Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Last Word on MFA Programs...For Now

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?


The Director said...

At my school, they offered two undergraduate concentrations: Performance and Technical.

If I wanted to go the Performance route, it consists primarily of theatre history and acting classes.

If I wanted to go the Technical route, it consists primarily of theatre history and technical classes.

If I want to be a director... oh shit, I'm screwed.

One of the facts of the matter is that my school didn't offer a Directing concentration. I know exactly enough about Directing to know that I enjoy it immensely, that I have a lot of potential for it, and that it's what I want to focus on in the future.

Maybe my school was too small. Maybe my program was inadequate. The fact remains, however, that I don't really have a whole lot of training in what I wish to do -- directing.

How, then, am I qualified to come up with a new way to do it? How, then, can I honestly say to someone, "This is a better way to do things"? Am I just screwed?

I'm not being argumentative -- I'm honestly wondering.

Going back to your earlier points, there's nothing to stop me from doing a dissertation-like study AFTER I get my MFA. Study all the existing techniques and come up with new ones, outside of school. That's what you advocate all along, isn't it?

Scott Walters said...

In your case, you are using the MFA to get further training in an area that was not covered by your undergraduate program, and that is a good reason. The fact is that most undergrad programs have little directing in them, because directing as seen as being so demanding that undergrads should be allowed to do it (as I said in the previous post, this is hooey, but the way it currently stands, including in my own department).

That said, I am reminded of a line from the film Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon is squashing a pompous Harvard grad student. He says: "You're getting an education for $150,000 that you could be getting for $1.50 in overdue library fees." There's a lot to that. If you read a few books -- Dean and Carra's Fundamentals of Directing, Frank Hauser's Notes on Directing, Francis Hodge's Play Directing, Terry John Converse's Directing for the Stage, Harold Clurman's On Directing, William Ball's Sense of Direction to name a few -- you would probably learn the basics of directing. After that, it is trial-and-error until you find your own method of working.

The fact is that most directing programs won't critique your directing, they'll critique your product. Two different things. Directing is really the process of working with actors, and each person does so differently. As many have said in this discussion, it allows you three years to totally focus on developing your skills, and the government will loan you money to do it.

Go for it! Choose your program wisely, and my personal advice: don't get convinced by prestige and "name programs." Find a place where you will be allowed to do the things you want to do.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

i think you were confused about my post - most MFA programs i know of (and the one i went throught) DO NOT offer much in the way of practical training in things like voice over or commercial work or tv/film. And that is a problem when you have a program that is supposed to TRAIN ACTORS.

now - it seems many people here think that actors or writers or artist should only be trained FOR THE THEATER - but that is a bit naive and willfully ignorant and also elitist.

from Wikipedia - Actor

An actor, actress , player or rarely thespian (see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an actor, hypokrites, when rendered as a verb means "to interpret";[1] in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.[2]

from the Greek - TO INTERPRET

- but, in your incredibly narrow definition, actors should ONLY interpret theater? or MFA programs should only train for that very narrow specialty? That is a bit ridiculous and again smacks of elitism. Doctors train for everything, THEN chose a specialty. Why should acting training be different?

according to this kind of definition, someone like Jodi Foster wouldn’t even be considered an actor, since I don’t believe she has EVER stepped on a stage or had any theatrical training.

And, yes, we can have the argument that art IS elitist – but, I’m sorry, “Raging Bull” was a hundred times more “artistic” than 80% of the crap I have seem in a theater. And Cirque Du Soleil is immensely more innovative and awe inspiring than the vast majority of Regional theater in this country. Hell, 14 yr olds on You tube are doing more interesting and innovative work than most of the established companies here.

And that “showbiz” you deride is the MAJORITY of most people’s exposure to the “arts” Many people will never see a play, but almost everyone watches TV or Movies. And some of it actually is ART. Made by actors and writers and directors. And there is a lot of funding for us to “play theater” that comes from those theater artists and companies who have made a successful careers in TV and Film. I don’t know if Steppenwolf would still exist today if people Joan Allen and John Malkovich and Gary Sinise had not become “big stars”. They most likely would have all tired of working for little money and eventually walked away when they decided they wanted children or some other accoutrements of adult life like property or financial security.

Yes – I agree that theater and especially the regional theater movement in this country need to make some big changes. This was discussed ad nauseam in our MFA program. The lack of government funding and trying to lure younger audiences and Oh! Where o where were the new works, why did all the decent writers run off to write for Hollywood.

Boo friggin hoo – yes, not all art will appeal to all the people all of the time – but if something is interesting and exciting and thought provoking – the people will come.
Hey – Shakespeare was writing for the Punters. Plays weren’t even considered writing in his day, poetry, THAT was writing. Plays were just crap to be done once or twice and then tossed in a drawer. But they weren’t crappy plays – they were,gasp!Entertainment!!.
Do art and entertainment have to be mutually exclusive? Is it only art if it is so esoteric that no one likes it or really understands it?

As for the more practical training I have advocated – why should that NOT be included. Why is PRACTICAL a dirty word? Why are a few sections on teaching folks what they need to know when they get in front of a microphone or a camera a bad thing? Don’t we teach actors in the theater practical skills like how to project (if the theater isn’t mic’d) or the purpose of blocking or how to work in the round as opposed to proscenium? Or are we back to believing acting is something ONLY done on stage.

A "new way of doing things" needs to embrace how the profession of acting ( and directing and writing) has changed in the past hundred years. And theater needs to embrace it as well. because the reality is that almost no one will be making a living just doing theater anymore. so not being involved in "showbiz" is not really even an option.

Laura said...

Thanks for clarifying my own needs and process for me.

Like The Director above, I didn't have many opportunities to learn the basics of directing in my undergraduate work, and wasn't even certain that I wanted to go that way until a few years after graduation. I've spent the intervening years self-educating, in a way, getting whatever opportunities I could in my local scene. (I'm in Chicago). When I read your first post on MFAs - about moving to a cheaper place and renting the storefront - I really wished somebody had given me that advice 3 years ago.

At any rate - last year, I did go through the MFA application process, for many of the reasons you've outlined - wanting more specific training, as well as wanting a degree so I could teach. However, I wasn't able to find a really good match, perhaps because I was looking for a program that would enable me to study "what has come before" in order to answer the question, "where do we go next?"

Reading what you've written here makes me grateful that I didn't compromise those desires, just to fit into the mold of the programs I was looking at.

PS - When I didn't get into the few programs that interested me, I decided to step up my own education, anyway, and start spending the money I'd saved for school on productions of my own that would let me stretch and experiment more than I had.

It requires me to be a bit more proactive in seeking out opportunities (especially opportunities for feedback and mentoring), than I would have needed to be in school - but the ability to be proactive is a pretty good skill to learn, anyway.

Tracey said...

The bottom line is really, really simple: If you want to be an actor, get your butt to LA or NY and audition like everybody else. All of the MFA graduates end up sitting in the waiting room to audition with everyone else. No one went straight to callbacks because they had an MFA and most MFA graduates DON'T get the part. They're all caught up in technique and don't have a clue about being a real person. tsk tsk and they have student loans to boot....I guess debt is like being a real person. I wish more people would go get their MFA and empty out some chairs in the waiting room...

Anonymous said...

To Tracey, who wrote about MFA Actors: "They're all caught up in technique and don't have a clue about being a real person. tsk tsk and they have student loans to boot"

I never hear MFA Actors judging actors who didn't get into an MFA Acting program. But I hear a lot of the reverse. It's really ugly.

The truth is, we're all going to learn acting in one of two ways:

1. being taught
2. being self taught through experience

Don't take it personally that you didn't go to an MFA Program - it may not have been the best way for you to learn. And don't be a jerk to people who spend three years training in their MFA programs. It's just what worked for them.

Live and let live.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

No one needs to ask for a copy of your M.F.A. diploma at a casting because your resume and the name of your grad program on your resume speaks for itself in most instances. In some, not so much.

That being said, don't lump all M.F.A. programs into one, poster. My program DOES teach us new ways of creating work, and in fact that is the primary focus. Broaden your search.

Anonymous said...

The best person who delivers the character at the audition books the role. No casting director gives a CRAP about an MFA unless they want to immediately identify who is overanalytical and "thinks" too much. Furthermore, unless you're from Yale or Julliard.............

AckTingle said...

Thanks so much for this very interesting blog.

I've had a love/hate relationship with trying to be a professional actor for many years.

Recently, I've had to admit to myself that nothing interests me more than acting. So I think I need to keep going.

My question - any recent productions that fit your description of being "for the 21st Century" - I'm in NYC so I do mean here.

I see a LOT of Off B-way.


Scott Walters said...

I DON'T live in NYC. Do your own research, AckTingle.