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5 Tips for Finding the Right MFA Program

5 Tips for Finding the Right MFA Program
Photo Source: @cric_ab via Twenty20

Pursuing an MFA in theater is becoming a common practice for American artists. With many relying on jobs in theater education, an MFA is often a prerequisite. In addition to allowing students to further pursue and hone their craft, perhaps the presence of an MFA adds a further legitimacy to the field, mirroring the training processes of other fields.

However, unlike other pursuits, a life in the American theater is inherently shaky, changing, and unpredictable. Despite what some may say, with a growing number of programs and with the open-ended nature of theater, an MFA applicant should be creative in carving a path.

As an education director of a theater company, chairperson with the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, teacher, and incoming graduate candidate/graduate teaching assistant in an MFA directing program, here are some thoughts on how to do just that.

1. Forget the hype and think financially.
There is a lot of hype in theater and yet there are no tests, assessments, or empirical protocols to examine an artist’s value. Graduating from a “prestigious” program with a lot of debt doesn't make you a working artist, it just makes you an artist with debt.

Most Actors’ Equity members earn, on average, less than $15,000 annually. If you’re going to spend 2-3 years in a graduate program, make sure it’s an option that is affordable for you. The heaviness of financial weight could limit your artistic lifestyle.

Examine if the program is fully-funded, provides healthcare or a stipend. Look into the financial security of the school by researching its endowment and see if it has had any financial fluctuations or uncertainties that could put your program at risk. You don’t want to be going into a program that could be cut when time get tough! Graduate students are older and life decisions are already in motion. Will this graduate program be a sound decision for your life as it stands now?

2. Think about where you are and what you need.
Considering all components of your life will help you create a scope for where you should look. Graduate students have lives in motion, so one should be deliberate when thinking about pausing that motion or doing a chapter change. For example, when looking for a graduate program, I considered how connected I am to my hometown, New Orleans, and my ensemble, The NOLA Project; I wanted to be close. I thought about my pet. I thought about my car. I considered my finances (including undergraduate debt). I wanted to live in a city that was affordable and attend a fully-funded program.

READ: Is a BFA Worth the Debt? 

I know I work better in small groups, I like individualized training in a mentor-pupil setting, I like to teach and I like working with people who have teaching experience. Once I had my scope, I could pinpoint which program was best for those educational needs. That’s just me; everyone is different so make sure you have your own list of priorities. 

3. Look into the program and meet the people.
Research into how many people your program accepts, what their pedagogy/training is, and how much ability you will have to create, experiment, and play.

Visit the schools and meet the professors. Get a sense of whether the professors are truly there to be educators or are just enjoying a higher education featherbed. Meet students and ask, honestly, what their experience has been. Tour the entire theater facility: from dressing rooms to lighting booths and ask exactly what students are allowed to interact with. Research their seasons and see if the plays excite you. Attend a few performances and assess them critically. Look into how many other graduate programs the theater department offers: Will you be working alongside graduate designers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, stage managers? Does the school allow the graduate students to have “ownership” of the facilities and resources?

4. Figure out what you will be doing.
Get a very clear answer on what exactly you will do: How many classes will you take? How many productions will you work on? How many courses will you teach? Can you produce independent work? How long are rehearsal periods? How much writing, reading, and research will you do? Understand exactly what you’re getting into.

5. Consider the people you’ll meet.
Theater is a social art and your education is all your own. Consider if you want a lot of classmates or only a few. Think about how a program will expose you to different people, ideas, and perspectives. Gauge if not only the professors will challenge you but if your peers will challenge you as well.

And remember, it’s not where you go, it’s what you do there. Use good judgment and be creative with carving your path in this creative field.

*This post was originally published on Aug. 23, 2017. It has since been updated. 

Alex Ates is a director, actor, and educator rooted in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the education and engagement director of The NOLA Project and is a network chair with The American Alliance for Theatre and Education. He has directed five regional premieres with The NOLA Project and co-created and directed "The Shakespearean Jazz Show." Alex has been a featured actor with The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival since 2010 and is a member of Actors’ Equity Association. His writing has been published in Howlround. Alex has spent the past three years on the Theater faculty at Lusher School. In the fall, he will be attending the University of Alabama as the only person selected into their MFA Directing program, serving as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. In 2013, Alex received his undergraduate Acting and Directing degree from Emerson College. Learn more at iAmAlexAtes.com.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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