Mike Daisey on MFA theater programs

Mike Daisey has written an excellent post about the cost of MFA theater programs and how that affects artists. Some highlights are below, but I recommend reading the whole blog post.

“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.”

“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.”

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    9 thoughts on “Mike Daisey on MFA theater programs

    1. Angela

      I agree with the stance that actors need to support and guide other actors (after all, a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle… which is part of why I’ve tried my hardest to keep my grad school blog going).

      That said, not all MFA programs are financial burdens. I only considered grad schools that would waive tuition (which includes a larger number of programs than one might think). And many of those programs had assistantships (most of them teaching-based) that offered stipends

      The program I’m in not only waives tuition, but also pays each student a stipend (I am paid every two weeks during the school year) to help with the cost of living. The stipend is given to all students as part of a non-teaching assistantship — 1st-years tech and understudy, 2nd-years perform and act as assistants to a member of the faculty or staff, 3rd-years perform and understudy.

      I am halfway through my first year, and have not needed to take out any loans yet. I don’t know whether I’ll need them in the next two years, but I do know that I will not be “over $100,000 in debt”, as Mike Daisey worries. So it is, indeed, possible.

    2. Dennis Baker


      I would say your school is in the minority with full tuition reimbursement and stipend. A majority of the MFA programs do not pay for school. Or even worse, some schools base scholarship not on finical need, but favoritism the head of the program has for the students in class.

      I also think there is a bigger question in the article, the idea that one must gain MFA training before they are ready to perform (and I would add have a career). The MFA structure in American universities needs to be questioned and examined to find its true purpose. Is the sustainability of the actor/student the goal of all universities or a select minority? The core of a university structure is a business model and if they don’t charge their students, they won’t make money. More and more universities have MFA/BFA programs because a lot of people apply for them and therefore more money for the schools. Again, the business is being looked after, but the individual is left to accrue mounds of debt.

    3. Laura

      You know what else is interesting? I considered pursuing an MFA, precisely because at that time, what I wanted to do was teach. But I wanted to focus on an MFA, to teach undergrad-level acting, not a Theatre Education MA. I was advised NEVER to admit to MFA programs that I was pursuing a degree in order to teach, because they only wanted “serious actors.” I also chose only to apply to programs that waived tuition. Long story short, I never ended up in an MFA program.

      Not all undergrad programs are finishing schools for MFA programs, though you may need to look a little bit off the beaten track to find them. I got a phenomenal undergrad education in theatre, at a tiny school in the middle of nowhere that offered me a generous financial aid package and just happened to have some of the best teachers around. And when I wanted to start applying to grad schools straight away, the department chair actually talked me OUT of it. He told me to get out of school and go work, live in the real world for a while. He said that if I still wanted to go back to school in a few years, I would be more attractive to grad schools with some professional experience under my belt. And that if I ended up teaching some day, I would have much more to offer my students if I had actually worked in the career they were pursuing in the real world. I wish all these students piling up their $100,000 worth of debt had gotten the same advice I did. I learned more on stage working for theatres of every size and shape over the past 10 years than grad school ever could have taught me.

    4. BFG

      I have to say that while my undergrad left me more than sufficiently in debt, it also more than adequately prepared me to perform for the public. And none of my professors (all of whom had a close, personal relationship with the theatre) ever suggested that continuing on to an MFA was the only road, or even the best road. If you’ve made the best choice in your undergraduate education, shouldn’t you already be well enough equipped to begin a career?

      There is always value in continuing your education, but there is not necessarily a reason to go into greater debt to do it. And I don’t mean to knock MFAs (to each his/her own), but there are more creative solutions to the issue of continuing education. Furthermore, being in school and being in the real world are two very different things, even when school is getting your MFA. And the education of the real world, while frustrating, has a better bang for its buck.

      Of course, I would always appreciate a better system of mentorship amongst theatre artists. And I think the argument for that is worth exploring.

    5. matt

      I understand the money issue. However, if you get into a great program and bust your ass you have a better chance of getting top representation which could get you in more doors to show those people what you have.

    6. Mick Montgomery

      I would 100% disagree with Matt that an MFA program helps you get ‘top’ representation. Top Agencies only handle clients with established quotes of six figures or more that can be packaged into projects with other talent in the Agency roster. A student Fresh out of Grad School, would only get into a ‘top agency’ for representation, if they get a job f

      MFA programs do little to help you get representation or even work. Most of the people working in high level producing jobs in theater, television or feature films do not consider “Graduate” work meaningful, because it only speaks towards the potential of a actor to be good in a role. They do not want potential, they want profitable. As William Goldman wrote, “Producers do not want new, they want whatever already works or a reasonable facscimile there of.

      Also, many top level folks, especially in Hollywood, look at training at the University Level as amateurish. They usually have little confidence in the credibility of the actual professors with in the Universities. They still hold to the old saying “Those who can’t, teach.” So to many, a formal education is meaningless.

      Therefore I believe an MFA program is only beneficial to the actor who would like to eventually teach at the University level. I have however noticed from personal and anecdotal experience that Casting Directors and Agents are interested if you’ve trained with certain private coaches with in that town. I remember, I once got an audition and eventually a role in a commercial, because I had studied with a certain person in Los Angeles.

      If you want to truly get ‘good representation’ take Laura’s advice. Focus on getting work outside of school, that’s the best class room.

      If you need additional training, take up classes with a top private coach you respect and connect with, it’ll be far more cost effective, and beneficial than your MFA would ever be.

    7. Carrie Edel Isaacman

      I would like to give my two cents also about thoughts about MFA programs and options.
      I have many personal feelings about the MFA programs and the practicality of them also and how they can be applied.

      From a viewpoint of speaking with other fellow actors and teaching artists, a great point of frustration has been that they spend so much and get so far in to debt by completing their program which so greatly negatively impacts quality of life that they are not able to pursue any artistic work. Or if they do pursue teaching then they find that most of the jobs are in the K-12 Public Schools, and they need additional Educational Credits.

      My thought is that these MFA programs start include more emphasis on doing two things: requiring that students choose a focus from which to study so that they can have a small business ready to go upon graduation. The other suggestion would be to include required classes towards becoming a credentialed teacher in the K-12 Public School System. My point is that included in the wonderful training that actors receive, that they must also have education towards applying the training for making a living wage besides the information that MFA programs often give towards the business of making a living as an actor.

    8. Ken Tschan

      Good discussion. Sorry I have come to it so late. I began as a Theatre Arts major in 1983. I finished my BA in Theatre Studies (never took those pesky Gen-Ed’s) in June of 2013. In the meanwhile, I have acted, directed, taught, produced, founded theatre festivals, and struggled to pay my bills for 30 years. Yet, as suggested in one of the responses, it is what I do. It is what I know.I was hired as a young actor and did my thing. On a switch from the MFA idea, I have heard wonderful things about Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) as a way to design and fulfill advanced education in theatre arts. I am strongly considering an MALS in Shakespearean Theatre. It will include performance, research, history, production, and critique. Granted, I have a 30 year head start working, but I am a new graduate. Looking forward to any comments and ideas. Thanks. Ken

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