To MFA or Not To MFA


I find myself, somewhat unexpectedly, in the midst of a series on higher education in the arts. I guess it makes sense – over the 20+ years I’ve been teaching, I’ve developed quite a few opinions about what it is and what it should be. So let me chase this particular bunny at least two more times. Two weeks from now, I’ll write about the undergraduate degree, and how to choose a theatre department that will be a good fit for you. Today, I want to talk about the vexed question concerning whether or not it is “worth it” to get an MFA (or a PhD, for that matter, which is the degree that I have).

student-loan-debt-300x300 In many ways, this is well-trod ground. The folks at HowlRound have devoted quite a few columns to considering this topic, which is good because every year around the holidays there is a new batch of young and not-so-young artists trying to decide their next step. When I was applying to graduate programs back in the late 80s, the decision was a bit less fraught with terror: tuition was lower, Pell Grants were more plentiful, and student loans had low interest rates. And in the back of one’s mind, there was always the escape hatch of default. None of this is true anymore.

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When I have spoken to people who are considering taking the grad school leap, they often have two reasons for doing so: 1) they want to focus on their art full time for two or three years, or 2) they think that if they get in to a “prestigious” program that they will make “contacts” that will “open doors” for them. If either of these are your reasons, my advice to you is: don’t go. I know after a couple years doing a crap day job, the thought of being able to eat, drink, and sleep theatre is mighty tempting, but the cost is simply too high in the long run. Of course, it won’t feel that way at the time, because you’ll likely be financing it through student loans, which seem sort of unreal when you’re applying for them. But once you’ve finished, the bank will be knocking at your door the minute you cross the stage at Commencement, and you’ll find yourself even more stuck than you were before.

double edge theatre
Double Edge Theatre (Ashfield, MA)

The impulse is good – experience is important. But my recommendation is to get it some other way. Find a group of friends, all of whom are considering grad school, move to a town with a low cost of living, rent a living space together (use Double Edge Theatre as an example), and self-produce like mad in church basements (hey, it worked for Steppenwolf), your living room, storefronts (abandoned strip malls are good targets), outdoor spaces, barns, old double-wides, whatever. The important thing is to keep doing work as quickly as you can – one acts, full lengths, one-person, classics, contemporary, devised work, new plays by company members. Not only will you be able to do the kinds of plays you think are interesting (rather than what the faculty thinks is interesting, which tends to be decidedly retrograde), but you’ll also learn all the skills required to take control of your own career (see my previous articles).

It used to be that low interest rates and generous terms on student loans made going the grad school route attractive, but with the interest rates as high as they are, you might as well follow the example of all those independent filmmakers who finance their projects with credit card debt and an IndieGoGo campaign. Six people each with a credit card can fund a lot of theatre. You didn’t hear that here…

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As far as the idea of going to grad school in order to make contacts through your professors, again the cost is exorbitant, and frankly there are very few professors who can or will help you out. Instead, consider contacting a theatre you are interested in working for, or a theatre artist you’d like to work for, and offer your services. Most of those MFA programs who say they have 99% “placement” or some such nonsense are really saying they will get you an internship. So who needs the middle man? I’ve always wanted someone to try this: tell a working artist you’ll pay them $5000 if they let you shadow them for a year – I’ll bet it might work. When I went to NYC to get my doctorate, I wrote to Bonnie Marranca at Performing Arts Journal, told her how much I admired her publication, and I offered to do whatever they needed done for the opportunity to hang around. I ended up being hired as the Editorial Assistant, and as a result met many avant garde artists.

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From my perspective, there are really only three reasons to get an MFA: 1) you have a desire to teach at the college level, and you need a terminal degree to do so; 2) to study a particular approach to theatre that is taught by somebody in the department, or 3) to fill in a hole in your undergraduate education. The first reason is not only perfectly legitimate, but I wish more people would be that intentional, and I wish that universities would respond by creating MFA programs focused on teaching artists to teach. Unfortunately, most MFA’s are conservatories, and their only focus is on doing — directing directing directing, or acting acting acting. But being able to direct or act, and being able to teach other people how to direct or act are not the same thing, as anybody who has studied with a formerly famous theatre person is likely to tell you.

The second reason implies intentionality – that you know what you are wanting to learn, and can find people who can teach it to you. When you are looking at MFA programs, try to figure out the orientation of the teachers. You’re not going to be taught a whole bunch of different approaches to directing or acting, you’re most likely going to be taught the one that the grad faculty approve. Make sure it’s the one you want to learn. If you study directing with someone who teaches Viewpoints it is going to be a different experience that one who teaches Clurman or, God help you, Alexander Dean. Better yet, choose a specific professor, not a program. It made some sense for playwrights to seek out Maria Irene Fornes or Christopher Durang, because they were very committed to teaching, and by all accounts were (are) good at it. There are such people in other areas as well, but they may not be working in the programs you’d expect.

The third reason – filling a hole in your undergraduate education – is also valid. For that reason, I cautiously endorse the MFA in Directing a bit more than the MFA in Acting, and here’s why: American theatre is so caught up in worshipping the director that we make it something that undergrads only are allowed to do in their senior or MAYBE junior year, if at all. Most undergrad directing classes have so many prereqs that you can’t get to them until the end. The message is that directors are So Important that they need to know EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD before they are allowed to direct. This is, of course, hooey. Directing is a skill set just like acting or designing or stage managing, and those skills can be taught just as early as the other theatre artists, but we tend not to do it at the undergraduate level. (The same is probably true for designers if you were in an undergrad department where grad students got all the assignments.) Here’s the problem that undermines my endorsement: most MFA Directing programs won’t accept you until you have a certain amount of directing experience under your belt – preferably a Tony or two, it seems. It’s gotten a little ridiculous of late. Apparently faculty in MFA directing programs only want to teach people who already know how to direct. I don’t understand why people who are getting hired already would want to put their career on hold and go back to school, but apparently there are some who do.

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But wait a minute. Didn’t I say you’d do just as well to move to a town with low real estate prices and spend that money doing shows? Yes, I did. And if you don’t harbor any interest in being a college professor later in life, I’d still say that is the best route. But let me clarify: it needs to be intentional. What I am suggesting is moving to a small town with low real estate prices and doing show after show with the sole purpose of educating yourself. Be sure you keep a detailed journal in which, after each rehearsal, you describe what you did, what worked, what didn’t, and how you made your decisions — this is going to be important for the second part of the learning experience.

Don’t charge more than a couple bucks for tickets, because what the audience will be seeing is probably not going to be great, at least at first, and you’re going to be asking them for more than the usual audience member. Serve them cookies for free in the lobby at intermission as a way of saying thanks. And then build into every show a post-performance (free) drinking session with as many of the audience members as are willing to stay and get them to talk in detail about what they saw, what they liked, when they were bored, when they were grabbed. You don’t want suggestions about how to make it better, you just want them to describe their experience. Consider the money spent on drinks the equivalent of tuition. Put your ego aside, gird your loins, and listen to what they say, don’t argue. Probe, don’t defend. Then go back to your journal and try to find those moments that the audience said worked and those that didn’t and figure out what you did to get there. Get the whole company to do the same thing, and share your observations with each other. Be rigorous. There is no value to doing shows like this unless you debrief and consciously learn something from what you did. Teach yourself. Visit the UnCollege website if you need guidance. Every once in a while, invite a professional whose opinion you respect to visit and give feedback. Again, listen and probe. Rinse and repeat.

booksAlso – and this is crucial — read. Read books on directing, acting, design, playwriting, aesthetics, art history, philosophy, biography, cultural criticism, business, marketing — anything you can get your hands on that will broaden your references. And more than anything, read plays — at least one every other day. You won’t get any of this in most MFA’s, but I believe it is one of the most important things you can do. I am always reminded of the line from Good Will Hunting: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

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If you and your friends do that, after three years I guarantee you will be better artists, you’ll have a resume of shows you have done, and you might have a company with whom you can continue working if you want. And most importantly, you won’t have $150,000 debt.

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Ultimately, of course, you have to choose what seems like the best route for you. I hate to say it, but this really is a place for a cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis and definitely not a place for artistic desperation. There are people who really need strong guidance, and for those an MFA is a good (if expensive) route. For those, like me, who are a bit more independent and self-motivated, or who have a non-traditional approach to the theatre, the route I suggest might be better. I think anything that leads to creative independence and as much freedom as possible is best.

Good luck.

Curator’s Note:
Read CFR contributor John Clancy’s related take on the wisdom of a theater MFA.