In my recent conversations with theater artists, we often talk about the insane cost of MFA theater programs--future artists get saddled with over $100,000 in debt for many three year programs.
What makes this reprehensible is that there is no rational way for the VAST majority artists to repay this massive debt through the practice of their art. You would think that an industry would adapt to those circumstances, and that this would result in less MFA programs...but instead they're at colleges across the country, and their advertisements fuel our industry. AMERICAN THEATRE magazine appears to be supported entirely by ads for MFA programs.
This deepens these programs' legitimacy, and the participants dig themselves in more and more. When I talk to young people in schools, I am constantly asked which MFA programs I would recommend. They are routinely lied to and told baldly that without MFA training they couldn't possibly be ready to perform for the public. In undergraduate programs professors of the theater (who very often have never come near the professional theater) push students on to further studies, encouraging them to believe they need further training before working.
In this way our best and brightest, who want so badly to do the right thing and are willing to sacrifice to make their careers work, get saddled with the largest debts, ensuring that they'll have the hardest time staying in the profession.
What brought this up for me today was this Slate article with advice for young lawyers in debt. The advice-seeker writes:
Dear Patty and Sandy,
I'm a law student in my final year, pondering my career plans. I'll be clerking for a judge for one year following law school but am torn as to where I'll go next. Law school usually results in an enormous amount of student loan debt, and I'll be no exception: I'm looking at roughly $100,000. I've always been driven toward public service and government work, and wanted a career in law in order to help those unable to help themselves. I'm considering a career in refugee law or perhaps as a public defender or district attorney. The trouble, of course, is that these positions pay salaries that would present a challenge even without law school loans to pay off. The conventional wisdom from a number of friends, family, and fellow students seems to be taking a high-paying job with a private law firm for a few years in order to pay off loans is the prudent course, particularly in difficult economic times. I don't want to work for a law firm: When I was a little girl, I dreamed of saving the world, not of billing hours. Still ... $100,000 is a daunting number. Any advice?
Then two skilled and experienced lawyers then give the young woman heartfelt advice.
Where is this process happening in theater? Where are older actors and artists advising the next generation on what to do with their debt? This is an essential process, and we learn nothing if each generation has to blindly stumble forward.
I'll tell you where they are: they are nowhere. They have no answers, and no venues to speak them in. Artists in the American theater see a life devoid of support, to such an extent that they have no answers for themselves, much less the next generation.
There are no "corporate jobs" in the American theater that one can take for a few years to reduce that law-school-sized debt. At least there are none that don't involve leaving the theater entirely, or making it a nighttime career while you struggle at a day job, scraping up the cash needed to pay the massive debt you incurred, and closing the door on making it a viable career you could invest yourself in full-time.
But there is one way.
The equivalent of the corporate job in the American theater is to work in academia. Keep climbing the ladder, and then you can finally pull a salary which, while small, is still more stable and more supported than artists will receive. Then those artists become complicit in the system, and perpetuate the cycle of abuse by passing their debt on to the next generation.
It is a broken system, and a huge number of artists and schools are complicit in this failure.