You Want to be a Playwright? Should You Get an MFA or a Degree in Life Experience?

Polly Carl

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

When asked a few years ago if someone with talent and desire to write plays should get an advanced degree in playwriting, I said unequivocally yes for two reasons:

  1. I’m a huge advocate of graduate school of any sort. Graduate school is an indulgence that every one who can access, should. I don’t have a timeline for when, but I truly believe taking three or more years to think about things that interest you and make you passionate and advance your understanding of the world is absolutely essential—especially if you want to tell stories that you hope will mean something to an audience greater than your best buds and your mom.
  2. As far as making theater goes, the significant career opportunities in our business are so few and far between that I would tell prospective students any leg up was worth considering seriously. For example, if your script was on a pile, or if you were applying for a directing fellowship, those letters M-F-A might advance your script/application up the stacks.

My advice to graduating MFAs used to be different too and extremely practical! As you’re thinking about that final year in the program focus on:

  1. Having one fully realized “straight” play with no more than four characters is essential. The MFA is a launching moment and to launch in any significant way into the regional theater movement, your most realistic shot is to have one solid producible play in the most conventional sense.
  2. Make connections with all of the play development centers (Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance, Playwrights Foundation, etc.) and apply to every opportunity they offer. In other words, find an artistic home to develop as an artist. This advice hasn’t changed.

But as I experience the work the next generation of theater makers is creating and in what context, I’m beginning to shift my advice. More importantly, I’m convinced now that I’m not the right person to give advice. I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what think they should want.

But here goes some advice anyway.

  1. Don’t apply for an MFA in anything right out of undergrad.  If you desire to be a storyteller from any vantage point (playwright, director, dramaturg, actor, designer, stage manager, etc.) spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell. Travel, work strange jobs, taste exotic foods, become a marathon runner, join the Peace Corps, and engage everything that feels unfamiliar.
  2. Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater.
  3. See as much of every kind of art that you can take in. Close down your Facebook and Twitter accounts for days at a time and read novels, listen to authors read their works on podcasts, go to museums, operas, symphonies, rock concerts, and ballets.
  4. Volunteer at places unrelated to theater. Understand that theater is a part of a whole, but not the whole.
  5. Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again. This can be love with people, other artists, art objects, remote camping sites, whatever.
  6. Then after all of that, if you still find that you must tell stories, and that you must live in proximity to a stage, by all means apply to an MFA program. It will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.

For those of you graduating in the spring with your MFA:

  1. Maybe go to New York, but maybe not.
  2. Don’t worry about getting an agent.
  3. Find one or two or three other people you want to make theater with and live in the same city, or rural town, or on a tropical island together, and make theater according to your mutually agreed upon definition.
  4. Tell the stories you want to tell and only the stories the want to tell. You will get many opportunities to tell stories other people want to tell; minimize these gigs.
  5. Introduce yourself to every theater maker who inspires you, but don’t bother to try and ingratiate yourself into institutions or try to get next to artistic directors whose work you don’t admire just on the off chance they might throw an opportunity your way. There will be plenty of time in your career for compromising and groveling. Save your knees as long as possible.
  6. Think big. Big plays, big performances, big social change, big bold theater that will burn the house down.

For anyone trying to sort out how to make it in this business: there is no formula. As artists, I personally think rules and boundaries and formulas and systems and even institutions can dampen the possibilities for our artistic expression. And nothing can be more harmful to creativity than believing there is one path toward it.

So get an MFA, maybe. Move to New York, maybe. Write only two-handers, maybe. Buy bottles of expensive wines for Artistic Directors, maybe. But for sure, find a way to tell the stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren’t let out, and don’t make any assumptions that there’s a singular career trajectory for the theater artist.

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

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