School for Scripts

Why Get an MFA in Playwriting? Here's Why

illustration by Robert Faires

If you trace any piece of theatre to its beginnings, you will almost always stumble upon a furiously scribbling little figure hunched over a desk. Without the playwright, there would be no action for the director, no setting for the designers, and no subtext for the critics. Actors would be left onstage with their mouths agape, wondering how they ever got onstage in the first place. A script is the engine that drives the production, the foundation for the art that evolves.

Playwriting is not like fiction or poetry; the work is not meant simply to lie dormant upon a piece of paper. It needs to be spoken aloud -- and by someone other than the playwright in the middle of his or her living room. It's important not only to make the play live, but to help the author learn how well the work works. Apart from the isolated workshop, your average playwright does not get the chance to hear quality feedback from other theatre artists. If the play does not immediately catch an artistic director's eye, it can languish in a drawer somewhere and the playwright will never know why it's not being produced.

Enter the MFA program. Graduate school is able to produce a playwright's work, satisfying that desire to see one's work on stage, and to teach a writer the tools necessary to craft a fine play, the nuts and bolts of creating vivid action, detailed dialogue, and pervasive themes. It also exposes our burgeoning playwright to other playwrights whose work may diverge wildly from what he or she is trying to produce. David Cohen is one of the leading forces in the development of the Texas Center for Writers (TCW) and head of the University of Texas' playwriting program, which is showcasing the work of its student dramatists in a UT Festival of New Plays this week. Cohen believes that graduate school can build a better playwright, one with sharpened skills and several manuscripts ready for production.

"It basically allows for a larger chance of having three relatively unpressured years to work as a writer before you have the big pressures of earning a living," Cohen says. "It also, more importantly, allows a student to be a part of a community of writers that are supportive as well as provides opportunities and development that the student wouldn't normally have."

Two different programs in playwriting are offered by UT. The Department of Theatre & Dance program offers a master's degree in playwriting. The primary focus for the student is becoming a professional playwright, with the student's final project being a script that must be produced either on the UT campus or in an approved theatre. TCW, founded in 1989 to be a center for all creative writing programs on campus, offers an MFA in writing. Courses in playwriting, screenwriting, fiction, and poetry are taught by faculty from the English, Theatre & Dance, and Radio-Television-Film departments. A TCW playwriting student takes classes with Theatre & Dance Department students, but the student's focus is broader. In fact, to be eligible for TCW's program, a candidate must show competence in at least two areas.

Students in the TCW program are automatically offered a Michener scholarship, a kind of Holy Grail for those who want an MFA. The Michener is, essentially, a free ride through graduate school -- it pays the student's tuition and required fees and provides a stipend that will cover modest living expenses. Michener departmental scholarships are also offered to some students in the MFA playwriting program and MA programs in poetry, fiction, and screenwriting.

Of course, now every would-be writing student is frantically trying to figure out where to sign up for what seems like a very cushy offer. But the department's needs are very specific, and it has high standards for degree candidates. "We're looking for a talent and a promise that this person will have a professional career as a writer," says Cohen. "We're looking for the best writers."

And before all those aspiring writers pack their bags, they should realize the odds of getting into this highly selective program. Out of 50-100 applicants per year, the Theatre & Dance Department typically takes only two or three students. This year, TCW did not accept any writers who were primarily playwrights.

"I had a student come last year and say, `You're the only program I'm applying to,'" Cohen relates. "I said, `No. Don't you dare do that to yourself. You may be the best playwright in America, but I may not be able to accept you.'

"The reason we keep our playwriting program so limited is to offer as much production opportunity as we can. To me, that's the hallmark of a good playwriting program," Cohen adds.

Most playwrights who are accepted to the program have been produced before or have gobs of previous writing experience and are looking to further their development as writers. Robert Alan Ford, a second-year student in the TCW program -- his play Manhattan Transaction is being produced in the Festival of New Plays -- was living in New York and writing corporate brochures and speeches prior to his move to Austin. While he was making a living from that kind of writing, it wasn't what he was looking for. Ford came back to school "not so much for the degree as for the opportunity to work in a community of writers and in a place where writing in general was respected -- not just playwriting per se, but good writing as an overarching concept."

Playwright Jason Groce, whose Stealing Fire will also be produced in the festival, mentions that his primary reason for coming to UT to get an MFA "is because it's three years, and it does help put off the real world. The secondary reason is because the MFA here has a greater emphasis on workshops and creative work, and while I like my other classes, I am able to divide my time nicely between my creative and my academic work."

John Walch, now in his third year in the Theatre & Dance department program -- his play Craving Gravy is set for a full production by the department in the spring -- came back to school after supporting his writing habit by doing technical theatre work as a stage manager, props master, and carpenter. Speaking like a man whose carpentry experience has colored his thinking, Walch says he wanted to return to school to discover "which tools to access when I am not communicating, and to see what I could do if I devoted time to learning the craft" of playwriting.

While playwrights may come to school for different reasons, they all find one approach to learning their craft when they arrive at UT. Cohen believes in "creating a workshop where people can explore their work and their voice in a protective and supportive way. Half the time in my workshop is spent doing what I call etudes, specific exercises designed to free the writer to work on one aspect of the play. The rest of the time is spent on giving informed feedback on longer pieces of work."

Feedback may be one of the most valuable aspects of an MFA program. One forum for feedback at UT is the weekly reading of new scripts in the Lab Theatre. These chamber readings, held every Monday night, allow playwrights to hear their scripts and most recent drafts of scripts given voice by actors instead of the other playwriting students. Talkbacks, moderated by Cohen, are open to the community so the playwrights can hear comments about their work from a range of interested audience members: their peers, other students in the department, faculty members, or anyone else who has come to the reading.

The readings also provide opportunities for the playwright to hear the work of his or her peers. "Listening to other people's plays is just as important as getting feedback on my own," says Groce. Hearing the solutions that others have come up with for a problem you may be having or being exposed to another style of writing may help inform your own struggles with the script you are currently developing.

To Cohen, this diversity of voices within the Winship Drama Building's walls is one of the strengths of the UT program. "We don't have a house style. So that means the students that we get are working in often very different styles. I think that helps create a stronger group of writers because people are having to confront choices other playwrights are making and decide how it fits in with their own work," says Cohen.

Having to defend his choices to other playwrights who approach writing in different ways has been helpful to Walch. "Rejections aren't as devastating because I think the play works and can articulate why," he explains.

Ford's experience is similar: "I feel like I begin to grasp the essentials of making a play work -- the kind of play that I myself enjoy, at any rate -- characters with stakes, stakes, stakes, motivation, needs, desperate circumstances. There is less and less mystery to the craft."

Production experience also helps to demystify the creation of a well-written script. In addition to the Monday night readings, the playwrights are able to mount bare-bones productions of their scripts during the Lab Theatre season. During his first year at UT, Groce had two of his full-length plays read and two of his one-acts staged in the space. Second-year students are expected to take part in the Festival of New Plays, in which short scripts are given full productions with directors and dramaturgs who are encouraged to give feedback to the playwright during rehearsals.

Ultimately, the experience of obtaining an MFA in playwriting seems to be a valuable one for the playwrights and for the members of the audience who appreciate a well-crafted script. With sufficient financial support, production experience, and feedback, these theatre artists are able to spend three years concentrating on perfecting their craft. "Considering the time I've had and the support I've been given here for what will be three years, " says Groce, "I wouldn't care if they didn't give me a degree at all."

But these MFA programs do give you a degree and some career counseling as well. Their instructors are working playwrights, artists who have been there and can share practical career tips with the students. Cohen has had work produced on Broadway and has written for television and feature films. Among the guest instructors are folks most playwrights would never be able to connect with and learn from outside of academia, such as Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Kentucky Cycle; Constance Congdon, author of Tales of the Lost Formicans; and, most recently, Terry O'Reilly of Mabou Mines.

The programs also can help students secure internships at such theatres as the Alley in Houston, the Goodman in Chicago, and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Live Oak Theatre, and Capitol City Playhouse locally. Michener fellow Emily Cicchini had her play Becoming Brontë produced at Cap City and worked as the theatre's literary manager and associate artistic director. TCW graduate Amparo Garcia had her thesis play Under a Western Sky developed at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California and will see it produced off-Broadway by INTAR this coming spring.

"Hopefully, by the time our playwriting students leave here, they have a sense of where they might connect," Cohen says. "Some people move to Seattle to work with pre-existing connections, some go to New York, some to Chicago, and some stay right here in Austin and start their own theatres. And why not?"

Perhaps the only con of an MFA playwriting program is that completion in no way guarantees future productions of one's plays. The degree may help a struggling playwright more in securing a teaching job than getting a reading from a theatre. Like most other aspects of theatre -- or life -- talent and skill do not automatically create a demand for your work, even when you have honed them both through years of concentrated study.

"I think success for a playwright is contentment with writing plays that can be staged and find an audience regardless of the financial compensation," Cohen says. "It's an elusive thing.

"I still marvel that people want to be playwrights; I figure people are playwrights because they can't really imagine doing anything else."

The UT Festival of New Plays runs Nov 21-24, Thu-Sat, 8pm, Sun, 2pm, in the Theatre Room of the Winship Drama Building, UT Campus. Call 471-1444.

Adrienne Martini reviews theatre regularly for the Chronicle.

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