Friday, April 02, 2010

The MFA: The Benefits

The professional benefits of an MFA from a respected but not 'famous' program may be subtle but they're real.  If your MFA is from Yale (or BFA from Julliard!) they're NOT subtle, I'm sure.  I imagine that doors swing open.  But, if your MFA is from a not broadly-known program which nonetheless provides solid training (which may be flagged on your resume by corroborating experience, skills such as stage combat or singing, and names of coaches respected in the field), then you may have to try the doorknobs to find out that doors which appear closed are at least unlocked and swing easily inward if you knock.  Without my MFA, I would not be getting many audition appointments I seek out, and theaters such as The Folger or New Jersey Shakespeare Theater would not be calling me back to ask is I have local housing or need to be put up.  Granted, I have solid theater credits on my resume, but those credits are there because I have the training, too.

My moral is this:  an MFA is not just for teaching (though those kind of MFAs do exist.  E.g., an MFA from a pedagogy-heavy program such as Texas Tech is not a good idea if you hope to work as an actor, rather than as a teacher--casting directors will see the slightness of actual training show up in the experience and details on the resume--but they're good for teaching at many universities and even more high schools.)  An MFA from a strong conservatory-style program is a strong indicator that an actor can do the job on stage.

However, critics of the MFA do have a point:  they say it's oversold on the mistaken premise that it will secure an actor paying work.  Nope.  It will not secure work.  An MFA for anything other than a teaching credential is not a good business investment.  It is, however, an excellent artistic investment.  It's intensive training that is difficult to replicate elsewhere, on an ad hoc basis (I hasten to add that solid conservatory training does exist for people without college degrees--e.g., The Atlantic Theatre Co. School--so that it's not the MFA per se, but the training it represents, that I'm defending.  For those with a bachelors degree, however, an MFA can be the fastest road to excellent training.)

So far, my MFA is doing everything for me that I can fairly ask of it.  It isn't doing that on its own, however, just by virtue of being on my resume.  It's doing it because I spend a lot of time trying door knobs that look un-openable, at first glance.  I pound a lot of pavement, but that pavement would be wasted miles, without my MFA.


Dennis Baker said...

"An MFA for anything other than a teaching credential is not a good business investment. It is, however, an excellent artistic investment."

I agree that some MFA programs are a good artistic investment, though that "artistic investment" does not pay the bills. With the median income for an AEA actor being $0 and the weekly jobless rate being 85%, many go into teaching to pay the bills.

These stats show that actors, no matter if they have an MFA from Yale or University of Houston, are not consistently working in theater. Therefore, it is not surprise that they teach. I don't think it anti-professional actor training to have one or two courses in pedagogy. MFA students are usually thrown into teaching non-theater majors without exploring teaching concepts like proper assessment.

I once asked a second year MFA acting student how teaching was going, since he never had taught before. He said, out of habit, he was doing all the things he hated about the current acting teacher.

You make good points of why an MFA can help an actor, but I don't think professional acting training and pedagogy training has to be an either/or discussion when it looks like MFA graduates are doing more of the latter.

David Millstone said...

Although I wasn't addressing your points, they're well taken. I'd like to note, though, that 'pedagogy' doesn't need to be broken out into a separate subject matter to be part of training. Every class I took incorporated a 'pedagogical' element, e.g., theory required seminar presentations, voice required us to teach the class dialects, movement required us to coach the class, and, from day one, acting never lost sight of how we were to communicate to others (i.e., potential students) what we ourselves were doing. In the first semester of my second year, I taught two mornings a week, and immediately after teaching I went directly to my acting class, the first half hour to an hour of which was largely devoted to debriefing me and the other MFA students teaching that term (there simply were not enough undergraduates taking acting to give us full-year courses.) These 'debriefings' were first and foremost about improving OUR acting through our discoveries as teachers, and secondarily they were about improving our teaching, but our teaching was improved. Also, in our first years we were t.a.s in theater history, and got to learn our ways around lecturing, grading, and coaching writing/research. So, my MFA is a useful teaching degree as well as useful artistic and professional training, but artistic and professional training is what it was first and foremost. Despite all of the above, the UH program is best described as a 'conservatory-style' program. A program that pushed 'pedagogy' as a priority would not have served me as an actor, though it may well serve another far better. (Full disclosure: I also have an MA in Teaching from Columbia U., so I don't happen to need teacher training. This might lead me to undervalue your insight into the need for pedagogy in the MFA.)

Dennis Baker said...

That is great, specific, insight. It's good to hear that your professors opened teaching up to the students. It is true, that a great way to learn something is to teach it.

I am glad to hear they were open to the reflection of teaching. I think the ways you describe are the beginning explorations of how a conservatory program can also explore what it means for their students to be good teachers as well as good artists.