At the end of my junior year of high school, the acronyms BA, BFA, and MFA began to rapidly circulate amongst my group of friends - when it came to looking at drama schools, these terms would be tossed about in the hopes that knowing the differences between them would make our pursuit of an artistic career more efficient and more easily achieved.
I quickly became overwhelmed by the idea that I had to make such a big decision at such a young age, and how these three terms represented three alternative realities for my career as a professional actor.
I wanted to break down some basic differences and similarities between these three degree options, and then get into some misconceptions as to what you can or cannot do once you begin to pursue any of these degrees.
BA: Bachelor of Arts
BFA: Bachelor of Fine Arts
MFA: Master of Fine Arts
A BA is granted to a student that has completed their undergraduate studies in the humanities and/or sciences. BA degrees are usually given at liberal arts colleges or larger universities. A liberal arts school can often provide a very well rounded education, where you are dipping your toes into many different areas: think psych classes, philosophy, biology, and/or gender studies! Claiming theater or drama as your major is a possible (and usually very popular!) option at many schools. While not all your classes will be acting classes, you are taught basic technique and skills and given many opportunities to hone those skills in both school-programed shows and student run work. Your education will be broad, diverse, and you can draw on SO many things for your acting work once you graduate. Also, for some people, acting classes 24/7 might not be the ticket - for some, that might seem like too much of a good thing. If that sounds like you, a BA might be the best bet - you can feed your love of theater and once you're satisfied, you can turn to your other classes and find new kinds of joy and fulfillment.
A BFA is granted to a student that has completed their undergraduate studies in any sort of arts medium. This will be awarded at either a conservatory or at a larger university that has a form of intense arts training within its curriculum offerings. In this kind of program, your classes will most likely be 80% acting focused and 20% academics focused. However, this varies greatly from program to program. For example, in NYU's BFA acting program, students are allowed to double major, giving them the chance to take more academic classes alongside their acting studies. While Juilliard on the other hand only offers a select couple of academic classes to their bachelors students so that they can primarily focus on their acting, voice and movement courses. With this kind of range, you can easily find the best cocktail of training for your needs and desires.
An MFA is granted to a student that has completed their graduate studies in an arts medium. This is often the most focused of trainings, with your few academically leaning classes focusing primarily on the theories of performance and the history of certain theatrical mediums. While these are useful and helpful for actors to learn, you will very likely not be able to select "Marine Biology 101" from a course catalogue as your science requirement class - in MFA programs, there are no science requirements. If you have completed your undergraduate degree and are ready to say bye bye to marine biology and dive head first into the wonderful world of acting in one of the most intense and enriching ways possible, MFA might be for you!
Now we move onto...
1) I shouldn't do an MFA if I already have a BFA
As an actor going into an MFA program having recently graduated from a BFA program, this is a tough belief to get around. I have had this argument with myself tons of times - if I got a BFA, shouldn't I not need an MFA? Am I wasting time and money, AGAIN? Well, I would say in rebuttal: none of this has been or will be a waste of time and money. This is something you are passionate about, something that helps you grow and turns you into a better human being. That is worth all the time and money in the world.
If you do not WANT an MFA, no need to apply to one! But if you love this kind of learning, want to finesse your craft more, want to jump back into an experimental and safe environment where you might get access to more professional contacts and opportunities than you would have as a BFA student, WHY NOT?? This is your life. You make the calls. I can't speak too surely to this now, but I am pretty certain that once I begin my time at grad school, I will be absorbing material incredibly differently than when I first began acting school at age 18.
2) If I want an MFA, I need to have had enough acting experience - maybe I should have gotten a BFA first??
Ah, the flip side of this argument. Can't win, can we? No - you certainly do not. Some of the best actors I know arrived at grad school having just graduated as a biology major, or even better - having just quit their job at a law firm, or a bank! People come to acting in SO many different ways - it is helpful to have hands on experience, which is why coaching is so great as you prepare for auditions, but the amount of theater that has been in your life prior to the moment you decide to apply to grad school has no bearing on your acceptance.
3) I need an MFA to become a successful actor
At my very first Juilliard audition when I was applying as a BFA candidate, an MFA candidate asked me why I would ever apply for a BFA. She told me it was a stupid move, that I should get a BA and then an MFA, because people who graduate with BFA's are jumping the gun and are not as likely to be successful.
She could not be more wrong. There is no set in stone path to success. One person's story does not the truth make. To be quite honest, I didn't initially even want an MFA! I was ready to jump in head first into the industry, willing to hustle and put in the hours till I "made it." The pandemic shifted gears for me just a tad, but to be clear - I am going to grad school because I want to see what it has to offer me - not because someone told me it was the golden ticket to "making it." I know plenty of people who only blossomed after they left training, people who really struggled in academic and conservatory settings and wanted nothing more than to get "out there and do it." Everyone learns differently.
4) If I get a BA, I won't become a successful actor
I feel like this belief gets lumped with "If I get a BFA I am not "serious" about acting." Again - absolute baloney. Meryl Streep went to Vassar. Would you dare call her a "not serious actor?"
But seriously - getting a BA is not lesser than a BFA. It is just different. You might find that you become more serious about acting when you are surrounded by different kinds of classes and people. It is also not a "waste of time." You can use your time at school how you want to - if that means getting hands on directing experience, or writing a musical for you and your friends, being at a BA program will not stop you from this! Art is everywhere - good art is everywhere. And after your BA, you are always able to continue taking acting classes outside of a university/college setting. Heck, I know actors who take acting class even after they've finished their BFA or MFA!
If you are excited by the prospect of a BA program, follow that! Challenge yourself to take what you learned in neuroscience and apply it to the Sondheim musical you are doing. Actors are in the business of humanity, and therefore we need to understand humanity from as many different facets as we can. And who said getting a BA was for not serious actors?
Basically, the learning never stops, chickens. And the options for how you learn are seemingly endless. So this is about choosing what makes you happy, what makes you shine, and what gives you the most bang for your buck. You have already come to this page because you are interested in seriously a career in acting - so let's find the best path for you to get to where you want to go. xx