Thursday, January 22, 2009

Daisey on MFAs for theater artists

I know we've had this debate over and over. Is an MFA helpful? Is it

I'm in a lot of debt and have had to have a day job to pay my monthly
grad school tab.

And I'm not sure if I want to teach because I'm not sure about
encouraging new playwrights.

Maybe they should be writing novels or screenplays instead. I don't know.

What do you think?


Libby said...

As a person with an MFA, a day job, and a mountain of unproduced plays, I say that an MFA is a luxury, it has a luxury price tag, and a person should pursue it with both eyes wide open and an awareness that a career in the arts is entirely in one's own hands, and not in those of any given graduate program.

kris marie said...

You do what you gotta do.

Thing is though, the prevailing myth of our culture is, go to college, then success will come. No. Debt comes.

So, we do what we need. Sometimes an MFA, sometimes a couple years in the Peace Corps, sometimes hanging out in a studio apartment playing video games with your brother who you envy. Success cannot be predicted.

You can choose your life though. Choose the amount of debt you take on. Choose to wing it. Whatever.

Having said that, a field that consistently pushes it's young people into more, expensive, training and study in pursuit of a vague idea of a career without basis in the real world, is absolutely complicit and has a great deal to answer for.

Joshua James said...

I wish I hadn't, simply because I don't believe I learned anything in grad school that I couldn't have learned out of grad school ... not just grad school, but my whole BA Theatre degree, to boot.

I wished I'd majored in something else.

Malachy Walsh said...

First, I agree with Libby wholeheartedly.

Next, I'd note that Shepard once said "You can't make a living as a playwright. You can barely scrape by."

That was long before Mike Daisey noticed that theatre doesn't pay out for anyone except some administrators and a lucky few others.

As far as I know, for the vast majority of theatre artists, throughout time, there has never ever ever been any money, let alone enough money to sustain a living.

That's how the stereotype of the poor actor came about.

And that's why the phrase: In theatre you can't make a living just a killing.

I'm not saying this is fair. Or the way I want it to be.

But it is the way it is.

That said, my opinion (which echoes Libby and Kris) has always been that anyone who gets an MFA because they believe it will guarantee some kind of success (in acting, directing, playwriting... heck, any artistic endeavor) is a fool.

After all, (Joshua) any education in the arts - even a free one - is only worth what you make it worth. (If you didn't learn anything, was it because there was nothing worth learning? Or was it because you didn't really look?)

Just like art, wouldn't you know?

But back to Daisey's complaint.

At my MFA graduate ceremony the keynote speaker (the Farrelly Brother who has an MFA) addressed this very issue. And the advice he gave was, If you're going to be an artist in America, you're going to have debt and so you should learn to live with it. If you have faith, and you make it, you'll pay it off, but once you have it, you have it. Why spend your life and energy worrying about it? You came here to make art. Now go out and continue what you were doing.

So, if you make your degree - any degree - about how much you owe, that's all it will be about.

My guess is you'll be very very unhappy.

***I do think it will be interesting to see how long MFA programs will continue to qualify for loans as more and more "artists" decide they're not going to pay out anything any more.

Eric P. said...

In the book "Playwrights Teach Playwriting," someone (I think it's Mead Hunter) says that he doesn't think it used to be mandatory for a playwright to have an MFA, but that at some point in the recent past it became mandatory. Not because of the training, but because of the contacts--if your program is prestigious enough, the contacts you make there will vault you into a whole different level of opportunities.

As someone who doesn't have an MFA, I will say that--for those reasons primarily--I periodically regret not having considered pursuing one. One of my problems, though, paradoxically, is that back when I was young enough to reasonably pursue an MFA I don't think I would have been good enough to get into the kind of program that would have been worthwhile.

*Footnote--that "Playwrights Teach Playwriting" book is good particularly for the Tony Kushner chapter, wherein he describes his ideal MFA playwriting curriculum is such a way as to make anyone want to go back to grad school.

Jimmy said...

Mead would be wrong - insofar as it concerns playwrights.

There are at least two places to look to for proof.

1) Look at how many places produce work by people who don't have MFAs. Most give, even if coincidentally, at least one show to a writer from outside that world. (The Magic, for instance.)

2) Look at how many MFA writers never get produced by any "establishment" theatre. Ever.

Now, Mead might have pushed MFA writers as a dramaturg because they had MFAs, but I sort of doubt it.

As a reader at several prominent non-profit theaters in New York and on the West Coast, I can tell you what my experience was however: MFA scripts had to go through the same rigamarole that non-MFA scripts did. While it never hurt, it never got anyone I worked with, or read, over any major obstacle everyone else had to get over. Scripts that were liked, were liked. Period.

And while it is true (and always has been true) that people tend to make things with people they know, they still make things they like and believe in. And that starts with liking what's on the page, not on the resume.

An MFA is a credential. But a weak one. It suggests, at most, that someone is serious enough to spend 3 years doing it and very little else (after all "training" is so varied from one program to another, as to be nearly meaningless).

Eric P. said...

I think the point was not that scripts in the slush pile got read differently if the author had an MFA after his or her name, but rather that playwrights whose MFA mentors were advocating for them got read sooner than other playwrights did--if those mentors were influential enough (which is why this only applies to sufficiently prestigious MFA programs). Mead Hunter wasn't pushing MFAs; he was having MFAs pushed at him with greater frequency and credibility than he was having non-MFAs pushed at him.

I've done time in literary offices too, and while the place where I was a literary manager wasn't high-profile enough to be getting calls from Paula Vogel saying "You should look at this person's work, he/she was/is my student and is really great," I certainly would have read that script. Not with a kinder eye than I read stuff in the slush pile, but probably sooner. And in a world with finite time, resources, and staff, sooner makes a big difference.

Scripts that are liked are liked, for sure. But having the right contacts makes it more likely that your script will get in front of people who, if they like it, will make a big difference in your career.

I would think the key metric would be neither "How many places produce people without MFAs" nor "How many people with MFAs don't get produced" but rather "What percentage of the people who do get high-profile, 'establishment' productions have MFAs?"

Not that I happen to know that metric offhand. I can barely work a calculator.

Adam said...

Thanks, guys. Great discussion. I talked to someone last night who said and I'm paraphrasing, "an MFA only matters for a few years. After that is sort of wears off."

I've found that to be true. It helps a little but then it stops helping. And I suspect sometimes it even hurts because some lit mgrs won't take you seriously till you leave school. Or I sometimes got that feeling anyway. It's hard to know what goes on in lit offices, though I've worked in a few.

Anonymous said...

I would think the key metric would be neither "How many places produce people without MFAs" nor "How many people with MFAs don't get produced" but rather "What percentage of the people who do get high-profile, 'establishment' productions have MFAs?"

At the Magic -which is only one place, but the place offered as an example by one of the above posters - that is answered as 3 of 6. Though the late Oni seemed have gotten hers from Julliard after she already had quite a bit of success as a writer.

Rebeck is a well-established playwright with an MFA from way back in the 90s, maybe. Anyway, if her MFA helped her, it wasn't specifically here.

So that leaves us with Schellhardt and Suh. Schellhardt's script K of D has been kicking around for years and this, I don't think, isn't the first time it's been produced. Somehow, I don't think a phone call made Greco (the AD) do it.

Don't know anything about Suh.

Another thing to think about: Sure, phone calls get made, but it stands to reason that people who've spent 3 years writing plays have a lot more material to send out than those who are doing it between temp jobs. They've also been practicing for 3 years straight without distractions like jobs. Finally, might they also have an enthusiasm for trying that others might not.... ?

My guess is that MFA's help more in getting people into organizations that build careers - New Dramatists, for example. But as someone else said, it's a case of people making things with people they know.

Eric P. said...

Well, if the hypothesis being tested is that MFAs are a lot more vital to a playwright's success now than they used to be, then I guess we'd need to limit our attention to those playwrights who first appeared on the scene in the last... what?... ten years?

Mead said...

Though I'm usually a regular reader of Adam's blog, I've been so snowed under that I haven't been here for weeks (Portland's first city-wide theater festival is in progress), and I just now discovered this thread. So you've probably all moved on now and no one will ever see this comment, but anyway...

About the piece in Playwrights Teach Playwriting: that piece is a continuing source of embarassment for me, because while it appears to be an article, it's actually redacted from a conversation; had I actually written it, it would have been more intelligible.

Since I don't remember the context of my remarks back then, I'll just say what I think right now. And that's there are essentially two reasons to go after a playwriting MFA.

First reason: if you are at a point in your artistic life where you know you're never going to get down to your depths with your writing unless you set aside 2-3 to really work on it ... then a playwriting program might be a good idea. Especially if you'll get to teach undergrads while you're there. That's when you'll really find out where the core of your aesthetic lies and what you have to say about your own metier.

Second: grad school IS a great place to meet people you will work with the rest of your life. Your colleagues, your professors, the visiting artists who pass through. A handful of programs (Iowa and UCSD, for example) are also smart about providing students with access to non-academic professionals who can give their students a leg up, and at least to that degree they're less complicit in the cycle Mike so accurately describes.

The thing about this second reason for taking the MFA plunge is that you should only do it if you need that benefit. If you already have connections, if you're already heading where you want to go, for god's sake don't tread water for three years! Get out there and work. Get yourself noticed that way.

To echo Libby, if you want to go, do it with your eyes wide open. It's going to be expensive, it's probably going to be unpleasant, and it guarantees nothing. So go in there intending to fully exploit any advantages the system has to offer.

Quick survey, for what it's worth. I've been at Portland Center Stage six years now and worked on 10 fully produced world premieres during that time. Of those 10, six of the writers had MFAs (from Yale, UCLA, Brown & other institutions). Four did not have graduate degrees; two of those didn't even study theater as undergrads.

Final thought, and it's a Big Secret: grad programs need you more than you need them. If you're going to go, negotiate a good deal for yourself or don't go at all. You weren't "lucky" to get in -- they were lucky you applied. Use that.

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Adam said...

Thanks, Mead.

I think one of the problems is going to grad school looking for connections and mentors and then not finding them.

Is your prof going to be a mentor? Does your prof have connections? I know that Juilliard helped me A LOT more than Columbia. And it didn't cost me 90 thousand dollars. Which is not to say Columbia didn't help me, because it did. But on a monthy basis, I have to give 600 dollars for those three years for years and years and years.

I think really what we're talking about is the American Dream, that myth, that impossible hope. Don't get me wrong. I love theatre. But damn it's a hard place to work in right now.