The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskos won’t be going back to school this fall, but she’s got some advice for all you playwrighting grad students out there.

Summer’s coming to a close and many are headed back to school. You may be toying with the idea of going back to school to get a degree in a theater-related field. If you’re a playwright, you may be looking at grad schools and thinking about applying. Well, as a recent graduate, I can give you some of what I’ve learned not only in the process of applying, but also what my experience was like while in it. I’m putting together at least a two part guide to the schools to look at, things to consider (for instance, is there a need to go back to school all together? SPOILER ALERT: No, but we’ll get to that), and ideas on where you might want to focus your attention while wandering through application land.

So, you wanna go to grad school… The first thing to consider is the reason (or reasons) why you want to go back. I will tell you right now, even if you end up being accepted into a program that pays for you, you will end up spending a lot of money in order to do this. Perhaps this does not seem daunting to you… but, trust me, when you get the bill, it will settle in. It also ends up meaning putting a hold on other theatrical pursuits while you’re there. It can often mean a big move. And, if nothing else, even if you have just recently graduated from undergrad, it can be a huge learning curve to be in a new environment with new demands placed on you.

To help you on this quest, here is my handy dandy check list of things to consider before making the decision to go back to schools:

Write out your goals as a theater artist. Is there a field that you are most attracted to? What kinds of plays/performances do you want to be involved in? What kinds of audiences do you want to have? Do you want to get paid to write, or do you not care? Why do you do theater? What kinds of theater are you interested in? Where do you want to be five years from now in your playwriting career?

Honestly answering all these questions and more will help you figure out what you truly value. And even before we get to the question “why grad school now”? I would look at all the possible alternatives. Make sure to literally write this all out because 1) you’ll be writing a lot in school, so start getting used to it 2) when you write something out, you’re engaging other parts of your brain so that you are very thoughtfully considering this decision from lots of different angles 3) if you do ultimately decide to apply to schools almost every program asks what your goals are as an artist (and even if not here, you usually get asked what they are in the interviews), so it’s worth it to feel very solid with what you want to achieve.

Ask yourself, if you can possibly make any of these goals happen in other ways. If you think you would be happier without making the sacrifices (financial, social, geographical, etc.) that are required to be a part of an MFA program, you should seriously reconsider the decision to go back to school. Or, at least, start reevaluating your goals and seeing if you can be more specific.

For instance, if one of your goals is to continue to hone your craft and add to your tool kit, there are a variety of resources out there that aren’t always free, but are more financially viable (and fun!) than a graduate program can be. In the Bay Area, the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, in addition to a variety of other organizations, offers classes to community members that are reasonably priced and taught by master playwrights. Theatre Bay Area offers the ATLAS program to playwrights and other theater artists to develop their career maps and goals. PlayGround has a Monday night writers’ pool for members of the community to share their work.

In other parts of the country, you have the Playwright’s Center and well-respected regional theaters that offer master classes, developmental opportunities, and writer’s groups to the public. These are great ways to continue to polish your skills, develop your voice, and network with other playwrights (incidentally, these are also some of the goals that could have been on your list!). The other thing to consider are some of the playwriting retreats (the one at La Mama Umbria is a fantastic one) where you can take a week or two to learn under an experienced playwriting instructor in the company of other writers, and often in a beautiful locale.

Another common goal is to have more development opportunities, which is often a part of an MFA playwriting program. Keep in mind, however, that not every program offers the same types of resources (some DO NOT offer development opportunities) and that by connecting with your theater community, you may be able to go through the development and production process quicker than you are able to in school. The added benefits are that you will have more experience putting your plays on their feet and meet new friends/colleagues!

Make these things happen! The reality is that such a small number of people get accepted to graduate programs across the country every year. You can’t wait until you get into a program to make things happen with your writing. If you see a class in your home town, take it. If you have a couple friends who will read your work, do it. Don’t be precious about your writing or your goals. Now’s the time to make sure other people know what you’re working towards. You have to be unapologetic about being a writer or artist of any kind. And if you’re doing it to make money, just stop now and start looking into other processions where you can be creative, but are more lucrative. A career in playwriting will never be enough to live off of completely. I repeat, you will make little to no money doing this (and a lot of times, you will spend money so that you can participate in something you think is worth your time as an artist). This may not be the case for screenwriting or TV writing, but it certainly is for playwriting. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

If you’re still on the graduate school path, you still need to be active in the theater scene. As previously mentioned, these programs are highly competitive and often times only take a handful of playwrights each year. Your experience in theater is going to help you. So, if someone offers to do a staged reading of your play, do it! Write that play! Volunteer at a festival (speaking of which, the San Francisco Fringe Festival is coming up…)!

Do your research. Again, even before you make the decision to apply, look through the various programs out there. They come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll want to find the ones that most align with your aesthetic, your learning style, and your financial resources. The Playwrights’ Center has a fantastic list of the playwriting programs offered across the nation, here. In the second part of my series I will go into more depth about what to look for in these programs, but make sure you are hunting for information on who the head of the program is, what plays they’ve written (read or see them!), how much it will cost, how many people they accept, what the curriculum is like, and where it is (at the bare minimum). More on this in the next column.

Make a plan of attack. After you’ve considered why school and why now and have still remained active in the theater scene and have done your research, now’s the time to plan ahead. What will it truly take for you to go back to school? Look into all the ancillary things that come with being involved in a program. Talk to people in programs if you know anyone. Reach out to the school and see if you can talk to a current student, if you don’t know someone. Make a list of the deadlines for each school and what they require (they don’t all require the same things) and put them into some calendar, to do list, or organization mechanism. Plan ahead if any want you to take the GRE, since that is a whole other beast. Visit the schools if you can. And look ahead to the deadline time to see what your life will be like around then. Try to minimize the amount of activities you’re involved in around that time. The most important thing is your writing sample (keep in mind, some programs ask for two full length plays), but don’t discount the other materials needed, for instance your letters of recommendation (ask three to four people who know you and your work) and your personal statement. You should be about one to two months ahead of the deadline with prepping all these materials. Start with the letters of recommendation because you DO NOT want to ask your champions at the last minute. Ask them at least two months before the deadline. They are probably being asked by a lot of people.

Read, see, and write plays. Above all, immerse yourself in theater. Read the classics you haven’t gotten to and the new playwrights that are being talked about. Read the plays by the heads of programs you’re thinking of applying to. Read up on theater news and opinions. Go to see performances regularly. Even if (especially if) it’s not your cup of tea because you will be exposed to a lot of things you love and hate while in school. Find ways to appreciate and respectfully talk about performances you didn’t care for. I know a lot of folks will disagree with this, but my reasoning is that you will see so much theater done by your friends while in and out of school, that it’s a good thing to open your mind to new forms and even try new things yourself. And if nothing else, to learn how to talk about what you connected/didn’t connect to in a way that maintains a working relationship with the colleague that’s responsible for the performance. It’s fine to have your opinions and tastes, but there’s nothing wrong with moving outside of your comfort zone every now and again. If nothing else, at least you may be able to articulate more clearly why it’s not your thing.

And make sure to continue to play with your writing! There’s a fantastic playwriting challenge going on to write 31 plays over the span of August (Check out 31 Plays in 31 Days). It’s a great way to produce a lot of writing without judgment. And writing something on the page is the absolute first step in writing a new play.

6 comments on “The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One

  1. […] Read more here: The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One […]

  2. […] it’s time for me to stop looking at things like this. And maybe even articles like this one from a playwright in San Francisco freshly graduated from an MFA program. It’s very rare […]

  3. bjwany says:

    Reblogged this on The Dynamics of Groove and commented:
    I’m a little delayed from adding this to the blog since I came down with something recently that confined me to the couch for a good week, but here is the first part of a series that attempts to be a guide for those interested in pursuing graduate playwriting/dramatic writing programs.

    For a little bit of background, about a year after I finished my undergraduate degree from UCSB and had studied playwriting with Naomi Iizuka, though not as a major or minor, I entered a period of intense anxiety and depression over what I was going to do next. Whenever I was asked by family or friends, “What I was going to do now?” My heart started to race, “I DON’T KNOW!!” What I knew was that I liked theater and that playwriting was where I felt most comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t know anything about how to pursue it, however, and I wished that I had a little bit more practical knowledge under my belt so that I was secure with what I had started at UCSB. I took unpaid theater internships, worked crew and drove the hour long drive up to San Francisco almost every day, while still living with my folks in San Jose. I took a part time job at a retail store in the mall. I hung out with other recently graduated friends, who also had no clue what they were going to do next, and I drank too much too often. I started a relationship with someone who really wasn’t good for me and when it ended I felt completely lost. I was shy and insecure and I had no clue “what to do with the rest of my life”. But I pursued my passion as best as I could anyway. I felt like that was the only way I was going to be happy. I saw an ad for the New York Film Academy’s Screenwriting workshop in Oxford, England, and I decided I needed to go. So, I took on any and every temp job I could to raise funds and I went across the ocean alone. Being in the classroom and practically learning the principles of storytelling is what made me think, hey, maybe I should pursue a graduate degree. Maybe this is the right direction.

    Still, it took another year for me to act on that. I got back and immediately got back into theater, but not as a writer. Though I was learning so much and fortunate to work with some amazing artists, it felt tangential to what I really wanted to do. I got a full time job as a Grants Coordinator at a great nonprofit with wonderful people to work for and with, and it can be so tricky when that happens because you’re working full time. I had moved out of my folks’ house and could finally afford a place up in Berkeley. I thought being either in the East Bay or San Francisco would make me happy. I started another relationship, and it was so much better and different than the last, that I quickly put a tremendous amount of energy into this new life: 9 to 5 job, steady/stable boyfriend, some (though small) involvement in the theater scene, my own place, a community I liked being in… But I wasn’t writing and I felt the anxiety creep back in. I tried to pursue writing retreats, playwriting classes, and talked with playwright friends about what they would do. It somewhat helped. I knew that I would have to take decisive action if this life was not the one I wanted.

    I applied to UC Berkeley’s Performance Studies PhD program for absolutely the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to move. I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I wasn’t ready to completely change the focus of my life. I thought if I stayed in the Bay Area, that all would be well. I only applied to one program. I didn’t get in.

    The next year, I didn’t apply again, but I did try and do more writing. It was slow, but it was finally getting going a bit more. I did more playwriting retreats, networked more, tried to write in a journal, tried to be involved in theatrical productions again. I ended up writing a one-act at a retreat I went to, and it ended up being performed alongside other plays that the attendees wrote at La Mama ETC in New York. I saw the play get on it’s feet and I worked with a director. It was the first time I’d been asked solid questions on my writing since graduating from UCSB.

    I got back to the Bay and I moved to San Francisco to get my life in gear. I still kept looking at the MFA programs, thinking, “if only”. I took a big, unexpected break-up to really truly shift my focus. I realized that I had again, not truly put my heart and full self into pursuing playwriting. So, then I did. And everything changed.

    I read everything. I talked to everyone. I went to as many shows as I could. I tried to volunteer my time with new theater companies. I expanded my social circle and network. I did heavy research on the main graduate programs for playwrights out there. I met with mentors and discussed my goals. I wrote them down. I read Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way” and I did it and it worked. I started pursuing interests I never knew I had. I started going out more. I took my work, in all realms, whether creatively or professionally seriously. That was the time I could finally look someone in the eye and without flinching say apologetically, “I am a playwright”. And by the time this was all happening, I was in my late 20s. So, it was A LOT of soul-searching… I worked backwards to give myself the time to finish two new plays and prioritize my goals and needs. I worked hard and saved my money and paid about $1,000 to apply to ten different programs. And I tried to be okay with the idea that I might not get in.

    In the process of doing this, I ended up writing a play I didn’t even realize was inside of me. All on my own without school programs, writing exercises, retreats, or classes. Of course, I used what I had developed there, but I ended up with something I still feel immensely proud of, “i stole lance armstrong’s bike”. I was able to get a staged reading together. I was finally making theater on my own.

    Low and behold, my first year, I ended up having positive responses from UCSD and the New School for Drama. They both identified me as finalists. And through the process of traveling down to San Diego and over to New York, I learned more about what I wanted and needed. Being there in the place, I could feel what was right and what felt off. So, I crossed my fingers, and hoped.

    It didn’t happen that year, but I didn’t lose heart. Still, that spring was a hard one. It took a lot of gusto to get back up and work even harder. I had laser focus and I’d done it before. I refined my school choices. I kept on writing and in the process I was able to secure a production for one of my plays, “It’s All in the Mix”. I tried more new things, like kung fu and tai chi. And the process of applying started once again. Though this time, I realized, that I was doing so much in the Bay Area scene, I could imagine myself being happy living in the city and making things happen on my own, without a graduate program. I was just getting used to this idea and feeling like there was so much I enjoyed about my town. Maybe I didn’t need to go.

    Then, I started getting positive responses. First, from Rob Handel with Carnegie Mellon University, then Alice Tuan from CalArts, and Velina Hasu-Houston at USC. I was put on NYU’s waitlist, then they contacted me to bump me up. I was starting to have to make very real decisions about where I wanted to spend the next two to three years of my life. And after speaking with all these wonderful playwrights, I ended up feeling like CMU was the place that was going to be best for me. Ironically, my mom and I ended up finding out that her cousin, Judy, actually works there as the dance professor! It seemed like all signs point to yes. And then the question was just how to make this happen.

    So, I know. I realize that all of this is a hard decision. It’s never easy for anyone to know “what to do with the rest of their life”. Heck, I’m here now trying to figure out what jobs will allow me to pursue playwriting and screenwriting, but still allow me to eat and get around town. I have no clue. I’m no expert. But what I do know, is I wish, when I had been applying, there was just more to read about the process of applying and what the challenges and pitfalls are. I wished that I could at least read someone else’s experience and figure out if there was a better way I hadn’t considered. I don’t regret pursuing this degree, but it was a very hard path. And I see people now who seem to make the decision very quickly and lightly. I at least want to pass on some things to consider. Not necessarily do as law because this is the way you will have success, but just something to try (if you haven’t already). Other than that, it’s just my take and maybe it won’t work for everyone (it probably won’t), but if it generates a new idea in someone about how to make playwriting a reality and not a pursuit, then I absolutely am humbled and thrilled to hear that.

    Til then, enjoy! 🙂

  4. Richard A. Steele says:

    Thank you for writing this. I simply substituted “acting” for “playwriting” and it was enormously helpful.

  5. […] Last time, I gave you a couple suggestions about things to think about when considering graduate school I added my own personal journey to the comments/my own blog as well. This time around, I’m hoping to continue the conversation by presenting various different playwriting programs and going into more detail on what to watch out for. […]

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