumers, and so forth (and many of these professionals are part of her current professional "network"). This was such a valuable and time consuming endeavor that she didn't personally get involved with any student run theater at all.

    Anyway, my only real point is that one can start with BA programs tend to do "this" and BFA programs tend to be like "that," but once a student knows (or thinks they know) what they want, they need to find a school that best matches "exactly that," whether it's classified as BA or BFA. And it can change midstream. For example, my daughter enrolled intending to double major in English Lit and Theater and actually wound-up majoring in Psych and minoring in Theater (in the end, preferring additional conservatory training in London to a particular theater "major" requirement, and recognizing that in her case she had sufficient training, experience, and that the intended future MFA would trump any need for the term "theater major" on her undergraduate degree).

    Bottom-line is that today's students are fortunate that there truly are programs that match what they want to do! Finding the right one requires a bit of work, not just relying on initials and shorthand.
  • EmmyBetEmmyBet Registered User Posts: 2,934 Senior Member
    I agree completely with the posts above - because all of these situations do exist, and it is up to the individual to decide what works best for him/her.

    Because of the nature of college admissions, my suggestion is to APPLY to schools with a variety of characteristics (all of which appeal to the student, of course), and when acceptances are in hand, be ready with a set of priorities to decide what is best for you.

    I agree that BA vs BFA is not the end of the question, or perhaps not even the right question to ask. Here are a few questions that this article raised - and a few that it didn't - that any student should ask him/herself:

    1) Curriculum: What percentage of classes do I want to be in theatre studies - including experiential and academic study of theatre? What is my bare minimum of theatre credits I want to be able or have to take? What is the maximum? Do I want to be able to double major or minor in something else (including tech aspects of theatre)?

    2) Environment: What kind of place do I want to spend college in? Do I want a "regular college experience"? What would or wouldn't I be willing to live without? What location would I prefer? What size school? What other kinds of students or activities are important to have around me, both in the theatre department and in general?

    3) Experience: What is the production/performance experience like? Who directs/designs/performs in the shows? Who is in the theatre classes? How important are outside theatre opportunities while I am a student? Will I be able to see good theatre as well as be in it? How much time will I spend in productions? What help will I have as I move into the working theatre world?

    These questions can be answered all kinds of ways in both BA and BFA programs. My D considered 7 acceptances (1 auditioned BFA, 1 non-auditioned BFA, 1 auditioned BA, and 4 non-auditioned BAs) and there were elements that mattered to her more and less at every school. I wouldn't be able to line up her BA vs BFA schools in columns with the "same" answers to these questions, and the same goes for the auditioned vs non-auditioned schools, big vs small schools, etc.

    She did learn in making this decision that for the most part, many BFA "type" elements appealed to her the most: large amounts of theatre classes (more than 50% of her time), substantive production experience supervised by professors and professionals, few (or no) students involved in productions who were looking for a "fun break" from their "real college work"(!), and enough "career" focus for her to feel confident after graduation. She also learned that certain BA "type" elements were important to her: a "regular college" environment with people besides arts types around, lots of strong academic opportunities, and an emphasis within the theatre department on literature, history and writing.

    She was fortunate that she found a school that provided her with the mixture she wanted most, along with a location that gives her the lifestyle and further learning opportunities that matter to her. Again, because of the nature of college admissions, she could only choose among schools that accepted her - so it was important that she knew a lot of these personal choices while making her application list. She made sure that a critical amount of these elements was present in all of the schools she applied to, and then chose the school that had the most available, also considering cost and other practical factors.

    There will never be a college theatre experience that provides "everything." It is fortunate that a career in theatre still is possible through so many varied pathways. The happiest - and probably the most successful - college theatre student accepts and is happy with the truth that s/he has chosen an option that feels right and will provide the most personally rewarding experience for the time spent in school. What happens next is too unpredictable to expect a guarantee from an undergraduate program.
  • MomCaresMomCares Registered User Posts: 3,140 Senior Member
    Lots of great points have already been made, but let me add from the perspective of someone in my 50s who worked in professional theatre that I never worked with anyone who ultimately regretted having gotten a degree from a fabulous university, but have met many people who eventually felt limited by very focused conservatory training. It is far easier to get further training in singing, dance and acting (and most top performers continue to train for life in any case) than to recreate a solid undergrad education.

    It is difficult when young not to be focused on preparation for those first post-college auditions, but over the fullness of a life those become relatively inconsequential. In my experience, the "winners" in theatre aren't those who "make it" to Broadway first, but rather those with a broad base on which to build a lifelong career.
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