Which Theatre Schools are the Best?

Stevie Joffe in a scene from “En Francais Comme En Anglais, It’s Easy to Criticize” devised, performed and produced by the 2012 graduating class of the National Theatre School of Canada


It was announced today Alissa Palmer will be the new Artistic Director of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada.  Alissa is a highly regarded and much loved director, playwright, producer and dramaturge.  Her work is bold, provocative and passionately Canadian.  This is great news for the school, the faculty and for its incoming students.

The announcement made me think of students who want to audition for NTS.  They’ve heard it’s one of the best theatre schools in the country.   The school’s mission is “to contribute to the appreciation, reach and advancement of theatre and its related arts in Canadian society by training artists and artisans in all the theatrical disciplines at an arts-oriented school that is national in scope and at the same time open to the world”.  Without doubt, it has achieved its mission.  Many of our finest actors, directors, designers and playwrights are graduates including Colm Feore, Judith Thompson, Hannah Moscovitch, Wajdi Mouawad and Ted Dykstra.

So, is it the best?  Nervous high school students and even more anxious parents want to know which theatre school is number one – expecting there to be some type of ranking system.  However, like most things – one size does not fit all.

First of all, if you’re auditioning into a theatre school, you have to know exactly what it is you want.  You’re committing to the next three or four years of your life.  Is it a university degree that is of the utmost importance or is it to be a practicing artist? Do you prefer classical training or is your passion focused on big Broadway musicals?  Are you more comfortable with text or physical theatre?  Would you rather be in a large program with hundreds of first year students or in a smaller ensemble? What are your strengths?  What is your Achilles’ Heel?  Are you adamant about acting or do you also want to learn about directing, playwriting and design?

Do your research.  What is the overall mission and philosophy of the program?  Is the focus on academics (theory and history) or the practical (practicing the art and craft)? Do graduates receive a degree or a diploma?  What courses are mandatory?  What optional courses are offered?  How many hours a week are the students in the studio and classroom?  How many hours are the students in rehearsal or production?  Who are the members of the faculty and what is their background?  How many students apply?  How many audition?  How many students are accepted into the first year of the program?  How many students actually graduate?  What percentage of the graduates go on to acting careers?  Is the environment nurturing or is it tempestuous?

After doing your research, by all means visit the schools.  Most hold open houses to woo applicants and you will get a good idea about the program, some of the faculty and the curriculum.  Even better, go see their productions or if you can, audit some classes.  Talk to the students.  Talk to the graduates.  And if you can find people who have dropped out, or who have been asked to leave, find out why.

I’ve known students to be unhappy and disappointed in theatre programs they heard were the best.  They ended up leaving after or during their first year on their own initiative or because they were told to do so.  I’ve known others to thrive artistically and then to excel professionally after graduating from some of the lesser celebrated programs.

Sorry to disappoint, but the answer to the question is there is no one best theatre program – for everyone. Nonetheless, there are programs that will be a better fit for you.  It’s up to your doing your due diligence to know your individual needs and what the programs will best fulfill those needs.

I invite readers who have graduated from or who are currently enrolled in a post secondary theatre program to comment about their schools.  It would be great to have a dialogue.



  • Michelle

    When I was picking a school for post secondary I knew I wanted an intense theatre program where I would be challenged. I still loved performing but I had grown fond of the dozens of other aspects of theatre including tech and directing. I wanted a program that would let me explore everything about theatre. I was disappointed with programs like Guelph that offered a BA because there wasn’t enough hands on studio time and too much theory to my liking. On the flip side, I found programs like Ryerson hyper focused on either performing or tech with little wiggle room. I was dead set on finding a program that was comprehensive without being general and I was lucky enough to be accepted into just that. I am currently studying at Concordia University as a theatre major and loving it. The department offers 5 specializations: Design, Theatre and Development, Performance, Playwrighting and Theatre Major. The first year is comprehensive, meaning everyone does everything. Designers act, playwrights do production etc. Not everyone likes this. Many people are frustrated with learning things they don’t care for or having too little time for their own specialization. However, I love it. And when everyone goes off and starts specializing next year I will still be exploring because my program offers me loads of electives and flexibility. I highly recommend Concordia.

    • admin

      In today’s world, emerging artists need to know how write, design, produce, direct, act and tech too. Chances are the first ten years of their careers they will be doing indie theatre – and that means doing everything.

    • Andrew

      York’s theatre program is the same way! Everyone does everything in first year, and you branch out afterwards. These concentrations include: Acting, Production and Design, Devised Theatre, Playwriting, and Theatre Studies. I highly recommend anyone interested in studying theatre in Canada look into it! I’ve discovered so much about my craft!

  • Robyn

    I truly believe in a well rounded education in the arts is the only way to survive in this competitive field. With a mix of theory, history, challenging studio classes, mandatory tech and backstage crew classes, sewing, writing and much more, I found Brock University to be the perfect balance for my education. We have an amazing faculty and very small class sizes. We have two professional quality shows per year as well as countless smaller productions, directed by faculty or students. Also, we just received a large sum of money to build an arts campus downtown St.Catharines with beautiful new studios and theatres, I can’t wait to see what the next few years are like for the Dramatic Arts Department at Brock.

    • admin

      I’ve always thought Brock’s theatre program is an undiscovered gem. This is the first I’ve heard of the new arts campus in St. Catherines. Sounds like the university is supporting the drama faculty’s growth – as opposed to slicing and dicing the way they are at some other universities.