Thursday, August 26, 2010

Can Playwriting Be Taught and the Value of an MFA

There's a pretty lengthy article about whether playwriting can be taught by Davi Napoleon that's just come on-line.  She talked to tons of people (including me) about it, and it seems to cover a lot of the angles.

In addition, Malachy Walsh, one of my favorite bloggers is finally back on the scene after a long absence, at LitDept.  He has two great posts about the value of an MFA for playwrights, one addressing common myths about playwriting MFAs and the other about the dollar cost/value.

For a long time, I was pretty anti-MFA, though I've considered going back for a master's degree several times.  The time never seemed right, or the program never seemed right for me.  But I've softened my stance considerably over the years, especially since a lot of my best friends  have playwriting MFAs and even teach playwriting in various programs.  For some people, it's the best way to learn.  For me, I had to learn playwriting on my own, by running theatres, writing plays, screwing up, having some success, banging my head against the wall (a lot).  But that's just me.

Maybe I would have learned everything I know now about theatre a lot faster in a graduate program, and I'd be much better read.  Hard to say.

From my point of view, borrowing money to get a graduate education in playwriting would seem a dicey call, however.  It's almost impossible to earn the money back in a timely manner by writing plays, and the cost of the debt would seem likely to suck away the time after graduation needed to actually make use of the skills gained in graduate school.

I've been pretty lucky in having a spouse with a full-time job, who has been extremely understanding of my writing life (i.e. has not demanded that I go get a full-time job).  I've made some money working part time, fixed up and sold houses, and I also have been a stay-at-home dad with our kids (going on 15 years now)--all of which took plenty of time, but also left me with more time and energy to write.  So if the point of going to graduate school is to get dedicated time to write, maybe I never needed that, because I've always found a way to make the time and usually had the discipline to make use of it.  The place I feel I've most missed out, in terms of graduate school, is having close mentors to whom I can turn to ask questions or help guide my career. I spend a lot of time fumbling around career-wise, and also working a lot with my peers (rather then people a generation ahead of me, in terms of skill and career).

For now, I think I'll stick with the road I'm on.  But I can definitely see why others choose other paths.


Malachy Walsh said...

I'd only add that I think it is actually impossible to pay back the loans from writing plays.

Everyone I know who's paid back anything has done it via other forms of writing - advertising, tv, film, teaching.

Playwriting helped some get a few of those gigs, but there was no direct "I got this because I did that" equation. LIke a lot of things, it doesn't work that simply.

An evenhanded approach to the question will yield the best results. Or at least you be kidding yourself either way.

Claudia said...

Interesting... I toyed with the idea but never could afford it. I think the MFA does open doors - to getting your play read. Not necessarily produced. It does present you with a degree so you can teach playwriting...always a double-edged sword.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Malachy, I think that's why I have doubts about people borrowing to get an MFA in playwriting. To me, it makes a lot more sense to save up the money BEFORE a person goes to get the degree, than to get the degree and then pay for it after.

I know that's contrary to the way our system of education and paying for it works these days. But I think it only makes sense to borrow money for degrees that will help you earn addition money that will help repay loans.

What's the point of spending three years learning to write much better plays and then forever be unable to write them, because the writer is saddled with so much debt from school?

One could argue, I suppose, that if people had to save up to pay cash for the degree (or ensure they had scholarships) that many people would never get around to doing it. But what's the difference? If you can't manage to save up the money before school, you won't manage to pay for it after, either. It's the same amount of cash in the end (well, less if you save up, actually).

(For the record, as a much younger man, I turned down a spot at Columbia's screenwriting graduate program, because I didn't have the cash and couldn't conceive of adding to the college loans already held by me and my new wife.)

Malachy Walsh said...

I sympathize with that and find it a completely reasonable point of view. I would prefer, of course, to have no debt. But I preferred more to have the three years.

I looked at it, when I was being flip, as a long expensive vacation that I'd never get to take again. I'd been working about 10 years in advertising and felt that I could always return to it.

Some things you just don't get a second crack at.

Anyway, I also always feel that in art someone is always sacrificing something. Like, in Cezanne's case, it was his father's money. In other cases, it's any hope of "good comfortable life". But it's always something and eventually you have to figure out the terms your comfortable with living with. That might be a debt with low interest or it could be not saving for your retirement the way you want. Or something else.

Interestingly, when I was graduating from Columbia, the commencement speaker's entire speech was about being in debt from Columbia and living with it. He in fact had graduated from the Columbia film program with huge debt. He's since made "Something About Mary" - among other movies.