Our culture often has a negative view of the MFA degree. With no guaranteed return on investment and a high cost, many see it as a waste of time and money. One can write, act, direct, or dramaturge without a degree. As evidenced by the recent MFA series on HowlRound, even among artists the value of this degree is not quite clear. This negativity and confusion must filter down into the decision-making process. Some people know exactly what kind of art or writing they want to do and pursue the degree to hone their craft, but there are others for whom the MFA is a gateway to their artistry. They need the discipline and focus, as well as the exploration, to help them grow into the artist they will become. I was one of those people, and I worry that MFA programs and therefore the larger theater community could lose valuable artists because potential students are at risk of simply dismissing the degree.
Nine years ago, when I was a college senior perusing books on graduate schools, I saw chapters on obtaining a law, business, or medical degree. In a small MFA section in the back, the first line read something like, "Make sure you are really sure you want to pursue this degree." Well, that was not encouraging. I am rarely sure of anything. I also heard friends and professors say that one should not go to graduate school unless it is completely paid for. For MFAs, especially programs that do not have a teaching component, those scholarships can be difficult to find. It’s a wonder I applied to an MFA program at all. Thankfully, I ignored the negativity and attended the two-year graduate program in musical theater writing at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. It was two of the most challenging, stimulating, and fruitful years of my life.
I didn’t go to graduate school straight out of college. I had been accepted into a journalism program but on the eve of the first day of classes I decided not to attend. I love journalism, but I would have been going to graduate school because I had nothing else to do. I wanted to experience working, but had not yet gotten my first post-college job (even pre-recession it was difficult), and the program had always been what my mom had called “an option.” But there was another aspect that was keeping me from enrolling: I couldn’t see possibilities in a journalism degree. While it might not have been the case, at the time it seemed like getting a journalism degree meant I would only be doing one kind of writing for the rest of my life.
It might sound odd that I saw more possibilities in a musical theater writing MFA than I did in a journalism masters, but when I saw the list of Graduate Musical Theatre Writing alumni I was excited that their post-graduation work encompassed a wide variety of writing projects and experiences. Aside from musicals, alumni had written for television, film, plays, books, magazines, and opera. Before I even attended the program I saw musical theater writing as the foundation for all other forms of writing and storytelling instead of a narrow discipline, and this was the main reason I chose to apply and attend.
Still, when I told people that I was getting an MFA in musical theater writing, I would tack on, "Yeah, it's really random," because I was sure they were thinking, "Why are you paying all that money for that degree?" It may have been that I was not sure myself, as I had never officially written a musical before. After my first year of the program, however, when I realized how much I was growing as an artist and succeeding, my insecurity about the degree dissipated.
Before I officially enrolled, I spoke to two alumni about their thoughts on the program, both of whom cautioned me that this degree was about learning and improving one’s craft, not about making specific connections to get jobs and opportunities afterward. Now, I am one of those alumni that potential students might call upon for advice and to answer whether the program was worth the investment. I would tell them, absolutely, but you may not realize why or feel the effects of it until five years after you graduate, maybe even more. Musicals take years to write and develop—even more than plays because two or three writers’ schedules must coincide—and then to find producers and be programmed into a theater’s season. Many alumni who graduated five to ten years ago are just now enjoying larger successes, and a few made their off-Broadway debuts this year.
In the short-term, alumni gain a supportive community, and as someone who began my MFA program not sure of myself as a musical theater writer, I graduated calling myself a book writer and lyricist. I also gained more confidence and focus in all areas of my writing and am pursuing writing in many different forms like the alumni who initially inspired me to attend the program.
If I had decided to dismiss the MFA because I was not sure about it, or because it would not be paid in full, I most likely would not be a lyricist or book writer. More importantly, I would not be the writer I am now. My hope is that our culture will view the MFA degree as a way to both nurture and create artists, and that there will be more affordable ways for these degrees to be obtained. Not everyone is sure of what he or she wants to do and what kind of writer he or she wants to be. The MFA degree can help artists figure that out.