How to Maximize Your Time at an MFA Playwriting Program
Now that I’ve been out of grad school for over a year, I decided to take a moment to reflect on my experience in grad school and the advice I wish I had been given before I went.
A couple of caveats that I have to make first.
1. I graduated in May of 2020, this means that while I did go to school during the pandemic, it was when everything first shut down and my university was slow to respond. I’m not aware of all the ways in which the pandemic has changed grad programs.
2. My advice is going to be particular to my experience as a student at Ohio University. Other programs might have different offerings and requirements, you’ll have to check with your own school for details about their resources.
3. In no way is this an endorsement for Ohio University. Since I left, I have heard about significant changes to the faculty and funding in this program. Based on what I know, I can not with good conscious recommend that anyone go there. Please do your homework to find which program is right for you.
Take Extra Classes
When I finally went to grad school I was six years out of undergrad and I had applied to graduate school for four years in a row. So needless to say, I was frothing for the opportunity to get back in the classroom and learn. Learn playwrighting, sure, but I had looked into the cost of foreign language classes and was dismayed by the idea of paying thousands of dollars for a couple-week course. Being accepted into grad school allowed me to take basically any class I wanted in the whole school FOR FREE. At OU we were required to take 3 classes a semester and then there were 3 other classes that we had to take at some point in our 3 years in the program. But we were allowed to take 5 classes per semester. So many of my fellow students took independent study so that they could have the minimum number of credits for the minimum amount of work but as you can probably guess, I did not. Every semester I took all five classes that they would let me. Some of them were related to my writing like a poetry workshop or a class on childhood trauma that was research for a play. I had never taken a formal Spanish class before, so I took this opportunity to take Spanish every semester. And I also took classes that I never would have thought of like Virtual Reality Production and ended up with some pretty cool short VR pieces out of the class. But more than any marketable value from these classes, they were my escape from the drama of the small world that can be the theatre department. They were my chance to meet new people, learn new things, talk about other departmental drama that was interesting but I had very little stake in. These classes opened me up to a whole diverse world that existed on the university campus and enriched my experience in a way that I will never forget. If your program allows, I highly recommend taking at least one class where nobody knows your name and you don’t have to enter as a playwright but as an eager mind ready to learn.
Get Out of Town
Going from a big city like San Francisco to a small town in rural Ohio was admittedly a bit of a culture shock. I am the type of person who never shops at Walmart or Amazon but also expects to be able to get whatever I want whenever I want it. It is hard to maintain that existence in Appalachia. Athens, Ohio taught me patience but it also taught me that I cannot exist in a town without major cultural landmarks like museums and theatres. So, I made a vow to myself to leave town at least once a month. Sometimes this meant simply driving to Columbus to see a minor league baseball game and sometimes this meant getting on a flight to Denver. Depending on your MFA program, your mileage in your city may vary. If you are at NYU then you would be hard-pressed to find any location with more museums. But I still recommend that you get out and change your scenery, it’s there in a long bus ride, or a new art exhibit, that I often found inspiration and much-needed rejuvenation. But if you’re like me and most other grad students I know, you don’t exactly have the money to get out of town every month- but I guarantee you can find it. While I was in school, I spent half an hour a day submitting my work. I paid special attention to play readings and festivals that would pay me to come out for the event if I won. This strategy got me a week in New York City, San Diego, Washington D.C., among others. And it’s good practice for the daily grind of life after an MFA degree.
And now we’ve arrived at the most important topic to discuss in an article about taking advantage of your MFA program: funding. I highly recommend that you go to one of the fully funded institutions- hardly anyone is going to make a profit with a degree in playwrighting and your chances go down even further if you go into debt for that diploma. When I was applying the fully funded programs were (in no real order): Yale, Brown, UT Austin, Michener at UT Austin, Iowa UC San Diego, Indiana University at Bloomington, Boston University, Catholic University, and Ohio (see above caveat #3). There are of course a couple of other public schools that have lower tuition. But whether or not you go to a fully-funded school, a lower-cost state school, or Columbia, there are additional funding options for you. Universities have a ton of money that any student is eligible to apply for and you will only be eligible to apply for while you are a student. While I was at OU the school paid for me to go to a writers conference in Kentucky, a feminist science fiction conference in Denver, and a 3-month internship in Ecuador. That’s right, when I was in Ecuador my housing and food were fully covered by grants from the university plus I was pocketing several thousand dollars from the year-long fellowship I got that year. It was my only time in grad school that I made extra money and I got to do it from another country. Why? Because I discovered that OU had grants specifically for students who were studying abroad and all I had to do was write a couple of essays and get a letter of recommendation from my professor. As soon as you accept a spot in your grad program, start researching grants available to students and apply to every single one you are eligible for. This is the grind of being a playwright, you might as well start now while the pool is small. You will stand out as an applicant because if you are earning your playwriting MFA chances are that you already know how to tell a great narrative. Just don’t make the same mistake I once did: I was told that I was rejected for a grant to spend a week studying puppetry in Mexico just because I misread the directions and my application statement was one page longer than it should have been! Double-check those guidelines. And don’t shy away from asking your professors for letters of recommendation or whatever else you need to apply. This is literally their job. Just makes sure to give them a month’s notice and send a thank you note after.
I hope that this has been helpful in some way. Feel free to let me know what you think and if you have any more questions about grad school, studying abroad, or really anything else mentioned here.