While I was on the island, a number of people have been talking about MFA programs and my posts on them. I don't have time now to address all of them, nor do all of them merit addressing as I've been fairly thorough in the past, but I'll go through this response from a commentor at Parabasis as it is the latest to land.
Lately, Mike Daisey, theatrical gadfly, has taken it upon himself to rectify a certain area of the theatre world called the MFA.
I have no idea why people choose to open with a tone like this, but it makes it difficult to engage in civil discourse. And to be clear, I am trying to RECTIFY nothing—that would imply that I've begun activist work. All I've done is post my thoughts to my site. Despite the vote of confidence in my vast powers, this doesn't rise to rectification.
It's a subject that's been well chewed over, but since Mike's HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA has made him resident ombudsman for the theatre world, the subject is getting fresh attention.
1) I don't think it has been very well discussed—in fact, I don't think it's been talked about nearly enough.
2) I doubt I'm an ombudsman—all I did was post my thoughts on the matter. If people choose to engage with that, well and good...but I'm getting tired of the ad hominem attacks because I have the temerity to talk about shit.
First, seeing that an Acting MFA costs a lot, he calls into question what its real value is. This perspective means he's looking at MFA programs as simple equations that can be boiled down to: If I pay this in up front, how much will I get paid back later?
But that certainly is a component to them, isn't it? And if the costs are so high, and the remuneration for the craft that school teaches is so low, shouldn't that be a topic for discussion? An MFA in theater is a craft-based learning--I have no idea why it is so crass to discuss how one will pay back that debt in practice.
It is a notion we're more used to hearing on the Squawk Box on CNBC every morning. If one believes this is the way education should be understood, we should call into question any liberal arts program that does not qualify as pre-med, pre-law and pre-mba.
I've seen this specious line of counter-argument a couple of places: the idea is that I'm a raving capitalist. It's ridiculous and stupid: all I'm pointing out is that the one thing an MFA is supposed to prepare you for (a life working in the American theater) is ridiculously incapable of repaying the debt that put you there.
Also, I am not talking about how "education" should be reformed—a constant issue I'm dealing with is folks who unnaturally expand the scope of my argument, so they can win reductio ad absurdum. I am specifically speaking about MFA programs in the American theater.
Of course, he doesn't tell us who has been through some of these programs that have succeeded. It's just assumed everyone's a loser. It might be interesting to look at a shortlist of MFA success stories:
Sigorney Weaver, Meryl Streep, Danny Glover, Debra Messing, Billy Crudup, Michael Hall, Denzel Washington, Annette Benning, Benjamin Bratt, Anna Shapiro, etc.
Is this a joke? It looks as though you've offered a list of nine movie and television stars as evidence of "success". At least Anna works in the theater--so we have ONE success, in history, against the hundreds (probably thousands, but I will have to do research to confirm) of MFA graduates every year? I'm not sure this is a fruitful argument for you.
I'm arguing that the cost and debt is excessive for theater artists—I have no idea why the evidence of a small number of people who do very well who have been to MFA programs contraindicates what I'm saying.
Did these people really get by on nothing but connections? Really? Or just talent? It is not only impossible to say, but it's ridiculous to say you know. No one knows. We only know that they are successful and they have MFAs.
Isn't this the same kind of tortured logic the Church used to "prove" that Galileo was wrong?
When did I state that I knew how these people were successful? I've never even talked about these people. This is a straw man.
Mike then calls current MFA acting programs "Ponzi schemes."
I said, very clearly, that they were like a Ponzi scheme, as I was discussing how each generation gets in debt to pay out the generation before it by supporting the institution that trains them. I did not actually say they WERE a Ponzi scheme. There is a difference.
He further says that current administrators and teachers in MFA acting programs are by thus, by default, "complicit" in this ponzi scheme.
I said that artists who work perpetuating this system need to assess their own complicity within it, and evaluate what their institution is doing to the art form—programs vary immensely, and some will be more or less abusive than others.
Of course he doesn't tell you who those people are - but who teaches in those programs?
Here are just a few names that teach or have taught at programs that cost real money:
Robert Woodruff, Lonny Price, Kristin Linklater, Andrei Serban, Joseph Chaiken, Richard Foreman, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, Morgan Jenness, Wendy Goldberg, Amiri Baraka, Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, Natalie Shirer, Donald Margulies, Deb Margolin, Anne Bogart, David Schweitzer, Estelle Parson... etc.
I love how this time around, with the teachers, we get a list that is almost all people who *actually* work within the living theater, as opposed to the "success" stories.
I know a number of people well on that list—Woodruff, Bogart, Jenness, Schweitzer—so let me be clear: YES. All those people have a responsibility to assess their complicity in the MFA system, and ensure that their participation is not doing damage to the theatrical ecosystem. In fact, as teachers and independent artists of note they have a very high responsibility to do so. I have no idea why artistic achievement would exempt these people from assessing the direct effects their choices have.
According to Mike these people are part of the destruction of American Theatre. But read the names again and ask yourself, Really? These people?
Yes, that would be problematic if I had said something so incredibly stupid, but since I didn't we don't have to worry about it.
It's another straw man, but beneath it is the truth that yes, artists teach and choose where and how to teach, and we bear a responsibility for the state of the system, and a moral obligation to work for reform.
There's a case of dramatic overstatement going on here that starts with some all-too-quick conclusions drawn from superficial research and understanding about MFAs.
Not to be too snarky, but I think this more accurately describes the writer than it does on me.
His arguments serve those who believe that MFAs are about connections alone and that nobody can learn anything from anyone else when it comes to the theatrical training.
Look, it might *serve* those people if they are morons, but they aren't my opinions—I think learning and craft-based training is very important. If I did not I wouldn't be making statements about it—I would simply tell everyone I knew to never go to any MFA programs and have done with it. But I believe in education, and in the ability of training that doesn't break the back of artists to be a vital link in our American theater...and that's why I'm addressing these things. We need a better system.
Not that big debt for an MFA is a great thing. It's not. It's quite a serious problem.
Finally, some agreement.
But suggesting no-one gets anything but debt out of an MFA, unless they're a teacher, is such a blanket statement built on assumptions of why people go and how they do after, it should be regarded quite suspiciously.
It would be, if I had said this, but I didn't. I know people get LOTS of things out of MFA programs...LOTS and LOTS. But what I care about is the LOTS and LOTS of DEBT they get on the way to doing that, and how that prevent them from practicing their craft, which is what they ostensibly were trained for.
Though others have pointed some of these things out elsewhere, Mike doesn't re-address the issues with these new thoughts in mind. Instead he publishes a testimonial from an MFA playwright who feels he learned nothing of value from his Columbia education.
1) I'm readdressing them now. Happy Birthday.
2) The posting of links and messages to the site indicates my interest, but not my automatic endorsement—unless I am stating something it isn't a statement from me. Things I am saying are bold, like this. Things others are saying are italicized.
Mike doesn't help himself much when he suggests solutions to the situation might come by making loans "income contingent."
I didn't. That's a Slate article I linked to. That's why it's in italics.
Though I will say that there's nothing wrong with an income contingent loan program if it is accompanied by actual funding that helps defray and cushion against shocks—I think it is a compelling proposal for education.
What would be more helpful would be an overhaul of the consolidation system that allows one to only consolidate once. If you consolidate when the interest rate is high, you're screwed forever.
Well, you really can't "consolidate" more than once--what you're really talking about is more options for refinancing, and I agree, that would be a good avenue to explore.
The commentator concludes with some thoughts on loans, which you can link back and read, but since they are about education in general I'll let this overlong posting come to an end.
I have a performance this evening in Melbourne, and now must return to my work. I am not sure I will be returning to this subject on the site anytime soon—I've been somewhat disappointed with the level of discourse that has sprung from what I've said, and I'm not convinced that people are listening in a constructive way, at least the ones who are posting the most often. We'll see.