Since announcing our new low-residency MFA program, several people have asked me what exactly is a low-residency degree program and what are its advantages. Here's a short list of some of its attractions, at least regarding our program:
-- Anyone considering an MFA in playwriting and/or screenwriting has one looming decision to make from the get-go--namely can I afford both the cost and the time involved with going after the degree? The low-residency MFA came into being as a credible alternative to the two- or three-year graduate programs requiring full-time residency by all students for the duration of the course of study. Full-time programs require turning one's established life upside down as students have to move to within shouting distance of the institution offering the program, quit their job, and put life as they have come to know it on hold until they've earned the degree. The low-res programs, in contrast, require students to attend one short intensive residency each semester of the program (ours is for ten days every June and January for four semesters) where a carefully worked out series of courses are taken in a workshop format under established working professionals and then throughout the following semester students work one-on-one with a faculty mentor from their own home workspace. The student's life and livelihood is not significantly disrupted and a writing schedule can be determined that fits each student's particular set of circumstances.
--In our low-res program, another distinguishing feature is the focus on testing student work at each residency in a lab-like environment with an ensemble of working professionals (think Sundance Playwrights Lab or the O'Neill or New Harmony to name a few). Having spent my career developing new scripts with actors, directors, and other artists, I know the absolute necessity of having a writer's work given voice and having the opportunity to feel and hear feedback to new material. A student writer works all semester on projects knowing that at the next residency his or her scripts will be put through an exploratory development process. I can't think of a better arrangement.
--With the line-up of faculty/mentors and other working artists that a professionally-oriented low-res program can attract, a natural benefit for students is getting connected to a vast network of people working actively in the field. This, of course, is also true in the best of the full-time residency degree programs, but no more so than in the low-res programs. In fact, in our low-res program, we've designed it so that students make direct contact with a large number of working professionals at each residency. This networking component will always be a major consideration for us, and an important measure of our success will be the degree to which we can help launch students into successful careers.
--Finally, when push comes to shove, the final determining factor for the majority of potential students considering an MFA program is cost. The low-residency approach in most cases runs about half as much as full-time programs with the return on investment being about equal. To me it's a no-brainer and why I jumped at the opportunity to put together this new program.