The Playgoer: MFA's: You're on Notice!

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

MFA's: You're on Notice!

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.

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.
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?

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.


Anonymous said...

Well, actually, aren't we tired of this conversation? It's been going on and on for several years.

Daisey's concerns don't shed any new light on it.

Essentially what he's done is to reduce theatre into an economic formula.

There are several flaws to this approach, the most important is his continuing avoidance of the first question he should be asking: Is theatre an economically viable life-choice?

I'd argue it's not. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest this is true, starting with the need to create a not-for-profit structure to get work done. Clearly, an economic admission that a theatre can't exist without, at the very least, tax code help and the generosity of others.

So then you have to ask, WHY do most people go into theatre in the first place? I'd argue they go into it for the most romantic and irrational of reasons: They love it.

(I'm being nice here: Some go into it for reasons of egoism - they love themselves so much they think this is a good road to the fame they deserve... but that's another post.)

If you choose to go into a field to make money, you should be care what field you go into. It's hard to have any sympathy for people who think that acting - or theatre in general - is field where money can be made. Because the clear and obvious fact is: All but a very very few make enough money to do better than even a subsistence living.

If you choose to go into a field for love, then money is not the point in the first place.

Ultimately, I'd caution against Daisey's reductionist argument for even broader reasons. It is, essentially, the same argument that many make against liberal arts education because it offers no direct economic benefit.

Ironically, this almost makes Mike sound like a person with the capitalist principles that he suggest are the problem to begin with.

Anonymous said...

While this discussion may have been going on for a long time, it's become an acutely pertinent issue in the light of the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Not only is it actually impossible for the vast majority of artists working in the American theater to earn a living at their vocation, now it is becoming difficult for many people to earn livings working at their survival jobs, due to cuts and reduced budgets across the board in this economy. In an economic climate where people who are graduating with business and law degrees are struggling to find jobs and earn a living, having the additional burden of student loan debt for many young theater artists, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, even a hundred thousand, on top of almost no hope of income from their chosen field, and then a dearth of jobs in other fields where they might find survival jobs, makes the added debt burden seem like economic suicide. While people do go into the theater for love, you don't have to pay $100,000 to a big academic institution to make no money in the theater anyway. True, no one promised these starry-eyed kids success, or even a subsistence living-- but the people who run MFA programs are taking a lot of money from these kids and their families, and churning out a lot of people with marginal prospects and employability, for anything other than Academia, and the added burden of mega-debt. The system begins to look like a big ol' Ponzi scheme, where the only way to keep the system going is to keep more suckers coming in than you've got going out. That's no way to run a business, and that's certainly no way to run an education system. The writing is on the wall-- either the system will collapse, because families already hurting from a lousy economy just won't be able to come up with the money, or the only people who are able to access elite education like arts MFA programs will come from only the wealthiest families-- a trend that is already happening in the arts as it is. If we believe in the American theater as a central aspect of culture in America, the system will have to change radically, or the theater will become even more marginal to American life than it already has become.

Malachy Walsh said...

I wrote a play about some of these issues 5 years ago. It's been worked in NY at Clubbed Thumb as well as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere.

This summer it will be produced in Minneapolis with money raised largely through private funding (we begged for it) by two people (me and the director) with no money and plenty of grad school debt.

We are finding a way.

And it seems to be the same way we were using before we got our MFAs.


More pointedly, while I'm more than sympathetic to people who think MFA's are expensive yokes, it's all in the eye of the beholder. And, for me, Daisey's anger is misplaced.

I mean, do you really think Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff and Chuck Mee and Kelly Stuart and Theresa Rebeck - just to name a few who teach or have taught at expensive schools - are evil destroyers of the future foisting "a Ponzi scheme" onto unsuspecting "kids"? (By the way, Daisey is the first to use this Bernie Madoff language - if he doesn't think he's making that analogy, he's being coy.)

Anyway, I didn't meet any "kids" in my MFA program. They were all adults who had decided to make a serious commitment to theatre. (That's part of the idea of MFA, by the way. Commitment.)

People who thought careers were going to be launched like fireworks from the cannon of academia were the most unhappy.

And it was clear pretty quickly that they had chosen to go to school for the wrong reasons.

People who went to school to explore the limits of their talents, stretch their box and discover what happens from focused and unfettered study of the craft of theatre from people who are widely acknowledged to be masters in the field, well, they got a lot out of it.

To use the language of the first poster here, I bristle at the reduction of such experiences to some sort of economic formula when it comes to the arts.
And I agree, it's just not an economically viable art form. During my MFA studies, that was something that was made abundantly clear in the history of theatre classes we all had to take.

Anonymous said...

Yeah - I hate it when someone holds a gun to my head and FORCES ME to get an MFA. I hate when I have no choice in the matter and can't face reality with my own choices, because of the gun to my head.
I wish I knew going in, that MY CHOICE WAS MY RESPONSIBILITY instead of that guy holding a gun to my head. Life's rough. Especially when life is all about Vegas odds. Tough to have that


Anonymous said...

You gave great advice here, Garrett. And more power to Mike Daisey.

isaac butler said...


I actually think your advice is a little mistaken, at least on the paying your way to go thing, and I think you're being a bit naive about how much being in a top MFA program can concretely help someone's career.

If someone can afford to go to a top MFA program and has gotten into one, it'd be insane for them not to go, if their career is what they're worried about. BUt they also have to be smart about what program they're getting into and for which area of theater and what the reputations of the programs are. Except for Yale, which is pretty universally high regarded, powerful etc.

This sentence: In case you haven't noticed yet, no piece of paper helps any actor--or director, or playwright--get a gig.

Is also completely untrue. It helps you get a gig teaching, which is the only way to have job security as an artist right now. Many high level admin jobs at arts orgs also require an MA, MFA or PHD. Finally, it's not the piece of paper, but the name of the school and the level of connections you get that matters w/r/t this whole thing.

There are very few directors out there getting noticed now sans MFAs. There are very few directors getting fellowships who don't have MFAs. Look at the NEA/TCG grant recipients, look at who gets the Drama League. That's not coincidental.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Isaac, but I think what Garrett and Mike Daisey are saying is that's part of the problem. Taking Garrett's advice would be a courageous thing to do, but in the long run it would pay off by taking the air out of these MFA programs or making them more affordable.

Remember the advice he posted by the NYT classical music critic a few weeks ago? The people who last in the industry are those who genuinely enjoy doing it, no matter where or at what level. And never forget that work always comes from work. If you can afford to take the job, you do it.

My feeling is that 10-15 years from now MFA programs will have run out of steam. Students and families will not be willing to spend so much money (let alone time) for a theater degree. With the rise of the internet and nontraditional performance space, young actors, writers, and directors will find they don't have to seek someone else's approval or go in to hock in order to start careers or create work they can be proud of.

Either that or universities will be forced to lower tuitions. The cost of a degree should never exceed the average salary of a person in the field. Wouldn't you agree? As a member of Obama's Arts Advisory Committee, maybe you could mention this to him.

isaac butler said...

Taking that advice would mean sacrificing your own career for the possible future good of the industry. I don't think that's a particularly great way to go about fixing the problem (I say this as someone who does not have and will probably not get an MFA, btw, this isn't sour grapes, I'm just trying to speak pragmatically here).

Anonymous said...


I'm afraid, your dire predictions may be a bit premature.

MFAs for other arts were invented quite a while ago and are still around and stronger than ever today. (Film, Creative Writing, Visual Arts - just to name a few.) These MFAs have only expanded in popularity despite sharing the problems that acting MFAs/theatre MFAs have.

The only thing that will slow the MFA juggernaut down is loss of funding or loan availability. Those thing happen when loaning institutions review how well the loans are being paid back (and see they aren't being paid back) or have no money to loan.

However, are major institutions like Columbia, NYU and Yale likely to cease their programs altogether even should loaning institutions begin curtailing the availability of funds?

Seems doubtful given that they are leaders who believe in the benefits of educations in the humanities. They might get smaller. They might change in scope, but they're unlikely to disappear.


To Michael's point, people don't get MFA's because of their dollar value proposition.

Anonymous said...

Isaac, perhaps we should ask Oskar Eustis if having no MFA meant he sacrificed his career. He never even went to undergrad. I single him out because he has run three grad programs by my count and also turned down the job at Yale. The MFA community must not take their own degree seriously if they're going to offer their top jobs to somebody who never bothered to try for one.

I have an MFA and it hasn't helped me one bit in my career. And I'm happy to report I do work a lot... at least enough to qualify me for Equity's health insurance, which is no small hurdle. Most of my opportunities have come from people who had nothing to do with my degree. In my experience, about half the industry pros I've met think the MFA is important and about half don't care. Invariably the half that put a lot of stock into it have also worked as teachers or are related to someone who does. I'd trade mine in a heartbeat to have no debt and three years of my 20s back.

And Anon, I speak of Theater MFAs. I don't know enough about other disciplines to comment. Nor do I think the Yales, NYUs, and other top-tier schools are going to close down. But if their applications drop, they'll have to take a good look at themselves.

Basically, if people stop getting MFAs, do we think the theater is going to grind to a halt? It's already doing that, and we have a glut of programs (anyone else notice that Yale has started advertising in American Theater mag? I wonder what that means).

NYC has become more Hollywood than Hollywood ever meant to be. Being young, pretty, related, or on a reality show is going to get you further faster than an MFA. For those students graduating this year, I hope their dedication and artistry keeps them warm. They will be coming in to a world of fewer theaters, less money, and more competition than there was even a year ago.

And that debt isn't going away, nor are those three years coming back.

Angela said...

I am currently at an MFA Acting program. I'm in one that waives tuition for all students AND gives all students a stipend. And there were many other programs I found in my research that also waived tuition.

Grad school isn't the right decision for everyone, but it's the right decision for me.

Arielle said...

I just want to point out that no one in this conversation has mentioned the oft-ignored Theatre MFA students--those of us who are managers/producers and dramaturgs, who plan to practice our art through administrative jobs after graduation. An acting MFA may not guarantee that you get roles, but my MFA will definitely get me in the door for interviews (and hopefully jobs) that I couldn't have gotten with just my undergraduate degree.

Malachy: There aren't any kids in my MFA program either. And had I not gone for the MFA, I wouldn't have gotten to take intensive classes with three of the artists you mentioned, Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff, and Kelly Stuart. (You can probably guess which school I go to.) I feel like exposure to and the opportunity to learn from theatre artists like that is sort of the point of grad school--not the jobs you might get with your piece of paper when you're done.

Anonymous said...


It is definitely one of the points.

Keep the faith.