What I learned Interviewing at Columbia, Yale and Ohio University for an MFA in Playwriting
I'm going to start off by admitting that I applied to graduate school 4 times before I actually went. I applied to about 10 schools each time. I haven't done the actual math and I don't want to, but that's a lot of money down the drain. Some of which could have been saved if I had a better idea of what I was getting into. I wish I had known better about what plays to submit and where to apply to. I could have saved myself a lot of time, effort, and money.
In my four years of applications (longer than the degree itself) I interviewed at Yale, Columbia, and Ohio University. I am going to share what I learned from those experiences, because, the application to playwriting graduate school is not nearly transparent enough. So I believe that it is up to us- the ones who have gone out and tirelessly asked for letters of recommendation, and stressed about the GRE (more on that below), and written at length on why we deserve to learn about an art that no one enters into for money, but for pure passion alone. It is up to us to reflect and offer a little piece of the map that is your labyrinth to graduate school. I plan to write more articles about practical matters such as funding, but for now, let's focus on the single most important aspect of applying to an MFA in playwriting: the play.
My first round of applications to graduate school was unsuccessful. My writing sample was the first play I had ever written (actually it was the second, but if a play exists on a dead hard drive never seen by any soul other than the writer, did it ever actually exist?). This play was under fifty pages and while it may be possible that other writers can show their brilliance in such a short amount of time, this play did not get me anywhere. If I had understood what schools were looking for in a full length play, I could have saved myself a year's worth of grad school applications.
My second year of applying, I had a non-linear, five character piece, about gun violence. This play landed me with an interview at Columbia and Yale, as in an interview with David Henry Hwang, Jeanie O'Hare, and Sarah Ruhl. These interviews could not have been more different. With David Henry Hwang, he started off the interview by asking if I had any questions for him. I found this incredibly unnerving because I had prepared for all the traditional interview questions, but I didn't know how to respond to this. After some awkward silence and generic-spur-of-the-moment questions, I steered the conversation to talking about my work, and David was, at the least, complimentary. Few questions were asked of me outside of the play, but I didn't mind, because I'd much rather talk about my plays than myself. This I would soon learn, is typical of MFA Playwriting Interviews.
After a train ride down to Connecticut, I checked into my hotel. And this is where the real difference between the two schools began to take shape in my mind. Yale had booked my flights and hotel for the interview. Our first night, the five interviewees that weekend had dinner with the current first and second year playwrights before our formal interviews the next day. At Columbia, I felt one in a long string of people vying for ten spots, relatively unknown by the person interviewing me, by a professor, who if I went to Columbia was supposed to be my mentor. But at Yale, I was taken care of. My first formal interview was with Jeanie O'Hare. Current student at the time, Lindsey Ferrentino, met me at the hotel and showed me around campus. She was gracious enough to give me advice on everything from where to eat in New Haven to her experiences with the Yale Cabaret. She brought me to Jeanie's office for my first interview. By all accounts my interview with her lasted an hour, but it felt under twenty minutes, not an interview so much as a conversation with a new friend. Jeanie is no longer the head of the MFA program at Yale but here is the biggest take away, I got from my interview with her: she knew me by my play. She could talk at length about my work, asking me questions that showed she had read and appreciated my work. But then she would follow it up with questions that could have been answered with a cursory glance at my resume. As far as my work and production experience were concerned, she had no idea what was on my resume or in my cover letter. The play was the thing. And this continued to be true when I had my next interview with Sarah. Talking to Sarah about my play was a revelation, she made a comment about my work that no one had ever said to me before, that I still use in cover letters about that play to this day. But again, she did not seem to know or care that I was at the time the Literary Manager of a regional theatre company or that I had had a professional production the year before. The play was the thing.
That spring I received a rejection from Yale and a wait list from Columbia. I was eventually offered a place at Columbia, but I had been bitten by the Yale bug. I was convinced that if I tried again, I would get in. But the next year rolled around and I didn't even get an interview at Yale. My fourth try, I decided would be my final try. I only applied to programs that didn't charge tuition, but I opened my list to include programs that I considered lesser known. This included Ohio University. My first interview with Charles Smith was over the phone after I had already received multiple rejections that year (including Yale again). I had given up hope that I would get into any program. But I remember the first question Charles asking me on the phone, being if I were still interested in Ohio University. I quickly answered yes while trying to not sound desperate that I only hadn't been rejected by him and Indianna University. And again Charles and I spoke at length about my plays. He did seem to know a little more about my background. He seemed concerned that someone in San Francisco might not do well in rural Ohio. But again the play was the most important aspect of our conversation. After an in-person interview and more phone calls, I decided to accept a fully funded spot in Ohio University's MFA program. I have plenty to say about my experiences here, but I'll save that for another article.
As an aside, but no less important I wanted to say that last year I had a conversation with someone who works at UT- Austin and is involved in the decision-making process for MFA directors and playwrights. She assured me that UT-Austin requires them to include the GRE as a requiremen
tfor applicants, but that they don't use them as a metric for whether someone is admitted. After all, the play's the thing.
Did you interview at one of these schools or a different program? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Let's keep the conversation going and support each other on this never ending road that is playwriting.