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Practice. Practical. Practicum.

Headshot of Aaron Carter.


My hesitation in writing this post is analogous to my skepticism of MFA programs. Both carry the implication that there is some sort of practical path, a series of choices by which one can intentionally get from point A to point B. But the one thing I am certain of is that not a single career path in this industry can be duplicated. When I decided to get my MFA in Playwriting from Ohio University, I had no inkling that I would find a job as the Director of New Play Development at Steppenwolf Theatre. While I can trace the series of events that have led me here, they are so dependent on surrounding circumstances that to assert in any way I made the “right move” at any point would be ludicrous.

While I can trace the series of events that have led me here, they are so dependent on surrounding circumstances that to assert in any way I made the “right move” at any point would be ludicrous.

Which brings me to my first point:

1. The MFA is not a career move. Yes, it is a terminal degree that will allow you to teach in your field, opening up additional opportunities for employment. But I think that looking at the MFA as a stepping-stone on a career path will set you up for disappointment. Two great things happen in a program: you get time to practice your craft, and you are exposed to new thinking.

If you choose to pursue an MFA, I think you should know what you want to get out of it. What experiences or knowledge might you gain that would justify the time spent in a program, whether or not a single job arises from it? If you can answer this question, go get an MFA.

The corollary of course, is that if you can find a way to practice your craft and get yourself exposed to new thinking, you might not need an MFA in the first place.

And because it is not a career move:

2. Do not go into debt. The only reason to spend a lot of money on a degree is when there is a significant likelihood that your resulting employability will enable you to easily pay off that debt. That doesn’t happen in theater.

There are a great number of programs—Ohio University being one of them—that offer playwriting training equal to any of the acknowledged “power house” programs for much lower tuition. And because I believe the knowledge and practice you gain in a program far outweighs any other benefits—including excellent reputations and alumni networks—I see no value in going into debt for a “big name” school.

Now, if you get into one of those famous schools with a tuition scholarship and an assistantship: congratulations and go for it. If you are shortlisted at a famous school and get a great financial aid package at a state school, that is a call only you can make. That happened to me, and I chose to take the concrete offer rather than reapply and hope that the famous school would accept me the following year.

And finally, wherever you choose to go:

3. Make sure you find a program that balances theory, practice, and cross-discipline academics. I’m skeptical of schools that take a conservatory approach to an MFA in playwriting: all workshop all the time. While most have some perfunctory classes in theater history, for example, I don’t see evidence in the plays that I read that these schools are challenging their students to think deeply about the politics and function of the art form, let alone exposing them to a world of scholarship outside of theater. Were I designing a program right now, the curriculum would center on a series of classes in which students write plays that attempt to fulfill seminal manifestoes of theater history—to explore someone’s “why” of theater making through execution.

If you’re pursuing an MFA in Dramaturgy, I would look for a program in which you actually make theater, not just the ancillary materials that support a theater experience. What skill I have as a new play developer, or as a writer of program materials and lobby displays, is built on my experience as a theater maker. Dramaturgy seems to attract people who have an academic bent but are not interested in the confines of a traditional academic life. I get many cover letters from young dramaturgs applying to our apprenticeship program that are some variation of “I like literature. I like watching plays. I was so excited when I discovered dramaturgy!” There is a passivity encoded in that which I resist. Dramaturgy isn’t a fun version of academic scholarship. It is participating in the making of theater. Whatever path you pursue to acquire new skills, it must include that.


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Thoughts from the curators

A discussion of the pros and cons of an MFA program.

MFA Series


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That is a very interesting, if somewhat off-topic, point that you make about dramaturgy at the end of this article. In my experience, the 'participation' of the dramaturg in a production is quite nebulous and varies widely from theater to theater. I imagine that the definition of an active dramaturgy (as opposed to one that displays "passivity") varies from theater to theater. Some theaters keep a tight aperture on their dramaturgs (making the dramaturg necessarily reactive) while others encourage participation in creative processes. How do your dramaturgy apprentices actively participate in the theater-making process?

As a somewhat "self made" man (no college degree but a couple of patents) who has attended theater regularly for over twenty years, I agree completely with everything Aaron Carter says.

I also highly recommend his piece from about nine months ago, "Merit & Myth" (http://www.steppenwolf.org/...

This essay, along with the fact that at the time Steppenwolf was producing a play like "Good People", inspired me to rediscover my love of writing after suppressing it for years (thinking that because of my background there is no way I could be good enough).

(And, to give financial credit where due, his essay also inspired me to pay the full $86 price for the final Saturday evening performance after my many attempts to get in at a discount failed!)

(Yes, I thought the play and production, including Mariann Mayberry's performance, was well worth the price. Although I didn't think the big lie near the end rang true; it struck me as more of a writer contrivance designed to make the play more palatable to the mostly well-off audience ("see, she wants to be poor"). A disappointing ending to an otherwise great play. Of course most people in the invigorating post-show discussion didn't agree with me... but I was glad that at least one other person did.)

I also highly recommend Aaron Carter's current "F Is For Fifty" (http://www.steppenwolf.org/..., which I can relate to much more than I wish I could. (At least the throwing things part. In my case, however, my parents refused to get a divorce though I, to quote Woody Allen, "often begged them to". [Well, in my imagination anyway].) And in my case it was a fellow classmate who (in essence) paid me not to study for a big test (since this particular class was graded on a curve). I didn't, but much to his dismay I still got an A-minus (and went on to be valedictorian). (Of course my high school wasn't exactly New Trier, to say the least. South of Chicago, not north.)

Anyway, if you happen to read this Aaron, I look forward to seeing "The Gospel of Franklin", and yes (everything comes full circle) I plan to take advantage of the fact that "green sheet season" is almost here and make a submission later this month.

I think my new play is very good. (And as anyone attending the Stage Left or Chicago Dramatists staged readings can tell you I'm a pretty tough customer). But if I'm wrong just remember what you said: "We do strange things to help those we love. And even stranger things to save ourselves."



Great piece. The non-linear nature of a creative career has been the hardest thing for me to embrace. I think I have the mind of an accountant. But not the talent.

I went into debt for grad school. I didn't for undergrad. I don't own a house and don't want to. The school I went to wasn't overly expensive or fancy but it did teach the only thing I wanted to learn in the only place I wanted to learn it. While the debt bums me out, my life would not be the same without the experience I had. It was in grad school that I learned everything that propels me forward now, where I met my current collaborators, formed my company, and met my husband. Student loans for the rest of my life are a small price to pay.