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November 12, 2008


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John Zuiker

I found this this to be quite funny and interesting. I'm in Grad school right now, for design, and I feel that some of the things you mention are very true. I weighed the pros and cons and, for me, the pros won. I do wonder sometimes if I am being guided into a certain style, but I think it is up to the individual of how much of what their teachers say will end up in their work. That being said, I believe that a true artist will end up being able to showcase their voice with any level of education.


Kris - great post. I'm of the belief that the best learning for writers, actors, directors, designers is in the field and not in the classroom. David Mamet wrote about this in his book True & False (although a tad hypocritical on his part since he runs a teaching program at The Atlantic Theatre). The MFA programs in this country I think tend to be completely useless unless you want to teach and more importantly make connections in the industry. That's about all they are good for. But I firmly believe that the best learning comes from obeserving the craft of others in action and then applying your own aesthetic choices based on what works for you as an artist. Sure, there a lot of basics that need to be mastered for the stage, but I think that can be picked up either in an undergrad program or specialty classes (Act One Studios, Audition Studio, etc). Beyond that, a bulk of molding content and craft comes from doing. Not spending thousands upon thousands of dollars at some ivy league university.

Jon Steinhagen

Maybe it's circumstantial and generational. I started out in the DePaul School of Music and switched majors after two years because the music faculty was robbing me of my desire to make music. As a result, I didn't graduate the first time around. I later went to night school. Throughout this educational clusterf***, I continued to write plays and musicals and do music direction around town. My education has been supplied by the scores of amazingly creative people I've worked with for the past twenty years, and I continue to learn with each new show I do and each new group of people I meet. I don't any amount of academia could replace this. I've learned by doing, and will continue to learn by doing. I feel younger and more inventive at 38 than I did at 18, and I'm still writing plays and musicals, doing music direction and acting. But most of all, I'm still surprising myself. I'm aware that not everyone follows the same star - what works for one individual won't work for another - and that's cool, too. Some people need to be kick-started by academics, programs, master classes, etc. Others don't. I write what I know but I also write what I want to see. Playtime. But, most of all, I keep my eyes and ears open and learn from everything I see, everyone I work with and every writer I read. Good times. Thank you, Mr. V!


Have to agree- I'm probably eventually going to go for my MFA in Directing, not because I think I need to be taught how to direct (in Chicago you can learn by doing, and observing others' work, not to mention trusting one's own taste, all of which I've done plenty of) but because financial security is something I crave (not the only thing mind you, but one thing). I'm a realist. The fact is one of the few ways to be financially secure in theatre is to teach at the university level, or become the artistic director of a major institution. Most of those jobs don't even consider an application that isn't accompanied by a master's degree. Right now I'm resisting because I don't desire security so much that I'm willing to remove myself from the Chicago theatre scene for three years. To be fair, there are other things I think an MFA directing program can provide:

1) Contacts/ Networking
2) Practice directing in an environment where financial success of the result isn't a factor
3) Due to the acting programs that are taking place alongside it, an MFA program can allow better opportunities for a director to study and observe the actor's process, which isn't always possible in rehearsal.
4) Some of the theatres and sizes of productions possible in a university setting are in larger venues and have bigger budgets/ more complicated technical components than even experienced storefront directors are used to; by making a director direct technically complex shows in venues that size, the program expands a director's ability to handle a range of types of production.

Of course, these attractions for getting an MFA in directing would be nullified if there were better undergraduate directing programs. I went to Northwestern, and our undergraduate directing "program" while I was there was frankly nearly nonexistent; it consisted of two quarters of directing class, with the possibility to petition to direct a small show in one of the black box theatres your senior year. And once a blue moon the chair of the music theatre department would offer a 'directing for music theatre' class (only once in four years, and I couldn't fit it into my schedule,dammit), but otherwise nothing.

Eric Ziegenhgen

Honestly, with the combination of the plummeting economy and the new Obama administration, all bets are about to be off. If Angels in America, Pulp Fiction, Beck, and Nirvana ushered in the 1990s, not as the best art of that decade but as representations of a significant cultural shift, what are the similar major touchstones of this decade? What are the successes? Where did the rules of content change in this decade, not in terms of failed work (the bad, widely produced American plays of this decade will be as obscure as those of any 20th-century decade) but in terms of successful work?

What is exciting now is that if there hasn't been a shift in this decade, that the shift is to come. When I watched a preview of JON two weeks ago, I was aware how the subject matter -- yes, the content -- of the show was grounded in our decade. Alcoholism and sexual repression were the great denial issues of mid-20th century America, and they led to great theater and some lasting plays. And they can fuel great drama. But JON (as well as a show I saw earlier this year called "I Haven't Checked My Voice-Mail Yet, But Fuck You" by Lizz Edele, which ran for two weeks in March without promotion) finally address subjects that were not even important subjects 10 or 20 years ago: our double persona of physical selves versus virtual selves (as we are, writing here, and as I choose whether to sign this "Eric" or "Eric Z." or with my full name); how science and pharmaceuticals affect our identity (in a way that is very different from the drugs of choice in "Long Day's Journey); and the permutations of friendships and relationships when we now that the sexes are integrated on levels of friendships and intimacy). Add debt to that -- personal debt, national debt, and whether credit makes money abstract in the way that the Internet makes us abstract -- and you've got a whole new world of possibilities.

Then again, Rent was the theater world's answer to the grunge era, and it showed up in 1996; and Contact was the theater's version of the swing-dance crazy, in 2002 or so; and two (really good) local plays, Superior Donuts and Gas for Less, finally address the conflicts of gentrification right at a time when we are about to be nostalgic for the days when a new, shiny store was a problem, versus a small (or big-box) store closing and not being replaced at all.

Artists who rise to the occasion of their time end up rendering the mediocre work around them obsolete. I understand the restlessness, but I'm hopeful about what is around the corner. The Cromer article in the NY Times gives me hope. The new administration gives me hope. The fact that theater has only barely begun to even explore what are our major undercurrents and denial issues gives me hope.

On a completely separate issue, as far as MFA students doing LaBute, McDonagh, and Ruhl, I think that if U.S. theater companies printed scripts for each new play, and sold them as part of the program the way theaters do in London, then those students would have a much wider array of scripts to hunt through for monologues.


We've had several auditioners that brought in two contrasting monologues. One from LaBute, the other from LaBute.

Of course years ago I saw one that was Durang, followed by Durang.

Not sure which was worse.

Scott Barsotti

While the School has its more than fair share of problems (organizational and otherwise), I found the MFA Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to be the exact opposite of the Ivy League model (as I perceive it). The focus is on process, not product. The focus is on exposure to peers and other forms, literary and non-textual. Some of the work that comes out of SAIC is just as bland and 'grant-proposal-like' as anywhere else, but some of it is startlingly unique. One issue with an MFA program like SAIC is one forms deep connections with artists in Chicago, but is offered very little exposure elsewhere (somewhat due to the Writing Program's relative youth as a program), and so the experiences one gets there could perhaps be effectively acheived through external workshops and good old-fashioned work in the field. However, working with folks like Beau O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus while there (and whom I continue to work with now) completely changed my approach to playwriting and reading, as well as my overall aesthetic in terms of production. That I can't say enough about.

Does an MFA from SAIC prepare one to be a working artist in the real world? No. Which is probably the biggest issue of all. But I don't regret shelling out for it (I'll be singing a different tune in 10 years when I still have no savings).

I'd like to see the paradigm shift in MFA programs so that they're less about what you end up with and more how you get there. Within reason of course, you don't want a bunch of writers saying "well, the end product is shit but I sure had fun writing it." But that's what development is for. In the long run, teaching away from formula would create a greater diversity of work and more plays that bend categories rather than fall into them.

malachy walsh


I went to an MFA program 14 years after leaving undergrad. I spent over a decade in business before I went, 8 of them in advertising, the other 6 split between ditch digging, book selling, journalism, video store clerking and tutoring in an adult-literacy program.

I was 36.

Turned out my age was the median in our class of playwrights. Of the six of us, some are still working in theatre and some aren't. The most "successful" of us is doing temp work in an office despite some nice notices from places like South Coast Rep and elsewhere.

In the three years I was in school, I don't think any of us ever wrote a play that ever resembled anyone else's - in class or elsewhere.

Only one of us came from real money but I don't think anyone would describe him with the stereotypical traits that people ascribe to those with financial privilege.

Honestly, Sara Ruhl's advice is cliche. (Who hasn't been told that the best place for a writer to learn writing is by first gaining experience... Please, spare me the platitude.) But the generalizations about what MFA programs do, particularly in regard to writing, is unhelpful.

What is more true is that we continue to pay a lot of attention to institutions that continue to produce a certain kind of work. If you're interested in a different type of theatre, you should go to a different theatre.

There are plenty to choose from.


nice. you know my thoughts on this. the best thing that i got out of an mfa in acting is two amazing friends. i (the actor) got kinda squashed in grad school. i got a little lost. sure, some of that was my fault but i'm choosing to share the blame. i've decided that acting is a personal craft. its study is something you do over a lifetime that doesn't require you to spend thousands of dollars that you don't have. what i learned in grad school is that i don't have the diligence to live the life of an actor. i wish i had learned that in the theatres of chicago not in the safety net of an expensive grad program.

Scott Barsotti

Also, "write what you know" is BS. Technically, one can "know" anything. In terms of subject matter it's called research. In terms of character it's called imagination. Lazy teachers tell students to write what they know because then they:

A) don't have to challenge the writer to risk failure.
B) have an easier time putting the work in context themselves.

Additionally, one person might gain just as much experience walking to work each day than another person gains backpacking across Europe, but that doesn't mean that either of them should feel compelled to write about walking to work or backpacking across Europe.

I'm glad I've never had a writing instructor who told me to write what I know. I'm lucky, and probably in the minority.


I can't recall who told me this or where I read it, but the best piece of writerly wisdom I ever received was to be told that all of the best stories are about people.

Which sounds simple on its face, but after seeing loads of plays where the characters are little more than thoughts or theories covered in flesh and costume design, I'm starting to think of it as a type of Zen.

You're a human being and you can experience anything another human being can experience. The rest is research.

Mike from Philly

the notion that MFA programs eradicate a person's artistic identity frightens me. i'm hoping to pursue an MFA in directing soon, because i want to have the necessary qualifications to become a professor myself, but i don't want to become a theatre robot. (nor do i want to create robots once i get a teaching position.)

do you think it has more to do with MFA students wanting to please their professors enough to have a good connection once they re-enter the "real world" OR professors being unable to separate their own personal aesthetics from the process of guiding young actors/directors/playwrights to find their artistic voices? or maybe it's neither of these?

i'd be very curious to read what Noah Haidle and Sarah Ruhl wrote before they got their degrees.


Heh. I'm in the midst of applying to all those evil Ivys for an MFA in directing (that I can't afford, obvs).

I was working on this whole long - let's face it, justification - for why I'm applying, but Ed wrote it for me. Please see above.

I need a place where I have a lot of budget and a lot of seats to mess with. Flashpoint is awesome but there is no way I'm going to get an opportunity to play with funny money here, nor will I get a crack at working in a theatre that seats over 100 people.

Most of all, though, I need a break. I am so exhausted by working a day job and a theatre night job and trying to squeeze work outside of Flashpoint into the cracks AND keep a sexy relationship going that I am about to burst. I need grad school so I can just focus on directing for a while and see how that goes.

Scott Barsotti

"You're a human being and you can experience anything another human being can experience. The rest is research."

Well said, Bilal.

Ryan Patrick Dolan

I had a hard time with academics just as undergrad before moving to Chicago at the age of 27 to learn improv. I have to say one of the beautiful things about improv is that you do indeed have to "learn by doing." Except for the occasional savant, you have to spend hours and hours doing and watching it to become even halfway decent at it.

As I've become more enamored and have transitioned into the dramatic theatre scene in Chicago, again I have fallen in love how people work there ass off to create a lot of compelling and imaginative work in this town. Actors, directors, designers all DO theatre, and a lot of it.

Malcolm Gladwell has a new book coming out, "Outliers", where he talks about how much a role nurture plays in developing the top writers and doers. (I have only read arguments about it on slate.com...haven't read the book.) In it, I believe, he brings up the fact that you can only really master a craft after spending 10,000 hours doing it. People like Letts and Cromer probably have spent that amount of time actually working on real productions which culminate in a production in front of an audience. If Chicago actors are getting more actual working hours as theatre artisans, as opposed to people spending three years in grad school or living in NYC where it's more expensive to produce stuff and live, it's little wonder that Chicago is going to start consistently producing better work and better artists than New York or any grad school.

When "August: Osage County" was running on Broadway in the first couple of months, the New York Times had a running discussion in it's "Reading Room" on its web site about the play. It involved several theatre artists and critics dicussing the play. I believe Pulitzer Prize winner, Marsha Norman, was in on it. She wrote at one point that she believed that the playwriting nowadays, where one worked on a single play for several years while getting an assload of grants (I'm thinking a lot of MFAs with connections) was horrible for theatre. Norman thought that every theatre should have a writer-in-residence that wrote a play a year (or more) specifically crafted for the ensemble. Norman thought that this would produce better theatre and better plays.

You can read her comments here: http://readingroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/19/playwrights-and-the-theater/

Maybe if some Chicago theatre just focused on working with local playwrights who could write about a breadth of topics (or at least had the imagination and desire to), we could crank out more engaging, original work.

Rob Kozlowski

I agree with Ryan Patrick Dolan.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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