To MFA or Not to MFA?
That Is the Question
by William Esper
Printed in Backstage, November 12, -18, 1993
I seem to occupy a unique niche in American actor training. I have been teaching acting at my own studio in New York for the past 20 years. For the past 16 years I have also headed the MFA and BFA Professional Actor Training Program at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Serving the needs of professional and pre-professional actors in New York as well as developing and running a major university-sponsored conservatory has been taxing, but it has given me a special understanding of the problems faced by students attempting to train in the New York studios, as well as those who are pursuing their training in MFA programs.
Students in New York often ask me if they should audition for MFA programs. Others whom I encounter on my annual audition tour for the Rutgers program are torn between whether they should go immediately to New York or Los Angeles to pursue their studies or seek entrance into an MFA program. The young actor seeking training today faces a dizzying number of choices.
It was a very different picture when I sought serious training 40 years ago. When I finished college in 1954, I knew that I wanted to train for a career in the professional theatre. Many universities offered academically oriented Masters and PhD degrees, but I did not want to become a critic or theatre historian; I was an actor, and if I wished to train seriously in that area I had to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, or Sanford Meisner. These three founding members of the famous Group Theatre had dominated professional actor training since the late 30’s, and every young actor in New York whose work and talent I admired studied with one or another of them. My own choice was Sanford Meisner. I had learned about the Neighborhood Playhouse from Eli Wallach, whom I chanced to meet after attending a performance of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo at the Ilama Theater in Cleveland. After watching him and Maureen Stapleton give unforgettable performances, I knew that I must learn to act with the same authenticity and truthfulness.
As luck would have it, Mr. Wallach was sitting alone, having his post-matinee supper in the same restaurant at which I chose to stop after the performance. I approached him with some temerity, but he responded with great warmth and told me about his training at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Mr. Meisner. My choice of school was determined on the spot. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I was discharged from the army to apply but, when I did, Mr. Meisner accepted me. Thus began a long and rewarding relationship which has lasted until this day.
An Excess of Choice
Today, however, a young actor is confronted by quite a different picture. There is a bewildering array of conservatory and university-based MFA programs across the country. In addition, the sons and daughters of the Group continue teaching in the studios of New York and Los Angeles. America must have more acting training programs per capita than any other nation in the world.
This phenomenon began with the opening of the Guthrie Theatre, which heralded the decentralization of the American theatre. As more and more regional theatres took root in American’s towns and cities they began to interact and influence neighboring cultural institutions, especially the colleges and universities. Organizations like the University/Resident Theatre Association (U/RTA) and the now-defunct League for Professional Training fostered ties between the new regionalized professional theatre and university training programs across the country. University administrations began to understand the needs of artists and responded by providing enormous support and resources to comprehensive training programs for actors and other theatre artists. The MFA degree came into being and today it is widely offered, as a performance degree as opposed to a Ph.D. Which is largely restricted to the area of scholarship and criticism.
Has this phenomenon improved the training of actors? Is it not as good as it was in the old days? Is it better to train in an MFA program or to take individual classes in New York or Los Angeles?
When I was invited to create and head the MFA and BFA professional training program at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, I approached the task with great excitement but also some concern. The Group Theatre’s master teachers had not gone to college. Sandy Meisner was particularly dismissive of “colleges.” He saw them as bastions of eggheads who intellectualized the creative process. In joining forces with those he perceived of as the enemy, I felt I was being disloyal to my heritage. I was very proud of my studies with artists like Sandy and Martha Graham and wondered if the atmosphere of a university would not somehow poison my efforts to create a wonderful school that genuinely talented artists would feel at home in.
My experience at Rutgers has lain to rest my every concern. Today we have more than 30 professional artists and master teachers on our faculty and an excellent physical plant that includes two fully equipped mainstage theatres. The students receive excellent training in movement, voice, speech, stage combat, dialects, script analysis and acting. They also have the advantage of a rich production season which allows them to supplement their classroom work with performance in classical and contemporary plays under the guidance of professional directors of national reputation. They emerge ready to tackle everything from soap operas to Shakespeare. Other first-rate university MFA and BFA programs match ours and produce many superbly trained young artists.
However, the picture does have its wants. This romance between the artist and the academic has produced far too many progeny. With so many MFA and BFA programs, standards of quality are an issue. Where are all the wonderful teachers to come from to staff all these programs? U/RTA and the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) have together done a great deal to establish at least minimal standards, but a prospective student still must exercise extreme care in selecting a program.
Certainly, much depends on this choice of where to train. Never has the American actor been subjected to so much intense competition and needed so many skills in order to survive. Faced with a job market that shrinks by the day, I believe that only the talented and well trained can survive for long. In addition, good training can lay down a foundation that will last the actor for his entire career. Bad training can instill habits that will plague the actor for years. One advantage to attending a university program is that you will receive a degree if you foresee a future desire to teach, a graduate degree would be almost a requirement.
The Crucial Questions
One question to ask yourself before beginning your search for a good program is: What kind of actor do you want to be? Do you want to make a career of doing classical plays in regional theatre? Several programs were created to fill this need. They are very British in their approach and may sometimes substitute voice and speech work for real inner content. You must ask yourself if you want to dismiss the kind of American Stanislavsky training that has produced so many fine American actors.
Location is also a factor in choosing a program. Is the school connected to a professional theatre? Does it have a real working relationship so that you will be exposed to professional artists at work? Investigate the faculty. Do the members work professionally? Are they connected to the world beyond their campus?
Another question is cost. MFA programs can be expensive to attend. It is not unusual for young actors to emerge from a program with $25,000 to $30,000 of debt that must be repaid. Many programs in U/RTA offer scholarships and teaching assistantships, but beware of the academic Trojan Horse. The school that offers the best financial incentive may also offer the poorest training and leave you with a weak credential. Also, investigate if the program is really dedicated to producing professional artists, or if its faculty is dominated by its PhD program. Is there a good balance between studio work and performance? Some schools stress one over another.
Finally, examine its career-entry preparation. Do its graduates enter the profession, and do a sufficient number of them succeed? More than 40 schools now showcase their students in New York every year. Is your prospective school one of them? If so, what percentage of their graduating class are actually signed by agents or personal managers?
After careful investigation, after you have talked to students at the school and visited in person, if you fall in love with a program and what it stands for, then prepare the very best audition that you can and do your best to get accepted.
The final question is this: If you could gain acceptance to one of the first-rate programs, should you still consider training at one of the important New York or Los Angeles studios? The answer is yes.
MFA programs do not fulfill the needs of every student. Often, students of real talent have a maverick, alienated personality which responds to formalized school situations like a cat to rain. There is also the question of money. Although setting up a program of study in acting, speech, and movement with top teachers in New York is not inexpensive, it is possible to arrange a schedule that permits you to work and finance your training as you go. You also have the advantage of choosing teachers in each area. You are not restricted by a fixed faculty. You can also pursue professional contracts and work while you train.
The biggest disadvantage is that today it is difficult for students in New York to gain performing opportunities of sufficient substance to augment their classroom work. The studios will always remain as a post-graduate workshop. In my own studio I often work with actors of considerable experience who return to class in order to supplement former training or to reinvigorate themselves and their work.
So, in the light of all this, how should you decide? My advice is to examine your goals, gather all the information you can, and then let your heart decide. After all, isn’t that how you decided to become an actor in the first place?
Printed in Backstage, November 12, -18, 1993