Friday, January 11, 2008

To MFA or Not to MFA

I knew this was eventually going to happen. The Director wrote this in my comments:

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.


Anonymous said...

No, that really helped a lot. I do, eventually, want to teach at the college level. However, if I could work professionally as a director, I would.

I guess I should mention I already have a Masters in Secondary Education. I learned very quickly that I hated the public school system and I'm not suited to that sort of environment. College, however, is a completely different story.

My other ultimate goal is to start my own theatre company (or join an existing one) and do precisely what you suggested.

The question ultimately comes down to: which is the biggest priority at the moment?

Right now, I'm applying to all the grad schools I can that offer MFAs in Directing. If I get any offers this spring for next year, I'll go to one. If not... I'll move to a town with low real estate prices and try and start a company ;)

Thanks for dedicating a whole blog to a response ;)

Travis Bedard said...


I think you've come up with some great reasons for going and getting an MFA, and missed my one selling point when I am recommending that friends do it.

A good programs will have you actually directing a show every semester (at worst per year) with a budget you don't have to raise yourself, with a (minimally) vetted talent pool.

So you get to really DIRECT for a year or two, rather than talk about it, and without the million other distractions that self-producing leads to.

Anonymous said...

My very specific reason for getting my MFA in playwriting: at that time and place, theater companies took writers seriously who had them.

I figured this out because an off-Broadway theater company held a competition. Both undergrads and grads entered. Almost everyone that had an MFA made the semi-finals. No undergrads got beyond the inital round.

I could've said "quality of work" but the play I entered eventually won several awards and having productions in this country and elsewhere. There were no major rewrites between the draft the theater company got and the draft that was successful.

So I put two and two together and applied. ;) Silly but true.

Anonymous said...

I applied for an MFA in playwriting for a variety of reasons.

1. I can hyperfocus on playwriting, and I learn best when I can do that.

2. The school I applied to actually lets student playwrights work with student actors and directors. This is key. Otherwise I'm wasting time and money.

3. It's in New York, which is where I feel I need to be right now. Not because everyone else is there, but I've been in Richmond too long, and I need a change of pace. I actually know people from New York who've been there recently. I tend to pay attention to patterns like that.

4. I realize that an MFA is a terminal degree geared toward teaching, and I'm thankful for it. Really. I like teaching. I have a knack for it. But, like the first poster, I can't stand the public school system.

5. I get to meet people who are a lot more extroverted than me who can praise me to the moon to people who have the power to get my work produced.

Laura Sue said...

I can't believe you said "hooey" in your blog. Did you check the spelling before you put it up? ;^)

Anonymous said...

Umm - please don't forget that even though an MFA program will allow you to be

"directing a show every semester (at worst per year) with a budget you don't have to raise yourself, with a (minimally) vetted talent pool."

the "budget" part you most likely WILL have to pay for - as a STUDENT LOAN- which at some of the more well known programs is going to run you at least $40,000 - 40 GRAND!! That's a lot of debt -

believe me i know - because i still owe big money for my graduate acting program - and i'm not really sure it was worth it.

BUT - the other reason people go to these programs that i'm not sure was mentioned - TO MAKE CONNECTIONS!! that is really the big draw - no? to meet and work with big name directors and theaters? because this is a business where it really is not what you know but WHO KNOWS YOU.

Scott Walters said...

My wife has provided me with the wikipedia entry for "hooey":

Scott Walters said...

Anonymous makes two good points, both about money and connections. Imagine if a dozen Columbia students got together and used their tuition money for production costs -- thats almost half a million dollars!

As far as connections, that is true. But think of how many big, important people would work with you and know you if you just gave them, say, $20,000 -- half of the amount you'd pay for some grad schools. I mean, why go through the middle man of a grad program?

Malachy Walsh said...

Few things trump doing it yourself without the help of an institution.

But I find most (not all) of those who regret getting their MFA regret it because they went to school for the wrong reasons.

You should only get an MFA if you want to study that particular discipline for three years. Period.

Sure you might want to teach but really, why should you be allowed to teach a subject you didn't risk anything for (time, money, etc).

And yes, you might want to study under some particular people offering a particular viewpoint or method, but no matter how much research you do, you will never know exactly how you and your professors will react to each other when you meet. (Past students can only tell you what they experienced.)

An MFA will not make you famous. It will not launch your career. It could give you a leg up in an audition room or a lit department, but you still have to be liked on your own. Ie, at best, early on, it might be a door opener or a tie breaker, but it's not going to hand you the world.

My MFA asked me to read a lot of other plays. To watch new work - and old - and to get out and experience more than what was happening in a black box.

Finally, if you are worried about debt, you are not alone. But debt comes in many forms. And you will owe somebody something at some point. With an MFA you are making a choice that is illogical from a financial point of view. But theatre is actually illogical from a financial point of view, so if you're not in love with it, what are you doing in it anyway?

I have over 70k in owings. I eat. I have children. I pay taxes. I do what I have to. And I still write. More importantly, I don't have a dollar's worth of regret toward my Alma Mater for the three uninterrupted years I got to write. Because I knew that was what I was buying when I signed on the dotted line. That's all.

Anything beyond that is gravy.

Anonymous said...

you bought a pig in a poke

you couldn't read new works or see interesting theater without spending 70,000? you can't read or write without going into that kind of debt?

yeah, you eat and have kids - but wouldn't you eat better and be able to do more for your children without 70,000 in debt hanging over you?

my point is - that most MFA/BFA theater programs exist for 2 reasons - to create employment for out of work actors/directors and sometimes, to help fund the theaters that run these programs.

and why is that? because our government doesn't believe in the arts or arts funding.(or higher education for that matter) why not burden young people with enormous amounts of debt instead? then the government has more money to spend on "defense" spending.

I can't imagine how Shakespeare and the King's men were able to produce theater at all - none of them had MFA's, not the actors or the "directors"(although directors as such didn't really exist then).

And how did the Group Theater or Steppenwolf EVER manage without big degrees?

Unless you do want to teach -(which an MFA really won't prepare you for)what was the point a a Master's Degree? You spent alot of money and three yrs to play around - and for what? And at what REAL price?

who would you "owe" if you had spent those three years doing it yourself or going to a larger theater market and finding like minded individual and just getting to it?

Malachy Walsh said...

I had a good time in my three years. Got a lot out of it. Met good people. Was exposed to ideas and ways of doing things that were completely different for me. Saw and read and wrote some things I wouldn't have if I was just working away and putting up shows - as I happened to be doing in San Francisco at the time.

You clearly don't need to spend three years exploring and discovering and doing. Apparently, you're doing that wherever you are. And some people clearly can. And have.

Ultimately, there's nothing a Graduate school in the arts - let alone a 4-year Liberal Arts undergrad school - can teach you that you can't learn on your own - and without going into debt. After all, I suppose if you're paying for an education, you certainly have a right to think of it the same way stockbrokers think of investments on the exchange. Money in. Money out. So choose pre-med, pre-law, pre-MBA or one of the sciences - forget that Shakespeare guy - you can check that out at the library for free.

I guess I'm just old fashioned in that I don't personally think that way.

I also have enough faith in myself - despite periods of anxiety - to know that money comes and goes and in the long run, I'll be just fine.

Which is why I bought my "pig in a poke". And I'd repeat, the only reason to get an MFA in theatre is because you love theatre, not because you're gonna get rich or famous or see much benefit from it in the kind of real terms you're talking about (lack of debt, etc.).

Not to say that I wouldn't love it if the US Govt paid for all the higher education anybody and everybody wanted. Though based on the quality of education the government does pay for, I'm not too sure I'd really want it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Do MFAs pay for themselves?

For a list of playwrights who've seen the dividends of going to school, please browse the bios of the Resident Playwrights of New Dramatists.

Of course, you could also just watch TV. You'll see the names of prominent MFA holding writers when credits come up for CSI, Law and Order (any and all of them), Homocide, The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Dead Like Me, Brothers and Sisters, Damages, Six Feet Under and others too numerous to mention.

If you want proof that an MFA in acting is helpful, read the bios of most Broadway and Big Off-Broadway Shows and, again, watch some television.

You'd have to be stupid (yes, STUPID) to think that having an MFA would not be helpful in launching you into the career field you might want to work in.

Holding an MFA shows you have at least some training. It also shows something else people are looking for: It shows you are completely and totally committed to the discipline. You're not simply a wayfarer. You're not a hobby-ist.

Where you go is probably the only determiner of just how far you might go.

The short but incomplete list of schools for writers seem to be Yale, Julliard, Columbia, NYU, UCSD, SFSU, Iowa and Brown - and maybe the New School.

The incomplete list for actors, Carnegie Mellon, NYU, Julliard, Yale and UCSD.

Some of these are free. Some are not. All of them are good with documented track records for matriculating students who go on to success.

MFA's in the arts - in the way we know them today - were relatively unknown in the distant past of the 70s when Sinise, Kinney and Perry. In fact, the regional theatre system we have today was embryonic. It's absurd to even point to those guys as any kind of equivalent to today's starting theatre artists.

It's even more absurd - maybe even moronic - to suggest there's some kind of comparison to be made between Shakespeare, Elizabethan England and today's theatrical world.

Clearly, Anon, an MFA is not a be-all end-all solution to honing what talent you might have. Or for everyone. But perhaps you should do more schooling because you clearly know very little about what we have today in theatre and how it got that way.

Scott Walters said...

While this may seem odd coming from me, I would appreciate it if my commenters would maintain a respectful tone toward each other. While I have no problem bashing ideas, when people bash each other by saying or implying that others are stupid, then I think the conversation is getting unproductive. Thanks for your consideration.

Anonymous said...

The commenter's comment is stupid. When that is true, it should be stated out loud.

Scott Walters said...

There are very few comments that are stupid; there are comments that one disagrees with. Being certain of the stupidity of someone's comments is a sign of intellectual arrogance. Argue the point, not your judgment about the point.

macrogers said...

Good for you, Scott.

There's one other way to be demonstrate your devotion to a discipline: devote yourself to a discipline. I know several writers who haven't gone to grad school but who have demonstrated, over several years of steadily producing work that takes on new challenges each time, that they are not hobbyists. They have to financially support their playwriting with other work, but then, so will nearly every MFA graduate.

That said, I definitely agree with Callaghan's point that getting an MFA is helpful to a theater professional's career, and disagree with Anonymous's derision of Malachy's choice to pursue one. Several people I know have benefitted both artistically and professionally from attaining MFAs. They're just not right for everyone. For my part, I haven't pursued one because the ONLY reason I'd be doing it would be to further my career. For me there would be no other attraction. So I made a personal decision that that wasn't a good enough reason.

Anonymous said...

When you say that people shouldn't get an education because Shakespeare didn't have one, that is STUPID, Scott.

It's not something one has to disagree with.

It's actually STUPID.

You can still choose to agree or disagree with a comment, but you should recognize what it is.

I'm too old to be more polite about it.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

I was in the same class with Malachy in an MFA playwriting program and I'm in about 86 thousand dollars worth of debt and let me tell you, I'm really feeling that. For the freedom of 3 years of writing and reading and working with actors and studying theatre history, (while having a part-time job) I have to have a full time job for 10-20 years to pay it off. Sure, if I got a TV gig or sold some films, I could get rid of the debt much quicker. And that could happen.

My advice is take a good look at how much the school will cost first. Some programs are free or cheap. No matter what, an MFA will be helpful. But it may not be as helpful as you'd hoped. It's not as easy to get a cushy teaching job anymore. An MFA won't be helpful if you realize after the program that it wasn't really what you wanted to do. There are a LOT of people who get MFAs and stop making theater. There are a lot of talented people without MFAs and a lot of untalented people with MFAs, but as many have said above, an MFA may help you meet future collaborators and mentors and will help you get in the first door. Unfortunately, behind that first door are a lot of other doors.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Let me just mention one more thing--There is a period of adjustment after grad school usually where you have to unlearn some of what you learned and learn how to incorporate other things you have learned. Thsi is true of many actors and playwrights and I assume directors too. This could take a couple years. I think this is a well known phenomenon at lit offices and casting offices so it may be detrimental sometimes to be known as someone who is right out of grad school.

Anonymous said...

i guess the person who called me stupid doesn't realize that i HAVE an MFA from one of those big name schools - and i know PLENTY about the theater, having devoted my life to it for more years than i care to name.

and i would like to thank Adam for helping to make one of my points - the crushing debt. you pay for three years of freedom, only to be enslaved for the next 10 or 20 for that "freedom"

i brought up Shakespeare and Steppenwolf because they are 2 of the VERY FEW EXAMPLES of successful theater artists across the centuries, who managed to rise to the top WITHOUT AN MFA - omigod, how did they ever manage.

i think the SYSTEM is what sucks - not the idea of being able to devote yourself to your art

and as for there being some MFA programs that are free - that might be true, but not for the big name programs anywhere. if you want an MFA from middle of buttf*&k nowhere university - great, have fun teaching theater 101 and enjoy your time there. but any really prestigious progam, you will pay top dollar.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Brown is free. Juilliard is as well (although it is not an MFA program). It is possible to get scholarships at some of the other good schools too, but they are rare.

I went to Columbia and had a fellowship which piad for half of tuition in the first few years and as I said above i am still very much in debt. Then I went to Juilliard while working full time. Juilliard was much more helpful careerwise.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I don't think I said anywhere that you can't have stupid ideas and have an MFA.

It's possible. You've proved it.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I want to apologize for the snarkiness of that last comment. But you're so damn angry I just don't it's helping you.

So I'm going to stop discussing this because it's just not helpful anymore.

Anonymous said...

your so smart - i bet you can go through this site and find the fallacies in your argument all by yourself

start with #32

I'm sure you'll find a few more

oh wait - i'm angry and stupid -

there is no need to discuss the actual issue -


Lawrence Goodman said...

Just wanted to offer a lightly different perspective here. I recently completed a low-residency MFA in playwriting. I have to admit I emerged without much of a network of contacts; my work was not produced during my two years; and I am still in debt.

But what I got was an opportunity to work one-on-one with two different writers for two years. I think this is a benefit of an MFA that has gone unmentioned: mentorship. You learn your craft from an experienced hand. Yes, you could do this outside of an MFA program, but a program provides the structure for this to happen. The intensity of the attention I got was phenomenol. I emerged a greatly improved writer and that for me makes every dime I spent on the program worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

The best MFA program hands-down is at Goddard College-Plainfield, VT.

Anonymous said...

Having gone to Goddard myself, I agree.

My two cents, which I know you're all dying to hear: I think the truth is sprinkled throughout here but I think the MFA should be more thought of in terms of your goals. One thing that getting into a program does is it will FOCUS you and force you to be more disciplined. For some people, maybe most people, this is a good thing. I also agree with the notion it will make you connections. The most important aspect of that idea is that these people have a similar commitment to their craft that you do (and will soon have a similar debt). It was said that if all the NYU students pooled their money they could start one helluva theatre. True enough, except they would never meet each other in the first place (and since most of their money is in the form of loans, that scheme might backfire!).

The other thing the MFA does for you is open doors. It will help you in applying for grants, etc. (maybe) and gives you the teaching option. I don't think it means a damn thing about what you know, but it DOES demonstrate a level of commitment to craft that you (once) had. A few years after your MFA graduation, it doesn't mean as much.

If you think about not just your goals but more in line with how you want to achieve them, you will have the best idea on whether the MFA is a good thing or not. In the end, who gives a damn about the money? It's about enriching your life. The old argument, "you get out of it what you put in." Find a way to do that and you'll be well ahead. If you can do that by starting or joining a small company, do it.

P.S. Goddard does not have a Directing MFA, just writing. But, it is a terrific place.

biscotti dana said...

After having just landed my MFA in Creative Writing, concentrating on screenwriting and playwriting, from Goddard College in Plainfield, VT, I'd like to second the above Anonymous post.

I went to Goddard specifically to earn my terminal degree so I could continue doing what I was doing, but in a full-time, benefits-paid capacity. I'm entering my ninth semester as an adjunct professor at UNH. I was invited to teach here a while back because I'd won a few awards for my screenwriting, which I learned how to do while studying in the Professional Screenwriting Program Online at UCLA. So I feel like I did a bit of BOTH sides of the above arguments: I studied for a year on the cheap with MFA profs at UCLA, found my niche quite by accident when I stepped in to teach a class that needed a prof, asked the then department chair how I could continue to teach, learned I needed my MFA, and so, after researching the various low-residency offerings, came to the conclusion that Goddard had the best program to offer me.

I actually spent my first two semesters there studying with a prof who also teaches at UCLA's MFA in Screenwriting program and who knows the profs I had studied with. He's also a working studio writer, with two pilots recently picked up and a film to his credit. I spent the other two semesters working one on one with an incredibly diverse writer who's written for children's TV shows, has penned graphic novels, and more.

I went wanting the MFA so I could teach; I left realizing I grew as a writer and a reader. I had so much to learn and Goddard helped me realize that and gave me the tools I needed to succeed as a writer, teacher, and lifelong learner.

The other thing that Goddard's MFA program requires is a one-semester teaching practicum. It's a brilliant requirement, given the path of many MFA holders. Goddard's additional requirement of many critical works forced me to study not only films, plays, and screenplays, but also allowed me to dig into novels, biographies, essays, poetry and more.

Now whether or not the MFA will help me as I apply to every commutable full-time professor position I am even remotely qualified for, I don't know. But the fact that the MFA gets me into the consider pile, along with my teaching experience, makes me grateful that I spent the two years necessary to earn the degree.

It all boils down to the individual's desires and needs: what do you want out of life? Once you know that, perhaps you can decide whether or not an MFA program is right for you. If it is, at least look at Goddard, especially if you need a low-residency program (I was homeschooling my son and I still have my daughter at home with me, so full-time mom took precedence when deciding on a program).

Good luck, all. Peace.

Darian said...

Wow. Lots of heated discussion here.

It's all been very thought provoking as I am considering getting my MFA in directing. These are all issues I've been struggling with since I got my undergrad degree years ago. I've always wanted to go back to get my MFA - but until last year it was always one of those "if I win the lottery" kinds of ideas. My world view started to shift after I turned 30 though and realized that I want to do what I can to achieve my dreams, even without the lottery.

I work best in a school environment, I've done the struggling freelance director/day job thing for 10 years and while I have learned a lot and directed a lot of shows I have a deep desire to experience 3 solid years of focus on my art.

Does anyone have any Directing MFA recommendations a la the Goddard Writing MFA suggestion?

Anonymous said...

wow - thanks for the debate everyone. I was just accepted into a couple of top acting MFA programs and I am in the process of figuring out the finances. How much debt can I live with - I guess is the question. Well, it looks as though I will need a couple loans to help with my living expenses, because all the schools that accepted me, offered at least 70% in financial scholarship. It seems to me that, as long as you show them you have enormous potential, they will want to help you with more money. If you feel that the institution that you are accepted to just wants your money, you may want to rethink your decision to go there.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I expect everyone has abandoned this thread, but can we all go somewhere (someone's blog?) and talk about playwriting MFAs?

Anonymous said...

I'm really interested in MFA directing programs and would like to hear what programs are the best and which offer decent fellowships, etc.

Theresa Anne said...

Hello everyone my name is Theresa. I am looking to go and get my MFA next fall. I am interested in teaching at the college level and would like some advice. I have asked many schools and talked to people that only care about me attending their program and not what I am looking for.

Can Scott or any of you please email me at

I would like to discuss my options.

MikealLauren said...

What school has MFA/DMA Directing programs

Anonymous said...

I am interested in Directing MFA also if anyone would like to respond to our requests.
To add to the pro/con discussion of an MFA, I would like a program to help bridge the gap from being an imitator to an artist. Is this realistic? I have taught high school theater for a number of years, and enjoy the teaching aspect and social effect it brings. Philosophically, I don't subscribe to theatre being for entertainment only and feel that we have an obligation to do more than that. But I feel I have exhausted my BA and hope an MFA would lead me to more applicable knowledge to open my own theater space, continue teaching and/or continue on for a doctorate degree. Is an MFA worth spending $$$ for in the long run?

Scott Walters said...

anonymous -- I would question the wisdom of getting an MFA AND a doctorate. Either one is a terminal degree, which is what is necessary for teaching at the college level, but they point in different directions. MFA's are performance oriented -- if you want to teach acting, directing, or design, or be a practitioner in those areas, that's what to get. A doctorate (which is what I have) is primarily for teaching, and usually focuses you on theatre history, dramatic lit, or theory and crit.

Will and MFA help you to open your own theatre space? Not likely. An MFA in Directing will ask you to direct direct direct, but anything having to do with the more managerial aspect of running your own theatre you will have to get on your own if the department offers a theatre management course or track and your MFA curriculum allows you to take it.

I think it is fair to think of an MFA as being "training," i.e., an academic version of an apprenticeship. The key to success for an MFA, like an apprenticeship, is whether the person your are apprenticed to has something you want to learn. So check out the faculty teaching in the MFA: what type of plays do they direct? Have they published anything? If so, about what? Have they worked outside the school? If so, where and directing what? In other words, be selective: you don't want to spend 3 years studying stuff you don't want to actually do.

When it comes to getting hired in academia, if you want to teach acting, directing, or design at a large school, you'll need an MFA most likely. However, at a smaller school, where you may need to teaching directing AND theatre history (as I do), having a doctorate can be a plus, especially if you combine it with some hands-on directing experience.

So: what do you want to do in your career? If being a practitioner or teaching practical courses in a large department, get an MFA and be sure you go somewhere that is teaching what you want to learn. If you want to have a broader understanding of theatre, or teach in a smaller school, get a doctorate, and again be sure you go someplace where the faculty is interested in the things that interest you!

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I've heard that some acting MFA programs are free (ie Yale.) Is this true? What universities do this? How can they do this?
Another question I have is about acting conservatories. What do you think about the American Academy of Dramatic Art, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art? Is the caliber such that the cost is worth it? I have my BA and am trying to figure out my next step into my acting career.

Anonymous said...

okay so how about an acting MFA. i graduated with a minor in theater, and h-ave had training outside of college. I havent had any training in a conservatory. It feels like it's something I want to do. I tried out 3 times to NYU with no luck. I am 28 doing the job/auditions. I feel a little stuck in my acting career, so I dont know if this is something I should do, considering my age. However, I love what I do, and would love to have that conservatory training. any thoughts???

Scott Walters said...

Yale is definitely not free. However, some programs give assistantships to grad students -- they receive a stipend and tuition and fees are paid, and in exchange they might teach, or work in the shop, or run the box office, or be a teaching assistant. However, the more "prestigious" a program, the less likely they are to have such things for all of their students (although there may be a limited number).

As far as Anonymous of the last comment: the same holds true -- if there is someone (or something) you want to learn with, or you want to teach college, by all means get an MFA. But don't get one because you want to "focus on your art for three years" or "make some connections." Those are really not good reasons to go to grad school. And unless you are independently wealthy, be very careful about schools with high tuition, no matter how "prestigious" -- you will emerge so far in debt that you will be unable to take the low-paying jobs you're likely to get in the early part of your career. Do the math -- multiply the number of years by the amount of loans you're going to have to take out: that is your cost. Now divide that amount by 120 (the number of months to pay the loan off, unless you turn it into a long-term loan like a mortgage), and then add $100 or so for interest and that is the amount of your monthly student loan payment. Example: $120,000 student loans = $1000/month payment plus interest.

Good luck.

your hostess said...

Wait. What do you mean Brown is free? I'm looking at the directing MFA and it's close to $40K. The Phd is free, but it's not production, it's theory.

Which Brown MFA is free?

Unknown said...

I came on here looking for answers, but instead I was thoroughly entertained. Thanks! Now I definately don't know what to do with my life.

Recent BA graduate said...

I just graduated and was considering this very. I needed a definite break from school, but knew I had much more to learn. I moved to a city, got a day job, an am assisting established directors (and I've been lucky so they've been brilliant so far).

I'm going to be doing theatre for the rest of my life. I know that. I don't feel any pressure to figure out that 'rest of my life' right at this moment. Instead I'm taking a low pressure approach to learning more AND networking my way into this city. It's been really great so far.

Recent BA Graduate said...

Additionally (sorry I forgot this!) having assisted established directors (and eventually hopefully this networking will also lead me to directing at some smaller theatres) make me a bit more marketable to a MFA program if I feel like going in a couple of years.

When I considered going for an MFA I was told that most don't want you straight out of undergrad, for the very reasons you want to go straight out of undergrad - you are underexperienced. They want you to try it out for a while, make sure it's what you really want to do, and learn from the world for a bit rather than just from educational institutions.

Anonymous said...








Anonymous said...

Re Anonymous' conversation with callaghan and the possibilties of Shakespeare's being untaught and yet, successful:

Leaving the issue of intelligence out of the question, the rhetorician in me has to point out that Anonymous' comment, while spirited and no doubt sincere, is (without reference to him or her) based on a false analogy.

As callaghan pointed out, there is no real basis for comparison between Shakespeare's cohort and the modern MFA student. There are too many differences in the types of productions and in the particulars of craft and current vaules.

The second problem is, of course, that Shakespeare and his men actually did have training ("education") - in fact, thespians had been apprenticing to this profession for many years. So, the argument cannot rest on this syllogism.

(Although I hope it does rest after this comment.)

- My two cents, unasked for. (I like clarity. What can I say?)

Mayra said...

I can honestly say that I feel my theater degree ruined my life. I graduated high school at 17 and chose to get a bfa, I had grades and SATs to do whatever I wanted to and chose a very top acting conservatory in london. The time was fun and great experience. I showcased in New York, got an agent but could not afford to stay in the city because every job I could get with the degree paid horrible. I had to move back to my parents, I dont see myself ever buying a house and being financially independed with this degree alone. I am heart broken that I made this decision when I was 17. all of you thinkig about blowing tons of $
on a theater degree watch out especially an mfa because presumably you already blew tons of money on your undergrad.
Really you want to be an actor or director or playwrite? Go to school for a real job so you can properly support yourself while you try to do that. Theater programs are a scam, thy truelly are there to raise $ for theaters and employ out of work actors. Trust me, I have some great friends that graduated from Yale, ART, Denver Center, and they are yet to be employed and work in stupid restaurants and hate their lives! Don't do it!

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say that I feel my theater degree ruined my life. I graduated high school at 17 and chose to get a bfa, I had grades and SATs to do whatever I wanted to and chose a very top acting conservatory in london. The time was fun and great experience. I showcased in New York, got an agent but could not afford to stay in the city because every job I could get with the degree paid horrible. I had to move back to my parents, I dont see myself ever buying a house and being financially independed with this degree alone. I am heart broken that I made this decision when I was 17. all of you thinkig about blowing tons of $
on a theater degree watch out especially an mfa because presumably you already blew tons of money on your undergrad.
Really you want to be an actor or director or playwrite? Go to school for a real job so you can properly support yourself while you try to do that. Theater programs are a scam, thy truelly are there to raise $ for theaters and employ out of work actors. Trust me, I have some great friends that graduated from Yale, ART, Denver Center, and they are yet to be employed and work in stupid restaurants and hate their lives! Don't do it!

Scott Walters said...

Thank you for your testimony, Marya.

elaine marie evans/ eli said...

I want to build a theatre/dance company with a conservatory focused on performance and pedagogy. The best thing for an artist who is happy with his/her work is to know how to teach others to be successful through arts too. I received a BA in Tech Theatre. I applied for Performance MFA 2 years in a row. I got called back to CalState Long Beach but later realized at URTA's that my GPA was too low, and I didn't stand a chance in MFA. I was chosen for the summer programs at ACT and XMAT. I danced with a company for 2 years.I am completing my 2nd degree now, a BS in Psychology. I want to teach others to use the arts as a therapeutic tool to improve their lives. I do not know if I should concentrate on a PhD in Psychology, MA/MBA in ARts Admin or try again for an MFA. These are all local options in the Cincinnati area. Please advise. Thank you. elaine

Scott Walters said...

Dear Ms Evans -- I can't really offer a specific recommendation, but rather a few thoughts. If someone wants to teach at a college or university, usually you need a terminal degree: MFA or PhD. If you are forming your own conservatory, then you need to find out what, if anything, the accrediting agency requires. If you are not going to be accredited, or a terminal degree is not required, then your next question is: Is there something I feel is missing in my education that I need before I start my conservatory? If so, pursue it; if not, why get another degree? Only seek out a credential if you need it to do the work you want to do, or alternately if there is something you need to learn in order to do the work you want to do. I hope this helps...

elaine marie evans/ eli said...

Thank you Scott for your immediate response. I do wish accreditation for my company; I will search out the requirements. I wish to increase my hire-ability and pay my debts, hence the 2nd degree. I am in my Senior year now, adding a Substance Abuse Counselor Certificate. My focus is less on what I feel is needed in my education to start a theatre company/ conservatory, but what those who help to finance and run it will need from me. This company will not be built by me alone, so I need to know what I can do to enhance their trust in me as Artistic Director. I will search further, and keep you posted. Thank you so much. blessings elaine

azusmom said...

Can you stand two more cents? I got my MFA a number of years ago, specifically because I wanted to teach at the university level. I'm glad I did it, even though I do not currently hold such a position (thank you budget cuts!) and will probably be paying off my student loans for the rest of my life. I'm currently considering getting a masters on psychology, so I can combine the two and become a drama therapist. I do this because I have 2 autistic children and really admire the work their therapists do. I believe arts therapies can be hugely effective for so many people. And, honestly, I think I'd be good at it.
I absolutely agree with you that more MFA programs should focus on teaching. There are too many instructors out there who are brilliant in their field, but cannot teach worth a damn.
Thanks for your time!

Anonymous said...

Amazing how I was googling MFA programs and I stumbled here. Im ten hours away and still getting unsolicited Scotty advice.I LOVE IT!


Scott Walters said...

LOL. You vill NEVER escape me, Sydney. NEVER!!!

Unknown said...

I have mixed feelings about going to grad school. There are several ways it has benifited me. However, I would have prefered to do a bit more to make my name sexier to the sexier institutions. Although I appreciate my education, it gave me very few decent connections. I say go for the best. Also, my blog has a specific section on looking for MFA programs in Design:

Anonymous said...

OMG...a masters in theatre with secondary education is right hear and so close. Columbus State University turned its downtown on the Chattahoochee River into its theatre department. now they offer a masters in theatre education. And it is such an intense program..who ever goes there will come out of there with the best theatre eduction of a lifetime. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to correct an earlier post Scott made. Although I may be mistaken as to the current situation of the MFA acting program at Yale, but a few years ago it was indeed free. I hope that it still is. The MFA at NYU/TISCH was I believe attempting to make their program free as well. Obviously the current economic climate has made this difficult, but I believe that is still a goal of theirs.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, I have heard that Yale made that decision. Admirable, and I don't know what effect the "Crash" has had on that. However, this represents a very small number each year.

This post is more for people trying to decide whether or not to pursue an MFA, not for those who already have one. Of course, any time you spend two or three concentrated years working on your art, you will benefit. My question is whether you could spend less money and benefit as much by taking some other route -- self-producing, apprenticing to a professional, just entering the profession. My original point was there are really only two reasons to get an MFA: 1) to study with a particular professor, or 2) to get the credential you need to teach. I think that is still valid.

Anonymous said...

So, I am just getting on this and I love it. I have some questions, but not sure if any of you are still reading this. So, let me know if you are and I will begin. You have all be so great with responses - I think we all need to meet and have lunch. Anyway, if I write will anyone respond?? Tom

Scott Walters said...

As the original author of the piece, I am still following the discussion.

Anonymous said...

I want to teach at the college level and am looking at the Goddard MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts because I have a strong interest in play writing but also hope to direct and teach acting in college.

Two questions:
1. Would the MFA Interdisciplinary Arts, which I would design to incorporate play writing and directing, get me a college teaching job?

2. Do I need to worry that Goddard has narrative grading vs. traditional grades?

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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