The Right Way to Get an MFA

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I’m going to get my MFA in Directing (for theatre) in the fall.  Yay!  I present below a combined listing of advice I think I would have appreciated and an annotated timeline of theatre and life events leading up to my decision to attend an MFA program.  I know that none of my suggestions below are easy to do.  I just present it as stuff that I suspect might have been helpful to me on the way to getting into an MFA program.

First, a few conversations in recent years that really affected me:

At my old day job, helping 22 year old coworker unload the dishwasher, she tells me that she is applying for grad school.  “What else am I going to do, keep doing this sh*t for another five years?! (motions to dishwasher)  Don’t you want to get out of here?”

Talking to actress friend of mine, saying to her if I did go for an MFA at this point I would have an MFA when I’m 43, isn’t that ridiculous, I’m too old for school, etc.  This friend is an extremely talented actress who is turning 50 this year, and she is still working a day job and doing mostly unpaid acting jobs.  She tells me she would have loved to have had an MFA at 43.

Third-hand advice from my friend’s mother:  Last year at a party I chatted with a friend who is a couple of years older than me, early 40’s, married with 3 children.  She and her husband are very well-off, and, unrelated to this essay, they both look like models.  She is now getting her degree to become a therapist.  I asked her how she felt being back at school at her age and with 3 young children.  She said her mother had talked to her about pursuing her degree, and had said something like “Right now, especially with the kids so young, you can very easily fill your days, but when they get older, and they are doing their own thing, you’re going to want your own career.  You will want options.  Choose a path now and follow it.  You don’t have to jump into a job immediately, but at least you’ll have the option if and when you do want to go back to a full-time career.”

This brings me to Advisement #1: Make Plans

From college until about 2008 I held to a philosophy that if I just kept pursuing what I love that my path would become clear.  I believed the mythology that it is somehow bad or inauthentic to have a plan, set goals, or think about the future and how I want it to look.  It’s not bad!  It’s actually very helpful to have a plan and set goals!  I’m not saying everyone should have every minute of their life planned out with such rigidity that when things don’t go according to the plan you made in 6th grade that you consider yourself a failure.  I’m only saying that setting goals, thinking about what you would find most fulfilling and then pursuing those goals with flexibility and compassion for oneself is a wonderful thing.  You reassess your goals periodically so they evolve with you, but you still have them.

2000 – first directing job, no pay, co-produced with playwright, in NYC Fringe Festival then at HERE Arts Center the next year

2002 – applied to 2 grad schools, Cal-Arts and Bard, got into Cal-Arts, didn’t go because couldn’t afford it, decide to stay in NYC and create my own “grad school experience”

I did create my own grad school experience as best I could.  I directed my friends’ work, I pushed myself to write my own plays to direct, and I self-produced and produced work for other people, and then I started creating devised theatre.  I took physical theatre and writing workshops.  I loved all this work, but my day-to-day life wasn’t changing.  I did all of this in addition to working the 40-hour a week day job.  All of my extra money went to self-producing (and sunglasses and hair products).

May 2-4 2013 Nina Morrison Jennifer Berklich photo 1

Think about and make plans, photograph by Jennifer Berklich

When I was trying to find a way to make my daily life more bearable I told my brother that I was considering training in Feng Shui, or possibly opening a café (??).  In addition to my passion for theatre, a notoriously competitive and non-lucrative field, I am unfailingly interested in counter-lucrative entrepreneurial ideas.  My brother became so frustrated hearing this that he nearly jumped through the phone yelling at me (lovingly) “NO.  NO!  You want to do theatre stuff, you need to get your theatre degree and go be a professor somewhere so you can make some money and keep doing your art and get out of New York where it is too expensive to live!”  Fair point my wise brother.

Then these things happened:

2006 – Fall – see my first Young Jean Lee play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” it changes everything I think about theatre and playwriting and makes me want to be a playwright

2006 – December – self-produce my first devised show

2008 – I get into a writing residency program that lasts nine months and gives me a studio and a small stipend

2009 – January, while in writing residency, I apply to one place – Brooklyn College Playwriting MFA (where Young Jean Lee went), do not get in

2009 – February, while in writing residency, Mac Wellman, head of Brooklyn College Playwriting MFA program, visits the writers in residence to talk to us about our work.  He reads an excerpt of my work, we talk for a few minutes, and he says he doesn’t think I want to be a writer.  He says “You want to make things.”  I say that maybe an MFA isn’t worth it anyway.  He asks “Do you want to be a secretary your whole life?”  That comment gets under my skin.  I tell him about the Cal-Arts experience and money issues, he tells me to go to a free PhD theatre program like Stanford.  He asks me who I know in the theatre world, who are my friends, who am I working with.  I tell him, he doesn’t recognize any of the names, he says “Get some friends.”  I am upset by everything he says, then later realize that he was right about everything.

2009 – play that I wrote while in residence gets accepted to NYC International Fringe Festival, I produce and direct it, get good reviews

2010 –again, I apply to only one program, the newly created Hunter College Playwriting MFA overseen by awesome playwright Tina Howe, at this point I still think I want to be a playwright (not yet listening to Mac Wellman’s advice above).  Not entirely related to this essay, but this effing application requires taking the GRE’s, and on advice of best friend I literally choose “B” for every single math question and score pretty well on math.  I still didn’t get into the program.

This brings me to Advisement #2: Choose One Thing (and 2a. examine that choice, and 2b. be a serious candidate)

I am a director of experimental theatre.  I can say that now.  11 years ago I applied to MFA programs for the first time at age 29.  I thought at the time that as an actor-improviser-playwright-screenwriter-director-producer-modern dancer that I should look for a program that would train me in ALL of these interests.  In 2002 I applied to two programs, Cal-Arts and Bard, that I thought could actually address most of my interests, no program addressed all of them, so these two were the closest I could get.

I wish someone had said “That is so silly, just choose one thing.”  Choose one thing.  You can still do side projects, but choose the thing from your big list that you like the most, not what will make the most money, but the thing that you will be most excited about working on all day, and overtime won’t feel like overtime, and it will be exciting to get training in this field.  Most likely your interests are all related.  If you are a director that you will still be doing some producing, and you’re probably going to be doing some writing and acting and designing, too.

Even if your interests aren’t related at all, still just choose the one that is your favorite and then pursue that training or take the appropriate steps to advance on that path.  I’m not saying quit your day job and only do that thing, all I’m saying is make a choice, and then start on that path.  Most likely, if you pursue that passion, eventually you won’t need to have a day job.

May 2-4 2013 Nina Morrison Jennifer Berklich photo 2

Choose one thing and reach for it, photograph by Jennifer Berklich

Okay, and 2a. once you choose the one thing, then examine that one thing.  After seeing the Young Jean Lee play in 2006 I thought I wanted to be a playwright, but what I really wanted, and what Mac Wellman correctly gleaned from a quick conversation with me, is that I actually want to direct those kinds of plays.  I couldn’t find them anywhere so I started writing them myself and devising them with ensembles.  I am not and have never been all that interested in my own writing. Nor am I interested in sitting around and reading plays all the time.  I like being in a rehearsal room.  It took a while, but I finally remembered that, and then I was able to properly identify myself as a director.

2b. when you are applying, show them you are a serious applicant by researching and applying to several programs.  MFA programs and most other graduate training is about getting specialized.  If your résumé doesn’t reflect your interest and experience in exactly that school’s brand of this specialty, then the program might not be as interested in you.  MFA and other graduate program classes are typically very, very small which makes them very competitive.  If a program accepts 3 people every year, and they get 100 applications, they have a 3% acceptance rate (that is just to give an example, many school’s acceptance rates are lower) so you have to show them that you are a good fit.  Show the school (and yourself) that you have done your research and are serious about their specific program.

Also, apply to more than one program at a time.  MFA programs tend to find it suspicious if you only apply to one place.  It can make you look unserious, they have to know you are committed to the training even if it is not with them.

And finally, Advisement #3:  Think about Money

Cash+Money+Millionaires+01largecashmoney5B15D

DO NOT forget about the MFA trill

I moved to New York City in 1996 about six weeks after graduating college.  I’ve been an admin assistant ever since my arrival.  I’m not independently wealthy, I don’t receive financial support from my parents or my partner, and I know how to type and format documents.  It has been an easy way to make a living that would allow me to live here and make theatre here.  In my 20’s and early 30’s I barely noticed my day job.  In the last 5 years, it has become less tolerable to spend 40 hours a week not doing what I love so I can spend 4-8 hours a week doing what I love.  It has become especially less tolerable imagining doing that for the rest of my working years.

Think about Money is kind of a sub-advisement of Advisement 1: Make Plans.  Look into programs that offer a full ride or at least very reasonable costs to those accepted.  There are many programs out there who do this.  Yale School of Drama notably now offers a full ride to accepted MFA students.  Find those places so you can go and study and not also have to take on debt and work a job outside of school.

Presumably, you are pursuing the MFA in the hopes that the training will open doors to teaching, working in places that care about degrees, networking, and all those other things related to making a living doing what you love.  It makes sense to review which programs will offer the best of all those things.  It also makes sense to remember the limitations of your field.  If you are getting an MFA, you are most likely not going into an obviously lucrative field.  I’m not saying you won’t make any money, but you’re not training to be a tax attorney is all.

I was given the advice early in my grad school app process to “Apply to every program that you are interested in, see where you get in and figure out the money later.”  I don’t think that is great advice.  I think if I had followed it I would probably be carrying a massive debt burden from student loans.

If you are able to pay these costs yourself or your parents or partner or anyone is willing to pay for them, then good for you!!  Go study and be successful and then pay it forward by sponsoring a tuition scholarship or something.  You can skip this section.

For the rest of us:

Sample Tuition Costs for Directing MFA programs 2012-2013 year:

Brown Trinity Rep Tuition for the M.F.A. programs in the Graduate School for the 2012–2013 academic year is $42,808.

Total for 3 years: $128,424.00

Columbia University

Annual Tuition for current first and second year MFA students $49,448

Annual Tuition for current MFA students in their third year and beyond $4,084

Total for 3 years: $102,980.00

Cal-Arts

Annual Tuition $39,976

Total for 3 years $119,928.00

(I got accepted to Cal-Arts in 2002, and I declined for several reasons, but one of the main reasons was I was afraid of taking on that much debt.)

Some more things that happened:

2010 – July, I get married to my partner of 3 years

2011 – a really nice downtown theatre, Dixon Place, puts up my full length devised work, is first non-festival supported production of a full length work

2011 – I embrace that I am a director, playwriting is just a way for me to make plays that I want to direct.  Have never had any interest in writing plays to hand off to someone else.   Embark on search for directing programs that cost little to nothing, support devised work, teach classics, and have good academic reputation

2011 – I apply to two programs – polar opposites of each other in every way except in low cost – YALE, cost – free, extremely traditional conservatory training, but am dazzled by rigor of classwork and resources offered to students, also notice that Yale MFA’s are well-trained but not necessarily working on only traditional forms of theatre.  Amazing academic reputation.  Also apply to TOWSON University in Baltimore, MD.  Costs – $2,400/year.  Program is totally experimental, entirely dedicated to making collaboratively created, multi-disclipinary theatre.  Towson is very exciting, cool program, but they have only been around for 18 years, and are relatively unknown academically.

2012 – January, interviewed by Yale, but not invited to audition.

2012 – February, interviewed and auditioned by Towson University

2012 – March, am accepted at Towson.  Bunch of stressful things happen in personal life, decide to defer Towson for one year.

2013 – January, re-apply to Yale, and to apply to University of Iowa.  Iowa is unusually competitive because they give a free ride and paying teaching position to all accepted MFA Directors.  They only accept 4 directors every 3 years, 2013 is the next new class.  Their program is focused on new work, devised and written, they have a lot of resources,.  Also, Iowa City where the University is located, is my wife’s hometown, and she is ecstatic at idea of going there.  Seems like an ideal place.

2013 – February, interviewed again by Yale, and again not invited to audition.

2013 – February, interviewed by Iowa, interviewer seems extremely enthusiastic re my résumé and credits, I think it is a sure thing that will be accepted.

2013 – March, Iowa informs me that I have been waitlisted.  Assumption of Iowa as sure thing was very wrong.

2013 – March, I let Towson know that I will be attending in the Fall

2013 – March, Iowa calls and tells me I am accepted, think it over for two days, then call and accept.

ArrowIn

From Arrow In, photograph by Nina Morrison

So here we are now in April 2013, and I am prepping for turning 40 and then moving from Brooklyn to Iowa City in July.  I know that I’m a beautiful unicorn.  I’m a miracle.  I’m a snowflake.  All my mistakes and choices and failures and successes and spontaneous decisions have made me who I am, and I don’t want to be anyone else.  I do think this is all advice that I would have liked to have been given, but I don’t know.  I wouldn’t be exactly the person I am or have the career I have if I had taken it.  Still, maybe it is helpful.

Nina Morrison is a Brooklyn based director and devisor of experimental theatre. Nina’s latest work, Arrow In will be presented in May 2013 by Dixon Place.  Her piece Girl Adventure: Parts 1-4 was presented by Dixon Place in May 2011. Excerpts of Girl Adventure were presented in the Little Theatre series in 2010 and 2011 and in the HOT! Festival in 2010 and 2011. Nina wrote and directed the play Forest Maiden which was presented in the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival. She wrote Forest Maiden while she was a 2008-2009 LMCC WORKSPACE Writer-in-Residence, a residency program of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. For more information you can visit http://www.ninamorrison.com.

Nina Morrison

If you’re in the NYC area in May, drop in and catch Nina Morrison’s final show before she embarks on her trek to the Middle West!

COMING SOON:

Dixon Place presents

ARROW IN

A woman wakes up to find a transitional object in her bed.

Thursday, May 2 at 7:30 PM

Friday, May 3 at 10:00 PM

Saturday, May 4 at 7:30 PM

Tickets: http://www.dixonplace.org

Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, $12 students / seniors.

Created by Nina Morrison in collaboration with the performers

Choreographer Susan Quinn

Composer Jeannie Fry

Contributing Writers Craig Foltz, Jeannie Fry

Visual Artist Vandana Jain

Video Designer Zoë Woodworth

PERFORMERS Lucia Cousins, Brenda Crawley, Jeannie Fry, Caroline Oster, Katherine O’Sullivan, Ellen Simpson, Jeanne Lauren Smith, Megan Tefft, and Brooke Volkert

Comments

  1. Nina, thank you so much for putting this out into the webverse. It was a generous task and it meant a lot to stumble on it and feel less alone in this process. I think I was looking for exactly this – am I too old? what should a program do for me? what advice will I give myself when I look back? May you make many beautiful things and have wonderous adventures!

  2. I really appreciate this posting! It’s a tough road to pursuits like directing (which is what I want to do and I am very thankful I figured that out pretty quick) but it’s good that persistence is really key to making it all happen. I am excited to keep struggling to put more beautiful art into the world and Cheers to you for doing the same! You are an amazing lady!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this! There are a lot of people asking the same questions about it being “late” to pursue school — I agree — it’s never too late to do what you love.
    Thanks for your generosity in writing this and I hope you are having a blast in the program pursuing what you love!

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