I probably shouldn't move away from this topic, since it seems to be generating a lot of interest, which is probably an indication that it is a topic that centers on something important for a lot of people. Nevertheless, I need to step away from the topic for a little while and post about some TCG and NEA number crunching I've been doing over the past couple days. While in some ways the data aren't surprising, and I suspect will result in a lot of people scratching their heads about why I would find it even worth commenting on them at all, I'm going to talk about it anyway considering the Mike Daisey performance piece Isaac discussed (to a puzzling hush, it seems) at Parabasis.
But before I do that post (which I fear is going to be a monster as far as space is concerned), I want to comment on some of the MFA discussion. To some extent, I've avoided taking a strong position on MFA programs, preferring to discuss them in terms of making a rational decision concerning what you are looking for, what you can afford, and how that affects your future choices. But many of the commenters' statements about "name programs" and "contacts" has brought something to my mind that I need to get out there before I can move on to other things.
Here's the money quote: MFA programs, and especially "name programs" (i.e., high-priced private elitist programs), are mostly devoted to maintaining the status quo. And for most of the MFA-goers, and it seems most of those who commented on my posts, that is just ducky. They want "a class in how to do voice overs and finished demo ...or maybe a class in commercial technique, or how to audition for telelvision and film." They want to get a foot into the foot into the door, get known by those who are established, start getting those gigs that pay well, with the ultimate goal of being a "working actor/director/designer," which usually means supplementing your theatre work with commercials, industrials, TV, and/or film. And all of that is just fine, normal, rational.
Unless you believe, as I do, that the status quo is about to collapse like a house of wet cards. Seen in this light, to train MFA students to be effective in the status quo is like teaching lemmings to stay aloft a few seconds longer after they jump off the cliff. No matter how good you get at flapping your arms, the inevitable ending is splat.
Almost every other type of advanced degree I know (setting aside, for the moment, the other arts, which are equally retrospective) is devoted to doing original research. The professors and their research assistants are devoted to discovering the new, to solving problems and filling gaps in knowledge. In other words, the focus is on pushing the discipline forward. If you are going to write a dissertation, which means you are at the first stage of your career, your first job is to research all the other books and dissertations that have been written to make sure than nobody else has already written about your topic. In the sciences, there is little value to reproducing somebody else's experiment unless you are going to extend it in some way, or show that its results were not satisfactory. Nobody after Jonas Salk in 1952 and Albert Sabin in 1962 has devoted their research to discovering a cure for polio. That one's done and gets passed to economists and engineers to figure out how to distribute the vaccine throughout the world. But theatre MFA's are devoted to teaching young artists to build a better mousetrap, as if what the world needs are more mousetraps -- or more productions of The Three Sisters and Ghosts. In other words, they are devoted to reproducing the status quo, which is devoted to reproducing the past.
And that ain't gonna make it. The edge of the cliff is in sight.
If I were designing an MFA, I would design one that was completely focused on uncovering new ways of doing things. New ways of connecting to the audience, new ways of writing plays that spoke to the 21st century, new ways of acting and directing and designing that explored different vocabularies, methods, and outcomes, new production models and ways of communicating with a potential audience. My faculty and students would be expected to know what has already been done, think up something new to do, evaluate it objectively and thoroughly, and figure out what it contributes to the field. The productions would be the experiments that were run, and closing wouldn't be the end of the experiment but just the beginning. The goal would be to create a new theatre for the 21st century, not reproduce the theatre of the early 20th. If my program was successful, none of its graduates would have the slightest interest in entering "show biz" or the terminally boring regional theatre movement -- at least they wouldn't be interested unless they were given the wherewithal and permission to redesign the whole thing from the ground up.
We set the bar too low in our MFA programs. All we want are students who are good at doing what has been done before. And we think that professors who just want to do a show are actually contributing to the field. When are we going to fix our eyes on the future, not the past?