A scene from ORLANDO, October 2019


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

What sets Iowa apart?
WATCH: Theatre at Iowa
WATCH: Why Iowa?
PROFILE: Designer Alastair Sigala Ramirez
PROFILE: Designer Kaelen Novak
ARTICLE: Kaelen Novak, Connecting Converging Fields of Research

A scene from THE BACCHAE

The Bacchae
November 2022

The MFA Design Program admits a new class every fall.  The deadline to apply for the fall of 2024 is January 15, 2024 or by special request (URTA students have a March 1 deadline).

MFA Design Program Admissions Requirements & Plan of Study 

Iowa's Design Program & COVID-19

During my three years in the Theatre Arts Department at University of Iowa, I have been given the opportunity to expand my horizons. My time spent in the design program has allowed me to further hone and craft my skills as a light designer, while doing deep dives into new fields such as Scenic and Media Design. The faculty (Bryon, Dan, Loyce, Mark, and Eric) has given me opportunities to not only grow as an artist but also as a collaborator. This has been incredibly helpful, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we find new ways to express ourselves as creative artists.
Nick Coso, MFA '21
Lighting, Scenery and Media Designer

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. By April 2021, we returned to live production, craeting a new piece called Ascend, live streamed and had 6 performances to a live audience.  All-in-all, in our 2020-21 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 were fully producing our season on stage. The classes all returned to in-person instruction, taking lessons learned from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and incorportating those opportunities to enrich our academic and production workflows. Our department continues to maintain safety protocols as defined by the CDC to allow our artists to research/create/perform in this new world.

Filming INTO THE NIGHT, Fall 2020
Bryon Winn at the board, with cameras/monitors, for 6 by 6: Collected Perspectives on Social Justice.
October 2020


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.  

Media Design

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.

MoCap/VR Studio

Professors Daniel Fine, Paul Kalina, and Bryon Winn received a half million dollar grant to create a new Motion Capture and VR studio with professional equipment and ability for virtual production. The studio is a laboratory for research and teaching where our faculty and students can work across disciplines to create theatre for the 21st century.  These new technologies prepare our students for professional careers in the entertainment industry of the future and support our mission of innovation in the area of Digital Arts. Every aspect of theatre training, including writing, acting, directing, scenic design, costume design, lighting design, sound design, and project management, can be leveraged in the creation of VR/AR experiences and motion capture technologies. The new MoCap/VR Studio will allow us to achieve even more dynamic and immersive experiences for our students and audiences.

Motion Capture Studio


Financial Support

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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 2022-23 is $10,299.  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.

Tuition Scholarships

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 2022-23 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 receives a departmental scholarships, awarded annually, based on the recommendation of the head of the program.

See the Graduate Programs page for more information and links.

A scene from BLKS

April 2022

How to Apply

See the Graduate Program page for an overview of admission information.

Link directly to the details about the application process for MFA training in the Design 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 
March 2021

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 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 dress rehearsal
Our Lady of 121st Street 
October 2021

Continuation in the Program

The Theatre Arts Department at The University of Iowa is a place where we are encouraged to discover the kind of designer we are.  We are trained to be an artists who know what we are creating, along with opportunities to gain the knowledge we need to be flexible in order to effectively communicate.  The faculty gives us the support and resources we need to succeed as artists and also as collaborators. This has been vital to keep "the show going on" now even during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I am grateful for my professors and fellow design cohorts I have collaborated with during my time at UIOWA.

Kim Fain, MFA ’21
Lighting and Media Design


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

  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.

Hit the Wall
Hit the Wall  
February 2020

Alumni at Work

I would not trade my experience at the University of Iowa for anything in the world. My three years spent in the design program was time that allowed me to grow as a person, as a designer, as a collaborator, and as an artist. I have never worked harder in my life, but I have also never reaped so many benefits as I have from my graduate school experience. The faculty remains dedicated to me and my professional and personal paths long after graduating. I know I have someone who I can contact at any time for advice or support. After being out in the real world and observing my peers, I become increasingly aware of the superior education I was gifted while a student in the Theatre Arts Department, and I could not be more thankful.
Courtney Schmitz, MFA '09

Our MFA and BA designers have moved from their training in Iowa City to major cities across the country.  As freelance designers, art directors, faculty, production managers, and artistic directors ~ 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.

Kim Fain (MFA ’21), Lighting & Media Designer

Courtney Gaston (MFA ’20), Lighting, Scenic, & Media Designer

Lindsey LaRissa Kuhn (MFA '19), Costume & Scenic Designer

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

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

Lucas Ingram (MFA ’16), Lighting & Scenic Designer

Lisa Borton (MFA '12), Costumes Designer, Scenic Designer, & Scenic Artist

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

Courtney Schmitz (MFA ’09), Lighting Designer

Want to see more? Check out the current and recent Iowa Designers' bios.

More Information

Theatre Arts Department
The University of Iowa
107 Theatre Building
Iowa City, IA 52242-1705