Sunday, February 19, 2012

On "Top MFA Programs"

I get a lot of traffic on this site due to a couple posts that Dennis Baker links to in his 2008 post "Rutgers MFA Acting Program". Today, there was a comment I'd like to give more circulation to, because it raises some pretty pointed questions. While I don't necessarily agree with everything, I agree with enough of it to repost. And I would say "ditto" in reference to BFA programs. Here it is:

Author: SayItLoud
1. This idea of ‘top MFA’ programs makes absolutely no sense, if you stop and think about it. If you add up the so called top 10 programs, they get less than 200 students per year in total. Now, if they are so good, why do they limit that to 15-20, sometimes 7-8 students per year? Is it because there is no need for top actors out there? – now, that is a ridiculous notion. Clearly, there is demand coming from the industry. Is it because there is no demand coming from people wanting to attend? That we know not to be true. Or is it because there is a shortage of real talent out there that could be educated into becoming top actors. That’s against the main definition of acting school.
2. Now, are these really ‘top schools’? A top school must be a leader in the industry, a trend setter, a visionary. Are they? Over 90% of the films made lose money, even though they are made for ‘commercial’ reasons and not for art.. over 90% of the plays (including on Broadway) lose money and over 90% of the actors cannot find work (including actors coming out of these ‘top schools’). If these schools are ‘the industry leaders’ they look like terrible leaders, don’t they.. There isn’t another industry that can claim leaders that show such sub-mediocrity in influencing the industry positevely..
3. Most of the ‘top MFA programs’ should be banned. I simply do not understand how they get away with calling their programs ‘graduate’ programs when in fact they are nothing more than ‘vocational’ schools. One recent example is Juilliard’s MFA program – they made it 4 years and actors training is exactly the same as undergraduates or people who get a certificate.
4. Most of the ‘top MFA’ programs entrance selection is based 100% on a 2-4 minute audition – with total disregard of people’s records – that is the most obvious proof that these programs are ‘vocational’ schools and not graduate schools. For a vocational school it may make sense to admit students on what you can see as talent, because they have no record to base the decisions on. For graduate school, disregarding ones record is total BS. These ‘gods’ pretend that they can look into someone’s eyes for 2-3 minutes, or often times not look at all or not listening at all, and tell with 100% precision what his/her future is going to be. So, who needs to look at an existing record, right? Totally, against any notion of a true ‘graduate’ program.
5. Quite a lot of the heads of the top MFA acting programs do not hold any level of graduate studies. For some of them, their educations clearly come from vocational acting schools.
6. Are these schools really in the 21st century? Most of them are relics of a century long gone, it’s just that the school leadership is too impotent to adapt.. or worse, it’s too ‘convenient’ not to adapt.. One example is the example that Yale is using by pointing to Meryl Streep. Think about it, Meryl went to Yale 40 years ago and she probably followed a program designed decades prior. Does anyone truly believe that a student going to Yale in 2012 will be able to function the same way Meryl does today, 40 years from now? In the era of iPad I really do not think that anyone is that na├»ve.. so, why then, these ‘top MFA programs’ continue to do what they did mid last century?
7. If all of these things were happening in a 3rd world country, I do not believe that anyone would call them ‘top MFA programs’.. rather would think of ‘corruption’ and ‘crooked’ first.. that’s what these ‘top MFA programs’ seem to be. A disgusting charade.. or better yet, a scam that keeps perpetuating out there only because people are too afraid to take them to court to force them to disclose what the ‘real’ deal is. False, deceptive or misleading advertising is illegal and they should stop it.
8. Everyone should demand that all MFA acting programs change their admittance procedure as well as programs to adjust for true ‘graduate studies’ rather than ‘vocational studies’ as they are now.
9. Everyone should demand that all MFA acting programs post their records that they have internally, or force them to collect those records to indicate what graduates do 1-2-3 years after graduation.
10. Everyone should demand that all MFA acting programs clearly spell out their admittance criteria. If you look at the ‘profiles’ of people who graduate out of these programs there is a strong indication that they select mostly blue/green eyes/blond red hair/ white skin for anyone to really believe that in the 21st century only those people are talented or ‘pretty’.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I have given up on the idea of going for an MFA in acting. A friend of mine, a fantastic actress, was wait-listed by a prestigious MFA program just because she was over 30 when she applied. I'm over 30 myself.

Charles said...

I can't speak to the acting world, but given the monetary and opportunity costs of graduate education it is unconscionable for programs to not provide data on student outcomes. In clinical psych there is huge pressure (i.e., obligation from the APA if the program is accredited) to post internship & licensure rates. In philosophy, there is huge intradisciplinary pressure to post hiring outcomes of program graduates. Students need to be able to go into their career with open eyes as to the risks and rewards; if MFA programs are creating a smoke screen about students' career prospects -- whether actively or tacitly -- that's negligent at best.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much complete disagree with you. Not to mention, you're not actually addressing a specific problem with "Top Grad Schools", you're just ranting in general. I know better because I have been to one.

1. The top MFA programs are considered that way by the people seeking them out. They don't actually advertise themselves as such, though they would be blind not to notice the obvious. Why do they only take a certain number of students? Because that is the capacity they feel they can take in and still give them the attention they deserve to cultivate their craft. If, as you say, 90% of all actors are out of work, how can you argue that there is enough demand from the industry to justify taking more students? This is an idiotic idea.

2. They absolutely are the top schools. When you get to the final callbacks for a bunch of them, you find out the same 50 or so people are in all the callbacks. This is not a coincidence. Plenty of great actors come out of less prestigious schools, and some people do flop despite having attended. They are the top schools because they have the best teachers, plain and simple, and they get the best students as a result. A school is made up of the teachers that you invite to teach and the students that you invite to attend. The rest is real estate.

3. Again, they don't actively call themselves the top programs. Its everyone else who does that. Who cares if its an MFA or a vocational certificate? We all know that no one hires an actor because he has a degree. Its the product that counts.

4. This is stupid. You have no idea how these auditions work. Yeah, a lot of people don't get callbacks, but I've watched my share of grad auditions (we are allowed to sit in for educational purposes) and let me tell you, the majority of people aren't very good. Or at least they don't bring in a good audition. You don't have to be a 'god' of acting to sort 90% of people out of the pile. Its the remaining 10% that are tough to choose from, and most schools go to extensive lengths to get to know all the actors personally. They have multiple callbacks and interviews, and the ones who can hold final callback weekends to facilitate getting to know everyone better and seeing how they work together. That said, they know it is a subjective process, and that sometimes their attention is better than others, but you know what? That's just life. You're arrogantly supposing you know what a teacher is thinking when they don't call someone back.

5. First off, most of them do have MFA's! Secondly, who cares if they don't have and MFA? What matters is how good they are at teaching!

Anonymous said...

6. Where exactly is Yale pointing to Streep saying "come here and you'll be like her"? This isn't happening. These places are constantly striving to improve and make changes with the times. You are so far from having any clue about what is actually happening in these schools, it is ridiculous.

7. None of the schools are advertising anything that isn't true, and none of them are claiming people will get famous going there. But don't take my word for it. Go to their websites and read it for yourself.

8. What should they change their procedure to? You know a better way? Why haven't you spelled it out, if you're so bright?

9. Guess what? The vast majority of these students are doing fine, and many are already playing leading roles on Broadway, television, and film. If you want to hear about it, they will all be happy to tell you about it. Or you could just do some research, but that might be too much work for you. They don't advertise it because everyone already knows. The places like AMDA who advertise how well their students are doing are the ones that are actually a for profit scam to be avoided, not the top MFA programs.

10. This is idiotic. They all want diversity. Are you honestly suggesting that the top MFA programs only want Aryans? Yeah, a lot of the people who get in are very attractive. What of it? Nobody is getting in on looks alone. Its not a modeling program.

Scott Walters said...

Dear Anonymous -- I appreciate your intensity. And while I cannot speak for the commenter who originally posted this, I have a doctorate myself and have worked in departments offering MFA's, have been involved in higher education for quite some time, and know the ropes.

The ads MFA programs take out in, say, American Theatre magazine do not, of course, promise success. However, they often do point to a few of their "successful" graduates, thereby implying that their success is the result of their training. Maybe, maybe not.

I find, looking at the ads, that there is an alarming focus on looks of a particular kind, the consistency of which can't be accidental. What is as important to me is what seems to me to be evidence for the privileging of class rather than race.

There is a myth that people with MFA's "work," that their training prepares them for "the profession." This assumes that there is actually a profession to prepare for. The fact is that the median income for all Equity actors last year in theatre was zero, because more than 50% didn't work at all in the theatre. Of those who DID work, the median annual income was about $7700. Subtract rent, union dues, health insurance, and student loan payments on the massive tuitions many of these programs charge, and you better not quit your day job.

I could go on, but I won't. It is time for those who care about the arts to take a look at these programs and discuss whether they contribute to the art form.

Anonymous said...

When you get to the final callbacks for a bunch of them, you find out the same 50 or so people are in all the callbacks. This is not a coincidence.

I bet it isn't a coincidence..
I would love to see a class action lawsuit to find out 'exactly' why and how that happens.

You say you went to MFA acting so I assume your analytical and mathematical abilities are pretty close to nil. But find someone who can do this for you:
ask them to calculate the probability of that happening - out of 10 schools, auditioning in average 200 people, what is the probability that all 10 select exactly the same 50 people?
I'll give you a hint. You have better chances to win the lottery.

There is only one way for that to happen, my dear "Anonymous" and that 'way' smells..

Anonymous said...

You act like this is random chance! That's like saying "I asked 100 people who their favorite actors were and, despite there being thousands of famous actors, they all picked the same 50! I smell something fishy!" If 10 schools are all looking for the best actors out of the same pool, it stands to reason certain talented people would be coveted by all 10 schools.

Also, I have an MFA in Acting, and also a perfect SAT score, so fuck you.

Anonymous said...

How did you get an MFA in acting while proving at the same time to be uneducated about the graduate acting world? Also, not all the same people get called back for all the top programs. I was only called back for one of the top programs. It's all about who best fits with the community of actors of that program.

One more thing, great actors have great analytical skills. Actors study behaviors of people and worldviews. They have pretty broad minds and know how to analyze extremely well. Do not insult their intelligence. It makes you look like an dumbass.

Scott Walters said...

I know this is a passionate discussion -- nobody likes having their educational decisions attacked. That said, I am publishing the above Anonymous comment with a warning: I will not tolerate personal attacks on this blog. If you want to make stupid ad hominem attacks, your comment will be trashed.

--Scott Walters

Mary Field said...

I enjoy reading this article especially the comment section! Actually, I have plan to pursue my dreams in acting and been searching for Top 10 of the Best Acting Schools in America which can help me develop my craft. I won't settle for vocational class for sure. Do you have some tips and advice for the likes of me who just started in this career? What do you think of these schools?