Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thoughts on the Playwriting MFA

One of our lovely readers popped by my blog and asked me: Any tips on playwriting MFA programs? I thought I'd post my response here as well so that other readers and potential playwriting MFA candidates can offer their thoughts and opinions as well.

With playwriting MFA’s, it really all depends on what kind of program you’re looking for. Sarah Lawrence (which is where I went for Undergrad) offers an MFA in playwriting, and their philosophy is very do-it-yourself, which means that you essentially build your own curriculum and are working very closely in small classes with faculty as well as building theater projects with other students, both Graduates and Undergraduates alike. I’m presently at Columbia for my MFA and they’re a little more structured, though I by no means feel as though they’re forcing me to work on anything I would not have otherwise wanted to work on. Other programs that I’ve looked into are as follows: Yale, Brown, NYU, The New School, Brooklyn College and Iowa.

And I also think it’s important to consider what you want your MFA for, because almost all playwrights do not make their living by writing plays alone -- there just isn't money in it. So, do you want it to focus in on your own craft? Is it to learn other forms of Dramatic Writing (read: screenplays and teleplays)? Is it so that you can teach? Or is it so that you can have a career in theater while being a playwright (read: lit manager or other kind of production company member)?

If you want to work in the theater, I think it’s incredibly important that you get your MFA in New York, so that you have an opportunity to have jobs and internships in the NY theater world. I also think that if you’re going to study playwriting, you should see as much theater as possible, and that’s just easier to do in NYC. Though it isn’t far from Bronxville (where SLC is) to the city, and there is a lot of good theater at the Yale School of Drama.

I would caution you against two things: Brooklyn College has an interesting-looking playwriting program that is a part of their creative writing program and not their theater program, but in my dealings with them, they were disorganized, slow to respond and ultimately offered me acceptance into their Masters of English program, not their playwriting MFA program. Additionally, the application for the New School is horrendous, more like reality TV than application to an MFA program. Though I continue to hear excellent things about the program itself.

I hope this helps! If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me. I’d love to help if I can.

In fact, I may post this on the MFA blog so that other people can throw in their two cents as well.


Erika D. said...

There's a new playwriting MFA at Queens College of The City University of New York (CUNY), offered in collaboration with The Actors Company Theatre/TACT. Here's a release about it, with links. (Disclosure: I work for CUNY.)

Erika D. said...
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Erika D. said...

Sorry! Here's the URL, since I'm not seeing the link work:

Musical Writer said...

I've done SO MUCH research on the MFA Playwriting program, spoken to many successful playwrights (now teaching)... and now I'm applying to MFA Creative Writing programs.

First off-

most playwrights will tell you to take at least one year off. The students that get into the successful programs are the ones with life experience. They had more to write about. This isn't to say you won't get in, fresh out of undergrad.

University of Texas at Austin is one of the best programs. Extremely popular.

Brooklyn College is up and coming, because of its affordable tuition. Their students get their plays produced a lot.

New York University is good, but it's more of a name.

New School, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, Julliard are great. Really hard to get into though. You have to be produced regionally almost for some of them.

Check out random programs in California, like Cal State (LA), USC, UCLA. Some of those are up and coming.

The thing about getting your MFA in Playwriting is you get what you give. If you've been around theater for a couple of years, gotten a few plays published, produced, etc. You pick up things and you really WORK the MFA classes. The more plays you've published, the more you're known, the more likely you are to be hired. Playwriting jobs are getting scarce.

Also, consider not just getting a solely in playwriting, but looking for degrees in Playwriting/Screenwriting/Television Writing. The more you have under your belt, the more attractive you are to a school to be hired.

Jenny Lane said...

Great response, nic d., but I just wanted to clarify one thing: Juilliard doesn't offer an MFA in playwriting (or it didn't when I worked in the drama division, which was in 06-07). It offers an artists diploma and is typically only one year long. It is also tuition-free.

Musical Writer said...

you're right. It's a VERY big deal if you get into Julliard, but technically, it's just a diploma and only a year.

Other top-notch schools to add to the list:
Florida State University
Brown University
University of Iowa
Pace University

Lizzie said...

Does Sarah Lawrence REALLY have a playwriting MFA? If so, it's totally buried on their website... All I see is fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Genevieve Jessee said...

Applied to Northwestern, NYU, Yale, SFSU, The New School, CalArts, and Smith, in the last couple months. I am on pins and needles.

Just thought I'd chime in...

DRoche said...
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DRoche said...

No heart for San Francisco? I'm a current MFA playwright at SFSU and I have to say this is a solid program in the middle of a city that loves theater.
Also, Nic. D is right on in terms of taking a year off - I've always felt this should be suggested to not only playwrights but MFA candidates in general.

dorie b said...

the mfa writing program at CalArts is not specifically tuned just to playwriting, but as an total art conservatory, not only are there great teachers there, but a whole host of opportunities to get your work up onstage. i was an undergrad actor there, and a playwright could get a least a couple shows mounted every year, and countless more, by-the-seat-of-your-pants productions, with happy actors who want to work. it's a very energizing environment.

Mr. Larkins said...

Sailor Dog Handel said...

Carnegie Mellon's dramatic writing MFA is housed in one of the nation's leading drama schools, for the playwright who is a theatre practitioner rather than a writer in a garret.

E said...

Tina Howe is starting an MFA program at Hunter College in New York for Fall 2010. She used to run (and maybe started?) the program at NYU and has the same people, Rita & Burton Goldberg funding it.
She's doing a focus on production around the city and internships at theatres. And it is CUNY tuition! I think they are only taking 2 or 3 people, it sounds like it'd be impossible to get in, but maybe one of the best MFA options if you can.

Unknown said...

Lee Blessing is the head of the playwriting MFA program at Rutgers University, where I'm currently in my second year. What's nice about the program at Rutgers is that they only take 2 students per year, so you're guaranteed individual attention and experience seeing your work in production. The other great part about Rutgers is that it affords playwrights many opportunities to collaborate with students in the other disciplines, particularly the acting and directing students.

Gabe T said...

Here's a question. Let's say I've been out of college for about a year and a half, have worked in various capacities at a couple regional theatres, and have written on my own yet have had nothing produced, how is that going to look to admissions people? How important, then, is my sample?

Todd Ristau said...

On applications and writing samples

I can't speak for every program...some, like where I went at the University of Iowa Playwright's Workshop, they get 60-80 applications for an average of 4-6 slots every year. It is very competetive and difficult to guess the criteria they have for accepting so few writers from such a large pool.

Our program accepts 10-15 new students each summer with a fairly high retention of previous summer's students building a community of student writers that will ideally hover around 50 students each summer. Despite the large number of students, class size is small, with analytic courses capped at 15 students per section, creative courses capped at 10 students per section, advanced writing courses capped at 8 students per section, and lots of opportunities for independent studies with individualized instruction.

We also are looking for a wide variety of students with diversity in gender, age, life experience, and theatre background so that everyone benefits from the diversity of backgrounds.

Writing samples are important, but we're not looking for the perfect play that proves you don't need instruction, we are looking for an interesting voice addressing intersting subjects who also have a facility with language.

I'd rather see an incomplete but very exciting new draft than the finished perfect play you've been submitting to other theatres for the last 5 years. That play may still be worth looking at, but it is more important to learn where you are as a writer now, to help you get to where you want to go in a few years.

If I had to rank items in an application package, it might be:

Writing sample
Letter of interest
Reference letters
Experience (life and in theatre)
Undergrad academic performance

As to time off, that isn't as important as what you did with it.

Whether you get an MFA or not, I'd strongly recommend going to see as many plays in as many different kinds of theatres as possible, and introducing yourself personally to the staff at any theatre near you with a request to start volunteering for them. Especially if they need readers in the literary department.

Reading submissions from other writers will very quickly teach you a great deal about good writing, what a theatre looks for, and what is annoying in a submission package.

Hope this helps


Todd Ristau said...

Hmmm, my first comment, which identified my program soesn't seem to be there.

I'm the director of the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University, which is a unique program designed to be done in 6-week summer intensive sessions over 4-5 summers.

We've had a lot of interesting guests and visiting faculty, including Mac Wellman, Naomi Wallace, Carl Hancock Rux, Melanie Joseph and many others.

Our students are getting productions around the country and we work hard to be advocates for them before and after graduation. Check it out and let me know if you have any questions.

Hollins Playwriting Program

Check us out on Facebook for images and more info.


Jane said...

I'm applying to for my playwriting MFA this fall and I'm considering all my options and narrowing options at this point.

Does anyone have any information on funding? I know certain schools are fully funded like UT Austin Michener and Yale, but how about programs like Rutgers and Hollins?

Thanks! Any help/guidance would be greatly appreciated.

Kevin R. Elder said...

I realize this post is very old, but I felt like I should do a small update, at least with reference to Brooklyn College.

I am not sure what was going on in 2008, but currently the program is run by Mr. Mac Wellman. If you are familiar with modern (little "m") American theatre, Mac is one of the better known playwrights of the past 30 years.

He has been teaching playwriting for many years, and several of his current students have shows off Broadway. Not that Broadway is the only marker for success, but I would expect that if you had the opportunity to join Brooklyn College's MFA program in Dramatic Writing, you would probably have a wonderful experience working with Mac Wellman.

I have sat in on lectures and master classes with him, and he has a brilliant mind, and a very unique approach to the craft.

I am not involved with Brooklyn College's program in any way, but felt like I should chime in on what I know of its current state.

Meghan said...

Can anyone help me..?

I'm considering applying for an MFA program in playwriting. My problem is that the plays I consider my strongest writing samples are a 30 minute one-act, and a 60 minute one-act targeted to young adults (which I'm revising and tightening).

Almost every program asks for either two one-acts (min 50 pages) or a full-length. Should I submit both, or just the 60 minute play? Would both be too large a writing sample? Is it a huge disadvantage to not submit a full-length?

Unknown said...

Hi Meghan!

Just read your post about writing samples. I think different programs look for different experience levels in an applicant, but I can tell you I had never written a full-length play before I applied to my MFA program (I'm finishing my degree at Rutgers right now). I know one of our first-years had only ever written one-acts before starting here as well. When I applied the longest I had ever written was a 40-page one act.

What I would say is submit whatever pieces you think most strongly represent you as a writer, and if it's that is two one-acts so be it.

Kevin R. Elder said...

Meghan, I agree with Lisa. I wouldn't worry too much about submitting a Two Act play. The committee will be most likely wanting to see your best work, not whether or not you can write more than 50 pages.

For my program I was asked to submit three examples of my writing. I choose the most diverse of the three to show a range of my abilities. Depending on the size of the program and the amount of applicants, I would bet that many on the selection committee do not even read the entirety of the submissions. A strong and consistent submission will be your best choice. However, it really will depend on the program. My program is a "Dramatic Writing" MFA, so the interest isn't just about Playwriting.

Before entering the program I had written a full length but chose not to include it, as I did not think it was the best of my work.

And as a side note, and perhaps a totally new topic of conversation, the notion of a Two Act play is not exactly where the medium is headed. Of course arenas such as Broadway still typically follow that format, but if you look at the bulk of American theatre happening in the less traditional City theaters, you will see that many plays are being produced that run from an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and forty minutes, with no intermission at all. I suspect that, as per usual, the styles and approaches being produced outside of the mainstream will eventually take over. (And I am happy to follow along. I have never been a fan of the old intermission. And that certainly is a different topic all together.)

Todd Ristau said...

Continuing Off-Topic w/Kevin:

I agree that people are trending toward one acts, but I don't know if that is necessarily a good thing or if it is a "tip" to being more production worthy.

As a guy who used to run a small theatre that only did new plays, the selling of concessions at intermission was as much an important part of meeting our bottom line and keeping the doors open as any other part of our budget.

So, in the For What It's Worth Department, there are really two things to keep in mind with play length...well, three if you don't count the Aristotelian thing about length...which is pretty good, actually.

I try to remind my students that after about an hour, people start thinking less about your play (no matter how good) and more about how uncomfortable their chair is and how much they need to get to the bathroom. There is, after all, a practical side to the art form because among your collaborators are the business office folks who are working very hard to keep the doors open so you can produce your play(s).

We did a lot of one acts, and though it doesn't have anything to do with the art side of the equation, audiences often told us that if the play was too short, they felt they had not really gotten their ticket's value or justified the expense of an evening out (baby sitter, dinner, parking, etc.)

Likewise, if it was too long, or didn't have a bathroom break or get home before midnight...they complained even more.

You need to do what your play needs you to do, of course, but I'm just tossing in a balancing thought on the idea that anyone should be writing "what's getting done."

As far as writing samples, nobody is really looking for you to prove you don't need instruction, or that your sample is ready to go immediately into production and will make someone (possibly you) a lot of money.

We're looking for interesting ideas, interesting characters, and a passion for writing that will carry you through all the demands of an MFA program.

In short, be yourself. Trying to be anyone or anything else is more work than it is worth.

Todd Ristau said...

Oh, I realize I didn't really come back to that two things line.

Audeince expectation and theatrical conventions.

Sorry. I often lack clarity without enough coffee. I'll go get some right now.

The Aristotle thing on length is found in the General Pricniples of the Tragic Plot in The Poetics.

"...for beauty depends on size and order.; hence neither can a very tiny creature turn out to be beautiful (since our perception of it gets blurred as it approaches the the period of imperceptibility) nor can an excessively huge one (for then it cannot all be percieved at once and so its unity and wholeness are lost), if for example there were a creature a thousand miles long--so, just as in the case of living creatures they mus have some size, but atone that can be taken in a single view, so with plots: they should have length, but such that they are easy to remember. As to the limit of the length, the one is determined by the tragic competitions and the ordinary span of attention."

So, in a way, even Aristotle was pointing to the needs of the venue and audience as important considerations for the artist.

Anyway, off to that cup of coffee now.

Kevin R. Elder said...


Thanks for ringing in on this. It is really great to hear the perspective of someone who is actually a part of the selection process and teaching for a particular school.

I think your remarks on length are a really helpful reminder (especially with regard to Aristotle). Perhaps we should take this into a totally separate post? You made a lot of points I would absolutely agree with, and a few I am not so sure on, but would love the discussion.

Either way, I think what you have added is incredibly useful and I hope it helps folks coming to the site for more information on playwriting MFA programs.

Todd Ristau said...

Thanks, Kevin.

I can't speak for everyone who reads applications, but what I said is true for me and for the program.

Also, applicants should be both philosophical and selective in their applications...just as they should be with their submitted scripts.

When you submit, a shotgun approach sending scripts to any theatre with an open submission policy is a really bad idea. Not much better than walking down the street and asking everyone you meet for a date. You might get one, but chances are not good that results will be mutually beneficial.

Better to really get to know each theatre/MFA program before sending the application. Playwrights get pretty upset about reader and constest fees but don't balk at a $40 application fee to an MFA program. In some ways, the fees are there for similar reasons, to reduce submissions by making sure only those serious enough to pay the fee send in the materials.

There is no point in sending in a script to a theatre or an application to a program that isn't a good fit for your work or your needs.

For example, I'm very up front that if you want to use your MFA to teach, Hollins is not a good program for you, because we are low residency and there are no Teaching Assistantships available. Also, since we are summers only, it can take 5 years to get the full 60 credit hours, so if you're in a hurry to get that teaching job, you'd be better off trying Iowa or Ohio.

We also are only in session for 6 weeks, that does not afford you any on campus production opportunities. And, we have both heavy academic coursework and limited reading slots.

We have some advantages, though, that offset those concerns, but you need to ask questions first.

I don't want to turn this post into an ad for the program, but I am saying be choosey about who you apply to, know why you want to go there, have specific goals and a plan for how the program to which you are applying can help you meet them.

All of the above should be reflected in your letter of intent which in a lot of ways I pay more attention to than the formal writing samples...because that letter will tell me a lot about your passion for writing, how much you have looked into our program, whether your expectations are realistic, and help me envision whether or not we are going to be a good team for the next 3-5 years.

The student is making a huge investment in time and finances, but the university is taking a gamble on every student too.

Like casting a play, choosing a cohort of students who you have some reason to believe will work well together, be mutually supportive and be beneficial ambassadors for the institution are important considerations in addition to the talent of the writer and quality of the writing samples.

This is not to say, "suck up" in your letter, but rather, be honest and if you don't get in, it is not an indictment of you or your work any more than an actor not getting a role they auditioned for means they should give up acting. It just means the path to your success lies in another direction.

I hope this helps, because I certainly mean for it to help.

Ask hard questions, of yourself and the institution, and if it feels like a good fit, that is going to be a good conversation regardless of the outcome.

Gabrielle said...

I can happily recommend the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University for folks who believe theater's a team activity built on collaboration, and who want to be a part of a repertory and not a department. Playwrights, actors and directors take intensive acting classes together the first two years, and improvised movement, dance and voice and speech are also available electives for playwrights. It's like full immersion, and for some people, like me, who don't want to feel like I'm sequestered in the creative writing department, that's a perfect fit.

Unknown said...
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Todd Ristau said...
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Todd Ristau said...

There are a few additional questions you should be thinking about.

Number of students is not as important as class size. Be sure you ask about that. Our analytical courses are capped at 15 students, creative courses are capped at 12, upper level creatives are capped at 8 students per section, and advanced workshops capped at 6. There are also Independent Studies and Thesis Advising where you get individual attention from the faculty member.

Who are the instructors? What are their qualifications and are they still active practitioners or solely academics?

What classes get taught, and are they useful creatively and professionally? It is perfectly appropriate to look at the catalog and ask how many classes get taught, how often, and who teaches them. Which courses are required and why? Who does the advising? Who is available to serve on your thesis committee?

Who are the guest artists and how do they interact with students in the program? You can tell a lot about a program by who is willing to contribute their time and talent to helping it grow. Look into the ways the guest artists interact with the students. Do they just come and do a lecture and then are whisked off to dinner and cocktails with the faculty? Our guest artists, like Naomi Wallace, Mac Wellman, Carl Hancock Rux spend a whole weekend with our students doing workshops, hanging out, and treating each other as colleagues.

Who are the other students and what are they doing? On campus productions of student work is important, but does the program partner with several legitimate theatres locally and nationally to get students experience and recognition through readings and productions BEFORE they graduate?
Does the program work for your success or simply take credit for it after the fact?

Is the program able to help you get placed in a quality internship and how do they prepare you to be successful if they do?

I'm very proud of what we do at Hollins, and I think we compare favorably when we answer the above questions, even if we're not able to offer the kind of aid or teaching assistant opportunities traditional programs can. But don't take my word for it, check us out yourself. I only mention our program because you can't choose it if you don't know the choice is available.

M. H. said...

Boston University has an MFA Playwriting program:

Nina Kessner said...

How valuable is a degree in playwriting for an individual who would like to pursue production and publication? I have written two full lengths which received full production; one comedy and one drama. I am interested in developing my craft and expanding connections. The NYC community is not an option. What I see as available are contests, competitions, and queries.

Unknown said...

It's been several years since this article was posted, and again several years since any comments were posted but I found it very helpful. Are there any updates anyone could share with me as I look for a program?

Todd Ristau said...

Only that the program at Hollins has gotten bigger and better. Please check us out, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the program.

Do check out the FB and YouTube links for up to the minute photos and video testimonials from students, guests and faculty.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much!

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