Higher Education: A Masters In The Arts

Today we kick off  a new regular column, with Bay Area based writer Barbara Jwanouskos chronicling her life and what she’s learning as she navigates the second year of an MFA program in Dramatic Writing. It’s the common recourse of many an artists looking to take the next step with their career; keep following along as Barbara shares her experiences pursuing this particular route to achieving her artistic dreams.

About a year ago, I made the decision to go back to school to get an MFA in Dramatic Writing in order to concentrate solely on developing my craft. For me, I knew that I needed to invest in something (my time, money and energy) in order to really see a payoff. Well, I just finished up my first year, and here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way not only about succeeding in the program, but also in succeeding as an artist and hey, frankly just walking through this world:

1) You need to know your habits and what you need in order to perform.

2) You can go for longer than you think you can go without your ideal writing conditions.

3) There are extremely talented people out there, but the ones I’m in awe of the most are those who simultaneously come to the table enthusiastic, ready to contribute, are kind to others, and model inspirational behavior.

4) You need to let go of most things. It’s really not worth it.

5) Odds are that you’re a lot more talented than you give yourself credit for, but your writing still needs a lot of work.

6) Planning ahead saves lives and sanity.

7) The building up of stamina and endurance is extremely important.

8) As is fostering a community for moral support.

9) If you do something last minute, it always shows. If you take your time with something, it usually shows.

10) If you truly want to learn, you have to be willing (and able) to listen.

In order to improve on your writing and theater-making skills, you have to be constantly challenged, tested, and evaluated. An MFA program is about challenging yourself, but that’s not to say that you need to go through the hassle of applying different places and spending two to three years in another state in order to pursue your passion. Please note: THIS IS NOT AN EDITORIAL ESPOUSING THE WONDEROUSNESS OF GRAD SCHOOL!!! A lot of the elements that are beneficial aspects of an MFA program can be done regardless if you decide to go back to school. You can do-it-yourself!

The way to build your own path to higher education is to ask yourself, what do I want to master? It’s a question that helps to guide where you spend your energy. Since there is only so much time, you’ll ultimately have to sacrifice something – sometimes that means less social time with friends, sometimes it means spending money on a seminar instead of a trip, and sometimes it’s saying “no” to a really cool creative project.

With your goal in mind, you then commit yourself to learning whatever you can about that subject. It’s valuable to truly understand why and how the things you like and the things you want to do work. For instance, one of my goals in writing has been to create a seamless, compelling story – and I want to be able to do that over and over again. So, reading Save the Cat or Robert McKee has been extremely helpful in getting familiar with the elements of a story, as well as the different types of structures. And then, reading a variety of different plays and not asking yourself necessarily “do I like this?” but, “why are people producing this?” (in a non-cynical manner) helps me at least understand what tips and tricks I can incorporate into my own work.

When you can break down how something works, next, it’s time to test that understanding by applying it and trying to replicate it. You put it in the hands of collaborators. You have actors read it. Directors direct it. The only way to progress a play is to produce it. We’ve all been there. You’ve finished your Masterpiece Baby. “This S is brilliant! Pulitzer here I come!” you say. Then, you get it in front of people only to have half the audience sleeping, no one laughing at the jokes but you, and the other half of the audience so confused that they’ve tuned out completely and start thinking of their to-do lists. Okay, so then it’s back to the drawing board. In the words of one of my past playwriting teachers: What pops? What stands out – good or bad? There’s one place to start.

Then, finally it’s time to reflect on whether you actually were successful. This is the point where you truly have to let go of your ego and think of your work honestly. It’s the point where you let others into the equation for feedback and take what they say and what your intent was and wrap it into one delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich of art. In order to stay committed to higher education you have to constantly be asking yourself “Did I achieve the response I wanted on this?” If not, how can you make it better? And if you did, can you replicate it over and over again? Because then, if you can, you truly have become a Master in the Arts.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area writer whose work has been featured in the SF Theater Festival and whose play, All In The Mix, premiered in Oakland in 2012. She is currently pursing an MFA in Dramatic Literature and continues to remain active in the Bay Area theater scene.