Should I Get an MFA? Or, What Should I do Now That I Have My MFA?
If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food, it's a plus for everybody.
You might think this article is about you. But trust me, I’ve talked to at least fifteen people in the last two weeks about the MFA, whether to get one or what do with the one you’re about to graduate with. It’s early winter. Applications for MFA programs are due and anxiety is rising for those graduating in May. I just read that for those graduating it’s a good time to be a young playwright in New York. So maybe a playwriting MFA is growing in value? I should note here that my thoughts about advanced degrees and their value are really focused on playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs. I’ve spent a lot less time talking to actors and designers on this topic over the years. And it’s also important to note that over the years my thinking on this topic has changed significantly. When asked a few years ago if someone with talent and desire to write plays should get an advanced degree in playwriting, I said unequivocally yes for two reasons:
- I’m a huge advocate of graduate school of any sort. Graduate school is an indulgence that every one who can access, should. I don’t have a timeline for when, but I truly believe taking three or more years to think about things that interest you and make you passionate and advance your understanding of the world is absolutely essential—especially if you want to tell stories that you hope will mean something to an audience greater than your best buds and your mom.
- As far as making theater goes, the significant career opportunities in our business are so few and far between that I would tell prospective students any leg up was worth considering seriously. For example, if your script was on a pile, or if you were applying for a directing fellowship, those letters M-F-A might advance your script/application up the stacks.
I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what I think they should want. But here goes some advice anyway.
My advice to graduating MFAs used to be different too and extremely practical! As you’re thinking about that final year in the program focus on:
- Having one fully realized “straight” play with no more than four characters is essential. The MFA is a launching moment and to launch in any significant way into the regional theater movement, your most realistic shot is to have one solid producible play in the most conventional sense.
- Make connections with all of the play development centers (Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance, Playwrights Foundation, etc.) and apply to every opportunity they offer. In other words, find an artistic home to develop as an artist. This advice hasn’t changed.
But as I experience the work the next generation of theater makers is creating and in what context, I’m beginning to shift my advice. More importantly, I’m convinced now that I’m not the right person to give advice. I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what I think they should want. But here goes some advice anyway.
- Don’t apply for an MFA in anything right out of undergrad. If you desire to be a storyteller from any vantage point (playwright, director, dramaturg, actor, designer, stage manager, etc.) spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell. Travel, work strange jobs, taste exotic foods, become a marathon runner, join the Peace Corps, and engage everything that feels unfamiliar.
- Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater.
- See as much of every kind of art that you can take in. Close down your Facebook and Twitter accounts for days at a time and read novels, listen to authors read their works on podcasts, go to museums, operas, symphonies, rock concerts, and ballets.
- Volunteer at places unrelated to theater. Understand that theater is a part of a whole, but not the whole.
- Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again. This can be love with people, other artists, art objects, remote camping sites, whatever.
- Then after all of that, if you still find that you must tell stories, and that you must live in proximity to a stage, by all means apply to an MFA program. It will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
For those of you graduating in the spring with your MFA:
- Maybe go to New York, but maybe not.
- Don’t worry about getting an agent.
- Find one or two or three other people you want to make theater with and live in the same city, or rural town, or on a tropical island together, and make theater according to your mutually agreed upon definition.
- Tell the stories you want to tell and only the stories you want to tell. You will get many opportunities to tell stories other people want to tell; minimize these gigs.
- Introduce yourself to every theater maker who inspires you, but don’t bother to try and ingratiate yourself into institutions or try to get next to artistic directors whose work you don’t admire just on the off chance they might throw an opportunity your way. There will be plenty of time in your career for compromising and groveling. Save your knees as long as possible.
- Think big. Big plays, big performances, big social change, big bold theater that will burn the house down.
For anyone trying to sort out how to make it in this business, there is no formula. The most moving thing for me in editing HowlRound these past two years has been to confirm this. I thought because I had worked nationally for many years, that I knew our field, that I knew who was making what kind of theater. I realize now what an incredibly narrow view I had. And I’m reading and editing essays now by people like Catherine Trieschmann who writes plays from Kansas, and Lindsay Price who is writing plays in Canada for young audiences, and Tammy Ryan who has been the playwright in residence at the Pittsburgh Playhouse for fifteen years, and KJ Sanchez who has started her own S-Corporation and is touring her brand of theater around the country, primarily to military bases. And my friend Michelle Hensley who founded Ten Thousand Things and has made theater in homeless shelters and prisons and thinks traditional box theaters are the death of the imagination, or Michael Rohd creating theater as a form of civic practice.
My single biggest complaint about theater training or any training for that matter is that in learning we both expand our skills and thinking and creative impulses, and simultaneously try to define it some way. I know as a cultural studies Ph.D. my training gave me a worldview that I continue to value and use everyday, and it limited my worldview and I’ve spent many years undoing some of what I learned as I engaged the real world of practice. As artists, I personally think rules and boundaries and formulas and systems and even institutions can dampen the possibilities for our artistic expression. And nothing can be more harmful to creativity than believing there is one path toward it.
So get an MFA, maybe. Move to New York, maybe. Write only two-handers, maybe. Buy bottles of expensive wines for Artistic Directors, maybe. But for sure, find a way to tell the stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren’t let out, and don’t make any assumptions that there’s a singular career trajectory for the theater artist.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
3 years late to the party on this one, but I found this article enlightening and heartening. I am currently struggling whether to MFA or not MFA (after already having received my MA in Counseling Psychology). But the fact is, I'm currently teaching Literacy in the K-12 public schools, and I want out. In order to ever teach writing or any theater-related class, I would truly need that MFA to be considered, so this might be the pushing point for me. However, I will not be attending a "top 10" type of program, but rather a more intimate, personal one that I am excited to explore.
I am waiting to hear whether I receive any scholarship opportunities, but the interesting this is the other night my father said "Doesn't matter. Do it anyways." After 30 years of proclaiming "I am an artist!" and receiving crickets in the response (or perhaps laughter), it feels amazing to have those who I look to for advice and comfort finally saying "yes, Kara, you are."
I know it's something to believe in for myself, but it still fills my heart to know the steps I've taken so far are being acknowledged, at a time when it's so easy to take the route of security and fiscal responsibility.
Thank you for this article, and everyone for their incredible input. What a community we have out there! I find it both intimidating and encouraging.
As the Literary Manager of the Public Theater, I wanted to respond about our relationship to MFAs and share my views, especially as a post above misrepresents our practices somewhat. It’s true that we would be open toreading a play by a recent MFA grad, in the same way that we would consider asubmission by a member of a writers groups at a peer theater or by a playwrightwho came to us via a colleague we trusted, but we also founded the EmergingWriters Group in order to open our doors to writers without MFAs orconnections.
When we started talking about the EWG six years ago, we knewthat while we had no trouble keeping up with MFA writers and wanted to continueto do so, it wasn’t enough. We recognized that there were talented writers outthere that we didn’t know and we wanted to meet them. In 2008, we selected thefirst 12 members of our Emerging Writers Group from a pool of over 750applicants and now count 43 writers among our current membership and alumni. A vast majority of these writers do not have MFAs; generally, only two or threewriters in each group have an advanced degree in playwriting. (And none of them have agents when they get in – that’s an application requirement.) This isn’t because we’re not interested in MFA writers; it’s because we already know how to find them and know they will find us. Our production of DominiqueMorisseau’s DETROIT 67 this spring will mark our 5th production byan Emerging Writers Group member and none of the five EWGers we’ve produced have had an MFA in playwriting. Outside of the Emerging Writers Group selection process, we screen plays by writers we don’t know by asking playwrights to submit a ten page dialogue sample and synopsis. Those are evaluated based on the quality of the writing and the relevancy of the subject matter to our mission; so, we request full scripts from MFA and non-MFA playwrights alike.
I don’t have an MFA in dramaturgy, nor does anyone at the Public, so we certainly have no notions of MFAs being vital and tied to qualifications and talent. When people ask me, I tell them that they should go to graduate school if a program really appeals to them and only if it does. Since I’ve seen so much success come to the non-MFAed members of our Emerging Writers Group, I could never recommend getting such a degree to a writer if they were not passionate about doing so. As we are approaching the end of year,I will conclude with two of my favorite moments in 2012: watching EWGalum Ethan Lipton win an Obie for our production of his NO PLACE TO GO andsitting proudly in the audience at Mona Mansour’s Humana Festival worldpremiere of THE HOUR OF FEELING, a play she developed in our Emerging Writers Group. Neither writer has an MFA.
this really resonated with me Liz. Thanks so much for your insights.
Wonderful article, and great comments as well. I know as I approach graduation from my MFA acting program at CalArts, many of my peers (and I as well) are trying to decide where to move and what city to work in. I love and completely agree with the advice of finding people I want to make theater with, and working with them, rather than going to a city you may or may not love and waiting to find work.
The problem is there are so many people I know and want to work with in LA AND NYC, not to mention the plethora of companies and artists I've gotten to meet throughout the country! Maybe I'm looking at things through rose-colored glasses, but I feel right now there is so much great theater being made and so many amazing emerging (and established) artists, there are too MANY opportunities.
I was talking to a mentor about this the other day, and the difficulty of making a choice, and he said something so obvious yet so wonderful: "picking a city isn't a permanent thing, Yichao. You can always move after a while, or travel between the two." It was a simultaneous "aha!" and "oh duh!" moment (barring plane ticket costs, of course!).
Thanks for the post. Every new writer needs to read it! I was a professional dancer before becoming a playwright, so I was busy making a living my field while others were going to college. Now that I'm a working writer, I have never had an employer (theatre, TV or film) care that I don't have a degree. However, many writers make a big deal out of my lack of "education" and insist it will hurt me (all evidence to the contrary). Which shows how much they are still buying into the "one path" approach to playwriting . School is certainly the right choice for some, but not all.
Hello all ... I'm more of a lurker than a contributor here, but find a great deal to think about every time I visit. I'm a Canadian, a playwright for many years, more recently a teacher, and most recently half-time dramaturge for a play development centre (work I love and find rewarding beyond words). I've found my way into a community of actors who respond well to my work as a writer, director and dramaturge, and to whom I respond well in turn but unfortunately is six hours away, the community where I have my half-time job. I'm middle aged, male, gay, white, married (exactly the kind of writer that EVERYBODY wants to hear from these days ...) and my husband is fortunate enough to have a tenured position at the very small university in the small rural farming community where we make our home, our community where there is no real theatre community to speak of and where, to be blunt, the arts community has essentially rejected us and our work. But because we are, as I describe it to anyone to whom I talk about finances and retirement planning, "late blooming artsie types" with no pensions, tenure is both rare and precious ... and I'm writing now because a) I've been thinking for a long time about getting a masters; b) I'm weary of cobbling together bits of income; c) the cobbling has taken too much time and energy away from my own writing; d) there's a distance masters in dramatic writing available up here that I can do without getting into debt (but in a program that I should, in all modesty, be teaching in); e) I'm six months away from fifty; and f) I don't see myself in Polly's admirable column. In short, do I get the damn piece of paper in the hopes of possibly getting a full time job to address the need for financial and structural security that has plagued me and my writing my entire life; or do I suck it up, say my life is what it is, and find another way to find balance (which would probably mean less income, even with my tenured husband)? I suspect that those of you who have gotten all the way to this stage of my posting, those of you who are committed to creation above all, would strongly urge the latter; but I have never really had, I don't believe, enough courage in my artistic convictions to do that ... I have struggled for thirty years of writing to find a voice ... passionate connection with ideas has faded in the face of coping with mortgages, long distance relationships, and keeping a marriage alive ... I lack "the ambition gene" ... I feel, in short, like a lone voice in my own personal mid-life wilderness, and part of me just hopes that there's someone out there who can say "I get it". Please accept my apologies for the vent/rant ... Polly, your column really touched a nerve, and I just felt a need/opportunity to add my voice to his particular "howl" around our work, calling, and place in the world. Thank you.
A fine article, yes, and I take no exception to its content, but it does beg the question - what is the purpose of a BFA/MFA today; or rather, what do colleges and universities see as the purpose of their degree programs? Why is no one holding these programs accountable for their curricula? What should students expect from their training (full disclosure - I chair a BFA theatre program at a NY state college)? The big conversation today that seems to be happening exactly nowhere is how to re-think theatre education at the university level so that it makes sense artistically, economically, and professionally in today's societal and economic climate. The current gulf that exists between university theatre programs and theatre artists out in the field is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and there is no conversation between the two at all so far as I can see.As long as universities large and small continue to focus almost exclusively on training "professional" (read LORT, Broadway, Hollywood) actors, writers, etc., we will be forever asking the question and raising the issues that Polly writes about.
Polly, you have a gift for not forcing opinion. I don't see your article as anti-MFA rhetoric but rather an opportunity to go beyond the "self" part of "self-reflection" and take into account what our communities and artistic families can give to us and what we can give to them.
I have an MFA as a designer and I can't say it has put me on top of any pile except the no thanks pile. Unless you go to the top 10 schools and want a lot of debt for a few connections than stay away. If you have the talent you don't need school. It is all about the connections and if you are not willing to be in dept thousands and thousands of dollars good luck finding them. I am struggling and it is not because of talent, it is because I don't know the right person to hire me. I could have walked away years ago but I'm still hoping my special day will come.
I am 2 days behind on this one, cause i've been finishing up with students. MFAs, undergrads. And now, i can send them this post as an end of quarter palette cleanser. Thanks for a great post with great (non) advice. As always, love listening to you, and being in conversations you start.
Great article. It's easy for those of us without playwriting MFAs, in moments of weakness, to resent those with MFAs and the perceived advantages and opportunities that credential seems to afford. So part of what I loved about this piece was the humane and eye-opening reminder that getting an MFA is an engine of growth as a person and an artist, not just a bestowing of secret handshakes. It is, in short, just as valid and comprehensible a path as not getting an MFA. Hopefully the industry at large can embrace a similarly broad-minded and eclectic appreciation of its potential artists' diverse paths.
Excellent advice on the MFA business. For young playwrights, there is one sorry fact: a number of large regional theatres are using the fact that they've graduated from one of the country's six or seven leading playwriting MFA programs as a screening mechanism, allowing these grads to submit scripts without agents. The Public Theatre is among these. So as has happened a decade or so ago in the world of visual arts MFA's, universities are providing the union card that eases entry into the theatre profession. Perhaps that's always been the case, but I find it uncomfortable that especially in playwriting the academic machine is grinding away.
It's a disturbing phenomenon. While actors, directors, designers, dancers and choreographers seem to benefit from conservatory training, it seems to me that MFA playwriting programs (really, creative writing programs in general) really haven't proven their worth. Have MFA playwriting programs resulted in more great plays being created or have they merely created a bottleneck by which only those either willing to go into debt (or who are independently wealthy) are allowed entry to major theatres? Quite frankly, I don't think any of the living playwrights whose work I most admire ever attended one of these programs. On the few occasions where it has been suggested that I apply to such programs, I have been forced to ask, "do you think it would make me a better writer?" and the answer I'm usually given is "probably not, but the connections are valuable." How many tens of thousands must I pay for "connnections?"
When major rep companies like the Public use MFA degrees from the leading playwriting programs as a screen for script reading I suspect they're applying an economic screen. I haven't done the homework to see how many (if any) of what are considered the top MFA programs currently offer a full ride for tuition/fees plus $20K stipend that would allow you to finish the program without student loan debt hanging around your neck. Those that don't offer such aid are shutting out young playwrights who don't have trust funds or well to do parents willing to cover the cost.
And the most important question is, "why?" Can any of these theatres actually argue that MFA playwrights write better plays? Much was made on the 20th anniversary of Angels in America that part of what made such a major accomplishment possible was the fact that there was a lot more funding for the arts back then, but would Kushner have been given a chance if theatres like the Public had had a policy of screening out playwrights without MFAs back in the '80s and '90s? After all, Kushner's undergraduate degree was in medieval studies and his graduate work was in directing, not playwriting.
I'm not sure there's much evidence that MFA playwriting grads write "better" plays than those without the degree, but they certainly seem on average to get their work produced more often on the rep circuit compared to those without the credential. What can be said about MFA playwriting grads is that the admissions process at the leading programs at least assures that these writers have a voice that may be worth listening to on the page and much more so than the typical unsolicited script (agents offer the same function for theatres, thus why so many only accept agent submissions). In defense of theatres using the MFA as a screen, having reasonable assurance that the voice in any script you get this way will probably be a reasonably good read -- even if it's not produceable -- is worth a lot.
Polly I'm in agreement. I'd add that many of your points are helpful for managers and Producers in training as well. I can't tell you how beneficial it was for me to work in the real world in a non theatre capacity managing people who could care less about theatre and its impact before I tackled my MFA. The greatest take away of your article for me is this, as theatre practitioners, if we exist in our own self absorbed vacuum, our work will not be fully breathing and living. I believe the best stories are the ones that build their foundations on truths or myths that have been encountered by the creator in their own life's experience.
Onward and upward!
Yes Malcolm, so agree! From the producing side of things, understanding why stories matter and connecting to potential audiences and the possible impact of a play is a critical element, and to think theater is the "whole" of it is to be disconnected from the lives of the people you hope to reach.
While I fully support this:
"Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater."
Like I said in Ilana's class the other day, as someone about to enter the "professional" world I'm not sure how to avoid it. With most of my close friends and collaborators moving to places I have little love for I'm dealing with the terror of moving somewhere that I have no connections to other artists from the get-go. I'd proclaim myself a rebel against most "major" theatrical organizations/systems but how else do I start getting involved in the community if not through an internship where I'll be thanked but not paid for the valuable work I can provide?
There's more to theatre than the large to mid-sized companies. Based on the cities that I do know, I'm going to guess that every major metropolitan area has numerous small companies that don't follow the "business-as-usual way of making theater."
A couple of things here:
1. To your point it's one of the reasons why I know my advice isn't particularly practical, so agree that's it's very hard not to go the route of the menial theater job.
2. Also, though I put the emphasis on large theaters for a reason because the model in large institutions is so silo based for the most part and its where "business as usual" is particularly prevalent and I so worry that young creative people are walking into cultures with little flexibility and little space for new ways of doing things. If the menial job is a necessity then I really suggest to look to small and midsize companies where you can maximize your creative contribution and learn in the most flexible and open environment possible. Hope that's helpful.
And thanks so much for your contribution here.
Thanks, Polly. Really.
Yes to everything Polly says.
I loved every second of my MFA directing program and it helped me immensely in finding my own voice and figuring out my own process. But I knew the entire time I was there that it was incredibly self indulgent of me to take 3 years to navel gaze and discover myself. I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I did end up with $60K in debt (and I had a full ride to the program - so this was just living expenses).
I don't think grad school better prepared me for a life in the theater and I don't think it makes me a better artist than the people who don't have an MFA. But it was right for me, in fact important for me to take that time and figure it all out. It's a personal decision.
This is how I feel 1/2 way through my own MFA. I'm loving the education I'm getting and how it is influencing me, but I don't think it is something I need in order to be a playwright.
This is great advice for recent undergrads too, I think. I got my BA in theatre 7 months ago and I'm home now, about to finish up an internship, and looking like crazy for acting gigs, and i've been toying with moving out right now and being poor and scared or sticking it out down here a little longer, seeing what's in my area.
BA, BFA, MFA...art is hard. But you can find it almost anywhere.
Great article. My advice - travel. See the world, other cultures. My best work is from being in places I don'tunderstand. MFA programs are too expensive. Find people you trust with your work and crate your own MFA program for free.
Thank you! You've put so articulately what I've been saying to my students for a couple years now... And I'm a designer! I'll be making it required reading for my juniors and seniors, who are wondering "what next?"
Wow. I really needed to read these words today. Got to get those plays that are choking me out! Thanks.
Excellent advice, Polly! I get a lot of these questions from students and interns I work with and I'm going to pass this on to them. A lot of folks ask me if they should come to NYC (because that's where I live) and here's my take on New York City:
Come to NYC if you want to see what it's like to live in NYC. But don't come as a career move, don't come with expectation. Come to enjoy, suffer in, explore, embrace life. Come to be a waiter and fight with landlords and see poetry in basements and sculpture on rooftops; come to be a subway sardine, to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, to marvel at the Main Library; yell at the cab that nearly hit you; eat in restaurants alone - it is a fantastic vibrant city and I love the heck out of it. But if you don't love NYC it's like hell slapping you in the face 24 hours a day and there is no reason - artistic or otherwise - to put yourself through that.
great advice about what meaning to NYC means, glad to have this here as I never moved to NYC so couldn't articulate it nearly as well. Thank you!
Stellar advice, Polly. I have two MFA's, the first from Brooklyn College where I studied with Jack Gelber (The Connection and The Addict), the second from Brown University where I studied with Mac Wellman, Chuck Mee, and Aishah Rahman -- all these playwrights being of the "stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren't let out" tribe. I entered Brooklyn College six years after my undergraduate degree and Brown sixteen years after. I wasn't really a playwright yet at Brooklyn, but a poet. I had many life experiences that made this path the one for me. It's odd; it's messy; it's maybe even ridiculous. But it's mine and I wouldn't trade it.
Amen. I'd add one more thing: Even though they'll give you the loans, don't fall for the concept of going into deep debt for your BFA or MFA in theater.
For many years I ran a theater that hired lots of actors and technicians in the summer season, most with at least a BFA and many with an MFA. During the end of season interviews, I was heart broken to hear the stories of these young artists who had college loans of $100K plus to pay off. I never said it then, but saddled with that kind of debt, the chances that you can persevere in this ridiculous, low paying business are even less in your favor. Too many BFA and MFA programs are puking kids out with degrees that aren't worth what they paid for them.
So if you must go to grad school, do your research. There are good programs, but they change often in my view due to the natural cycle of leadership, artists' focus, administration support, etc. Hit a program when it's getting hot and you get a great education. Otherwise, you could easily be wasting time, learning even more bad habbits, and find yourself too deep in debt to be able to afford to do theater.
My best advice would allign with number 3 - go to a damn place, stay there, take it all in, and make some theater for the people who are there. They will love it, connect to it, appreciate it, and support it.
I would strongly echo David's sentiments, both about debt and about place. I've been making theater in a small town in southeastern Minnesota for the past 21 years, have met and worked with some of the most talented, loveliest, passionate people and as a result have come to experience what our storytelling has meant to an entire regional community on a daily basis. There has been no greater reward than to actually feel the impact one's art has on one's neighbors.
Hey, we've seen your stuff in that small SE MN town!!! What a small world - we live in Rochester and get over to your town as often as possible. Thoroughly enjoy your work, sir, thank you!!!
Thanks for this Hal. I'm personally grateful for all the work you've done to make Lanesboro a theater town!
I echo David's sentiments. Don't go into massive amount of debt for your degree or find a program that will offer a free ride. Unfortunately, the business can be less about your talents and more about who you know, who "likes" you and pretty much your overall luck. That being said, there is no question that one can practice their art in a variety of different ways and success is only measured by the challenges that you take on both in your personal life and professional one. There is no question higher education can help inform you about who you are as an artist in addition to opening up a network, but also just hitting the pavement and practicing your craft in a classroom, storefront or with a group of friend can also potentially achieve the same result. The payoff in this business financially is not there to warrant being in massive amount of debt for an MFA.
Thanks Polly. As I was reading initially to give advice to my students, I thought this is still good advice for all of us whether we are pre MFA, post MFA, in NYC or in the Regions. We all need to be reminded it's important to tell the stories we need to tell, but also to think Big: "Big Bold theater that will burn down the house!"
Thank you for speaking from your experience for this article. I am sharing it with my undergraduate students, as I think it is valuable advice.
Because there ARE so many folks with MFAs who want to make theater, no matter where you live, you can almost always find kindred spirits; I know people doing excellent work in places all over the country. I have a special fondness for my peeps in Columbia, SC (at Trustus, spearheaded a vibrant indie scene in the Palmetto State!)
Great piece Poly. There is no one road. Everyone forges their own. As in life. "Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again" says it all. Go LIVE and "spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell."
Excellent advice. I think every young and/or aspiring playwright should read this.
Polly, I have to join the chorus of praise for this crystalline advice. The four years I spent in Paris, writing hogwash for the Walt Disney Company, leveled me and all my false expectations. After I regained my bearings I shook off layers of stultifying 'pixie dust' to see more clearly than ever before. In some regards, school is corporate artifice as well. It can have a deadening effect. I believe it is right to seek honest magic in the winds of change. Let the vortex whip about and twirl you until you're dizzy. Only then does the theatrum mundi come into startling focus.
I love, love, love this - there is no formula. My love of theatre, writing and youth theatre conspired to make me a playwright. There was no plan 30 years ago. Just love of theatre, travel, food and stories. There are so many paths - nice to hear that there isn't only one road.
Wonderful article, thank you! My only addition would be, don't be afraid to do more than one thing in theater, or in the arts. I acted, on and off, for 20+ years and it gave me an incredible education in playwriting. It fed my own work to have to speak other writers' words, and also to be a part of many processes (like ERS') that are not reliant on a playwright at all, but which still accomplish lovely theater. To work in service to other artists' creative processes, without feeling comparative, or competitive is a great way to learn.
Aaron, really good addition here. Our field is really changing in this regard and too much specialization really limits opportunities and I love your emphasis on being in service to the creative process of others . . . because that's actually what the collaborative act of theater requires. Thank you!
Spot on advice (or non-advice). I just graduated from an MFA playwriting program in New York this year. No agent. Rejections galore. Rather than wait it out in NY and risk both trying too hard and growing bitter, I moved to Maine a month ago to be among the people I care and write about. Already I feel better, and my writing is stronger. No clue where this will lead me, but it feels like death to sit and wait to be chosen out of a blind adherence to geography. I love your advice to go out and make theatre. Every time I drive by the empty mills in my town, I dream about starting a theatre. I'm already hosting a writers' retreat up here in January. GREAT post!
Thanks for this Callie, I spend so much time telling every theater your exact words...it's death to an artist to sit around and wait to be chosen!
I can't imagine going into debt for an MFA. The Hunter playwriting MFA was around $3K a semester for two years. Also, classes were at night, so I could keep my day job. For so long I thought MFAs were for either the wealthy or those who embrace poverty.
MFA or not, it's critical who you surround yourself with, and how generous you are with others. The three other students in my class really made the whole experience for me--we share opportunities, celebrate successes, and gripe about rejections.
My writing definitely strengthened a ton through the program. The problem I graduated with was a false sense that my work mattered to a wider audience, and yet the struggle to get people to read the work is the same as pre-MFA. Being a playwright feels like selling Amway. An MFA is not a magic wand--large theaters will let you send unagented scripts, but it doesn't mean they'll read it. Any playwright who finds success found it because someone advocated for them. And that is not dependent on an MFA.
Seven months later, my focus is still as fractured as pre-MFA--day job, writing, submitting, and self-producing. I submit because I can't let go of the hope that I might be produced at larger theaters, but I self-produce because I can't stand sitting still.
Every artist I know is exhausted.