Advice to Applicants: New article in PAJ

The January 2013 PAJ has a special section on Educating the Artist.  My contribution, “Advice to Applicants: Labor, Value, and MFA Program Design,” is featured alongside articles by Heiner Goebbels and Emma Lew Thomas (“Research or Craft?: Nine Theses on Educating Future Performing Artists”) and Peter Zazzali (“Actor Training in New York City”).


Here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Advice to Applicants: Labor, Value, and MFA Program Design

From: PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art
Volume 35, Number 1, January 2013 (PAJ 103)
pp. 32-42 |

When I ask a playwright friend of mine for reflections on his graduate school experience at a prestigious playwriting MFA program, he does not immediately have a clear answer. For many graduates of MFA programs that focus on dramatic writing, the conversation that has been happening in the theatre community for some years amounts to more than just a juicy topic for a plenary session: it is, rather, one of life and livelihood. It would be an understatement to say that there are no extensive opportunities for the “early career” playwright—and the ones that do exist do not pay even subsistence wages.1 The more we talked about the tangled process of becoming a “professional” playwright, and the disillusioning path of the playwright who once believed a Masters program would increase the chances of having his work read or seen, and who then must face the uneven terrain of over-burdened literary departments and few work prospects, the more agitated he became. This is the emotional quality of life as a playwright, sharpening pencils for the production that will never come. He recalled his intuitive response to play readings in graduate school, which foreshadowed his later experiences on the “outside”: the process suggested an exchange that was more like a begrudging favor, and less like the collaborative ideal of a barter. Actors were there to help you “fix” your play, to read your work as a kindness, garnished with a little hope that perhaps you might be the next Tony Kushner.

The residue left behind was infantilizing; we are here for you, the playwright, and in turn the writer learned to express a confused gratitude. The confusion is not surprising: MFA playwrights are being trained to enter a field that the New York Times called “obsolete” as a profession. “Richard Nelson might be the last one,” said Marsha Norman, referring to the number of playwrights who only write plays.2 The phenomenon of playwrights migrating to television and film writing is by now (very) old news. To debate the merits of such a system is hardly worth the energy; it remains a crucial avenue for playwrights who wish to be dramatic writers and not cab drivers or mathematicians or real estate agents by day. It is a recognized and accepted fact that playwriting programs do not provide entrée to full-time careers in playwriting, but more often in education or another profession, with playwriting sprinkled on the side. Even Kushner does not support himself through playwriting.3 Often ignored, however, are the curricular imperatives that this state of affairs now mandates: a serious exploration of new alternatives to the predominant MFA playwriting program design and coursework.

Regardless of the perils of the field, students continue to attend these programs, a fact that is not wholly attributable to youthful hubris or artistic whimsy. As long as programs continue to advertise that they prepare students for “professional careers as skilled dramatic writers in theatre,” students will hope against hope and apply with these expectations. They will be counseled by their undergraduate mentors that an MFA program is a place that can buy them time while they focus on their craft; that is, it will allow them to write a lot, under the auspices of an institution, with the aid of mentors and peers. None of these assumptions are misplaced: the achievement of the degree denotes a level of seriousness regarding dedication and artistry, and, I suspect, will do so for a long time to come. The question of what aspiring writers study when they actually attend these programs is, then, of crucial concern.

What students actually study is the workshop model, an approach to producing writing that has been much debated. In his review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2009) about the importance of creative writing programs in postwar literary history, Louis Menand highlights the…

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