I'm trying to get into grad school to work on my MFA in Directing. My undergraduate theatre training was more focused on acting, more specifically, Method acting. I've directed two studio theatre, $0 budget, no-support-from-faculty shows. I've decided that I really enjoy directing, I'm pretty good at it (I think! I hope!), and I'm smart enough, talented enough, and determined enough to make it.
So, is your suggestion ultimately to skip grad school and "move to a town with low real estate prices" and work professionally? How do I get connected to the Directing world?
I feel like I could benefit from more formal training, since I had next-to-no formal training at the undergraduate level, but I've also got other more practical concerns (read: food, rent, insurance) that I could use some time focusing on if I don't need to sacrifice three years of my life in an MFA program.
What's your suggestion?
When I first read this, I wanted to suggest that he email me and we could talk. But then I thought that would be copping out. This is where the rubber meets the road. How do I respond?
First, it seems to me that there are two reasons to get an MFA: 1) in the back of your mind, you have a desire to teach at the college level, and you need a terminal degree to do so; 2) to study a particular approach to theatre. The first is not only perfectly legitimate, but I wish more people would be that intentional, and I wish that universities would respond by creating MFA programs focused on teaching. Most MFA's are conservatories, and the single focus is on doing -- directing directing directing, or acting acting acting. But being able to direct, and being able to teach other people how to direct are two different orientations. But why should we expect MFA's to learn how to teach when PhD's, who are getting a doctorate because they want to teach, aren't taught o teach but instead are focused on research. Our graduate programs are an unfocused mess -- don't get me started.
The second is to say this: not all MFA programs are created equal. No, I'm not saying look for the prestigious program; many of them are filled with "instructors" whose real focus is on their professional careers and who don't really spend any time figuring out how to communicate with students or how to mentor them. There was a wonderful acting teacher at a school I went to who wanted to write an acting textbook called "Do What I Say." In class, she pushed and pushed and pushed and set a high bar and people worked like hell to get over it. But beyond insisting on risky choices, high stakes, and real commitment I don't know what she had to teach was communicable.
Anyway, when you are looking at MFA programs, try to figure out the orientation of the teachers. You're not going to be taught a whole bunch of different approaches to directing or acting, you're most likely going to be taught one or maybe two. Make sure it's the one you want to learn. If you study with a director who teaches Viewpoints it is going to be a different experience that one who teaches Clurman or, God help you, Dean. So choose a professor, not a program.
When I was in my late 20's, I entered an MFA program in directing, and after a year I shifted to the MA / PhD route. Why? Because the MFA directing program was all about doing project after project, learning skill after skill. But no time was spent exploring what sort of theatre was worth doing, or comparing different approaches to doing theatre, or expanding one's aesthetic sensibilities -- there was little thinking, reading, or reflecting. The idea seemed to be to cram as many projects as possible into 3 years. I decided to pass.
That said, I cautiously endorse the MFA in Directing a bit more than the MFA in Acting, and here's why. American theatre is so caught up in worshipping the director that we make it something that undergrads only are allowed to do in their senior or MAYBE junior year. Most undergrad directing classes have so many prereqs that you can't get to it until the end. The message is that directors are So Important that they need to know EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD before they are allowed to direct. This is, of course, hooey. Directing is a skill set just like acting or designing or stage managing, and those skills can be taught just as early as the other theatre artists. But if we admitted that, the Cult of the Director would start to topple, and everyone would stop sipping the theatrical Kool Aid. All of which is to say that anyone who is interested in directing only gets, at most, a couple opportunities when they are an undergrad, so an MFA is way to make up for lost time.
But wait a minute. Didn't I say you'd do just as well to move to a town with low real estate prices and spend that money doing shows? Yes, I did. And if you don't harbor any interest in being a college professor later in life, I'd still stay that is the route. But let me clarify: what I am suggesting is moving to a small town with low real estate prices, renting a storefront, gathering a company of actors, pooling your money, and doing show after show without expectation of making money at all. Be sure you keep a detailed journal in which, after each rehearsal, you write down what you did, what worked, what didn't, and how you made your decisions -- this is going to be important for the second part of the learning experience. First, don't charge more than a couple bucks for tickets, because what the audience will be seeing is probably not going to be great. Serve them cookies for free in the lobby at intermission as a way of saying thanks. And then build into every show you do a post-performance drinking session with as many of the audience members as are willing to stay and get them to talk about what they saw, what they liked, when they were bored, when they were grabbed. Listen, don't argue. Probe, don't defend. Then go back to your journal and try to find those moments that the audience said worked and those that didn't and figure out what you did to get there. Get the whole company to do the same thing. There is no value to doing shows like this unless you debrief and consciously learn something from what you did.
And also, and as importantly as doing plays, read. Read books on directing, acting, design, playwriting, aesthetics, art history, philosophy, biography, cultural criticism - anything you can get your hands on that will broaden your references. And read plays -- at least one every other day. You won't get any of this in a Directing MFA.
If you do that, after three years you will be a better director, and you'll have a resume of shows you have done. And you might have a company that you can continue with so that you won't give a dman whether anybody else thinks you can direct or not. You'll be doing the work.
You have to choose what seems like the best route for you. There are people who really thrive being told what to do and how to do it -- for those people, an MFA program is great. For those, like me, who are a bit more independent and self-motivated, another route might be better. Look inside.
I suspect this isn't helpful at all.