Study mode:On campus Study type:Full-time Languages: English
Deadline: Dec 31, 2021
StudyQA ranking:464 Duration:3 years

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The Master of Fine Arts in Directing program trains artists to know who they are in themselves, so that they will know who they are in the world.

The MFA program pursues this goal by guiding each director to discover, develop and apply their individual artistic voice with vision and integrity. We accept three highly motivated individuals each year – artists with a passionate drive to work in the theater at the highest level of creativity and accomplishment. We give strongest consideration to those who have been directing work, running theater companies, and contributing to the emerging landscape of contemporary theater. These directors seek out a graduate program because they are ready to slow down and engage in a deep examination of what they want to say, how they want to say it, and why they want to say it in the theater. We provide a place for this crucial introspection, supported by rigorous scholarship, a fully-funded assistantship, and intensive mentoring. We prioritize each artist’s role and opportunity in a professional community.

We train directors to: 

  • Understand and define the work they want to make
  • Develop their collaborations with other artists
  • Explore their practice in a rigorously informed historical and critical context
  • Articulate what they believe theatre should do in the world
  • Build relationships with audiences and communities

Directors accepted into the program will work side by side with a gifted cohort of MFA designers and our award-winning faculty. The course of study includes a rich and unique curriculum that puts the focus on a director’s personal vision, depth of craft, leadership, creativity and collaborative voice, and how these skills are employed in relationship to the community context in which they will work.

Directors are exposed to an expansive range of artists, scholars, and critical perspectives, while being supported in close tutorial relationships with a core faculty. While collaborating with actors and designers in classroom and production activities, they also learn advanced directing theory and practice from working directors at such prestigious national theatres as Steppenwolf, The Goodman Theater and Lookingglass, among many others. As well as having opportunities to develop and lead projects on campus, students may pursue varied production opportunities such as professional internships in the multifaceted and thriving Chicago theater community.

The MFA in Directing program is a terminal degree based on nine quarters of full-time study, with a minimum course of three classes each quarter. Students in the program are expected to complete all coursework for the degree in three years, with up to two additional years to complete the written thesis and the accompanying oral defense.

The program focuses on four categories of core study: Artistic Collaboration, Theatrical Storytelling, Theater History and Context, and Civic Engagement.  Through these lenses, we seek to develop:

  • Foundational knowledge from which the director develops a fuller body of practice, including text analysis, aesthetic styles, and the historical and cultural function of theatre
  • A developed and articulated point of view that sets a production apart and which is informed by a text's political, social, cultural, and historical implications
  • Constructive and practical leadership of an artistic and collaborative team
  • The ability to articulate one’s individual, informed, creative vision
  • Fluency in the language of acting, playwriting, and design, including the development of a powerful visual vocabulary
  • Exposure to and experience in contemporary community engaged practices, with a special focus on the growing field of Civic Practice

Core courses include:

Text Analysis, Director/Designer Collaboration, History of Directing, Dramaturgy, Theatre History, Advanced Directing Seminars, Master Classes in Civic Practice, Rehearsal Techniques, Alternative Performance, Physical theatre, Direct Address from the Stage, and a special, multi-faceted sequence of courses that hone theatrical storytelling techniques, including Devising, Theatrical Adaptation, Site Specific Theatre, and Toy Theatre. Course work in this program focuses on a variety of contemporary aesthetic approaches, while steadily developing creative leadership, clear spoken and written articulation of directorial point of view, and informed awareness of the theatre artist’s powerful role in a greater social and community context. Electives and special topics courses include a wide variety of offerings in Performance Studies, Theatre History, Art History, Comparative Literature, and many other fields; students often choose their later courses to complement the development of the thesis.

Productions and Thesis

Completion of the MFA degree culminates in a written thesis and oral defense. The written thesis reflects on the student’s three independent directing projects, one staged each year in the program, and each of which has equal weight in the thesis development process. Our facilities include two black-box theatres, two main stages, and a complete costume and scene shop.

The first-year directing project is a Classroom Workshop production that takes place in a simple space with no design, and focuses on a theatrical question of particular interest to the student.   The student then explores this question through production work with actors, negotiation of spatial relationships, understanding and application of basic principles of design, development of storytelling and text analysis techniques, and discussion with faculty and professional mentors.  Students document this process through a journal, a detailed production notebook, and a written paper.

In the second year, students each direct a Studio production that is performed in one of the Department of Theatre’s two black box spaces as part of the MFA Lab Series. This production is born out of the Collaboration: Contemporary Drama class, in which each director is teamed with a group of MFA designers with whom they move through the entire pre-production process of a larger-scale performance with the support of faculty and professional mentors. Again, students document the process via a journal, production notebook, and written paper.

Assuming successful completion of all course and production requirements, the third-year production becomes part of the Mainstage Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts season, where student directors fully participate in the experience of directing/programming for a major theatre. In their third year, students meet with the thesis advisor in preparation for presenting the written portion of their thesis, which provides a comprehensive and clearly articulated overview of the documentation of the last three years. Once the written portion of the thesis is submitted and approved, it is followed by a visual presentation and oral defense.

In addition to the three required directing projects, other production opportunities available are sometimes available within the Department of Theatre; the Director of the program determines such assignments.

All work is produced in the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, which contains four performance spaces:

  • The Ethel Barber Theatre - 439 seat, thrust stage
  • The Josephine Louis Theatre - 369 seats, proscenium stage
  • Two experimental lab theatres - 150 seats, black box spaces


  • Two official transcripts (bearing registrar's signature and/or the institution's seal) from each post-secondary institution attended, documenting all courses taken (within or outside a degree program), grades received, and degrees earned.
  • A one-page statement of purpose, explaining your current goals, career plans, and reasons for selecting theatre as a major field of graduate study.
  • Documentation of theatre work, i.e., reviews, portfolio designs, promotional materials, or production photos that do not need to be returned.
  • Official TOEFL scores for international applicants whose native language is not English. The Educational Testing Service will send official scores directly to Northwestern University's Graduate School. Use the institutional code 1565.
  • International students wishing to be considered for teaching assistant appointments during any year of study in the Graduate School, must score at least 50 on the Test of Spoken English (TSE) or 50 on a SPEAK test administered after June 1996. These tests are administered by the Educational Testing Service and given at test centers worldwide.


Financial support in the form of production assistantships is given to all students in the MFA programs. Assistantships include a full tuition waiver for all three years and a partial stipend. Students fulfill requirements for assistantships through a variety of assignments in the Theatre Center as project directors, project supervisors, shop supervisors, teaching assistants, instructors for introductory directing courses, and production management assistants.

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