A Scene from THE LIAR


Our primary focus is the development of new plays. This dynamic process of building new work demands a specific kind of designer: an artist with the visual fluency and the flexibility to communicate evocatively and effectively, an acute intellect able to analyze the structure of a script as it is formed, and an adventurer with courage enough to trust that the collaborative process will lead to an exciting destination.

Study for the MFA in design is an intensive three-year program dedicated to the education of artists for the professional theatre. The program serves students of imagination who are committed to the theatre and who aspire to be artistic visionaries of the future who are adept in techniques and methods for creating new works. Whatever a student’s background—theatre, art, architecture, fashion, or other fields—the program aims to develop artists who will work as professional designers for the performing arts.

Design students gain comprehensive MFA training:

  • up to 82 hour—course work & design assignments
  • Primary area: scenic design, lighting design, and/or costume design
  • Secondary area: scenic design, lighting design, projection/media design, or costume design; scenic art, mask/puppetry, sound
  • One-on-one mentorship with faculty for design assignments
  • Supporting areas: grahic design, entertainment design, sound design, costume crafts, scenic art, period styles
  • Theatrical analysis and collaborative process

Admission Requirements
The Application Portfolio
Remote Portfolios
Plan of Study
Production Requirements
Training Teachers
Continuation in the Program
Program Evaluation
Ulfers/Hall Study Abroad Scholarship
Iowa MFA & BA Designers, Past and Present


The Design faculty are theatre design professionals, USA 829 and USITT members, who have worked across the country, with active relationships with companies in New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Maine, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon and California.  Our faculty travels extensively around the world, and in many cases brings students with them, most recently to the Czech Republic and Brazil.  Every year, guest designers come to Iowa City to work with our students on Mainstage, Opera or Partnership in the Arts Productions.  

Media Design

Professor Daniel Fine to the department in 2016.  Working with students and faculty in the Theatre Arts and Dance Departments, Daniel is teaching classes in Producing & Directing Digital Video, Video for Live Performance and Performing with New Technologies.  Supported by through major grants from the Digital Arts Cluster initiative on campus, Daniel is quickly assembling the hardware, software, space and collaborators to create the next wave of media integrated live performance in theatre and dance. Link to Daniel's Iowa webpage.

Alumni at Work

Our MFA and BA designers have moved from their training in Iowa City to major cities across the country.  As freelance designers, resident artists or faculty, our alumni are working professionals.  We have a strong design presence in NYC, Chicago, and Minneapolis; and alumni teaching in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Minnesola.  Below are links to 7 designers, you can also link to the bio page current students and recent alumni.

New York City

Becky Bodurtha (MFA ’09), Costume Designer

Ted Charles Brown (BA ’18), Lighting & Projection Designer


Alex Casillas (MFA '17), Scenic & Lighting Designer

Jess Fialko (MFA '13), Light, Costumes & Scenic Designer


Courtney Scmitz (MFA ’09), Lighting Designer

Søren Olsen (BA ’11), Lighting & Sound Design

Admission Requirements

Theatre Arts at Iowa is a fantastic program.  The faculty is committed not only to their individual areas of expertise but also to helping students learn about theatre as a whole.  The Department taught me how to design.  It gave me the skills to make my artistic visions come to life.  The amount of production hands on time was my favorite thing about the department.  There were always opportunities to work on new shows.  The technical facilities available to students are comprehensive and current.  The passion for high caliber theatre and technical knowledge I gained from the university has made me the designer I am today.

Andrew J. Stewart, BA '10

The Theatre Arts Department seeks highly creative students who bring a special vision to their work. For this reason the department welcomes applicants from a variety of fields who are committed to a career in theatre design.

To be admitted to the design program, candidates must show skill and sensitivity in design or related artistic or technical endeavors and provide evidence of growth and development in their work. Candidates must demonstrate competence in the relevant crafts of their chosen specialty, which may include drafting, painting, drawing, pattern making, computer design, stagecraft, sculpture, photography, graphic design and/or media design.

To be considered for admission into the Design Program, you must:

Make sure you are aware of all of the deadlines and that you meet the minimum requirements for entry.

Application Procedures:
Submit an application and official transcript clearly indicating a final GPA of 3.00 or better to the Graduate College. The GRE exam is not required.

Once you have submitted your application, you will receive an email instructing you on how to upload your supporting documents and submit letters of recommendation.  These will be uploaded from your Admissions Profile in MyUI, our online service center for applicants and students.  You can only access this after you have submitted your application.

Supporting documents that will be uploaded to your Admissions Profile on MyUI:

  • a resume of previous theatre training and experience
  • three letters of recommendation that speak specifically to the candidate’s skill in the areas listed above and to the capacity for growth in design
  • a written statement explaining why you are seeking the MFA in design at Iowa, including what your primary and secondary area of focus may be and why

Iowa at U/RTA & USITT

Members of the design faculty regularly attend LDI in October, U/RTA in January and USITT in March.  If you are interested in applying to the department, please let us know that you will be at one of those events.  Note that the USITT conference is well past the annual January 15 deadline. 

Students: check your SPAM
Many students have found that emails originating from university email addresses and U/RTA addresses land in the students' spam or junk folders, languishing there for days or weeks.  The application process is time sensitive.  We encourage students proactively check their email folders and adjust their settings accordingly.

You can also arrange for a campus visit.  For international applicants, contact R. Eric Stone to inquire about having a remote portfolio review via Skype. What do we expect to see in your portfolio? See portfolio requirements below.

The application deadline for school that starts in Fall 2020 is January 15, 2020 or by special request (URTA students have a March 1 deadline). Questions about application specifics and deadlines? Contact the Head of the Design Program, R. Eric Stone.

We recommend that prospective students visit Iowa City to see the campus and discuss the design program with our current students and us.  The visits need to be coordinated in advance with the design faculty.

All MFA designers receive a full tuition scholarship from the Graduate College (some schools will call this a tuition waiver). General fees are not included in this scholarship. Additionally, most MFA designers hold research assistantships or teaching assistantships, which currently pay at least $9,800+ for 160 hours of work each semester. Departmental scholarships also may be awarded, with the amounts varying on an annual basis.

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A Scene from FEMINAAL

The Application Portfolio

The candidate's portfolio should indicate skill and an artistic sensibility. Demonstrated design or related artistic or technical competency is highly desirable.

This portfolio must illustrate abilities in the relevant crafts of their chosen specialty, which may include drafting, painting, drawing, pattern making, cutting and draping, mask making, stagecraft, sculpture, photography, and graphic design.  The following are recommended guidelines for an application portfolio:

The portfolio should include designs appropriate to your intended primary area of specialization: scenery, lighting, or costumes. Project designs may be included along with executed productions. Please include photos of any realized productions.  Show your process in the creation of your design, as well as the final product on stage.

Scenery portfolios should include sketching, drafting, model work, and paint elevations:  Rough sketches as well as final renderings (include samples of Adobe Photoshop and SketchUp work, if available); samples of drafting packages (hand drafting and vectorworks, if available), prop drawings/sketches; 1/4” rough models, finished 1/4” models; 1/2” and paint elevations.  Photographs of designs for projects and executed productions; Samples of scenic art work and construction work in properties or scenery are welcome.

Costume portfolios should include: sketches and or renderings of projects and executed productions, as well as additional materials such as scale pattern drafting, evidence of special construction or techniques, design paperwork, and make-up or hair drawings.

Lighting portfolios should include: light plots and sections of projects and executed productions. Hookups, instrument schedules and photographic prints or slides of executed productions are expected. Sketches can also be included.

In addition to a primary area of specialization, some candidates may wish to include material relating to a second area of specialization.

All portfolios may include additional supporting material in other areas of visual design. These areas might include drawing, painting, and sculpture, fashion design, architecture, photography, and music composition, graphic, computer, or industrial design.

Each piece or group of pieces in the portfolio should be cited; for theatre work citations should include production title, theatre, director, your production title (if not that as designer) and date of execution. Supporting non-theatre work should have parallel information.

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Program Requirements & Procedures

MFA Design Candidates completes from 69 to 82 hours of course work and 3-4 design assignments. The program faculty must approve substitutions for any course in a student's plan of study. Studio/Related Area: 49-51 credits; Other Studies in Theatre: 11 credits; Electives: 9-12 credits.  A typical plan of study in the graduate design program follows.

Plan of Study

1st Semester
2 of 3 Design I classes (Costume Design I, Lighting Design I, Scenic Design I)
Special Topics: Sewing or Entertainment Design or Media Design or Graphic Design
Design Seminar
Projects in Theatre
Orientation to Graduate Studies
(12 semester hours total)

2nd Semester
2 of 3 Design II classes (Costume Design II, Lighting Design II, Scenic Design II)
Scenic Art
Theatrical Analysis
Design Seminar
Projects in Theatre
(12-14 semester hours total)

3rd Semester
1 or 2 of 3 Design III classes (Costume Design III, Lighting Design III, Scenic Design III)
1 of the Design I classes (Costume Design I, Lighting Design I, Scenic Design I)
Graphic Design
Design Seminar
Projects in Theatre
One of the Media Design offerings
(12-14 semester hours total)

4th Semester
Sound Design or Costume Crafts (Mask/Puppets)
Theatrical Analysis
Design Seminar
Projects in Theatre
One of the Media Design offerings
(12-15 semester hours total)

5th Semester
1 or 2 of 3 Design III classes (Costume Design III, Lighting Design III, Scenic Design III)
Design Seminar
Projects in Theatre
One of the Media Design offerings
or Internship
(9 -12 semester hours total)

6th Semester
Period Styles
Theatrical Analysis
Design Seminar
Projects in Theare
MFA Thesis
(15 semester hours total)

9 to 15 semester hours each semester. Total semester hours from 72 to 82 hours.

Go to BA Design Road Map

Production Requirements

MFA Design Candidates will be assigned an assistant or design position each semester to fulfill the graduation requirement. Students register for 1 to 3 semester hours under THTR:6691 Projects in Theatre and the section number of their area advisor.

Particularly accomplished students may be awarded additional design opportunities by the program faculty. Students are prohibited from taking on additional design projects during the academic year without consent of the program faculty.

Training Teachers

Students who aspire to teach have opportunities for hands-on training with a variety of course work, seminars, & teaching assistantships. Each year, Iowa's Center for Teaching sponsors dozens of seminars to help graduate students gain skills and best practices approaches to success in the classroom.  The Center for Teaching also offers one-on-one mentoring in the development of an individualized Teaching Portfolio. In February each year, students apply for Teaching Assistantships in the following year.  Previous students have been awared Teaching Assistantships in Design, Theater History and Comedy and Society. Students may also have opportunities to teach individual sessions of Elements of Design, Costume Design, Lighting Design and Scenic Design courses. Those students who start application processes while still in school at Iowa will work with faculty to develop their curriculum vitae and application materials.


Students who are in excellent standing in the program can elect to pursue an internship during their fifth semester with permission of the design faculty.  In the past students have found internship opportunities at the Cleveland Playhouse, with the Dell Arte Mask and Performance workshop in Bali, and with the National Theatre London.

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In the design program the thesis is considered to be the body of work a student has completed in his or her residence at the university. This work is documented by the student as a list of realized productions (including production venue, date, director etc.), with supporting visual images. The format of this document must comply with the guidelines as outlined in the Thesis Manual of the Graduate College. The thesis defense, normally scheduled during the spring of a candidate's third year, is a formal portfolio presentation of the work cited in the written document. Students may earn 3 hours of credit in the third year for meeting the thesis requirement. These hours are part of the 82-hour program maximum.  

Continuation in the Program

1. Entering the Program. Entering the MFA design program you will develop a plan of study in conjunction with your faculty advisor. A digital copy of the plan of study goes to the Head of Design and 1 copy should be sent to the Director of Graduate Studies. The plan will be reviewed at the end of each semester and may be modified in consultation the with the design faculty.

2. End of Semester Review. In order to pass from one semester to the next, you are required to take the following steps:

  • Present your work to the faculty for review in a semi-formal design presentation, following guidelines that will be provided in Design Seminar.
  • You must maintain a 3.0 GPA and a B average or above in design courses each semester, although, you are expected to earn an A in all courses in your primary area of study.

Decisions regarding continued participation in the program will be made by the design faculty on the basis of demonstrated talent, artistic potential, originality, ability to communicate ideas and concepts, discipline, and satisfactory academic and artistic progress.

3. Probation. The first year is regarded as a probationary period for all students admitted to the MFA programs in Theatre Arts. The normal expectation is that, once you are accepted into the second year of the program, you will proceed to satisfactory completion of the degree. However, as part of each end-of semester review, you will receive written notice of good standing or a warning notice of possible termination in the program. You may be dismissed from the program at the end of any semester following a warning if good standing is not reinstated.

4. Comps. The University of Iowa requires that an MFA candidate pass a comprehensive examination (comps) of the subject matter and skills in the area of study. At the end of the fourth semester, the MFA Theatre Design candidate will undergo a formal presentation of your portfolio to the design faculty. The evaluation of this presentation determines your probability of completing your degree. Paperwork is submitted during the fourth semester.

Program Evaluation

At the end of each semester, you are evaluated by the design faculty on the basis of demonstrated talent (artistic potential, originality, and ability to communicate ideas/concepts) and satisfactory academic and artistic progress.

In the Design Seminar class, in design classes, in the semi-formal design presentations, and in individual review sessions you have ample opportunities to hone your communication skills and receive feedback on class work and design assignments with the expectation that you will build on each experience and continuously fine-tune your processes.   You are also encouraged to work closely with design faculty during your design assignments and can meet with faculty at any time to problem solve or to request feedback.

The goal of each student is to become an artist, an adventurer with courage enough to trust that the collaborative process will lead to an exciting destination. The focus of the design program is a balance of theory and practice. 

  • Design assignments are an extension of coursework.
  • You are expected to maintain high standards in and out of the classroom. 
  • You are also expected to maintain high academic standards at all time and are never excused from class work in favor of design assignments.
  • While you may be given permission by design faculty to design department gallery productions or to design in the Dance department this extra work must not take precedence over coursework.


Ulfers/Hall Study Abroad Scholarship Guidelines

The Design Program encourages all majors with interests in theatre design to consider study abroad opportunities and to apply for the Erik Ulfers/Margaret Hall scholarship. For consideration, Undrgraduates see scholarship information; Graduate Students in the Design Program must:

  • participate in an approved study abroad program or an academically significant internship experience abroad that is at least 6 weeks in length
  • be in the second year of the program and in good academic standing
  • have discussed with and presented your proposed activities in writing to the Design faculty and have the approval of the committee


Completed applications consist of

  1. a reference letter from a faculty member outside of the design program
  2. a statement of purpose essay
  3. a print-out of your grade report from MyUI
  4. a short reference email from a faculty member in the design program
  5. the application form from the internship program and a Study Abroad Conditions of Participation form if relevant

Annual Application Deadline: January 15th or by special request.

Iowa Designers, Past and Present

Link to a selection of current and recent Iowa Designers' bios.

More Information

R. Eric Stone
Head of Design
Theatre Arts Department
The University of Iowa
107 Theatre Building
Iowa City, IA 52242-1705