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March 07, 2009


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First of all, I don't think any MFA program has a problem with applicants talking about teaching. In fact, I think they like it because it shows you're practical and planning ahead. It shows you don't expect to win a Tony and live on royalties. It shows you care about the art, and want to share what you learn. It shows you know how to make a career of theatre.
An MFA and a theatre company are two totally different things. When you get an MFA in anything related to theatre, part of your tuition is basically paying to be a part of your program's theatre company. You, or your parents, (jeez, I didn't know anyone's parents paid for grad school- lucky), pay to have your play produced by Columbia rather than whatever off-off Broadway company you and your friends just started. Of course you pay for the development and workshops, but you also pay for the name and connections.


You should've just reprinted all of Martin Dockery's letter. It's not much longer than your excerpt.

And his argument is the same one you hear from people who think a liberal arts education is a waste.

The following joke illustrates:

Q. What are you majoring in?
A. English.
Q. So what are you going to do after you finish? Teach?

Apparently, Martin (the letter's author) went to school not to learn from others, but do something else.

No wonder he thought it was a waste. What is even sadder is that he's decided it's a waste for everyone else too. Just like the questioner in the above joke.

ps It's interesting that Daisey's "blog" has no commenting mechanism on it. As a result it feels very one way - sort of like someone doing a theatre monolog. Hmmmm.....

Mike Daisey

"It's interesting that Daisey's "blog" has no commenting mechanism on it. As a result it feels very one way - sort of like someone doing a theatre monolog. Hmmmm....."

How unfortunate the internet hasn't developed a system where one can create their own content on "sites" and connect back ("link") to things they are discussing.

You should probably patent that, you'll make a fortune. You should call it THE TWO-WAY INTERNET...it's the way the internet should have always worked.



Lately, Mike Daisey, theatrical gadfly, has taken it upon himself to rectify a certain area of the theatre world called the MFA.

It’s a subject that’s been well chewed over, but since Mike’s HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA has made him resident ombudsman for the theatre world, the subject is getting fresh attention.

However, if you really think about what he’s saying, he’s got some questionable thinking going on.

First, seeing that an Acting MFA costs a lot, he calls into question what its real value is. This perspective means he’s looking at MFA programs as simple equations that can be boiled down to: If I pay this in up front, how much will I get paid back later.

It is a notion we’re more used to hearing on the Squawk Box on CNBC every morning. If one believes this is the way education should be understood, we should call into question any liberal arts program that does not qualify as pre-med, pre-law and pre-mba.

Of course, he doesn’t tell us who has been through some of these programs that have succeeded. It’s just assumed everyone’s a loser. It might be interesting to look at a shortlist of MFA success stories:

Sigorney Weaver, Meryl Streep, Danny Glover, Debra Messing, Billy Crudup, Michael Hall, Denzel Washington, Annette Benning, Benjamin Bratt, Anna Shapiro… etc.

Did these people really get by on nothing but connections? Really? Or just talent? It is not only impossible to say, but it’s ridiculous to say you know. No one knows. We only know that they are successful and they have MFAs.

Mike then calls current MFA acting programs “Ponzi schemes.” The rough definition of this is a scheme in which profits are paid out to the first in from funds paid in by the last in. He further says that current administrators and teachers in MFA acting programs are by thus, by default, “complicit” in this ponzi scheme.

Of course he doesn’t tell you who those people are – but who teaches in those programs?

Here are just a few names that teach or have taught at programs that cost real money:

Robert Woodruff, Lonny Price, Kristin Linklater, Andrei Serban, Joseph Chaiken, Richard Foreman, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, Morgan Jenness, Wendy Goldberg, Amiri Baraka, Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, Natalie Shirer, Donald Margulies, Deb Margolin, Anne Bogart, David Schweitzer, Estelle Parsons… etc.

According to Mike these people are part of the destruction of American Theatre. But read the names again and ask yourself, Really? These people?

There’s a case of dramatic overstatement going on here that starts with some all-too-quick conclusions drawn from superficial research and understanding about MFAs.

Of course, his arguments serve those who believe that MFAs are about connections alone and that nobody can learn anything from anyone else when it comes to the theatrical training. People who believe these things (and those people include many MFA students) might also be thinking that talent is natural and doesn’t need to be supported, nurtured or expanded.

Not that big debt for an MFA is a great thing. It’s not. It’s quite a serious problem.

But suggesting no-one gets anything but debt out of an MFA, unless they’re a teacher, is such a blanket statement built on assumptions of why people go and how they do after, it should be regarded quite suspiciously.

Though others have pointed some of these things out elsewhere, Mike doesn’t re-address the issues with these new thoughts in mind. Instead he publishes a testimonial from an MFA playwright who feels he learned nothing of value from his Columbia education. The letter is arrogant at best – the guy clearly believe he can’t learn from anyone. And thus he follows Mike down the same reductionist rabbit hole. A little poking and odds are that it could be quickly discovered that the playwright in question has actually gotten more from his program than meets the eye, even if it’s only as a reaction to it. And even if it’s not quantifiable in financial terms.

Mike doesn’t help himself much when he suggests solutions to the situation might come by making loans “income contingent.” Though he puts a prettier name on it, it doesn’t change his basic misunderstanding of how loans work in this country. Interest compounds. This means that a loan paid back on an income contingent basis may never get to cover principal, even if, down the line someone makes 6 figures. It would be a disaster for people to undertake this approach to their loans. That’s why it’s usually offered by lenders as a last restort. Even they know there is little to gain from never recovering principle.

What would be more helpful would be an overhaul of the consolidation system that allows one to only consolidate once. If you consolidate when the interest rate is high, you’re screwed forever. That is wrong. And bad for everyone, MFAs included.

Education is unlikely to stop being a necessary part of being successful in the theatre world – or the world in general. And it is unlikely to suddenly get cheap. Loans will continue to be a part of education, then. So another thought would be that schools must make the loans themselves and be responsible for ensuring they’re paid back. My guess is you’ll suddenly see a much more responsible attitude toward who gets in and how many get in to a school. Another idea is to fix an interest rate that is an educational rate only – so that loan are either fixed permanently or are never much higher than the rate of inflation.

In lieu of free educations, these are actually responsible ideas for solving the crisis of higher educational costs.

Maybe Mike will consider them in his next post.

Mike Daisey

Here's a thorough response:


Ben TS

I'm always wary of the MFA "debate," since it's almost always going to involve a lot of generalizing from both sides.

I don't have a problem with the MFA, but I do take issue with its dominance in the arts. And yes, I'm sorry, MFA proponents, but it has contributed to making professional theatre largely a game for rich kids. You wanna argue me on this point? I direct you to this quote from the ART MFA website:

"PHILOSOPHY: The philosophy at the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University holds that the primary responsibility for financing a graduate education resides with the student (and/or family)"

So that's pretty cut and dried, guys. This program (one of the select "industry approved" MFAs) basically states at the outset, "it's best if you're wealthy." Obviously, this is not true everywhere (numerous programs are free), but it's indicative of the academic myopia that has infected the arts education establishment.

I really appreciate the way that the MFA has raised the bar in terms of education and training. It has also no doubt contributed to theatre becoming more elitist and, by extension, less popular. I have a much more lengthy argument for that, but I'll leave it at that. The good that the MFA has done and the bad the MFA has done are both truths. I don't quite know how to reconcile them. I guess I can only say that everybody should pursue the training that is right for them without listening to what Robert Brustein ("You aren't a real actor without an MFA") or David Mamet ("If you study theatre in school you are a ball-less piece of shit") have to say about it.


Clearly not an "arts" issue only.


Jason Grote

If MFA programs were affordable, this would be a non-issue. I don't recommend the MFA program I graduated from because it wasn't worth the six figures of debt it incurred. My education was decent enough, but not worth the eventual cost.

Also, some MFA programs encourage teaching, some don't. I believe that two of the best playwrights-who-run-programs, Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman, encourage their students to teach. It's also notable that they both run cheap/free programs.


I understand it's human nature for people (in this case, ADs and Lit Managers) to want to work with people they know or people who have come up through similar channels, but it's a shame that the price of admission to the big leagues happens to be this particular talisman called the MFA, which leads to years of nagging debt, when in fact the big leagues most often won't provide you the means to repay it.


Like the comment says, clearly not an "arts" issue.

Regardless of what others think of their particular educations - mfa or no.

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