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 hours—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: graphic design, entertainment design, sound design, costume crafts, scenic art, period styles
- Theatrical analysis and collaborative process
The MFA Design Program admits a new class every fall. The deadline to apply for the fall of 2022 is January 15, 2022 or by special request (URTA students have a March 1 deadline).
Iowa's Design Program & COVID-19
Given our strength is in the creation of new work and flexibility within the design process, the 2020-21 season we transitioned our productions to a variety of online and in-person formats. All of our productions aired via our YouTube channel. Some productions were filmed through zoom then the media edited for online distribution. Some productions used a hybrid approach, filming some content outside and some inside, then editing the production. Our first mainstage production, 6 by 6: Collected Perspectives on Social Justice, with most of the plays staged and filmed on our E.C. Mabie Stage, and one play filmed outside. Our second mainstage production, Essential Workers: A Portrait, was an original work which combined online interviews and onsite filming. In March 2021, People Before the Park was fully produced on E.C. Mabie Stage and filmed in a 4-camera shoot, with the cast in clear masks. The final mainstage production was a new piece called Ascend, again fully produced on E.C. Mabie Stage, live streamed, and then had 6 performances to a reduced live audience. All-in-all, our typical 30+ production season, we created 24 new works, expanding the designer's comminication abilties and enriching their portfolios with realized work.
To aid in the influx of media capture and hybrid courses, the department purchased $208,000 of equipment, including:
- 14 Robe T1 LED moving lights
- EOS TI lighting console
- Cannon XA40 4K camera
- SSD drives
- 4 camcorders
- a variety of ring lights
- HDMI/SDI capture boxes
- a portable green screen setup
To support the move of classes into a hybrid format:
- 10 MacBooks for sound design and theatre tech
- 3 Dell Laptops to expand windows laptop cart
- 5 extra Pandoras Box offline licenses
- 10 Protools and QLab licenses
For the 2021-22 season, we are fully producing our season on stage, with reduced live audiences. Most productions, the casts have been able to perform without masks. The classes have all returned to in-person instruction. The photo on the top of the page is a scene from Smile Medicine, a new work on our mainstage, running in November 2021.
Bryon Winn at the board, with cameras/monitors, for 6 by 6: Collected Perspectives on Social Justice.
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 has traveled 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.
Dan Fine joined the Department of Theatre Arts faculty in 2016. Working with students and faculty in the Theatre Arts and Dance Departments, Dan teaches two classes each semester, in addition to advising students on productions in the Theatre Arts and Dance Departments:
- Producing and Directing Digital Video
- Installations & Interactive Performance
- Performance, Art, & New Technologies
- Video for Performance
- Topics in Digital Performing Arts
In 2018, Daniel co-authored the first 'how to' book for media designers entitled Digital Media, Projection Design and Technology for Theatrical Performance (Focal Press). To learn more about Dan and his work, visit Dan Fine's faculty bio page.
Hit the Wall
Teaching and Research Assistantships
All graduate students in the design program hold a "25% assistantship" for the three years they are in residence, typically ten hours per week (160 hours per semester). Salary for 2019-20 was $10,032. In some cases, "37.5% assistantships" are available. The assistantship positions are in the shops or classrooms or a hybrid model, depending on the students experience and positions available.
Students holding a 25% or greater teaching or research assistantship (covered by the COGS bargaining unit) are assured a scholarship that covers full tuition and 50% of mandatory student fees for the 2019-20 academic year. Students who have an assistantship 25% or more are classified as Iowa residents for tuition and fee purposes.
Theatre Arts Scholarships
Each design student also recieves a departmental scholarships, awarded annually, based on the recommendation of the head of the program.
Designer, Artist, Collaborator
Throughout the three years in Iowa City, students have ample opportunities to hone their collaboration and communication skills and receive feedback on class work and design assignments with the expectation that they will build on each experience and continuously fine-tune their processes. Design students are also encouraged to work closely with their faculty during 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 enough courage 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 times 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.
People Before the Park
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 for 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 awarded Teaching Assistantships in: Design, Theater History, and Comedy and Society. Students may also have opportunities to teach individual sessions of: 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.
Our Lady of 121st Street
Continuation in the Program
1. Entering the Program. When you begin your studies, 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 with the design faculty.
2. End of Semester Review. In order to pass from one semester to the next, you are required to:
- 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 the student’s ability to demonstrate 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 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 MFA candidates pass a comprehensive examination (comps) of the subject matter and skills in their area of study. At the end of the fourth semester, the MFA Theatre Design candidate undergoes a formal presentation of their portfolio to the members of the design faculty and the candidate’s thesis committee. The evaluation of this presentation determines the probability of completing their degree, thereby passing comps. Candidates cannot start their third year of training until they pass comps. See the Head of Design for further details.
5. Thesis. In the design program the thesis is considered to be the body of work a student has completed in their residence at the university. The thesis has two parts: a searchable digital portfolio that is housed in the Iowa Research Online, and a summary document (pdf). 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.
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.
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, 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
- a reference letter from a faculty member outside of the design program
- a statement of purpose essay
- a print-out of your grade report from MyUI
- a short reference email from a faculty member in the design program
- 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.
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, with alumni teaching in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, California, Alabama and Minnesota.
Here are 9 designers, as a sample of work created during training at the University of Iowa and what these artists have achieved since.
Want to see more? Check out the current and recent Iowa Designers' bios.
R. Eric Stone
Head of Design
Theatre Arts Department
The University of Iowa
107 Theatre Building
Iowa City, IA 52242-1705