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BA or BFA in acting or musical theater -- a primer and a little test

NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
edited September 2008 in Theater/Drama Majors
BA vs BFA (a primer and a test to help you decide)


Ladies and gents, and students, too:

Here is something I found in the CC archives that some of you may find helpful when deciding between a BA or a BFA in acting. Most of it was written by a young woman who used to post on the musical theater discussion list, and the test/quiz was invented by John Stefano, head of the Otterbein College BFA in acting and musical theater programs.

It's not meant to be definitive, but rather to help students who are struggling to decide whether to pursue a BA vs a BFA get a little more insight and clarity. And though it was written mainly, I believe, for us by MT students, it seems to me to be of use to those pursuing degrees in acting, as well.

NMR
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While there are many types of ways to get an education in musical theater in college, the two most common degrees received in musical theater are the BA and the BFA. I've composed a small summary of what has been written on the board about the differences and similarities between the two.

BA

BA stands for Bachelor of Arts. A student who studies toward receiving a BA in musical theater will usually take a selection of general education courses required by the university and then fine arts electives, just like a student who aims to receive a BA in language or business. This is a good choice for students who enjoy studying a broad range of topics as well as performing, although they may not be able to take quite as many fine arts courses as someone studying for a BFA.

BFA

BFA stands for Bachelor of Fine Arts. In general, this degree is given by schools that favor a conservatory approach to training (though there are a few exceptions). This means that the majority of a student's courses are taken in musical theater-related areas and that the student has far fewer general education courses in subjects such as language, math, or science than a regular college student would. Depending on the school, fine arts-related courses may make anywhere from about 60% to 95% of the student's total coursework. This degree would not be a good choice for students that are not absolutely certain that they will want to pursue performing in musical theater as a career.

In addition, doctorjohn (click to be taken to his contact info) has created a test to help students figure out which might be the best program for them. His take on the situation is as follows:

Bright, academically-inclined students are often torn between the BFA and the BA degree. The BFA offers pre-professional training and (perhaps) a quicker route into the profession, but at the cost of a broad liberal arts education and the chance to study other disciplines. The BA offers the latter, but likely will not provide time for daily work on the voice and the body. So how to decide on the best path?

First, some clarification. A Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree is typically around 60-70% (and sometimes as much as 95%, as Shauna has pointed out above) of the total curriculum, with the remaining work in general studies and electives. By comparison, a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) is typically around 30% of the curriculum, with the remaining work divided between general education and electives, including other majors. As for the classes themselves, most BA courses, as is typical of college classes, will meet two or three times each week for an hour or two. Many BFA classes will meet daily for an hour or two or more. The educational assumption of BA classes is that students will be doing most of their learning outside of class, reading and studying. The assumption of most BFA classes is that students will be doing most of their learning inside class, performing and receiving immediate feedback on their work, and watching others do the same.

It should be obvious that the BA degree offers a much greater degree of flexibility in the program. It also has a lot more "free" time.

So which is right for you? Try answering the following questions by circling the appropriate number from 1 to 7, where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree.

1. I absolutely cannot imagine being anything other than a professional actor.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

2. I want to learn about as many different subjects as I can in college.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

3. I am a(n actor) singer and a dancer, and I want to spend my life performing.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

4. I really enjoy spending time in classes in literature, history, social science, etc., listening to lectures and engaging in discussions.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

5. Except for being onstage, I'd rather be in dance class, or acting class, or choir than anyplace else in the world.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

6. I need lots of solitary time, to think and to write.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

7. I need to be active and busy all the time.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

8. I am really torn between doing a BA or a BFA degree in Theatre.

strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly agree

Now add up your scores on the even (green) questions and the odd (blue) questions. If your score on the odd questions is significantly higher than your score on the even questions, then you're probably going to be more comfortable in a BFA program. If your even score is significantly higher than your odd score, then you probably want to be in a BA program. And if your scores are more or less equal, you probably want a BFA program that will allow you to explore other subjects.

Please do not take this test as an absolute, but simply as one of many indicators of the kinds of programs you want to look at.

Some final thoughts about this dilemma. Informal research shows that successful Musical Theatre performers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have BFA Theatre degrees. Some have Music degrees. Some (frequently dancers) never went to college. And some did a BA in Theatre (or another field) and then went and studied after graduation, either in formal MFA or MM (Master of Music) programs, or they went to NY and hired a voice teacher, a vocal coach, took dance lessons, and got into an acting class. Intensive training is critical to success in our field. The real question is not whether, but when. If you have no interest in academics, aren't going to be happy unless you're in class and rehearsal at least eight hours a day, then you should do a BFA in Theatre or a BM in Music. But if you love academics, want to study many different subjects, need quiet time to read and write and think, then you may want to do a BA degree at a school where you can act in shows and get a better sense of yourself and the world before you commit yourself to the intensive professional training which an MFA, MM, or other advanced study requires.

The middle ground, which works for some, is a BFA program that requires or at least encourages a significant amount of work in fields besides voice, dance, movement and acting.
Post edited by NotMamaRose on

Replies to: BA or BFA in acting or musical theater -- a primer and a little test

  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse Registered User Posts: 27,914 Senior Member
    Great post. I think you really hit it right. Many universities and colleges have BFA programs that require an academic core. Those who truly do not want to go on with academics may want to look more towards conservatories rather than the traditional universities.

    My son is an example of someone who clearly wanted the BFA path. He is struggling with the few academic requirements he had. He was DONE with academics after high school and really would have preferred to have hit the audition scene instead of going on to college. Maturity issues and the fact that he did need some rough edges smoothed particularly in terms of dance and MT repertoire were why he is in college. It has been touch and go even with few academic requirements.
  • KatMTKatMT College Rep Posts: 4,171 Senior Member
    What is terrific about the "quiz" above is that it can be a terrific guide for students in terms of the kinds of programs that may be of interest...

    Pretty much ALL BA programs will require you to take a comprehensive liberal arts core. Some BFA/BS/ BM programs will also require a comprehensive liberal arts core. Not all students will want this -- which is why it is important to look at each school's curriculum.... regardless of degree offered.

    I teach at a program that is about 50%/50% in terms of required courses (although most students take far more courses in their major than are required)... I know of another BA program that is about 30% outside of the major 70% inside of the major... there are many others that are 70%/ 30% the other way. Some BFA programs require students to take a large number of courses outside of their major, others do not.

    I think the questions above are very useful in determining what kind of college experience you desire, so when you are looking at curriculum requirements and other courses offered you will be better able to discern the individual programs that might be the right fit.

    I know people who went to BA programs who went directly into professional performance without graduate school (one who went to an Ivy League school, never went to graduate school, and who has appeared on Broadway in plays and in major films). I know people who went to BFA programs and later decided that they wanted to be lawyers... went to law school, and now are lawyers. I know people who went to BFA programs and decided they wanted more training and went to MFA programs for further training.

    The undergraduate degree that you obtain is no guarantee of immediate, highly paid, can support oneself work in the performing arts. Neither is a graduate degree... This is why it is important to choose the academic environment that you feel will offer the kind of educational experience you would like to have.

    I have a friend who obtained both her undergraduate and masters degrees in theatre design. After completing the study she decided that she didn't want to work in theatre and now works in an architecture firm. She uses her theatre design education on a daily basis.

    Another friend attended a BFA program and then went to graduate school for drama therapy. After working in the drama therapy field he decided that he wanted to be a cantor, went to study this, and now works as a cantor.

    When I went to college I did not want to have to take a lot of courses outside of my major, but I did want to take some, and I wanted a BFA program that was part of a major university. I later decided to get an MFA in another area of theatre, and still work in theatre... although no longer as a performer. I never would have guessed the path my life would ultimately take when I entered college at the age of 18.

    There are so many life opportunities that are available to you. Look for the undergraduate experience from which you think you will grow, and will help launch you into young adulthood. There are so many opportunities to continue to grow and train. As you continue to live your life you will discover new passions, and confirm "old" ones.

    A BFA degree does not mean you are done studying your craft any more than a BA does. Each person's life journey and career will be different, and you are not going to know what your path is ahead of time, you just have to embark on that path full force and be open to the wonderful opportunities and discoveries.

    GOOD LUCK :)!!!!
  • NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
    KatMT, as always, thanks for sharing some of your own personal experiences with theater-related education and career paths and those of some of your friends and acquaintances. They say that the average person coming out of college these days will switch careers four or five times. It is good, indeed, to know that both BA and BFA grads can be successful and versatile.
  • KatMTKatMT College Rep Posts: 4,171 Senior Member
    "It is good, indeed, to know that both BA and BFA grads can be successful and versatile."

    Some will... some will not :) I just remember thinking that college was more like the end of the journey, rather than the beginning when I was 17. I think that because college has gotten so outrageously expensive it is even harder to think of the possibility that more schooling may be in ones future... the thought of further schooling is unfathomable... but, there are many opportunities to find funded (or partially funded) graduate study if someone decides this is their path.

    In the end, I believe that young people should throw themselves into their passion. If this changes as their life experience changes that is often part of life. Most cannot know when they are 17 what their priorities will be when they are 27 or 37 or 47.... etc.... this does not mean that they should not pursue their chosen path now...
This discussion has been closed.