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.

Higher Education: School’s Out Forever

Barbara Jwanouskos finishes up an important chapter.

Today is my last day of classes and the last official day of the Dramatic Writing program here at CMU. After this, the graduating class of writers flies out to LA to meet with industry professionals, then back to Pittsburgh for commencement, to New York for more meetings with industry professionals, and then we return to Pittsburgh to get things in order. Then, we leave.

It’s a bittersweet moment where I can’t help but be nostalgic, nervous and excited all at the same time. I went into this program because I wanted to radically improve my craft, and it’s happened, but part of me feels like I’m just barely scratching the surface. There is still so much out there to learn and so many opportunities to grow further. Though my official academic stint is coming to an end, it’s cliché but it’s true, now is when the real learning begins. When does the learning process ever stop after all? Now’s the time to apply all of what I’ve learned here while also trying to make sure that I’m still finding opportunities for production, development, and inspiration.

It can be daunting to stand at the precipice of any big change in your life. Part of us thinks, “well, maybe I could have done more…” Over the last couple of months, my goal has been to make it to the end strong. Now I’m here and I’ve been reflecting over the times where I made mistakes, where maybe I could have gone further. One of the most difficult challenges for me in this moment is recognizing the good work that I’ve done over the past two years and acknowledging that it is worth of celebration. I haven’t come to a solution that instantly takes all the feelings away, but what I have come to is that I can feel proud of my accomplishments, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many people, places, things, experiences, and memories I am saying goodbye to.

As artists we deal with loss on a continual basis. We work in a collaborative medium that asks us to build relationships with other people and create events that inspire a connection from others still. In the process of creation we need to be able to trust one another and lean into vulnerability. We start to understand the people around us in better ways. And sure, maybe we have our disagreements or our spats, but having this collaborative atmosphere is wonderful because everyone brings so much to the table. Then, when it ends we part ways and go onto other projects. And that’s just the nature of it.

A couple guest artists came recently and spoke to the School of Drama students. What struck me was how they anticipate these feelings and adjust their own artistic schedules and interests to make the transition times easier. Andrea Thome, a playwright, came recently and we talked a bit about her process of collaboration and of making art. She said that she gains a lot of energy by collaboration and so she’s always trying to meet and talk to new people to start new work. Alan Alda said something similar. He told us in a talkback session that as artists it was very important to have interests in something other than just acting (or writing, directing, etc.). He said it was important to have interests in other things because it helps feed you during the times when one project might be over and another isn’t in sight.

Their words of wisdom resonated with me as I try and think what is my next thing? What is on the horizon for me? What are the things I care about and want to develop further? Instantly, my mind is flooded with images of sprinklings of new plays, people I want to re-connect with once I return to the Bay Area (that’s right, I’m coming back!!), my loved ones who I’ve been separated from for so long, and all the other inspiring pieces of life I can’t wait to engage with. Then, I remember the other side of a goodbye and the other side of loss, and that is the beginning that is waiting to happening.

Higher Education: A Sense of Finality

Barbara Jwanouskos is approaching the end.

Thursday at 11:59 PM marked the submission of our screenplays to the Sloan Foundation competition. It’s the culmination of about eight hardcore months of training, polishing, and crafting scripts that take on a science or technology component and explore it dramatically. And while I am so glad to be able to put this aside for now (even though I’m still at my computer, still writing…) I can’t but help feeling a bit nostalgic and sad that this part of my time here is coming to an end.

Earlier in the week, the three other second year dramatic writers in my program (Laci Corridor, Jonah Eisenstock and Josh Ginsburg) and I all went to get our caps and gowns for the commencement ceremony in May. We met with the design and production team for our thesis plays, which begin rehearsal next week. More and more it feels like we’re checking things off the list and counting down til… DUN DUN DUN!

We actually have to leave school.


Don’t get me wrong. One of the reasons I chose this program was because it promised that you’d be out in two years. I said, “well that’s for me! I need to be back in the real world!” I was looking forward to working hard in school, honing my craft, and then getting back to the Bay Area to keep on working on new plays already! At the time, it sounded easy to do, but now, with everything coming to an end, I’m finding it difficult to not get swept with emotion over Every. Little. Thing.

Just like everything in life, we have to come to terms with the fact that, yes, things do end. We move on. People move on. The world changes, shifts, grows and deteriorates. It can be hard not to treat everything as precious when you see that end point in sight. That’s what I’m trying not to do right now, but it is hard.

Maybe it comes back to managing your expectations about a particular outcome. As if suddenly, once I’m done with this program this magical spark will be endowed upon me and I will be A WRITER. Like all caps, even. I think it’s helpful to look back and see how far you’ve come, but the end hasn’t ended yet, so there’s still more pushing to do before it’s over. That’s where some really key growth can happen.

I was doing all this google-fu the other day as per usual because I had to make a decision about whether to push myself to write more even though I was tired or if I should just recuperate and start fresh the next day. And somewhere in hopping from page to page in trying to find the answer I wanted (go to bed), I read an interesting perspective. That sometimes when you give up or stop when it gets really hard and you don’t think you can go on, you’re missing out on some a breakthroughs that can develop.

Certainly I have experienced that. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t pushed hard in many ways. It comes up a lot for me in a visceral sense when practicing martial arts. There’s this whole idea I’ve been working with lately of not being afraid to get punched hard and not being afraid to punch hard. What’s interesting is that it’s actually currently harder for me to dish it out than to take it. At least from a psychological fear perspective. But in this type of training, even just stepping an inch beyond your comfort zone is a dramatic shift because it moves your fear barrier out one inch. Slowly it grows and grows.

I’m almost on the other side of the bridge and I have a moment now to look back at where I’ve came and to look at the surroundings. I don’t exactly know what the end point is or what that looks like and what my life will be like once I reach it. For now, I’m just taking stock in the passing scenery and trying to value it for what it’s worth. Then, it’s on to keep pushing.

Higher Education: How I Re-Discovered My Passion for Theater By Writing a Syllabus

Barbara Jwanouskos gleans inspiration from the most unlikely of places.

Over winter break as I was killing time, I had to chuckle about an article I saw that talked about the tumblr, lolmythesis, where graduate students around the world can sum up years of research and work in one hilarious sentence. I joked around with my dad that mine probably would have been “No one is interested in theater anymore, but I paid $$$$$ to learn how to write for it anyway.”

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Perhaps it’s a little cynical. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the ideas of “what’s next” or “did I make a complete lapse in all reasonable judgment”. Sure, maybe, but then you have moments where you remember why you decided to pursue something or what sparked your passion for it.

I want to share something I’m proud that I wrote. It’s not a play – it’s actually a syllabus for Advanced Playwriting, a course I’m teaching this semester. Last year, I taught Introduction to Screenwriting, which was a wonderful experience. My syllabus, however, was very dry and jam-packed with information that was really not expressive of who I am as a teacher, artist and person. So, when I set out to write this syllabus, I tried to look at it as if I were writing a play.

Here’s what I said:

What this course is:
A play is basically a blueprint for a production
and in this course
you’re going to learn how to capture an idea for a play
how to develop, pull apart, and destroy that idea,
how to actually finish a script,
and how to talk about new work.

What we’ll be exploring is
How to make a create the blueprint for
an theatrical experience that is

and uncomfortable.

How can we tap into ourselves
and explore how we view the world
then translate
what’s in our brains
down onto the page

so that it makes some sort of sense
when people read the words we have selected
out loud
but more so
when they perform the instructions
we have given them
for the presentation of a live experience?

How do we give the audience what it needs?

This audience is ready to see your play.

This audience is ready to see your play.

I realized that in having to define what I was going to teach in my syllabus, I actually had to define what I thought a play was and what “good theater” was. What is playwriting? Why do we do it?

My personal relationship with theater is kind of grafted together a couple things that folks have said to me over the years:

It’s an experience (not necessarily a narrative). I found this so interesting when someone had mentioned it, because it made it easier to account for all the plays that have affected me that do not have a clear linear or non-linear arc.

It’s related to ritual. So much theater is born out of religious and spiritual rituals and ceremonies of the past. I haven’t quite worked out my thought-process on this, but there seems to be something key in the idea that a play is an experience that we need to give the audience by re-creating an event or a series of events.

It happens in space and time. Not that you can’t suggest multiple locations within a play, but a play is all about the current present moment and it is happening live in front of your eyes.

A play is play! A play is pretend, and we forget that sometimes when doing serious work. We forget the reasons why we inhabit different bodies and characters to perform a play, but I think a play is also something that should give us tremendous satisfaction in some way. I don’t mean that we need to be purely entertained. I think even searing dramas give us a way to delve into a thoughts, issues, and circumstances that are hard to talk about. Being able to do that is such a relief. Not because we are “done” with whatever the play’s subject matter is, but perhaps we feel like we are at least in conversation with it and trying to understand what it means.

Play time!

Play time!

Getting back to these core ideas gave me the answer to all my cynicism regarding writing for theater and being in a graduate program for a degree that – financially speaking, at least – may be essentially useless. I write because there is something I find valuable in what I’ve seen that I’d like to share with others. I write to explore beautiful, yet complicated grey areas of relationships. I write to challenge what I know more than to challenge others on what they know. Through that, absolutely do I find passion and enjoyment.

Why do you do theater? How would you define a play? Share with us your thoughts!