Inside Clarence Brown

The interior of the Clarence Brown Theatre, which has been instrumental in helping UT achieve a high ranking for its theatre programs.

The Hollywood Reporter ranked the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as one of the top 25 drama schools in the world, placing it before artistic powerhouses including Columbia University, Northwestern University and the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Australia.

The ranking includes both the undergraduate program in theatre and the graduate program in acting, which operates within the department of theatre. This specific program works to provide graduate students with a master in fine arts in theatre acting. The Hollywood Reporter ranked the program 13th overall in their list, calling it a “Southern jewel of a program” — marking the fourth year the program has been featured on the list.

Associate professor of theatre Jed Diamond has acted as head of the master in fine arts in acting since his hiring in 2005. Diamond spoke about the ranking in The Hollywood Reporter.

“It is rewarding for all the work of our department, faculty and graduates to be recognized nationally and internationally,” Diamond said. “It helps us to be more recognized and valued here at UT, and it is very important for recruiting strong talent to a small regional program. It helps us to compete for talent with schools in major markets like NY, Chicago and LA.”

Diamond mostly talked about the masters in fine arts (MFA) in acting program since The Hollywood Reporter list is the only one that covers masters in fine arts in acting along with bachelor’s programs. But, he did mention that UT has "an excellent bachelor's program in theatre, in which students can major for a general theatre degree, or a concentration in performance, design/tech in lighting, scenic, costumes or sound and media.”

Diamond discussed why UT’s program is among some of the best in the country, along with why the field is so competitive.

“We have world class MFA programs in acting and design,” Diamond said. “In acting, we typically audition and interview 800-1000 candidates in NY, Chicago, San Francisco and Knoxville, to pick a final eight every other year.”

“It is highly competitive and the training is rigorous. The presence of the Clarence Brown Theatre makes it one of fewer than a dozen U.S. programs with a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) regional professional theatre fully integrated with the training curriculum. We also have one of the strongest financial assistance packages for our graduates, who are generally able to graduate debt-free,” Diamond said.

Along with that, Diamond mentioned notable alumni, most of which have gone on to work on Broadway, television shows and other top programs. A few that Diamond mentioned include Conrad Ricamora, Sally Wood and Matt Bassett.

All of those factors contributed towards this ranking. The Hollywood Reporter revised how they rank programs in 2017, which has resulted in UT’s master acting program to be in the top 25 ever since. Diamond clarified that he doesn’t know how they actually judge programs, saying “I do know it is fairly lengthy, and that they research the schools and make phone calls to heads of programs as well as send questionnaires.”

“Some of the obvious criteria are: success of alumni, financial support, or lack thereof (debt profile of graduates for the training), production opportunities, association of the program with a professional theatre, diversity and inclusion, industry showcase opportunities for career entry upon graduation, membership in Actors Equity Association provided during training, etc.,” Diamond said.

Student wise, the program has resonated with graduate students pursuing a master’s in acting. Third year master’s in acting candidate Davion Brown spoke about his time so far in the program, commenting on how he chose UT after completing unified auditions for several schools.

“What got me here was the fact that it was very inviting,” Brown said. “UTK was very inviting, the professors were incredibly open and truthful with me before coming in. It felt like I was already a part of the family at the auditions because it was so open, and people would assume that auditions are closed in and we’re in this tight space that we’ve got to focus.”

“No, it was very open and relaxed, and they let me do my thing and of course I got into the program. It wasn’t until I was in the program that I found out that it was ranked so high. So for me, it was just a cherry on top,” Brown said.

Originally from Australia, Brown grew interested in acting at a young age after substituting for a sick child actor on a production of “Raisin in the Sun” in New York City. It almost became a struggle for him to continue acting during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he had his needs met because of UT’s acting program.

“I spent three years touring around this country, freelancing, doing gigs city-to-city, state-to-state,” Brown said. “I don’t have a home here. I don’t have family or mates here. So, when the pandemic happened, that would’ve been incredibly detrimental for me … I depend on acting gigs.”

“What this program did was they gave us options … and they gave us a financial back net to be comfortable while we can still go through this pandemic and they gave us an extra year … of the program to catch up to ourselves, because there was a period of time … where we were just doing Zoom shows, and that’s not applicable to an MFA in acting if we’re just on Zoom the whole time. So the fact that they gave us options is incredibly invaluable to me,” Brown said.

For Brown, the ranking of the program wasn’t on his mind when he began to consider joining the program. Instead, the recruiting and the courses were what drew Brown into the program.

“When I toured, I fell in love with the place,” Brown said. “But I won’t lie here, it was entirely Jed Diamond … The bloke can sell water to a fish, and he definitely sold water to this fish.”

“He was so inviting, and he was so hospitable. And not only that, I was top of the ladder, I was seeing what the courses look like. I was seeing the current class go through these courses. I was watching all of this awesome stuff take place. Plus, … I was at auditions, and I already felt comfortable. There’s no other option. That’s what got me here,” Brown said.

Diamond talked about the significance of this ranking and what it will mean for the future of the program.

“Most significant is probably internal UTK recognition of the work we are doing,” Diamond said. “After that, we hope it has a marked impact on recruiting and getting diverse actors of talent to commit to three years in Knoxville.”

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are not only the right thing to do, they are the smart thing to do, because we live in a global era, and also, because diversity very clearly strengthens creativity, innovation, productivity and also just makes life far more interesting!” Diamond said.

For the future of the program, Diamond believes that they need to keep improving, especially to keep their ranking and reach more people.

“We need to make lots of changes, always, but more so now. There are always things to improve,” Diamond said. “Most important right now, is increasing the diversity of the whole department of Theatre and the Clarence Brown Theatre artists, staff and audience. We need to reach a broader audience and to teach and produce a wider variety of writers and plays.”

Brown believes that the program should keep doing what it has been doing, which might be the changes that Diamond stated, as that was what connected Brown to the program initially.

“I don’t know what it takes to get on the list,” Brown said. “What I do know is that they are currently on the list very high. So, whatever they’re doing, keep doing that. That’s the best I can say.”

“Keep involving people. Keep involving your students into all of your great things. Pick up ideas from your students. Make those things become a reality. All I can say is you’re doing right, just don’t back away from that,” Brown said.

Brown will continue to work towards his master in fine arts in acting. He hopes to work with the Clarence Brown Theatre afterwards, but said that it doesn’t matter where he is as long as he can continue to perform.

Diamond will continue to be head of the master in fine arts acting program.

“Wish us luck! We are undergoing much change, and it promises great times ahead, but it is also challenging in many ways,” Diamond said.

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