Tag Archives: dramaturg

You Want to be a Playwright? Should You Get an MFA or a Degree in Life Experience?

Polly Carl

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

When asked a few years ago if someone with talent and desire to write plays should get an advanced degree in playwriting, I said unequivocally yes for two reasons:

  1. I’m a huge advocate of graduate school of any sort. Graduate school is an indulgence that every one who can access, should. I don’t have a timeline for when, but I truly believe taking three or more years to think about things that interest you and make you passionate and advance your understanding of the world is absolutely essential—especially if you want to tell stories that you hope will mean something to an audience greater than your best buds and your mom.
  2. As far as making theater goes, the significant career opportunities in our business are so few and far between that I would tell prospective students any leg up was worth considering seriously. For example, if your script was on a pile, or if you were applying for a directing fellowship, those letters M-F-A might advance your script/application up the stacks.

My advice to graduating MFAs used to be different too and extremely practical! As you’re thinking about that final year in the program focus on:

  1. Having one fully realized “straight” play with no more than four characters is essential. The MFA is a launching moment and to launch in any significant way into the regional theater movement, your most realistic shot is to have one solid producible play in the most conventional sense.
  2. Make connections with all of the play development centers (Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance, Playwrights Foundation, etc.) and apply to every opportunity they offer. In other words, find an artistic home to develop as an artist. This advice hasn’t changed.

But as I experience the work the next generation of theater makers is creating and in what context, I’m beginning to shift my advice. More importantly, I’m convinced now that I’m not the right person to give advice. I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what think they should want.

But here goes some advice anyway.

  1. Don’t apply for an MFA in anything right out of undergrad.  If you desire to be a storyteller from any vantage point (playwright, director, dramaturg, actor, designer, stage manager, etc.) spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell. Travel, work strange jobs, taste exotic foods, become a marathon runner, join the Peace Corps, and engage everything that feels unfamiliar.
  2. Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater.
  3. See as much of every kind of art that you can take in. Close down your Facebook and Twitter accounts for days at a time and read novels, listen to authors read their works on podcasts, go to museums, operas, symphonies, rock concerts, and ballets.
  4. Volunteer at places unrelated to theater. Understand that theater is a part of a whole, but not the whole.
  5. Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again. This can be love with people, other artists, art objects, remote camping sites, whatever.
  6. Then after all of that, if you still find that you must tell stories, and that you must live in proximity to a stage, by all means apply to an MFA program. It will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.

For those of you graduating in the spring with your MFA:

  1. Maybe go to New York, but maybe not.
  2. Don’t worry about getting an agent.
  3. Find one or two or three other people you want to make theater with and live in the same city, or rural town, or on a tropical island together, and make theater according to your mutually agreed upon definition.
  4. Tell the stories you want to tell and only the stories the want to tell. You will get many opportunities to tell stories other people want to tell; minimize these gigs.
  5. Introduce yourself to every theater maker who inspires you, but don’t bother to try and ingratiate yourself into institutions or try to get next to artistic directors whose work you don’t admire just on the off chance they might throw an opportunity your way. There will be plenty of time in your career for compromising and groveling. Save your knees as long as possible.
  6. Think big. Big plays, big performances, big social change, big bold theater that will burn the house down.

For anyone trying to sort out how to make it in this business: there is no formula. As artists, I personally think rules and boundaries and formulas and systems and even institutions can dampen the possibilities for our artistic expression. And nothing can be more harmful to creativity than believing there is one path toward it.

So get an MFA, maybe. Move to New York, maybe. Write only two-handers, maybe. Buy bottles of expensive wines for Artistic Directors, maybe. But for sure, find a way to tell the stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren’t let out, and don’t make any assumptions that there’s a singular career trajectory for the theater artist.

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

A Playwright’s Career Doesn’t Make Cents But Has Deeper Value

Michael Elyanow

by Michael Elyanow

We hear it a lot about playwriting—that there’s no money in it. Whether or not that’s actually true, I had the opportunity to talk about this issue recently when I met with a young playwright, a senior at Northwestern University’s Creative Writing for the Media Program, who wanted to pick my brain about how I’ve managed to make it as a career playwright.

But first: let’s try and define make it.  I, like a lot of playwrights, struggle. I struggle to write, and to write well. I struggle to get productions, workshops, grants, commissions, and more. Like hundreds of other playwrights, I spend days putting together applications to get into conferences, festivals, and residencies. And, like hundreds of other playwrights, I receive many more rejection letters than congratulatory calls.

Second: let’s define career. If you mean a reliable paycheck—nope (see above). If you mean health benefits or financial security—not a chance. If you mean a profession that steadily moves forward, increasing in stature and scope and visibility… possibly… depends… could happen one day. As writers, so much is out of our control.

In 2010, New York magazine ran a brief piece on Bruce Norris (and his then-new play Clybourne Park) that’s always haunted me. To this day, I remember it vividly thanks to the number $19,000. This was how much Mr. Norris said he earned the year before. Earned. All year. This, from an acclaimed and brilliant writer, who’s had plays produced across the world. To me, this announcement was not only a brave thing to declare publicly, it was a revelation. After Todd London and Ben Pesner’s incredibly insightful Outrageous Fortune, David Dower’s years of field study… there it was again, in bold print. In New York magazine. A monetary truth exposed.

It is indeed the rare playwright who gets to announce playwriting as a job, a real-life, full-time gig.

And I know this, I do. I knew it going into this field. And still, when this Northwestern student sincerely asked me “Is it worth it?” I found myself nostalgic for the days when I used to immediately answer that question with an unqualified, urgent, booming Yes. But these days, with a kid and a husband and responsibilities and more, my answer has grown in complexity. And, especially with young playwrights, I want to share open and honestly about where I am today with this notion of worth—of value.

Half of the time, and especially in a country where The Arts (and arts programs) are in a constant struggle for survival, my belief that the value of art trumps the value of cash remains unshaken. But then, the other half of the time, when the mail comes in and my school loans are due or my son needs a filling that isn’t covered by insurance…well, that’s where things get complicated. At what cost are we choosing to live the lives of playwrights? Or artists?

“Is playwriting worth it?”  My answer to this student was: financially? For where I am today, right now? No. But… in almost every other aspect: yes. Playwriting is worth it. But why? With the amount of energy I spend on writing, the time away from my family, the funds I shell out to attend readings and workshops in other states with no guarantee of production, no guarantee that if I do get a production another one’s coming along, what is the value of playwriting? Or better yet, what can’t I put a price on?

“The Children” (2012, Theatre@Boston Court)

For me, it turns out the answer is collaboration. Or more specifically: a collaboration that works. The experience that I had working with director Jessica Kubzansky and dramaturg Emilie Beck on The Children couldn’t be measured in dollar signs. I was fortunate enough to work with two artists who attacked the play with great care and sensitivity, who asked incisive questions, who challenged my every line but never lost sight of the origins of the play’s beating heart. When collaboration works, you leap together. You dig together. You forgive together. When collaboration works, you learn to become a better artist, communicator, listener, leader, and follower.

How many other professions make this kind of deeply personal exchange possible? Where the work includes sharing who you are and why you are? And how do you place a value on that? Can you put a price on that conversation? That dialogue? That sharing of your core identity in pursuit of a common purpose and goal?

Collaborators build something together. We hear the phrase “the theater community” used often. And that’s what this collaboration built for me. A community. A home—for myself, for my play, for ideas and emotions and a mission. These are all things I greatly value—it’s what I hold dear.

Here’s what I want to say about the money part: wherever we go, we pay for the privilege of community. Governments have taxes. Clubs have fees. Religious organizations have tithes. It’s not exactly analogous, but maybe playwriting is like Social Security. It’s something you will always pay into because it provides you a social safety net. You contribute—with money and time and sacrifice—to a community of artists who shore you up, challenge your evolution, and provide you a place in the world. In this instance, the word value can literally mean a bargain.

Michael Elyanow  is a playwright. The Children was produced in 2012 at The Theatre @ Boston Court.  A Lasting Mark, commissioned by Hartford Stage, was part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2011 7@7 Reading Series. The Idiot Box, published by Samuel French, was produced at Open Fist and Naked Eye theatres. Ten-minute plays Banging Ann Coulter and Game/Over were Humana Festival finalists. Michael is currently writing a play commission for the Carleton College Department of Theatre & Dance.

This essay first appeared on HowlRound.