I have been reading a number of interviews with playwrights recently, many of whom most of us have heard of, many most of us may not have, but who still have some pretty impressive notches in their belts. After a while, I began to notice a pattern in a large number of these interviews and I thought I’d throw this out there to see what some of you might think.
Most of these playwrights had MFA’s in playwriting, often from prestigious schools with big name playwrights on the curriculum, and many of them seemed to know each other, either through their connection at university or through the theatres and training courses they attended upon graduation from said universities.
Like our dear friend, the esteemed Mr. Wells, I have no formal education in playwriting; I am self-taught. I have always believed in the simple notion that if you wanted something badly enough, you could achieve it. Very “American Dream,” I know, but it holds true for me. I also believe that, as in most of the arts, there is only so much that can be taught. If the inherent talent is not there, it cannot be implanted. Certainly you can be taught rules of structure, subtext, character arc, etc, but this can only augment a pre-existing ability; and let’s not forget - and this is especially true in playwriting - that rules were made to be broken. And of course, there is always a danger in arts education of creating a “cardboard cutout” mentality in a student, instead of fertilizing the imagination of the individual. That is not to say I am against an arts education, only that I don’t believe it to be absolutely necessary.
That said, based upon the above information I gleaned from these interviews, I cannot help but think that an aspiring playwright who rises through one of these institutions has a distinct and very key advantage over those of us that make our own path through the forest: that being the network of connections and relationships forged in such places that inevitably enable their work to be seen, discussed, and held in higher regard than the work of someone outside of that system. A caste system, if you will.
Yes, this same kind of insider network exists pretty much everywhere else, so why should the world of playwriting be exempt? The fact is it shouldn’t. In an ideal world, everyone’s work would be judged solely by its merit, not by which school the playwright attended or who they know. But we do not live in an ideal world, so what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This kind of nepotism is egalitarian in its unfairness.
Lest I sound too cynical, I still believe that truth will out, and if you bang on doors long enough and hard enough, someone will eventually answer, if for no other reason than you’ve given them a headache and they want some peace and quiet. Conversely, there are plenty of mediocre aspiring playwrights that have been groomed at prestigious schools and seen their work fast-tracked to significant exposure, only to be savaged by the critics for a sub par effort, causing many to shrivel up and disappear (presumably to new vocations…or, more likely, television). Again, truth, eventually, will out.
But I can’t help thinking that despite my “by the bootstraps” ethos, having an MFA might actually have significant advantages that I hadn’t previously considered, none of which have anything to do with the actual craft of writing a good play.
Harvey. Alas, as always, you are so right. This happens in every walk of life, of which you are no doubt aware, even in the burrow!
Our British class system, although not as obvious now a days, follows the same system. Not what you know but who you know and where you come from!
I was fortunate to have a Public school education (in the UK that's a 'private' education. Best schools; expensive etc)
There were many guys there who were a long way short of 'the cream of the nation' but who went on to important and influential Diplomatic or Commercial positions because of the 'system'.
That's why belonging to this forum is so good. Yes, there are guys out there who write absolute drivel but believe they are a budding Shakespeare and others who turn out gem after gem. Maybe they won't get the recognition they deserve but at least here we get to see them and when one of us makes it, it gives the others the impetus to keep striving against the tide of that cruel world out there!
This business of writing must be the only one that carries 'rejection' as the main stay of its way of life. You just have to accept it, ignore it and move on.
What a GREAT topic for discussion. I hope to see this thread go a mile long. We each have our own ideas in this matter and they generally correspond with our own journey. I am distrustful of academia regarding their handling of the soul of the Artist. Maybe this is a result of my not having a formal education in playwriting, just hard work. That could be argued, of course, but I have no longer any inclination to bother. I firmly believe that I did not teach myself to be a playwright. I believe I came that way from the get-go. My challenge was to help the playwright I was and am bloom. I can best add to this thread by posting an essay/rant published a year or so ago in The Loop. Thanks, Harvey, for the thoughtful opening thesis and for referring to me as "esteemed." I rather like it!
A while ago I was asked what was the best book for someone thinking about trying their hand at playwriting. I had no idea. The following was my response.
~~The "esteemed" Mr. Wells :)
ON THE ART OF PLAYWRITING
(Originally published in the November 2008 issue of The Loop.)
There is absolutely no book I could recommend on "how to write a play" since I do not believe in an academic approach to playwriting. In fact, I'm rather hostile to the idea of approaching any Art academically. If it is your fate, it is all there inside you waiting for the passion to release it -- the inspiration, the talent, the desire to channel your Muse. One can unfold those petals into the playwright's mindset by reading the plays of the best of us.
We learn very little in this life from those outside ourselves other than statistical facts, an astonishing assertion, but one in which I believe. Those outside ourselves confirm what we already know. I also believe that when we hear that bell ringing confirmation, we learn from within. Everyone who has ever touched me within has influenced my work.
Read lots and lots and lots of plays until you discover the technique of what holds them together, what makes them work, how a character is developed from the inside out, how to hear the truth and the singularity of each character's voice. Most importantly, after you have read those lots and lots and lots of plays, forget about them! Find your own voice. Write what you would like to see, what you would pay to see. Listen to the rhythm and the underlying subtext of the words of those with whom you come into contact, and also those you overhear and are not a party to.
When you begin to write, listen very carefully as your characters develop. Do not gloss over any false notes or doubts you may feel. Rethink and rethink until it seems natural to your ear. Allow the characters to grow and inhabit your story. Often they will guide you through the maze of your story with twists and turns you hadn't foreseen, thus going a long way to eliminate the "predictable" factor. Don't force words or ideas into their mouths! Don't speak for them, push them or get in their way. Trust them. Trust your own sense of honesty.
Now begin. Begin with a steady diet of play reading. Again, read lots and lots and lots of plays. Soon you'll instinctively be driven to the plays and the playwrights that will speak to you deeply and inspire and touch and spark the fuel with which we create -- passion. ~ECW
Paul T, your point about the importance of places like this forum in regard to the inequities of this world (or burrow) we inhabit is well taken. This is one of the reasons I, and others, try very hard to keep this place a supportive and nurturing environment. It’s tough enough out there as it is, without us beating up on our own. Sadly, there are some who, frustrated by their lack of success in the real world, come to a site like this and take pleasure in putting others down in order to bolster their own insecurities. And as you point out, when we see the success of others here on the board it gives us all hope and encouragement. In this business of rejection of ours, as you mention, it’s healthy to see those “yeses” flying around occasionally.
As for our esteemed Mr. Wells, your advice to budding playwrights in your Loop article is spot on. I’d read it before, of course, but such sound advice should be exposed as often as possible, as it’s such a great grounding for anyone just starting out.
However, I found this comment most revealing: “I firmly believe that I did not teach myself to be a playwright. I believe I came that way from the get-go. My challenge was to help the playwright I was and am bloom.”
I think this goes directly to the nurture/nature point of the discussion, and forces me to revise my “self-taught” comment. So to clarify, like you, I do not feel that I taught myself to write plays, only to find the courage to embrace, embellish, and offer up what was already there inside of me.
One thing I would also add to the plus column of not having taken the academic route, with those non-writing related advantages I talked about earlier, and that is strength of character. If you’re facing a headwind and can still push on and persevere, even if at times you feel that all of the odds are against you, it ultimately makes you’re a stronger person. I believe your ability to handle rejection, disappointment, failure, and all the other vicissitudes of the business becomes that much better. And ultimately, in the long run and assuming you have talent, isn’t tenacity a playwright’s greatest attribute?
From my producer prospective, I believe there is an advantage in having a formal 'theatre' education, but it isn't what may seem obvious. I honestly believe it has nothing to do with an artistic director being impressed by the credits, but has everything to do with connections. Nothing more.
I read a lot of plays. I don't real a lot of bios. Honestly, I don't really care what you've done. I'm more concerned with what you've sent me.
I cannot imagine an artistic director/literary director loving a play, but not producing it because the playwright didn't go to the right school, or go to school for theatre at all.
Having spent a few years in a setting with tons of people involved in theatre, working with other playwrights/directors/actors, making contacts...on and on...that is where the advantage is.
So yes, places like this are really wonderful! I've had more than one play produced from connections I've made here. Sometimes, putting a feeling to a name is that bit of edge you may need. But I believe that happens more with someone requesting something they know you are working on/completed. When it comes to submissions for a short play festival, or the like, I think it comes down to the quality of the play.
My Canadian two-cents...which isn't as cheap as it used to be.
Some great points, Paddy, and I agree completely with the connections theory. And I think that’s the point that I’ve come to learn from reading all of those interviews. Namely, that an MFA may have limited benefits in whether or not it can make you a better playwright, or even a good one, but everything to do with getting on that inside track…it’s so much harder to gain acceptance and credibility when you’re not one of the family.
An artistic director/literary director passing on a play they liked? Yes, I would have to say, unfortunately, I think that does happen, but not because the playwright didn’t have an MFA, but the playwright didn’t have those MFA inside track connections. So someone comes to the artistic director/literary director and says “You have to read my friend’s script, it’s excellent. He/she was at Brown with me and was mentored by Paula Vogel.” And hey, with a little pedigree, a decent script, and a little personal involvement, the other script gets pushed aside. I also think that the artistic director/literary director will often consider the bottom line (butts on seats) in these decisions, and promoting a play whose writer studied at Yale and was tutored by Marsha Norman and Edward Albee is a safer bet (imagining the prospective audience member muttering, while deciding which play to see, ”With that kind of background they must be good”).
With short play submissions I couldn’t agree more. It’s open season. And like you, I’ve had a number of productions through connections I’ve made over the years (not that they would have produced them if they didn’t like the work, but I’m a known entity and my work will always get looked at, not overlooked). But…I made those connections myself, the hard way, as you did.
With full-length plays, though, I think those playwrights that have gone through the “system” have a significant advantage over those of us who didn’t. At least in the short term. How long it sustains them in the course of a career is another matter entirely. Early success built on such frailties won’t last a lifetime, and a string of disappointing, poorly-received productions will bring even the most well-connected among us back down to earth with a thud. There will come a point when, to quote your last line, “it comes down to the quality of the play.”
To gage the influence of "higher" education on playwriting, wouldn't we have to include the influence of dramaturges, actors, directors and critics?
It seems that the playwright creates from the perspective of individual perception. Educational views are derived from perspectives past. For example, if a "successful" playwright graduates from school X, people will go to school X as though the school produced the playwright.
Theories of theatre: criticism, technique, interpretation, direction; are developed based on the success of someone who is no longer there. Networks of people grow from shared experiences, which may enhance associate's chances of having scripts read, but perhaps as interesting, expectations are shaped for each of us in some proportion, as we value the prestige of certain credentials.
To some extent, then, the process of theatre is removed from individual perspective to academic theory: an abstraction reiterated. The playwright takes a risk. Producers attempt to minimize risk by reviewing academic credentials. (Is my play a play because I call it a play, or because a producer produces it? Is it a "good" play because the critics admire it, or; because it appeals to the audience?)
There have been several recent calls for scripts which required a letter from someone familiar with the playwright's work? (My mom would not like it, maybe a neighbor?) One organization requested a letter to attest to my moral character! (Are any of my characters moral?)
There is nothing new about the academy. It has existed in some form for as long as people have created theatre, and there have been people "outside" who have had the temerity to do something different and change the views of the scholars.
I reject playwriting, and all arts as academic subjects, because I believe art grows out of life: individual experience and individual expression of experience. None-the-less, Lloyd Richards at the helm of Yale Drama School is not an experience I would want theatre to have missed.
We can not all go to Yale, nor can we all go to college, nor do we all want to spend our college resources on studying theatre.
What do we want? What do we want from theatre? What do we want from our writing? How do you spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s?
As an undergraduate theater major at a non-Ivy League university in Northeast US, I finished all the theater courses by my senior year. I got permission to take graduate level courses for undergraduate credit (at graduate tuition of course). One day early in the semester, I went to the directing class to find the blackboard covered with writing explaining the format for writing a research paper. The professor said for our semester project, we were to pick a play and write a paper on how we would direct it. Having worked in theater since early teens, I immediately raised my hand. I said I could write 20 papers like that, but it would all be conjecture, since vital info was missing, like venue (dimensions, seating, etc), budget, access to costumes, props, etc. Besides, I said that meant we would take a directing class and never get to direct.
The professor immediately erased the blackboard and changed the assignment to selecting a one-act or scenes from a full length and actually directing it. He would book the campus theater for 2 sessions instead of giving us a final exam. We could use students from acting classes if we needed to, and they would get credit towards their grades.
I was delighted, but some of the other students never forgave me.
I never quite got the concept of academic theater except for courses in history of theater or examining plays from literary perspective (had some problems with that anyway). Stagecraft courses were helpful, too, though I wish I'd paid more attention when taking them.
Ok. I had to play Devil's Advocate on this one. I was seeing a lot of postings about how a formal education for playwriting is not really necessary (I know that's a gross overgeneralization of the incredibly detailed and valuable posts thus far). Much of what has been said I agree with, but I wanted to give a different perspective as well.
I think that everyone has to follow their own road, of course, when it comes to determining how they're going to develop as a writer. There are so many incredibly talented (and recognized) playwrights who did not go the MFA route. There are also talented (and recognized) playwrights who did. I'll grant that getting an MFA opens up the doors of networking for an aspiring playwright, but I'm reticent to say that it is the only developmental leg up that it can give to an artist.
I believe that it was mentioned in the original post that talent cannot be taught. I agree, one-hundred-percent. However, I do think that talent can be cultivated. Not everyone needs (or benefits) from a formal setting in which to develop the talent that they posses. However, there are those who do, and I'd imagine that those who do, if they're going to plant their talent seeds in any soil for it to grow, it makes sense to choose the most fertile MFA program soil they can find. This may be another reason (in addition to forming connections) that recognized playwrights come out of the big MFA programs.
Personally, if it hadn't been for academia, I never would have fallen into playwriting. I always loved theatre, but frankly, I wanted to act. I was encouraged by one of my acting professors, who after an improv session said "Do you want to know what I see in you? I see a writer," to take a creative writing class. From there, I never looked back, and I can tell you that I see a HUGE difference in what I was writing in that first class to the work that I develop now. My eyes were opened by what I saw in workshops, by what I learned from professors, by what I learned from students, by what I gleaned from my scholarly studies (especially this last one). All of that has made me a better writer. I was told that the talent was there, but some molding of that talent hasn't hurt. I want to live up to my talent potential, whatever that may be, and for me, the best place to do that, is in an MFA program. It's not for everyone. It's not NEEDED by everyone, but well... for those of us who do benefit from it, it can be an incredibly useful tool for development.
Thank you, PB. Mary Alice, you pose some very interesting questions…especially your last one. I guess we all have to define “success” for ourselves and on our own terms.
A lovely anecdote, Barbara. Thank you for sharing it. A great reminder that none of us should be afraid to raise our hand from time to time. It can sometimes make a world of difference.
WildeThing, thank you for playing devil’s advocate. It always adds a healthy dimension to any discussion. However, I’m not sure that that’s what you did, in the strict sense. Instead, I think you made a very eloquent, very convincing argument for why an MFA program can actually be a valuable and much needed opportunity for certain writers (aspiring or otherwise). For someone such as yourself, it was clearly a necessary part of your evolution as a writer. My experience was quite different. When I first began writing plays, it just felt natural. I had no prior history as a writer of any stripe, but for some unknown reason I felt as though it was something I should have been doing all along. I felt like I’d arrived home. I was also fortunate that the very first plays I wrote immediately began getting produced in New York and elsewhere, as well as winning awards, so my faith and confidence were given a strong footing from the start. Without that, if I had been forced to slog through a year or two of constant rejection, who knows if I’d have had the self-assurance to continue? But, in short, it seemed to come (and felt) utterly natural to me. But other writers, like you, can sometimes need incubating before they can fully flourish. And your justification of that process was wonderfully articulated. However, while I agree that an MFA (in particular, from an Ivy League) is not the only developmental leg up out there, I cannot help but wonder if I (and perhaps many others out there) may have greatly underestimated just how huge of a leg up that MFA network can actually be.
Today I read a very favorable review of a first play by a young women that just opened Off-Off-Broadway. Of course, after reading this I couldn’t help myself and did a little research. Turns out she went to Brown (though admittedly for acting not playwriting). Hey, I’m just mentioning it, that’s all…
Many of us have commented on this topic in previous posts in previous threads. I’ll see what else I can add that I may not have said before.
Everything everyone has said is true. Wilde Thing has beautifully and eloquently written a well-reasoned and truthful counterbalance.
Most who are regulars here know I am not a playwright. I am an actor who writes plays. I make the living as an actor.
As far as education, I would say the more one reads, the more one studies, the more one writes in no matter what learning venue – from the subway, coffee shop, park bench, library, tavern to an MFA program, the better off you will be prepared. And if one is in an MFA program, they should include all the others venues I just mentioned! I think it was Billy Wilder who said "For every word you write, read ten thousand."
And also, live an observing, feeling, involved life! (About a month ago, I read Moss Hart’s autobiography, “ACT ONE.” It is brilliantly written and entertaining. A poor NYC kid. I would suggest it to all playwrights. Touching and wonderful. Different era, but the hopes and dreams and the soulfulness are eternally the same.)
As far as connections: Yes an MFA program will definitely help you with connections. Ever since George Pierce Baker started 47 Workshop at Harvard, there have been those connections. Now there are just more of them! Some provide more connections than others. Having graduated from a less than well-known small liberal arts college in the Midwest that had a theatre faculty of 2, I started out as an actor in NYC with many graduates of fine MFA Acting programs from around the country, some well known actors today. Yes those connections definitely helped them...at the beginning, out of the starting gate. But here I am, 30 years later, happy and still working as an actor. Many aren’t, or never have from those schools. Remember, we only hear about the successful ones. I was driven, as were most actors I knew. Totally focused. Totally driven.
My step-daughter wanted to get a BFA in acting at one of the prestige acting programs out East. (Yes, her mother shuddered. But we both were supportive of her career choice.) However, I talked her out of a BFA. I told her get an education with a Liberal Arts degree, but study theatre, too. She did a double major, one of which was theatre, at a small Liberal Arts school out East. She then wanted to go to get an MFA in acting. I told her “Why? Just go be an actor.” She did. So, she has been making a living as an actor for the last six years. Speaking of connections, I introduced her to my agents and former agents in NYC...but only after she had started getting some good, well-paid work on her own prior to that. I did not want to appear as if I was “opening a door” for her to the agents, as so many parents who are actors, do.
She had created her own resume’. I then took the approach of “introducing a valuable gift to the agents.” It worked out well. They were vying for her. She continues to make her own connections. I only hope and pray she has a long career. I had no one to refer me when I had started out. But I was fortunate to get the first job in a small part that I ever auditioned for in New York at a highly reputable theatre. That is what helped open some doors for me. It doesn’t always happen that way.
One other thing about connections. One young actor friend of mine who was just cast as an understudy at a very reputable theatre wisely said when encountering the problem, “The casting director told me I should have gotten the part. but said it was just politics. I guess I just have to get to the point where politics affects the other guy.” Yep, very wise comment. He was disappointed but accepting. But, his comment shows some realistic ambition and goals. I still don’t think it is as simple for playwrights. Styles change, people at theatres have a rollover. They move around. They quit. Whereas someone is always looking for actors to do something. The system is set-up better for actors.
Soooooo, when it comes to playwriting: Admittedly it is a much tougher nut. Numbers tells the woeful tale. There are sadly just so few slots for full-length productions for the amount of plays written. And theatres are closing now left and right.
Here is a recent example of playwriting “connections” involving me. I recently had a play read in a rehearsed bill of six 10 minute pieces at a wonderful theatre. It was the play “Reflecting Lens” which several of you so generously helped me with on this Forum. It was NOT a blind judging. UPSHOT? I was the only playwright of the six chosen who was from outside of their company’s circle of playwrights. Now what are the odds of that happening?! Only 1 out of 6? There were quite a lot of submissions: 150 or so. So, this is more anecdotal evidence that says connections do help. IN ANYTHING/EVERYTHING. In this instance they admitted someone new – me – in for a visit. (I have learned to use a pseudonym as a playwright so no one could Google me and see I am an actor.)
And here is some advice on how to build a track record as a young/beginning playwright. I learned it from a writer friend, who had plays done in NYC, and had two shows on Broadway and then decided to chuck it all and write novels, which he has done very well with. He got tired of the “communal” aspect of the theatre.
If you are young and writing for the theatre starting out, write for younger actors. (Definitely under 30.) They are the ones who are going to have the time and energy, few responsibilities other than to themselves, and who make themselves available to work for free or for little pay. They will take a chance on your show if you have good parts for them, even if the play is not that terrific. Most new theatre companies are composed of young, excitable actors and directors. They are looking at ways to showcase THEMSELVES. I’d perform in almost any dump or firetrap I could find just to act. I’d do readings at the drop of a hat. (I’ll still do a reading for a playwright almost at the drop of a hat, because that takes little of my time. But I don’t do plays just to do a play anymore. I am not that kind of driven anymore. I like free time.) That way you can build up a resume’. Get your stuff known to others. Hopefully get some reviews. You have to make your own connections.
Sooooooo....keep writing away and keep submitting away. It is the lay of the land. In every profession that exists.
This really is a fascinating thread. Thanks everyone. I think I’ll just add a couple more anecdotes to the collection:
A few years ago I had a chat with the admissions tutor for an MA programme at a nearby university – and, interestingly, he did his best to play down the benefits of the course as a way to “further a career” – on the basis that if you are going to write for a living, then its best to just write and not worry about qualifications. It was strange, but quite refreshing, as I’d expected him to be claiming all sorts of advantages for anyone taking the course.
I later came across a couple of other examples of this view. The first came from Russell T Davies (TV exec producer and writer for Dr Who), during a talk he gave in Manchester 14 months ago – and the second was by Willy Russell (playwright & screenwriter. e.g. Educating Rita, Band of Brothers), at a scriptwriting conference last year.
Both were asked, at some point, a question like: “Hi. I’m currently studying scriptwriting at University. What advice would you give to someone like me?” And they each gave almost identical answers – which were along the lines of: “don’t bother going to your lectures. Just keep writing. Academic qualifications aren’t worth squat in this game”.
The Willy Russell comments were particularly funny, since the conference was actually being hosted by a university!
However . . .
Just like Harvey, over the last few years I have been noticing an odd trend, in that a lot of people I come across who are doing reasonably well with their writing just happen to have an MA squirreled away somewhere. Its certainly not all, and its not something that anyone particularly publicises – but it is definitely there.
So – as originally mooted – is it worth all the effort and expense required to obtain those letters?
Like most people here, I really can’t answer that one – although I might be able to answer it in a couple of years. The reason? I actually started an MA this autumn (part time) and, all being well, should finish in 2011.
I must admit I agonised quite a bit over whether to sign up or not. And all the points, made so eloquently by the posters above, will have passed through my mind at some time or other.
However, since starting, I’ve found it to be such a marvellous feeling to be back in an academic environment again, that I’m really just happy to be studying for its own sake. Whether it will make me a better writer, I have no idea, but for the moment I just don’t give a damn :-)
Nice anecdotes, FF. I have to say that I agree in principle wholeheartedly with the tutor, the TV exec and with Willy Russell. In an ideal world you would succeed on the merit of your work, period. However, though myself and others have said many times that you can’t teach someone to write plays, only fine tune what’s put there by nature (or God if some prefer), I’ve come to the conclusion that there are benefits to having an MFA that go beyond writing ability. Consequently, I say good for you for going for yours. Knowing what I know now, I’d be tempted to do the same. And being back in an academic environment again does sound appealing, I have to say. My college years were some of the best. At this point, though, I’ll just keep on battling windmills.
Interestingly enough, yesterday I came across a theatre (known and reputable) that stated they only accepted play submissions from playwrights who had an agent or were…get this…actively enrolled in an MFA program. This clearly infers that unless you have professional representation or have been accepted into a higher education course, your work probably isn’t worth looking at. How sad is that? And I wonder how many other companies are of a similar mind, just not so brazen about stating it in black and white?