Monday, January 14, 2008

More on MFA's

The discussion of the value of MFA's is getting a bit heated in my comments section, and I guess that isn't surprising given what is at stake. My attitude toward MFA's is very similar to my attitude toward taking acting classes: know exactly what you want to get out of them, don't just do it because it is starting to seem "expected."

I understand the idea that MFA's can be good networking tools -- that prominent people might work with you and then promote you as a result. To some extent, that was my experience in my Master's Program. As a result of my contact at the school, I was hired to write instructor's manuals for McGraw-Hill, and later I was hired back first as an adjunct and a year later as an Assistant to the Dean. This, along with having served as Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, gave me the experience I needed to be hired as a Chair of Drama at UNC Asheville, where I currently am.

That said, I did not receive that sort of support from City University of New York, where I got my doctorate. After a couple years, I fell afoul of the powers-that-be, and found little assistance from them when it came to...well, pretty much anything.

So it is a mixed bag. But if all you want is to get a foot in the door with somebody important, I'd almost recommend contacting them and offering to work as an intern. Offer to pay them tuition directly, if need be, for the opportunity. But why run up a huge debt when you could just pay your way into employ for much cheaper?

Mac Rogers' advice -- that you only do an MFA for the art, not for any instrumental purpose -- is very good, and I endorse it whole-heartedly.

As far as being able to focus for three years on only your art -- well, yeah, but couldn't you do that without paying tuition? Not and receive valuable feedback, which brings us back to wanting to study with a particular person.

In some ways, what lies at the center of all of this is the student loan and education policies in this country, which only will give loans if you are enrolled in a institution of higher learning. But in an area like theatre, one could argue that more could be learned faster with an apprenticeship system. If a low-residency MFA could be set up that apprenticed young artists to someone willing to take them under their wing, with supplemental on-line courses that encouraged reading, I think that might really be effective, and maybe get around the loan issues. I don;t know whether NAST would accredit such a program, but don't you think that would be worthwhile for many people?

Here at UNC Asheville, we have had the benefit of several visits from Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long, who seems very open to taking on apprentices, and I'll bet would do a great job introducing them to a variety of design opportunities.

That said, I'm not in favor of such a program for undergrads. I think undergrads should avoid all conservatories and even BFA programs like the plague. Artists need to be educated, not trained. Read Anne Bogart's And Then, You Act if you don't believe me. There is a woman whose whole career is based on broad learning. Or Tony Kushner's A Modest Proposal, which also is pretty persuasive.


Katz said...

For the art. That's pretty much the point of the MFA in the arts.

The side benefit is meeting and learning from people in your class who may go on to careers and meeting and learning from people who already have careers.

There are other benefits which are noted in the comments section of your previous post.

It's interesting that you suggest reading Bogart - a wonderful teacher and director, with an MFA I might add from NYU, and the head of the directing MFA program at Columbia.

I don't have an MFA, by the way. But clearly, if you can get one, and are serious about working in a particular field where it can be helpful, well...

Scott Walters said...

As I said, I have nothing against MFA's, and I think studying with Bogart would be terrific, if her writing is any indication. However, given the tuition cost at Columbia, I doubt that I personally would end up going that route. I will be 50 in April, and six months later, I will have paid off my student loans. Compared to many others, my debt load was pretty small: under $20,000 from undergrad through doctorate. One of my young colleagues just told me he has over $60,000. When I do the math, that's a repayment over 10 years of $500 a month plus interest. The effect of that debt, for me as a person who does not come from a moneyed background and who put himself through college, would be to dictate some of the choices I could make as far as employment is concerned. If I were a person who wanted to direct, and I wanted to live in NYC, to add $500+ to my already exorbitant rent and living expenses would mean I'd need a pretty damn good day job to stay afloat, and damn good day jobs demand a lot of energy and attention. All of which is to say that, for me, three years at Columbia and debt of probably over $100,000 would prevent me from studying with Bogart. As much as I love the art. Now, if I could get ten other Columbia-oriented folks to throw in $100,000 each to do shows, we'd have a million budget!

Nick said...

Taking your proposal seriously, the $1 M budget would, in all probability, be spent by people who might not have the training to spend it well. That is a risk that may also have less than happy financial results.

More unfortunately, $1 M budget, while big, usually does not ensure success even when an experienced team is spending it. In fact, most "professional" companies (I believe nearly all major American non-profits), whatever the budget, run at some loss. And many big Broadway shows lose more than a million bucks in less than a month. And, since you'd have to borrow that money at bank business rates instead of the much lower student loan rate, you'd be over a barrell for a lot more than 10 years and $500 a month.

So, I'm not sure your solution - which is very nice and hopeful - is much more than a straw.

Theatre is, for most practioners, a money losing proposition. So, to people unwilling to gamble, I'd say not only is the MFA not for you. Moreover, theatre in general is not for you.

But for the folks who get MFAs, yes, they may end up in debt, but they also direct, act, whatever for three years. (I'd bet that a poorly run theatre with a big budget might be lucky to get two.) Grad and undergrad students also get a break on interest rates and a leg up on everyone else swimming in the crowded pond when it comes to jobs.

And it's clear from the much maligned casting directors in posts elsewhere, those people with MFAs get cast, produced and employed. They also get work in the field they chose to go into - an achievement that most people in the world never get close to.

Since that has been true for a while, and is likely to be true for a while more, the best schools can do is find ways to get more money to help. That's called fundraising and endowment developement.

The financial problem you have with theatre MFAs, however, is also true of the visual arts and the writing arts.

And people have been making films on credit cards (let's talk about bad financial decisions) for years. And losing.

One of the Farrelly Brothers - the one who graduated from Columbia with an MFA in film for which he borrowed the ungodly sum you believe is too onerous to contemplate - said something like this about debt: You're an artist. You're gonna have debt. Learn to live with it or do something else.

Ultimately, while it's not wrong to say you don't want to put anything financial on the table for learning and growing, the most vociferous objections to the MFA program problem seem to me to come from people who 1) got an MFA and now resent the money they have to pay back on it (this would be a person with an entitlement problem who went into a program without really knowing what they wanted); 2) couldn't get into an MFA program and cry sour grapes when they also discover they don't have the talent to get cast, produced, etc.; 3) got into an MFA program but decided not to go because they lacked the faith to believe in themselves and their art to make such a leap.

No one ever said it would be easy. That's why you'll find that many notable practioners of the theatre arts in the past came from money or spent a lot time rummaging through the sock drawer looking for pennies.

Anyway, the point is, if you do an MFA simply to get ahead, you're doing it for the wrong reason.

Shawn C. Harris said...


I agree about apprenticeships. My preferred method of study would be apprenticeships, whether for the arts or for a trade or profession. As a matter of fact, if I somehow got my hands on such an opportunity, I'd probably eschew the MFA route altogether, provided I got the same benefits (focus on writing, interacting with peers, seeing my work on stage, connecting with people who share my interests and passions, etc.).

But there seems to be few avenues for people like me who were not conceived in theatre and who don't have a lot of money to throw around even for necessities. And the starving artist thing is so not romantic anymore. If I could find work that allowed me to eat and "study" at the same time, that'd be superb. As it stands, I don't know of a place offering something like that.

It's not sour grapes; I'm not bitter. I just don't know where to go, who to turn to, or what to do. I figure that getting an MFA would provide a "safe" environment to learn these things.

Anonymous said...

nick - i was one of those people who attended a big MFA program - and i do resent having to pay all that money. WHY? not because i didn't have a great time, but because, after i left the program and entered the real world, i realized that what i had paid all that money for was basically obsolete. it's not about entitlement - it's about actual training.

most MFA progams are training students for a Repertory Theater model THAT NO LONGER EXISTS.

it's like training an auto mechanic to shoe horses.

and as scott mentioned, leaving with such a heavy debt load does not give you much "freedom" to pursue your art once you have left the program.

and the vast majority of people in this business who manage to make a living at it - whether they be actors, or directors or writers - will make their living one of two way - the will TEACH, therefore being subsidized by more students taking on more debt. or, they will work in COMMERCIALS, FILM or TELEVISION.

if the purpose of the MFA program is to educate/train you for your chosen field, then where is the training for what the majority of people who make a living in this field actually DO?

ya know, the mask class was alot of fun and all, but a class in how to do voice overs and finshed demo would have been a lot more helpful. or maybe a class in commercial technique, or how to audition for telelvision and film. hell, rep theaters don't even do that much "mask work" anymore.

i'm not saying the theater training is useless, but the reality of this business is that VERY FEW IF ANY will ever make a living just doing theater. as a matter of fact, i don't know anyone except a few desisgners and directors who are able to make a living that way.

and don't get all "artsy fartsy" about it either - there is just as much art and skill in being able to deliver copy in 20 seconds, or give an honest performance on camera as there is hopping around on cothurni or speaking verse.

Nick said...

I've written a lot of radio and tv copy (hundreds). I know what can be done in 30 seconds. And I know what kind of "training" needs to be done for it. I know the art of it inside and out. And I know what you need to do in a booth and on an audition with a cold read.

I also know that many of the best people in the business also, coincidentally have training in theatre. Some even had, gasp!, MFAs.

They learned how to take direction somewhere besides Dick Orkin's Radio Ranch (one of the best places) and they regularly employed internal tools to do things that you don't learn in the Saturday morning on-camera class.

You could watch television and movies to see more proof that many people who come from, gasp!, the MFA programs out there, work regularly for real money. Some of them even come back to theatre. Some wobble between.

Classically trained and flexible. And there's nothing "artsy fartsy" about it. They had the kind of talent that Spolin defined as "potential to explore" which you don't seem to have.

Or put differently, you seem to have so reduced your world to how practical something is that you can't see how "b" helps you with "z".

I'm sorry for you. I really am. You want it easy and cut and dried and it just ain't that way.

Anonymous said...

Hey nick - don't get me wrong, i've worked on tv and in films and theater and have all my union cards and have worked with some very well known(even very famous) people and i have my, gasp! MFA

i've also directed, written, designed, built sets, made costumes, taught and coached.

don't assume because i think the system is broken that i am somehow lacking in talent or "potential to explore"

i didn't say that there should be NO classical training, i just think it could include some training that is relevant to what most folks will actually end up doing. why is that so radical?

i don't want or need your pity - besides, apparently you are the one lacking in the "potential to explore" since you are not even willing to explore the idea that maybe the system could use some tweaking.

oh, and practical is NOT a dirty word. there is nothing wrong with a little "Practical" to go with the artistic - and if you have ever run a theater company or an arts organization or even your own career, you would understand the practical is also a valuable skill. ya know - trained AND flexible

but how about an admission of your own defeat -

"You could watch television and movies to see more proof that many people who come from, gasp!, the MFA programs out there, work regularly for real money. Some of them even come back to theatre. Some wobble between."

"some of them even COME BACK to theater" - wow if that is not a telling statement, what is?

besides, i never said an MFA is a guarantee you will never work, i have and so have many others - i just said it is expensive and maybe not the best system or training. and i agree with scott that plunging artists into enormous amounts of debt will make it much more difficult later for them to pursue ANY kind of artistic life.g

Daniel said...

I am currently in a MFA program for Scenic Design and I would like to comment on this from that direction. Scenic design is an expensive process. I doubt anyone is going to ague with that statement. Aside from the salaries of the artists and support staff, labor and materials costs are one of the major drains on the coffers of every production. Unlike lighting, the items and material used in scenic design is not often reusable and if it is, than there are costs for storage of the large items used in the first place.

The option of opening a storefront and running a theater there which would educate myself on the more advanced techniques of design does not exist. Writers need the word and the action. Directors need the space and the person. Lighting needs the volt and the bulb. costume needs the rental house and the sewing machine. Scenics needs wood, canvas, paint, trucks, saws, brushes, space and labor. Don't get me started on automated scenery, fly space, trapping techniques or steel / aluminum design. Discussion of plastics and transparent materials is right out.

I am not saying you cannot work in this fashion. I did pursue this course before entering my MFA program, completing three shows in Philadelphia and one in NYC. I would not consider them successful productions and I would also caution that the time required to build them led to my being fired from my day job. What I learned was how much I did not know how to do.

I am more than happy at my MFA. I do not worry about my job, my rent, food, home life, etc. I am up till 2 or 3 am working and back to class by 9 the next day. A full shop and crew is standing by for next year when I will build two shows with professional directors, and the next when I do another two shows. For scenic designers, the ability to BUILD what they imagine without the needing to reduce their vision due to budget restrictions of $100 for the whole show is invaluable. I do not care to teach, nor do I care to advance the art through research, these things will happen as they will. I came to school to learn everything I need to learn to more fully communicate my ideas to the production staff. I consider anything beyond that gravy.

The thousands of dollars I will owe on the other end of the tunnel must be viewed as a bargain for a scenic designer. Sure, a lump sum would be great, but you will never convince a bank to loan you that amount to build sets for theater or even independent movies! I will gladly pay the interest on a subsidized loan if it means I can work for three months of the summer on my own, and then work on learning more during the year to apply to the next three month break.

Additionally, my program insists you see as much work OUTSIDE the program as you can. Open discussions are held in class on movies released, shows viewed and music heard. Artists and their approach is discussed in every design course mixed in with a healthy dash of critical analysis and the technical side of projection, painting, drawing, history and drafting. I am learning the bare, raw tools of this profession: what I do with them is up to me.