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Ask an MFA Student

November 9, 2010

Let me start with saying how excited I am about the response I got from the ‘reinforcements’ post from last week. I got more than 50 questions from MFA hopefuls, actors and the like, and I’ll do my very best to get you all insightful answers in return. If you enjoy what you read here, don’t hesitate to send more questions our way by leaving a comment or emailing me: brendanragan (at) gmail (dot) com.

It is now my cutting-and-pasting privilege to share our guest-bloggers’ responses to 9 of the most popular questions.

Who you’ll be hearing from this round…

Brendan: Yours truly. Brendan Ragan at FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
Ben: Ben Koucherik at LSU.
Peter: Peter Kendall at Brown/Trinity Rep

And, introducing one more! Mary: Mary Werntz, first year MFA at Shakespeare Theater Company’s Academy for Classical Acting (George Washington University).

See the other bloggers here.

1) Did you visit schools beforehand? How many?

Brendan: I actually didn’t. I made a lot of phone calls, though. I was in three productions in prime school visiting time, so I could never work out even a few days out of town.

Ben: Yes, I visited one school (LSU).

Peter: I applied to graduate school 3 times before I got accepted to a program that I really wanted to go to. As Brendan has mentioned, this whole process is incredibly expensive, and visiting the schools that I was interested in would have been too expensive for me to handle. But, I’m not entirely sure that visiting the schools before auditioning would be very helpful. I was very fortunate to have friends who recently graduated from the programs I was applying to, and I found their insight the most helpful. They have a sense of what the program was like while in it, and then what the world is like after having the MFA. I would suggest asking the program for the contact information for some people who have recently graduated.

Mary: I never looked at other schools because I never had a desire to pursue an MFA.

2) Why did you want to go to grad school?

Brendan: I can’t possibly try to explain this succinctly since I was coming from such a unique situation. Check out my long answer in my first post on this blog.

Ben: I wanted to “step my game up” as an actor, break out of the “golden-handcuffs” that were my box office job at the DCPA, as well as earn a degree to be able to teach and to pursue my Equity card.

Peter: This question is a strange one because it seems to me that every one’s idea of what they want from MFA Acting experience changes once you actually start school. Once you start your training, you realize strengths that you never knew you had, which is incredibly empowering, and also weaknesses that you no idea even existed. Thus, your goals change once you start realizing who you are as a person and an artist. I feel strongly that everybody goes to graduate school for a few overarching reasons: they want to be a professional actor; they want the connections and knowledge that will help them succeed in the real world; they want to be a powerful, clear, thoughtful, empathetic, and versatile actor who has something to contribute to the world.

Mary: My undergrad degree is in dance and while I’d been doing a decent job of combining bits of sporadic acting training with a lot of intuition, I’d been wanting to develop a more solid acting technique for a long time.  I wanted cohesiveness. I wanted to understand “it” more.  I wanted to not have annoyingly honest cast mates refer to me as “green”.   I always dreamed about doing this program but would have never taken the step to apply had it not been for the encouragement of a friend who was in the program last year.  I feel fortunate to be doing this work in DC, where I have a decent foundation of a career.  The fact the program is only one year was incredibly appealing being that I’m no spring chicken.  I want to get back in the game before I transition to a new age bracket. 

3) What kinds of things were you looking for in a school? How did one make it on a list?

Brendan: I covered this in length in the first blog post, but in short: professional experience at a reputable theater, national recognition, dove-tailing/complimentary/rigorous training from established professors, full scholarship plus a stipend, and location doesn’t hurt, either.

Ben: I was interested in a school that was “cost-free” (no loans required), had a professional theatre tie-in and offered an opportunity to earn your Equity card, offered the chance to teach and had some recognizable “reputation.” Less important was the chance to do film work and sing/dance, as well as offer some kind of senior year showcase. LSU offers all of the above except the senior showcase, which we’re working on. 🙂

Peter:  Sweet Jesus. The Story of Peter Auditioning for Grad School: Well, I auditioned three years in a row before I got into an MFA program. The first time I auditioned to all of the “best” schools in the country, solely because I heard from various people that they were the most well-known: Yale, NYU, Julliard, USD/Old Globe, Delaware/PTTP, The Denver Center, NTC. I got called back to most of them, but I didn’t get any offers. The second year, I was jaded from the first year, I think. It is an incredibly harrowing process, and very taxing emotionally. So, I only applied to USD/Old Globe and Yale because I had gotten the best responses from them. The third year, I took an entirely different approach to the audition process. I spent a lot of time researching the instructors, acting methods, coursework, alumni of each school and then picked schools that I thought that I actually was interested in: Yale, USCD, USD/Old Globe, NYU, and Brown/Trinity Rep. So, when I actually auditioned for schools that I wanted to go to, I wanted a school that would help me be a professional actor. By that I mean I wanted to go to school that would help me work full-time as an actor when I graduated; we often are told by our professors that one of the goals of our education is that we will never have a “day job” again – we will make a life in the theatre from here on.  I wanted the technique, experience, network, and artistry that would allow me to do that.

Mary: See answer to #2.

4) Will you graduate with your AEA card?

Brendan: I’ll have the points to, yes.

Ben: Most graduating LSU MFA’s accrue enough points to take their card if they want it.

Peter:  I was lucky to already have my AEA card before I entered school, but since my program is associated with one of the best regional theatres in the country, all students leave with their card.

Mary: I will not graduate with an AEA card which is fine by me because I do believe it would severely limit the work I will be able to book come August 2011.

5) Are your directors grad students in a directing program, professors, professionals, other students, etc?

Brendan: All seasoned professionals. A few of the faculty (who have MFA’s in directing) will direct the conservatory shows, but the artistic staff and/or contracted professionals direct at the Repertory. I’m understudying a show with a Tony-winning director this year, for instance. “Late Night” shows, which are entirely student produced on a shoestring, will have student directors from the conservatory. Since we’re a satellite program, we have no connection to any students except for MFA acting students (and a couple of technical students who come down from Tallahassee for the year).

Ben: We have at least one out-of-town professional director each year (from places like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and the Pearl Theatre in NYC). Most other directors are professors. If we are involved in an MFA “lab” project, then it’s directed by other MFA/PhD students interested in directing (there is no directing degree track at LSU).

Peter: One of the special things about my program is that each year has two directors a part of our “company”. We all take most of our classes together. They take acting classes, we take directing classes, and we all take playwrighting classes. The idea is that all of us leave as theatre artists that have an awareness of every aspect of the theatrical process. Of course, my main focus is acting, and their main focus is directing, but our studies are very closely connected.

6) Who competes for roles in your department? Just graduates or undergrads, too?

Brendan: No undergrads here, so it’s all us. The entire conservatory season is cast out of second year students, and you join the professional Asolo Rep season your third year as a company member.

Ben: Graduate students are primarily cast in the Equity theatre (and occasionally in an MFA “lab” show) while undergrads are cast in their own “Mainstage” shows, with the occasional cross-over. Grad students also compete against guest Equity actors for casting.

Peter: I’m not sure if competition is the right word. Brown/Trinity is incredibly supportive and non-competitive. That is not to say that it isn’t vigorous. It is insanely strenuous and hard work, but everyone from the teachers to the students wants everyone in the program to be the best they can be. To answer the question, the roles are assigned by the teachers based on what they feel each person needs to work on, and the casting is limited to each separate class.

Mary: The program is made up solely of actors; however, we are in constant contact with not only the artists at Shakespeare Theatre, but with the vast, diverse and incredibly world-class theatre community in DC.  We do not collaborate with undergraduates.

7) Are you paying for tuition, getting scholarships, or grants?

Brendan: I am getting a full-tuition scholarship, plus a small weekly stipend that I earn through some light assistantship/tech duties. I also got a Dean’s Scholarship from FSU on top of that which went right into my pocket at the beginning of the year, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Ben: I have an assistantship which pays for my tuition and provides a stipend (which covers student fees and offers a half-decent living payout). Loans are also available if I want them.

Peter:  I am getting scholarships, but it is not fully covered. I take out loans to cover the remainder.

Mary:  I have this really great Uncle named Sam who offered to pay my way – the ol’ “L” word.  Yes, I filed out all the promissory notes.  My first vial of blood is in the mail. 

8 ) Are you teaching as part of your degree? Or completing some other work-study assignment?

Brendan: FSU/Asolo just started a new teaching program where two of the students will have a chance to teach at a local arts high school in their third year. I’m not sure if I’m interested in doing that just yet, we’ll see. I also have some tech assignments to earn my stipend, which in my case means running wardrobe for two of the conservatory shows this year.

Ben: Yes, as a teacher and/or worker in the shops/marketing office/etc.

Peter: There are two spots available in the 2nd and 3rd year to teach. If one gets one of those positions, their tuition is covered for the year.

9) Is your program linked to a professional affiliation? Honestly…how effective is that relationship?

Brendan: Extremely effective. We’re not just linked to a professional theater, all of our classes and spaces are INSIDE one. We are immediately involved with the Asolo Rep (Florida’s premiere theater) in the first year, and the relationship is an outstanding one. When we join the pro actors our third year, they make that the focus, so we’re not taking classes during the third year. The relationship with Asolo Rep is an incredibly integral part of the experience here. You train the first year, get your own season of shows the second year, and experience life as a professional actor in the third year. As a pleasant bonus, we’re actually contracted as employees of Ringling Museum, (don’t ask me how, the Asolo Rep, FSU and Ringling are all partnered extremely tightly) which gets us some nice benefits at the amazing museum and a gaggle of free tickets to the International Arts festival, which happened last month.

Ben: Yes (Swine Palace Productions), and the tie-in does provide us with the opportunity to earn Equity points as well as work with out-of-town directors, Equity actors and other theatre professionals. I would say it’s one of the best aspects of the program for me.

Peter:  My program is associated with Trinity Rep. We act, understudy, and attend shows at the theatre. It is wonderful. We get to learn from the resident company and directors, earn AEA points, and learn what is like to work in one of the best regional theatres in the country.

Mary: The MFA program here was started by Michael Kahn who is our acting teacher along with many other incredibly talented working professionals from Shakespeare Theatre.  Does that mean we all will get cast in a show next year?  Not at all and I don’t think it should.  That would compromise the integrity of the company.  Actors should be hired because they are the best fit for the role, and if that person is a past student, awesome. If we never earn that opportunity, its our own damn fault.  Plus that would be end gaining – what we are taught to avoid in our lives and in our acting work.  I’ll expound more on that in a later post.

Have a question you’d like to ask to an MFA student? Leave a comment or hit my email: brendanragan (at) gmail (dot) com.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen permalink
    November 9, 2010 10:42 pm

    I enjoyed hearing from all of you in this one. Hope you guys are doing well.

  2. Tim permalink
    November 29, 2010 12:50 pm

    I’m an undergrad majoring in Theatre right now, and I plan to get an MFA one of these days. Are undergrad grades really important? Especially at the really academic schools, like Brown?


  3. December 10, 2013 8:07 pm

    Man, best of luck to you all for happiness

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