Los Angeles MFA Programs
Training for the Future
Angelenos love to brag about our weather, and it is in fact gorgeous here. But we've got a lot more than sunshine going on. Los Angeles' combination of working artists, technological development, and some of America’s top universities means that some of the most innovative work in the country is happening in the professional theater training programs at University of Southern California (USC), UCLA, and the California Institute of the Arts. In these places, artists are increasingly moving back and forth between platforms and occasionally even mixing things up, integrating digital technology not just into their live performances but also in classrooms.
The USC School of Dramatic Arts offers MFAs in both Dramatic Writing and Acting. According to dean Madeline Puzo, all of their students train to have careers both in theater and film/television and, with the exception of the students who came here from the East Coast, most of them plan to stay in Los Angeles upon graduation. The actors work with students in the School of Cinematic Arts on short films and other projects. This semester they have created a sketch comedy show together that will air on USC's CC TV, Trojan Vision. In fact film teachers at USC encourage their students to write roles for 25-year olds specifically so that they can use acting students. The presence of an engineering school fuels the use of new technology in the film school, which introduces actors to new tools for artistic expression.
This is not to say that the training in the School of Dramatic Arts is not rigorous theater training. Playwrights take screenwriting classes during their second year, but the first year is entirely devoted to theater. Actors at USC are often directed by professional guest directors; relationships with South Coast Repertory Company and Center Theater Group put actors in front of their casting directors; and during their final year, they perform in a three-play repertory.
The head the Dramatic Writing program, Velina Hasu Houston, is similarly committed to connecting her students to the tradition of serious professional theater in LA so that they are learning not just about writing but also about navigating the waters of a collaborative art. Students work with Pasadena Playhouse’s new play development program, Hothouse, which focuses on plays that "authentically align with The Playhouse’s commitment to diversity." Writing students have the opportunity to shadow an entire Hothouse project, from initial dramaturgy to casting, rehearsing, rewriting, and hearing feedback at a live performance. The next semester, the Playhouse shepherds them through a similar process with their own new plays in a program called Greenhouse, even bringing in professional directors and actors to work with them. When students graduate, the program sends their thesis plays to 85 literary managers who are committed to new work.
UCLA's theater program has just undergone a complete retool and is in the midst of its first year of exploring new possibilities. During this year, a new class of MFA actors, directors, and writers are taking courses in all of those areas together. They have created a series of devised pieces, three of which will be given full studio productions at the end of the year. At that point, actors, writers, and directors will be focusing on their particular crafts, but up until then, they are all asked to be interdisciplinary. The theater department is located within the same school as UCLA's film and television departments, making collaboration natural. This year theater and film students have created a YouTube series called My Week at UCLA; the relationships between actors and film directors built doing that are expected to continue into their second and third years.
On the other hand, very few of the theater directors at UCLA plan to work in film or television, where the job of the director is quite different. The head of the directing program in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, José Luis Valenzuela is preparing directors to work in the "theater of the future," which he sees as interdisciplinary and international. As artistic director at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, he not only provides internship opportunities for his students, he also hires them as professional directors when they graduate.
The head of the directing program in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, José Luis Valenzuela is preparing directors to work in the "theater of the future," which he sees as interdisciplinary and international.
The head of UCLA’s newly-focused acting program, J. Ed Araiza, believes that the unique location of Los Angeles on the Pacific Rim makes it the "city of the future." He plans to develop deeper connections between his program and the people and traditions of Latin America and Asia and will have three international students join the program next year. Valenzuela and Araiza agree that Los Angeles' diversity and history of social activism makes it fertile ground for political work and, though they do not push their students toward any particular style or content, they nevertheless gravitate towards socially-conscious work. The three devised pieces to be mounted next quarter are about unrealistic beauty standards, the fetishization of African culture in the thirties, and the negative impact of humans on the environment.
The dean of the performance program at the California Institute of the Arts, Travis Preston is also devoted to creating opportunities for his students to have global interactions. As with UCLA, CalArts trains across disciplines, but CalArts also has a theater management program and a professional producing arm called The Center for New Performance, where faculty, students, and guest artists create and present performances together. Preston shared that, in keeping with the fact that the institute is an art school and not a college or university, some of the artists there "are more experienced—we call them faculty. Some of the artists are emerging artists and we call them students. We are a community of artists working together, which creates a different landscape."
CalArts not only has a film school under the same roof as its performance program, it has world-renowned fine arts and animation programs. And the performance program does not just offer acting for the camera classes, they actively integrate the camera into all of their classrooms. In fact performance itself is so broadly understood that graduates are encouraged to explore opportunities in themed entertainment. Relationships with Disney, Paramount, and Universal further Preston's desire to nurture students' relationships to the larger profession and give them as much agency over their careers as possible:
We want people to self-identify in broad ways, to have a broad understanding of themselves as artists in the world, to understand character and story, to be engaged as writers, to be both behind the camera and in front of it. We want them to know that they can make their own work and can have agency in the world, that they should not wait for the phone to ring because it won’t ring. We are trying to train citizen artists who can imagine their own futures and can change the world for the better.
Given that they are in Los Angeles, it's not surprising that all three of these programs share emphases on training actors and writers for both theater and film/television and that they all value working with new technology. The investments of UCLA and CalArts in international connections are also a logical product of the city's location on the Pacific Rim, and the emphasis on agency will serve artists well in a town where creating your own work is a must.
Though actors and writers in Los Angeles can make a living in film and television, with theater culture here benefitting from their presence, the theater economy is much like it is everywhere else: very few theaters actually pay their artists. Directors, for whom the craft in different media is quite different, have a more difficult and longer road to travel before they can make a living. José Luis Valenzuela only accepts international theater directors to his program if they are planning to go back to their home country. Being a theater director in America, where it takes, in his opinion, an average of fourteen years after graduation to develop a paying career, is already too competitive.
Perhaps the management students at CalArts will revolutionize the American theater business model just as their students are revolutionizing the nature of live performance. In the meantime, Los Angeles theater culture is thriving, both creatively and intellectually, in large part due to the presence of these institutions.
And oh yeah, the weather's also pretty nice.