MFA in Playwriting: Yes (Part 1 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’ll hear from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

First up is our interview with Todd Ristau on the right (and not so right) reasons to pursue an MFA.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): What are the most important reasons you know for getting an MFA in playwriting?

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Todd Ristau (TR): The only reason I can think of is that you honestly want to be a better playwright.  I hear a lot of other reasons given by people considering an MFA in playwriting, and I find them very frustrating.  “Because I want to be able to fall back on teaching.”  That’s a terrible reason to get an MFA.  “Because it seems like a degree from the right school is the only way to get past the gatekeepers and get produced!” That’s an even WORSE reason to get an MFA… you’d be much better off spending your money on self-producing.  “So I can have time to devote just to writing.”  Couldn’t you do that without getting a degree?  “To be part of a community of other writers.” Again, you don’t need a degree to do that… but, if you said you wanted to be part of a community of writers who are ALSO concentrating on being better playwrights, then I’d stand up and cheer. 

The amount of time and money you invest in a degree is only worthwhile if you are totally invested in learning how to do what you already love doing even better. Learning through exercises and focused coursework.  Learning through guided readings and exposure to other playwrights. Learning by interacting with established playwrights who are teachers and guest artists. Learning by working in an interdisciplinary way with other playwrights and actors and directors and dramaturgs and designers and technicians and everyone else who represents exactly the kinds of collaborators you might someday work with in the profession. That’s why you need to ask questions about a program’s pedagogy, philosophy, and not about brand affiliation. Before you can get any good out of anything you want, start by being clear about what you want and why you want it. If what you want is validation and a secret handshake to get past mythical gate keepers, don’t get an MFA. Sorry, I have feelings about this. Deep feelings.

MOD: Who seems to benefit most from an MFA program?  How about those who don’t benefit?

TR: There are people who are going to tell you that the people who benefit most are the ones who pocket your tuition. If you really feel that way, don’t get an MFA. See above for why I say that. The playwright who will benefit from an MFA is the one who comes in eager to learn and who is prepared to see their work as a blueprint for further collaboration with other artists and an audience. The ones who don’t benefit are the ones who have come to prove they didn’t need to learn anything but getting a degree is “just part of the game.”  Did I mention I had feelings?

MOD: Why did you decide to get an MFA?  What changed in your life and career because of it?

TR: Honestly, I didn’t have any of the high minded reasons I gave above. But, it was still a reflection of all of that. I was at Iowa as an undergraduate and I lived and breathed theatre. I was mostly acting, but theatre was this vehicle that just opened up my own life to me and helped me engage with other people in truly empathetic ways. And like my life was an improv game, I just kept saying yes to the offers that came to me. I joined Geese Company at 18, which was an improvisational mask work company doing Grotowski based pieces for inmates in prison. I toured with them for a year and performed in 170 prisons. Then I went back to school for a year and was asked to be in a garage band and go live in London for six months and I said yes.  Then I came back to school and my friend asked me to take a playwriting class with him because he was nervous about doing it alone. I wrote a one act for a midterm and another for my final. The teacher asked the head of the department what he should do if someone wrote good plays and the head of the department gave me a production slot to put both up as a night of one acts. It sold out all three nights. As a reward, I got to do a semester of the Playwright’s Workshop while I was an undergrad. I had to write another play. They put that in playwrights festival and everyone loved it, so they let me do another semester in the grad workshop.

I ended up doing five consecutive semesters of playwrights workshop before I finished my undergrad and then they gave me a $3000 scholarship to do my grad work at Iowa. Which I did. It wasn’t really a plan, so much as being open to my bliss or whatever calling me. Now I have devoted my life to helping other people hear and follow that same bliss. I’m constantly learning, advocating for learning and teaching. Exactly the way any playwright should be. I also really, genuinely love the administrative work of running a program, hiring good faculty and guests, and finding eager students. Nothing I am doing now would have been possible without my MFA, but it was never a career path. It was always a way for me to learn how to be more effective at doing the work that I love. 

MOD: If you could design the theatre world in the US from the ground up, God-like, what would it look like?  What part would formal academics play in this ideal world?

TR: I sort of feel like that is exactly what we’re doing at Hollins, so I’m not sure how to answer that question in the abstract. It would be a world where people support each other rather than compete with each other. It would be a world where the education was entirely subsidized so that nobody had to worry about crushing debt being one more thing keeping you from succeeding. It would be a world where success wouldn’t be measured in retweets or bank accounts. It would be a world where playwrights were as eager to go see plays by other people as they are anxious to get you to buy tickets to their own shows. It would be a world where access to training was easy and affordable and classes were taught by working professionals and never by people who resent or tear down their students. I guess it would be this world but where there is justice, generosity, and genuine collaboration. 

MOD: For those who don’t have the money for MFA programs (upwards of $50,000), how do you recommend they approximate the experience?  Is it possible?

TR: That’s a great question, and I don’t have an answer. But, again, Hollins is not designed to be an ivory tower with a moat and a fence of poisoned brambles to keep people who can’t afford to get in on the outside. Maybe you can’t take classes at Hollins because you don’t have an undergrad degree or you can’t afford the tuition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of connecting with us. We partner with Mill Mountain Theatre so that we can bring lots of our programming to downtown Roanoke, and we offer it free to the public in most cases. In part, because I want our students interacting with the very public they are training to serve! 

Beyond finding a new play development program like Hollins to hang around with, I would recommend you find a theatre that does stuff you like and volunteer to read scripts, to sweep floors, to usher, to do anything you can to just be in and around theatre. Breathe it in and breath it out and you’re going to learn stuff. But again, back to my first point… if you are going there to try and scam them into doing your play, forget it. If you’re not going there to learn more about theatre so you can do it better, all the networking in the world isn’t going to help you. And  GO SEE PLAYS. And pay for the privilege. If you won’t pay to see a play, why do you think anyone will pay to see yours? If you’re not buying tickets, you can’t be that surprised that theatres are closing. But, when you go, make notes in your playbill of the people whose work you admire. Try to get to know that actor or that director or that designer. Give them your honest positive feedback and hope they ask you how you’re connected to the theatre. When you tell them you are a playwright don’t just shove a script in their hand, say “I hope I have a production someday that would merit the talent of a designer like you. You really know how to support the text with your work!” That’s the kind of thing that will get them interested in asking to see YOUR work. That’s how you build a circle of people who you want to work with and hopefully want to work with you. That’s how you get a director to drop your name when an artistic director asks what projects they’d like to work on. Anyway, my advice always seems to boil down to honestly wanting to be better and do your best to not be a jerk.

MOD: OnStage Blog.com lists their top ten playwriting programs 2018-19. All are two- and three-year full-time programs, expensive, and highly selective. For those who can’t go to school again full time, don’t or don’t want to get into a top ten school, and/or don’t have the funds, is attending a less well-known school a good idea?

TR: Please do not pick your MFA based on a top ten list. Ask yourself what is the criteria for how they rank the schools and then compare it to the criteria you have for what a school is offering that will best help you achieve your personal, artistic, and professional goals. Oh, you haven’t made a list of your personal, professional and artistic goals?  Start there. Then ask the schools in your price range how they can help you achieve those goals. Trust me, they will be honest. It won’t do them any good to have you go there, spend all your time complaining to them about how they aren’t as good as the big name schools and then have you going on playwriting forums and telling people that MFAs are a huge waste of time. 

When I’m looking at applications, I give a lot more weight to the letter of intent and the explanation for why someone thinks Hollins is the right choice for them than I do their writing samples. That letter of intent is how I figure out if we are going to be a good fit for each other. If it sounds like you would do better in a different program, I will tell you.  If you don’t think we’re prestigious enough, please tell me! I want our program to be the place you chose to become a better playwright, not the program you settled for. And I tell everyone, theatre is a maddening, thankless, expensive way to go broke. You’re not coming to Hollins to get a job. You’re coming to Hollins to learn how to be the best playwright you can possibly be. That’s where it starts. That’s where it never ends.