Within the playwriting field, the question of whether or not you need an MFA to be a successful professional playwright is an important and complex one. And if you do decide to pursue a master’s, the questions keep coming. What makes a successful MFA program? How much importance should you put on faculty, location, or production opportunities? Would a low-residency program better suit your life?
We talked to a few students, former students, faculty, and former faculty about their own experiences with MFA programs. While their responses are specific to particular programs, many of the lessons learned and ideas shared can be applied to any program nationwide.
What does a successful MFA Program look like, to you?
Jami Brandli (Low-Residency MFA Faculty Member and Genre Chair of the Stage and Screen track, Lesley University. MFA: Emerson College): The faculty have to be passionate not only about dramatic writing, but also about teaching dramatic writing. I’m lucky that my fellow faculty members are exceptionally passionate teachers, and also extremely talented dramatic writers with a lot of experience.
Sarah Myers (Associate Professor and MFA Playwriting Mentor, Augsburg College. MFA, PhD: UT-Austin): From my perspective as a former student, a successful playwriting MFA program has: inspiring classmates—folks to collaborate and/or connect with in the long- and short-term; top-notch artists and in-depth mentorship (I mean real mentorship, not prescriptions for how to write); production opportunities and encouragement to self-produce; opportunities for students to connect with the larger field and faculty who work actively outside of the program; flexibility and experimentation in course offerings; chances to teach undergrads; and a location in a city or site with theater that the student wants to see or be a part of.
Ken Weitzman (Core Writer; Assistant Professor, University of Indiana. MFA: UCSD): In re-establishing the Indiana University Playwriting MFA in 2011, I found myself returning to what I wanted (and got) in my own search for a graduate program. Here’s what I was searching for back then: yearly productions; a full development process of readings leading to productions; being treated like a commissioned writer as much as a student; a small, tight-knit group of MFA students with guaranteed productions so we weren’t in competition with one another; close, loving mentorship; an opportunity for teaching experience; and a department with MFA actors, directors, and designers with whom I would collaborate.
As a faculty member, it was also important to bring in theater professionals to get to know the playwrights’ work and the playwrights themselves, and so the MFA students could get multiple voices, perspectives, and inspiration. My feeling was that I’d create the space, expose them to as much as possible, give them opportunities, and they’d find their process, their voice, and their confidence.
Harrison Rivers (Many Voices Fellow. MFA: Columbia University): I chose my program largely because of its location in New York City. I suppose I left my MFA with a stronger sense of self. A sense of the work that I wanted to create and the people I wanted to create work for. That rates as success for me.
Sylvan Oswald (Affiliated Writer; Assistant Professor, UCLA. MFA: Brown University): I think a successful MFA program supports you in generating a body of work, gives you room to grow and identify your artistic concerns, and offers advice on working professionally. You should leave brimming with ideas and a desire to keep working.
Kelly Lusk (Core Apprentice. MFA: Indiana University): For me, it was all about my teacher, Ken Weitzman. I loved the permission he granted me. It was an extremely loving and nurturing environment. His office door was always open for me to come in and complain about a scene I was working on. As annoying as I was, he would sit there and smile and just say, “Keep writing.”
Steve Moulds (Jerome Fellow. MFA: UT-Austin): A successful MFA experience is one where your teachers—and perhaps more importantly, your fellow students—challenge your aesthetic and your craft. If you look around the room and you feel like everybody in your workshop is a better writer than you, you’re probably in the right program.
How does the definition of success change for a low-residency program?
Sarah Myers: I think successful low-residency MFA programs should try to replicate the best of in-person programs, including: ongoing, in-depth mentorship (ideally with multiple writers), exposure to as many professional opportunities as possible, and flexibility for writers coming from various backgrounds and with various goals for what they want to get out of the program.
Jami Brandli: Our low-residency MFA works best for students with busy lives—due to a full-time job or full-time family or both—who can’t move to where the school is located or can’t attend classes during the week.
Most low-residency MFA programs have two residencies per year, with each 8- to 10-day residency of lectures, seminars, and workshops kicking off the semester. Each semester is set up as a mentor-mentee setup where the student receives in-depth comments and notes from the faculty member over four months.
A low-residency program should be rigorous. “Low residency” should not mean low-workload. I feel that if a student isn’t required to write a full-length script each semester, then the program isn’t rigorous enough. Part of what an MFA should do is prepare the student for life after their MFA. If the program ingrains discipline, excitement, and risk-taking over the course of two to three years, I believe these traits will carry over once the deadlines of the MFA are no longer required.
What do you wish had been different about your MFA experience?
Sylvan Oswald: What I wish was different about my grad school experience has more to do with me. When I started I was hungry for playwriting instruction. Because of that, I pressed pause on my other artistic practices, like directing and music. I wonder what would have happened to my writing if I had attempted to keep them closer.
Steve Moulds: I wish every playwriting MFA would have provided at least one high-budget, fully designed production. With the deep pockets of some universities, one of the great opportunities that grad school affords you is the ability to get a production in your portfolio that looks professional. Most playwrights will spend many years scrambling together self-productions. It’s nice to get a taste of a big budget.
Harrison Rivers: While I was a student, I wished simultaneously for more structure or a clearer set of feedback practices and more freedom to take classes outside of the traditional “theater” schedule. The fact that I had to develop a set of personal evaluative criteria and had to fight to deviate from the norm, though I complained at the time, probably made me a stronger writer and person.
What advice do you have for students who are looking into starting an MFA program?
Steve Moulds: Prospective MFAs should research the faculty. What are their plays like? You don’t have to share an aesthetic with your professors, but if you don’t like their writing at all, that might be a bad sign.
I also think funding is enormously important—this isn’t like law school, where you have a reasonable assumption of earning enough to pay back your student debt. Find a school that will make it financially feasible to attend.
Ask recent graduates what their experience of the program was. So much of what makes a program work is hard-to-define, interpersonal stuff, so subjective impressions really matter.
Sylvan Oswald: Grad school can meet certain needs, so it’s a good idea to consider whether you’re ready to make use of them. Here are some of the big ones: 1.) Time to write: respite from the grind you’re in, or a chance to go deeper into newly-discovered territory. It’s the chance to be a writer full-time, or at least most of the time. 2.) A community of artists: the school should support your practice and future as a collaborator. 3.) A mentor you can learn from: someone whose artistic perspective might shed light on your questions. 4.) Credentials to teach, if you see that in your future.
My advice is to keep doing all the things you do—even if there’s pressure to “choose one.” Your career isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. So forget about that. Make your way by holding onto the things you love, by trying to work in multiple ways, and by exploring the natural rule-breaking that will happen when you try to bring disciplines together.