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

Barbara Jwanouskos brings you the second half of her guide to grad school.

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.

I want to start by saying that I realize that this is an incredibly personal choice and no one piece of advice is going to work for everyone. Anything I list is certainly not new and by no means the end-point to the resources available out there. I mainly share all these things because like I said in my personal account, I wished that I had something to read that was specifically about playwriting programs when I had been going through the process. All that said, let’s talk about programs.

I probably don’t need to necessarily convince you of the benefits of going back to school for an MFA. You have a degree that you can use to teach playwriting at a colleges and universities. You end up being connected to a wide pool of talent from their alumni network. You meet like-minded people and can solely concentrate on playwriting and theater for two to three years. When you submit plays to opportunities around the country, you may get placed on the top of the pile or be given a second read if they see you have an MFA from particular schools (or so I’ve been told). And you get to work very closely with an experienced playwright who often has a lot of skill and knowledge that you can benefit from.

Of course, there are ways to access all of the above things (except for maybe an alumni network) without going to school too. But here, I’m going to assume that you are still planning on applying and that you’ve considered some of the aspects about grad school I brought up in my last post.

You have this list already, but I’ll present it again. I would start here and start digging around. You’re going to end up needing to use some research-ninja skills to glean all the info you need, but things to note when reading up on a program are:

• How much is tuition and do they pay for some or all of it?
• Where is the program located?
• Who is the head of playwriting or part of the playwriting faculty?
• How many people do they accept into the program?
• How long is the program?
• What is the curriculum right?
• Do you get production opportunities? (Or, what is their involvement with the
theater department?)
• What alumni have come out of the program?
• What do people say about the school, faculty, program, etc.?

From this, you can start to winnow down the programs that most grab your focus. For instance, if production opportunities are extremely important to you while in school, then programs that don’t offer that might be lower or off your list. You also want to get a sense of how competitive it is to get into the program and have alternative choices to your top one or two.

Once you have a list of schools, one thing I did that was very helpful, was I made a spreadsheet that noted some of the info above in addition to info about the application deadline and process. Sometimes the process alone might be reason to/not to apply. Take the New School for example, which has a very interesting process in which you fly out for an interview, and from that group of finalists, you are put into teams to create a short play in 24 hours. Super fun to do, but the problem is that it’s not really listed on the site. So, unless you know someone in the program or who had applied, you’re not going to get that information until you get to that last round. Believe me, I was super surprised when I got the news a couple years ago that we weren’t actually done for the night…

Honestly, one of the best ways to learn about a program is to go through the application process, especially the interview or school visit process. At this point, you will start to notice things that you didn’t before. Perhaps one school is terrible at getting back to you. Maybe another just gives you a form rejection letter. Or on more of the positive end, maybe another interviews you via phone or Skype rather than have you fly out, which can be a little easier on the pocketbook.

I have more thoughts on programs and the application process, but for now, I’ll leave it here and continue on my own site. Good luck to you and add your own tips below!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright and recent graduate of the Dramatic Writing MFA program at Carnegie Mellon University. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany and continue this series on her site, The Dynamics of Groove.

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