MFA or PHD or WTF?

Two days ago, I quit a PhD. in Theater program, which I started this past October.

I have quite a lot to say on the topic of the current academic apparatus of the theater. But why don’t I start with an (edited version of an) email I sent to a marvelous playwright/professor, whose advice I was desiring, one month into the program, November 2003. Yes, the email is a bit hysterical and overwrought in places.

In some ways, I’ve been proven right, in some ways wrong. Those places will be marked with a **, and I’ll expand more tomorrow.


Let me tell you about the pickle I currently find myself in, having started the PhD program. And that might tell you what kind of program I think could actually be relevant in America in 2003, the program I wish existed so I could go to it right now.

I’m a director. What got me into this mess, this demented profession, is my unfortunate love for directing plays and for theater. I have total faith that theater works, and can work anywhere with a wide set of resources–especially after doing four plays in rural Mississippi. Especially after having almost never been able to do a play with, like, a set or lights, but generally a wash board and a piece of electrical tape, usually in a basement somewhere.

Anyway–in my artistic pursuits I developed a concurrent and fanatic inquiry into How Do We Make Theater Work In America in 2003. That’s why I made Living Newspapers in NYC, and went to Cornerstone, and went on that trip documenting Outdoor Dramas, Passion Plays, etc. The desire to finish the latter project has landed me in a PhD program where they couldn’t give a shit if I directed another play again except that my directing “background” will make me more hirable in academia in 4 years.** I’m pretty sure that when I try to take any MFA classes, it will be some kind of an ‘issue’.** There is nothing in my program related to practice, nothing. I don’t know why I came here. It’s rather painful.

So why am I not in an MFA program? The MFA would be preparing me for a future which is only getting smaller and less relevant, aka, preparing me to work in a system of theater which, simply put, ISN’T WORKING. The regional theater system is not working in terms of developing new work, new audiences, or making theater relevant in any way in daily American life. Even if I just went for the connections–I curdle when I confront the $25,000 price tag of Yale and Columbia–who are they kidding? It’s shameful!* (It’s not like law school where you can go work for the devil for 4 years and pay off the loans! You either have to be monumentally wealthy or take on _crippling_ amounts of debt as you get into a profession that puts you into debt anyway!).

The PhD program (I reasoned to myself a year ago) will at least let me pursue my own interests. I’m here–and really don’t see it happening.**

Look, I just want an MFA program that isn’t there to produce regional theater or New York hacks. A program that encourages thinking artists who do research as part of their art-making, and forces them to ask the big questions of How Do We Do This Thing Here. A place that includes required coursework/practicum in community-based theater-making, teaching (of both practicum and dramatic literature), non-traditional theater, and grant-writing and cooking up new feasible economic models for art; which encourages and makes room for a class or two in (or collaboration with) Political Economics and Video and Painting and Dance and History and Popular Mechanics. A place where the directors are required to take Playwrighting and Acting and Design–and vice versa–for the basic empowerment it gives artists to make a piece of theater work no matter who they are in its food-chain. A place that doesn’t have answers but asks the questions, rigorously, that wants to produce the hungry practitioners who are going to make the New Theater. Perhaps that includes required residencies in non-theater centric locations?

Perhaps such a program exists and I don’t know about it–tell me where it is, and I’ll go there, straight away. Perhaps no program like this could ever exist, and I need to stop whining–tell me that too, and I will, straight away.

I literally just don’t know where to go next. In my self-pitying moments (alarmingly frequent of late), I think things like, “*sniff* there’s just no place for me.” Because there isn’t, of course–is there for any of us? Not really, past what we can make for ourselves. I’m certainly not interested in fighting over the five crumbs that currently exist–that’s why I left New York, that’s all they do there, they don’t bake new bread. I’m the Little Red Hen, here–where can I go to plant the field and bake new bread?

*Don’t even start me ranting again about how the practice-theory divide is only perpetuating mediocrity in the most insidious of ways**, I’ve already been going on too long.

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