MFA in Playwriting: Yes? No? Maybe?

Hey older playwright! Yes, you. You who attend Dramatists Guild and other playwriting conferences and meetings in great number, take local and national playwriting classes, and send your work to the Seattle Playwrights Salon in hopes of snagging a development slot. Meaning, older than the average age of college students at graduation (age 24) and graduate students (age 33). As in at least middle age and older. Maybe you, like me, came to playwriting in the middle of our lives, in the midst of or after careers doing something else. Maybe you don’t have a theatre degree in your history.

I’ve heard you talk about the lack of fellowship, residency, and development offers for “late artists” such as ourselves. I’ve commiserated with you about our lack of connections to the theatres, artistic directors, and directors who would love our work, if they only knew about it. I share your envy of those playwrights who form bonds with peer groups and teachers in graduate school that last their entire careers, and for whom, we imagine, closed and locked theatre doors swing open at a touch. Are theatres with good national and regional reputations really only producing new work by “emerging” playwrights in their twenties and thirties? Do we just imagine eye-rolls when we call ourselves “emerging” after forty?

And there’s that whole “improving our craft” thing: a class or two, when and if we can find them; putting together a writers’ group for support; seeing lots of theatre. It’s so scattered! Is getting an MFA in playwriting sometimes the answer? Or part of the answer? It may depend on what we’re seeking. For me, I’m seeking instruction in craft and technique; history and context; connection and bonding; deepening ability to see and hear and tell stories that matter; and practice, practice, practice. Is an MFA in playwriting for me? My MFA won’t change the theatre world, but can it give me what I’m seeking?

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.

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.

MFA in Playwriting: No (Part 2 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’re hearing 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.

Second in our series is Duane Kelly who shares an intriguing alternative to pursuing an MFA.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Did you ever consider getting an MFA? How might it have changed your approach to playwriting?

Duane (right) with director Andy McGinn, on the set of his self-produced play “Visiting Cezanne”

Duane (right) with director Andy McGinn, on the set of his self-produced play “Visiting Cezanne”

Duane Kelly (DK): I never really considered an MFA program for myself. If I were a younger aspiring playwright and considering a two-year MFA program (estimated tuition $30,000), I think I could learn more by investing $5,000-$10,000 in self-producing one full-length play. For example, taking the play from early draft through development and rewriting phase (say three-four months) through producing—finding a venue; hiring a director, designers, actors; design process; rehearsals; closely observing the audience reaction (say another three-four months). One might learn more and become a better writer faster by investing $10,000 in one year of self-producing than spending $15,000 for one year of an MFA program.

As for myself, I went to grad school in English Literature at the UW 40+ years ago and have never seriously considered taking an MFA writing program. After co-founding Red Rover Theatre Company with John Davenport, I have in the last two years self-produced two new full-length plays. One of them, Visiting Cezanne, is receiving a second professional production (opens Feb. 15, 2019) ) at the Burien Actor’s Theater. I am planning to self-produce a third new full-length this fall in Seattle, under the Red Rover umbrella.

MFA in Playwriting: Maybe (Part 3 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’re hearing 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.

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We’re grateful to have Donna Hoke share her insights on the roles played by education, location, and goal setting (among other things) in a rewarding playwriting career.

Margaret O’DOnnell (MOD): Have you always seen yourself as a writer? Why did you start writing plays?  Was it after years of doing other kinds of writing?

Donna Hoke (DH): I have. I wrote stories when I was a kid, and though I got derailed getting a BS in Speech Pathology/Audiology, I went back immediately and got a BA in English with a concentration in journalism. I took a lot of creative writing classes for that degree, but never felt as good as other people, and hated the questions, comments, and assumptions from family, so I made a career in magazines and never looked back. 

Short version of how I found playwriting: living in New Jersey, my husband had started acting, so I was going to some community theater, and was intrigued. Then we divorced and I moved with my kids to Buffalo, where a few years later I got a subscription to Road Less Traveled Productions (I thought it would be a good thing to do with dates) that used to have a mission of doing world premieres by Western New York playwrights--like literally that was their whole season of four plays. They had a workshop that supplied the plays and, after seeing a few, I thought, "I think I can write a play as good as that and it would be fun to have a play produced." 

I toyed with the idea before I actually wrote the first one. I know this because my now-husband was the last person I took to that theater subscription in 2007, and we went to a New Year's Eve party that year and I met Rajiv Joseph (his brother and my husband play in the Buffalo Philharmonic together) and when I asked what he did, he said he was a playwright, and I was fascinated. He hadn't exploded yet, but soon after, I started writing that first play and that's when the dam just BROKE. I got into the workshop, and the second year, Road Less Traveled--which by now was only doing maybe one world premiere by a WNY playwright per season--produced my third full-length play, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (which just entered its fifth year running in rep in Romania).

MOD: You’ve earned many productions and awards in the ten years since you began writing plays.  How did you learn?  What served you best?

DH: I started going to a ton of theater. I went to so much that I got asked to be on the awards committee in Buffalo and between Buffalo, New York, and the Shaw Festival, I see more than 100 shows a year. That's my education. I read contemporary plays and see them in New York, and have a good handle on new work. I never took a single theater class, but I've seen, for example, five Arthur Miller shows staged, some more than once, and that's how I learn about the canon. I've read a lot of how-to books. I joined the Dramatists Guild immediately. I joined Official Playwrights of Facebook. But mostly, I just wrote--a lot. Since I wrote that first play in 2008, I have 19 full-length plays and three dozen short plays. What kept me going was ten-minute plays. After that first production, I did a litmus test where I got out the Dramatists Guild Resource Book and sent THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR to as many places as I could find that were appropriate; over time, that was about 300. And ZIP. And then I was driving home from New Jersey and heard a Springsteen song that prompted an idea for a ten-minute play, so I wrote it. And then I spent a year writing ten minute plays that I started sending out. I got my first acceptance in August 2011, and they just kept coming. I had no idea then how hard it was to get a full-length play produced, but the success I had with the ten-minute plays--from theaters outside Buffalo, theaters where nobody knew me--was so validating and motivating because I knew I must be doing something right. I still advise all new playwrights to start with tens; because everything moves so much more quickly with them, you'll know soon enough if you're doing it right. 

MOD: Starting over again, would you do things differently? Your best advice about what not to do?

DH: Start sooner! I so envy playwrights my age who started when most scripts were still snail mailed because I know I would have had the stamina to do those weekly trips to the post office and I think it was a lot easier to get your script read in those days. Barring that, I don't know what I could or would have done differently that was in my power. I was a single parent with four kids under age 11. I couldn't move to New York, I couldn't go back to school. But I did what I could to immerse myself 100%: writing, reading, attending shows, starting a blog (which in the early days was just my playwriting news; the advocacy came as I learned). I asked advice from everyone. When I could, I started going to conferences. I walked the walk and, over time, it started to pay off. I had my first full-length production outside of Buffalo in 2014--four years after the first and six years after I'd written my first play. You have to be in this for the long haul and if there's anything I see among other new playwrights--those who haven't found the calling as early as college--is they write one play and stop when it doesn't get produced. Their dream is that elusive production, not being a playwright, and while that might be enough to get you started, it's not enough to keep you going.

MOD: Are there any circumstances when you’d recommend a MFA in playwriting to an emerging/beginning playwright?

DH:  An older one? It all depends on why you want to do it. I have a similar conversation with people about whether or not it would be helpful for me to move to New York and the answer comes back about the same: I'm not sure there's anything that move would accomplish for me, at my age, and with the level of recognition I have. Everybody knows I live in Buffalo, they know I jump on a plane at the drop of a hat. What would it accomplish? I kind of feel the same about the MFA in that I don't feel like it would necessarily boost my career, but if I had the money, it would be another way to continue to learn and work with new people. Some people also need the discipline of a program to keep writing and learning. Or maybe their work isn't getting chosen as often as they'd like and they want to dig deeper into craft. It's a personal decision, and the only caveat I would say to anyone considering one is don't expect it to be a magic bullet. Nothing really is.

MOD: What are your goals now for your writing and for productions?

DH: I still aim to write two full-length scripts a year, and this year, I'd like one of them to be a TV movie screenplay, which means I'll actually be writing two and half scripts because I have one that I didn't finished last year because I traveled so much and I'm still trying to find time to write the final three scenes of! I just wrote a sitcom pilot, which was something new, and I really enjoyed doing it; I'd love to write for television--that's actually a dream I had years ago when I worked for Soap Opera Digest--but I feel the only way to get there is to have success with playwriting first, so it's a long shot. You actually remind me that I haven't even written out my 2019 goals yet! I need to do that! But, when I do, they won't be production goals because those are out of my control; they're writing and marketing goals. (Here's an older blog post about how I set goals.) Setting goals you can't control--aka dreams--will only frustrate you, but in setting the achievable ones, those dreams often follow. I just took a look at that linked post from 2014, and I have since achieved every one of those career achievement goals I had listed then. One achievable goal I have for the next two years is to be able to give up one of my survival jobs to give myself more time to write.

MOD: What themes draw you? 

DH: I traffic a lot in sex and gender politics and expectation, rooting for the underdogs, but also just some compelling stories. My plays really run the gamut, from a Christmas comedy about out addiction to social media to a nine-person historic play about a 1955 gay bar in New York City to sex worker caught between her sugar daddy and her boyfriend (that's my 2016 Kilroys List play). If I had to choose one thing that cuts across most of them is that they sit unapologetically on the blurry line between what is allegedly right and what is allegedly wrong. I am fascinated by the gap between those seeming or recognized absolutes and that's where a lot of my plays find their homes.

MOD:  In addition to writing many full-length and short plays and seeing them produced widely, you are a regular blogger on playwriting, a moderator of Official Playwrights of Facebook, a frequent speaker on playwriting, a play submissions guru, a Dramatist Guild regional rep, and more. Do these activities feed your playwriting? Or take away from it? And where and when do you fit in writing?

DH: I'm actually on Dramatists Guild Council lol. I wouldn't say those things feed my writing, but they feed my sense of community and belonging as a playwright. If I didn't do those things, if I didn't give back, it would always be about me, me, me and my next production--I see that much too often and I don't want to be like that. One of the best parts of being a playwright is the people and experiences and those are always happening even when a production isn't; you have to embrace them and realize that those experiences, more than any production or career achievement, are the real purpose and joy in all this. Sure, it takes time from my writing, but the trade-off is so worth it.

Feel like giving back? Consider volunteering with the Seattle Playwrights Salon. Details here.

More Stories, More Community: An Interview with Valerie Curtis-Newton

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"For most of my career as an artist and teacher, I have held firmly to the belief that Theatre's fundamental function is to put us in relationship with one another, inspiring a sense of community. As current events shake the foundations of communities around the world, I find myself increasingly committed to Theatre not only as a means of self-expression but also as an essential condition for the creation and rejuvenation of community."

Valerie Curtis-Newton

Valerie Curtis-Newton is currently the Head of Performance - Directing at the University of Washington School of Drama, and serves as the Founding Artistic Director for The Hansberry Project, a professional African American theatre lab. The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell, interviewed her for this article.

Salon: When and why did you choose directing as your primary theatre art?

VCN: I was a sophomore in college and a professor suggested I try directing. I thought for a while that acting would be my way into theatre, but my mind was constantly working to solve the larger puzzle. Once I got a taste of directing, it sort of took over my creative ambition.

Salon: You list “passion projects – the ones I’d kill to do” on your website. What draws you to these plays? Is there a common theme, style, or language?

VCN: I have come to realize that I am drawn to pieces in which a character, usually a woman, finds her voice. I also get excited by people or communities holding on to each other through adversity. You might say that I'm a sucker for resilience.

Salon: You write that “I want my community to … sit together and hear some new stories… I want them to be changed…I want them to really see each other and to move through the world with greater kindness, greater compassion for each other. And because kindness and compassion in action look like courage, I want to make my community brave.” How have you seen this work in your life and career? When has it worked best? What does a play need in order to begin this transformation?

VCN: There is a saying that courage is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible. One can't exercise any virtue without a modicum of courage. Through art, I have seen work create conversations where there were none. Dialogues across difference taking place to open the lines for communication, persuasion and debate. All of these are conditions necessary for change to occur. It has worked best when the work was most honest. WEDDING BAND and TROUBLE IN MIND are two examples of powerful, truth-telling plays that had an impact in the community. The audiences were as diverse as any I've witnessed here in Seattle. The post show conversations were rich. I think a play requires courage, truth-telling, accountability, craft, and intentionality.

Salon: What are you looking for when you read a new script? What makes you say – this has promise? What makes you say – I’ve got to direct this! What makes you toss it aside?

VCN: I like messy plays that ask tough questions about how we take care of each other as human beings. It doesn't need to be perfect but rather, it must hold its characters to a high standard of humanity.

Salon: What are your tips for new playwrights just learning how to work with directors? How can newcomers find the directors that not only are competent to direct their plays, but wildly enthusiastic about doing so?

VCN: See everything you can and then be brave enough to ask.

Salon: As a director, what is the advice/guidance you’ve given most frequently to playwrights who are working with you? What do playwrights who work with you well have in common?

VCN: Say what you mean. Put it on the page. Accept that there may be multiple ways to get there and trust the team. They have a tremendous passion for stories and openness to collaboration. Then, we can we can find the true thing which may differ from our initial imaginings. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Salon: What kinds of plays do you want to see more of?

VCN: I’m always interested in seeing plays that make us examine how we are living, how we are connected and how we disappoint each other.

Salon: You are the artistic director of The Hansberry Project, with the mission of “celebrating, supporting, and presenting the work of black theatre artists.” Since the project began in 2006, what’s changed, if anything, in theatre – are black artists getting more productions? Better productions?

VCN: There is greater interest in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. In some ways that is a wonderful thing. There are more opportunities in venues with more support. In other ways, little has changed. The number of people of color with meaningful season planning input remains small. We still don’t have tremendous say in which stories about our community are told. Many communities still lack substantive relationships with the communities they serve. The budgets don’t determine the quality of the productions but the support and agency of the black artists involved makes all the difference.

Salon: You directed a group of community, mostly non-actors in “Every 28 Hours: 76 one-minute plays focused on the policing of black bodies” in December 2017. I was stunned by the quality of the acting and the power of the performances. What was your experience of working with this group? I heard you had one rehearsal.

VCN: Most of the actors for that project were actors I knew or had worked with mixed with some community members. The only one rehearsal is because my experience is that sometimes less is more. The spirit of the improvisation is palpable and creates a special energy. Everyone involved in that project was there because they wanted to be, the issue was important to them. They inherently understood the stakes and mission of the project.

Salon: As an educator of directors, what qualities, skills, and attitudes are you looking to enhance and cultivate you in your students? When you direct, what are the qualities, skills, and attitudes that attract you to an actor? What kind of actors are your favorites to work with?

VCN: The answer to these questions is the same: Resilience, Perseverance and Courage. A willingness to try without guarantee of success. The ability to recognize there is value in every effort. The intention/drive to be compassionate with collaborators and faithful to our audiences.