During the first few weeks of my freshman year studying acting at Pace University, the looming question after every peer introduction was “B.A. or BFA?” The extra “F” proved to be a special club, in which membership was about more than just a few more required credits in the performing arts department. Meetings among B.A. students were titled, “This is how you B.A.!”—a rallying cry of sorts to incite spirit. In many acting programs, the B.A. class is compiled of students who didn’t quite make the BFA cut. In many cases, students can only audition for the BFA degree, and those who don’t make the cut are sometimes put in the B.A. track.
Most musical theatre programs only offer BFA degrees, thereby avoiding the divisiveness among B.A. and BFA students. Classes in dancing, singing, movement, and acting take up a lot of class credits, and fill the space where B.A. students could dabble in philosophy courses or even double-major in other subjects.
In my case as a B.A. student in performing arts, I also majored in English, went through the Honors College, and even carved out time to study abroad in London on top of attending rehearsals and earning my acting degree. With more musical training programs jumping on the B.A. bandwagon, college-bound students looking for room to explore may consider attending a program that offers a B.A. in musical theatre.
What are the fundamental differences? A BFA requires more credits focused purely on the craft, while a B.A. offers room to study other theatre disciplines, or other topics entirely. Sometimes programs that offer both degrees will let only BFA students audition for certain productions, and some conservatories admit students on talent alone, while other BFA and B.A. programs within universities require students to be admitted according to the school’s academic standards.
American University in Washington, D.C., is one of a few theatre programs in the country that offers a B.A. specifically in musical theatre. “Unlike the discipline of music, where the B.A. is often seen as the stepchild to the B.M. [Bachelor’s of Music], for theatre and musical theatre, the differentiation in BFA and the B.A. is more institution-to-institution,” says Daniel Abraham, chair of the theatre department.
The B.A. musical theatre program at American, Abraham explains, is no stepchild. The degree isn’t restrictive in any way, and the common belief that B.A. programs are taught primarily by non-faculty and graduate assistants is upended there.
Indeed, the program prides itself on being able to give students the individual attention and time they need to develop as artists. “I think the B.A. allows for that in a different way than a BFA,” explains Abraham. “There is just enough breathing space in the degree to allow for other forms of exploration and preparation, and that is a huge benefit for a student in the arts.”
One benefit to the curriculum’s wiggle room is the opportunity for students to study abroad. More than 80 percent of students at American study overseas, and relationships with international theatre programs allow B.A. musical theatre students to travel for a semester if they desire.
“Even if you don’t take a lot of courses when you’re abroad for the [musical theatre] degree program, then you are exploring a lot of the other areas that the B.A. permits—whether it be foreign culture, some form of exchange, or getting a different pedagogical lens from being under the training of another type of institution,” says Abraham.
The faculty at University of California—Los Angeles’s School of Theater, Film and Television encourage the B.A. musical theatre students to think of the time spent in academic classrooms as part of their training too. At UCLA, the B.A. musical theatre program is a hybrid of sorts, offering conservatory-style classes paired with a full liberal arts education.
Rich Rose, UCLA theatre professor, delivers a B.A. versus BFA speech to prospective students and parents at the program’s auditions. Often, students and parents aren’t aware of the differences between the degrees, or sure of what they want to get out of a program. (UCLA only offers the B.A. in musical theatre.) “I feel like I am really helping people,” laughs Rose of his BFA-and-B.A. presentation. This year, he says, a student was accepted into his first-choice school, University of Michigan, but opted to attend UCLA for a broader education after hearing Rose’s speech.
Inevitably, a handful of freshman students are pushed into the B.A. program each year by parents who would rather they receive a well-rounded liberal arts education over a more conservatory-style BFA. But it takes round-the-clock training to become well-rounded: Students split their time fulfilling academic requirements with training, rehearsing, and performing. With that schedule, students are often on-the-go from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.
“Once you decide to go down a theatre major path, especially if it is going to be a conservatory-style program, it is a different life at college than for most students who have classes twice a week, intramural sports, and fraternities,” says Brian Kite, chair of the theatre department at UCLA.
That being said, UCLA offers a more traditional college experience than most performing arts programs in cities. “A lot of students choose us over NYU, for instance, because they want a big college experience—they want to go to football games and experience Greek life,” says Rose, noting that some theatre students do manage to fit sororities and fraternities into their schedules.
In addition to weighing extracurricular options, college-bound students are concerned about how undergraduate degrees will fare when they enter the professional theatre world or if they choose to pursue a graduate degree down the road.
“I think a lot of institutions—from professional theatres to a lot of the great graduate acting programs—have realized that students with a breadth of education and problem-solving skills, coping mechanism skills, and just having a broad-minded approach to personal education often yields the most reflective artists,” says Abraham.
At Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, students studying musical theatre receive four years of performance training within the B.A. theatre arts curriculum. The musical-theatre track within the curriculum requires 66 credits in the discipline and 42 credit hours of the general education liberal arts courses required by the university. The credit requirements do not leave much wiggle room, but students are able to explore the seven concentrations within the theatre arts degree, such as playwriting or directing.
“We encourage students to explore within the theatre arts curriculum even if they don’t complete a second theatre arts concentration, as the world of professional theatre consists of many theatre professionals—not just actors—and one never knows how careers will unfold,” says David Mold, the chair of fine and performing arts at Marymount. “Some of our alumni who were musical theatre students now work professionally as agents, casting directors, stage managers, producers, playwrights, designers, and directors.”
So a lot goes into account when whittling down a list of prospective programs and deciding whether to pursue a B.A. or BFA degree.
“It is not just, one is better than the other, it is definitely unique to who you are, what you want, and what you want to do,” says Kite. “How you are going to flourish depends on who you are. B.A. and BFA degrees are different, and they are for different people.”