If you're currently enrolled in a theatre MFA program (and paying for it) you may want to look away.
Mike Daisey vented a little while ago about the financial slavery such programs often enforce upon our emerging artists--or at least actors. And I think, as uncomfortable as it is to admit, this question needs some real soul searching in the American Theatre community. Especially in times like these.
In my recent conversations with theater artists, we often talk about the insane cost of MFA theater programs--future artists get saddled with over $100,000 in debt for many three year programs.I can just imagine some outsider to theatre retorting--of course there are high paying "corporate" jobs for actors, on Broadway! Somehow that's not quite the given entry-level lawfirm gigs are, is it?
What makes this reprehensible is that there is no rational way for the VAST majority artists to repay this massive debt through the practice of their art. You would think that an industry would adapt to those circumstances, and that this would result in less MFA programs...but instead they're at colleges across the country, and their advertisements fuel our industry. AMERICAN THEATRE magazine appears to be supported entirely by ads for MFA programs.
There are no "corporate jobs" in the American theater that one can take for a few years to reduce that law-school-sized debt. [i.e. what law school grads and other professional school alums do to pay off debts while preparing for more non-profit and idealistic sides of their professions] At least there are none that don't involve leaving the theater entirely, or making it a nighttime career while you struggle at a day job, scraping up the cash needed to pay the massive debt you incurred, and closing the door on making it a viable career you could invest yourself in full-time.
Daisey refers to this as a "broken system." I agree. The problem is--as with so much in our capitalist Arts economy--the United States doesn't really get the tradition of the great European drama schools, which I believe have often been free. Based upon high-level admittance via scholarship, of course. This makes utter sense when you think of it since it would be unconscionable (wouldn't it?) to take huge amounts of tuition money from someone if there's no realistic expectation they might become a working actor.
But the truth is, as we all know, there are more acting students in MFA programs than there are acting careers in this country--or stage acting careers, at least. And more slots in those programs across the country, frankly, than there are truly gifted actors, I suspect. Which means that many of these programs are taking students they probably know are going to have a tough time making a career at it.
The other problem is tying acting training to the existing university system. The great academies of Europe were never meant to be that. And when you get down to it, it's the economics of university tuition that make the MFA so freakin' expensive. After all, if XYZ University charges $30,000 a year for a Masters in Business--why not for Theatre, right? It's all the same degree, ain't it?
We have had a tradition of acting schools outside of universities--from AMDA, AADA, and Neighborhood Playhouse in NY, to the what was formerly the independent "Goodman School" in Chicago, before it became yoked to DePaul. Juilliard still holds the promise of being an "Academy" in the old model. But even they have no blanket scholarship approach and students there--like at every university--have to compete for the few "free rides" there are.
My philosophy of grad school has always been--only go where they pay your way. (Or better, where they pay you to go.) The only training worth paying for as an adult is Apex Tech-style: free set of tools and a skillset for an always-in-demand profession. Or any profession that actually requires some kind of certificate of entry.
In case you haven't noticed yet, no piece of paper helps any actor--or director, or playwright--get a gig.
However, we shouldn't kid ourselves that at least some MFA programs still have benefitted their students. And the benefit is usually much more in the networking than the training. I don't even mean "networking" in a cynical way. Just working with faculty who are big professional directors, for instance, (or getting them to read or see your work) is a great way to meet them and get them to hire you later on.
But the truth is there's only room for a handful of such programs. Which is why my advice to actors interested in grad school is always: ok, apply to Yale, NYU, and Juilliard, if any of them take you and pay your way, go. Otherwise, stay in New York, get a sideline job, save money, and work, work, work.
Anyway, enough with my own sage advice. I hope Daisey's bluntness helps start the debate anew. The more provocative parts of his argument point the finger of complicity at those artists who have become teachers in MFA programs, who thus perpetuate the myth of the degree's necessity. I'm not sure about personal culpability here (and as Daisey says, it's the whole system we have to look at). But we also have to acknowledge that the only practical use of an MFA is to get you a teaching gig. So at least those folks are getting something out of it. Question is: are MFA programs doing more than training new teachers. Who in turn will train new teachers. And so on. And so on.
Daisey continues the thread on his blog here and here.