Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Too Many MFA Programs in Playwriting and Screenwriting...?

Yesterday I came across a comment in a LinkedIn discussion that suggested that there are too many MFA programs out there turning out second-rate playwrights and screenwriters.  The thrust of this person's thinking was that as a result the market is being flooded with new mediocre scripts that are actually doing damage to the profession.  And inferring that most of those who graduate from these programs--in addition to sending out their inferior scripts to every theatre, production company, and literary agent in the country--are looking for teaching jobs that will allow them to turn out even more wannabe successful writers, creating a vicious cycle and further exasperating the problem as the years tick on.

Having taught scriptwriting for over three decades on both the undergrad and grad level, worked professionally in new play and screenplay development nearly as long, and had many of my own scripts developed and produced at writers' conferences and productions, I have to say the comment may have hit on something that's been bugging me for years.

To my mind, the only kind of MFA program in playwriting and/or screenwriting that is worth its salt is when working professionals are doing the teaching and the focus of the program is on the serious testing of student work with other working professional collaborators.  Student scripts need to be put through the ringer of a carefully structured lab environment where actors, directors, designers and other theatre and film artists are allowed to get their hands on student writing and see what works and what doesn't. An environment where the student writer engages directly with seasoned people who have been in the trenches for a long time--and still are--and who know how to give voice to material, spot strengths and weaknesses, and offer targeted suggestions for improvement in a way that may sometimes hurt, but is offered sincerely and can be trusted.

It's this kind of writing program on the graduate level that is sorely lacking (with a few notable exceptions) and the main reason there's a growing negative attitude in the professional world about the perceived treadmill of MFA programs turning out writers whose work has not been truly battle-tested and that, for the most part, forever remains gathering dust on the page.  So when I was approached with the prospect of designing yet another new MFA in playwriting and screenwriting, I jumped at the chance to put together a different kind of program that would be truly hands-on and have the capacity to turn out writers of plays and screenplays who know the ropes and whose work reflects a professionalism several notches above the norm.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Initial Test of Your New Script

One of the things I've observed in my career as a writer of plays and screenplays and as a producer of new scripts is the critical importance of that very first test of new material with other artist/collaborators.  In other words, there's a lot at stake when your new script is being given voice for the first time.  This phase in the life of a new screenplay or play is--for you, the writer--often a make or break moment.

When I founded the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey many years ago, my primary motivation was to help writers with this delicate first "release" of their new script to the wider world.  I knew that the actors assembled to give the work its first read had to be carefully chosen for each role and had to be very good at bringing words on the page to life with little or no rehearsal.  I knew that to do otherwise would risk the writer concluding that they'd lost their hearing, as playwright Wendy Wasserstein told me when she described her response to a first reading of a new play of hers.  Some of the actors were simply not right for the roles and she had trouble recognizing the play she'd just finished writing.

Or as playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley told me when he first released his wonderful play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea:  "I thought [it] was a dead loss on the basis of a reading.  I heard the reading and I said, 'Well, I guess I was wrong.  I thought it was good.'  Then I did another reading and I thought, 'Well, it's better.'  And then I got some good people and I thought, 'All right, now we're talking!'  So you have to be very careful not to write off a [script] on the basis of a bad reading."

Just realize that your initial launch with new material--allowing other artists to connect with it for the first time--is more significant than you may at first realize.  As eager as you may be to hear your script come to life for the first time, be careful to gather actors that are talented, are a good match for the character they're reading, and know what their character's function is in the play or screenplay.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Screenwriting and Playwriting Teachers Can Make the Difference

When I was asked to put together a new low-res MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen, the first question I asked myself was: who could I bring in to teach and mentor students?  And the answer was an immediate no-brainer, because one of the great blessings of my career has been the long list of talented professionals I've gotten to know and have worked with over the years.

To my mind, nothing is more important in a graduate degree program in scriptwriting than to gather a powerhouse group of dedicated working professionals who are in the thick of their careers--playwrights and screenwriters and other artists who are out there on the front lines getting their work consistently produced and applauded.

I've been fortunate to have made a lot of close and productive connections with these kind of artists. And so it was a pleasure to make contact with a select group of them and ask if they'd be interested in joining me in launching a new MFA. To a person, they all immediately and enthusiastically wanted to be a part of this adventure and suddenly, as Program Director, I knew I had a first-class and not-to-be-beat program in the making.

One of the great features of a low-residency program like this is that it's possible to attract working professional writers and other artists as teachers and mentors without requiring them to commit to a full-time faculty position.  In other words, these individuals can continue in their active careers as they also lend their expertise and experience to the program, both at the 10-day residencies and in semester-long mentoring that takes place between residencies.  These artists love teaching and helping emerging writers find their own voices, and so I wasn't really surprised when everyone I contacted said they'd love to be a part of the program.  In fact, to a person, these pros can't wait to start giving back and to share what they've learned in a hands-on and no-nonsense program like we've designed.  Naturally I'm excited because students in the program will be surrounded by a talented group of nurturing and challenging teacher/mentors dedicated to equipping each student with what they need to excel in their careers.

Hope you check out who they are!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why a Low-Residency MFA?

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.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Announcing a New Low-Res MFA in Scriptwriting

Since my last post I've been busy with many projects, not the least of which is putting together a new low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen  that's being offered through the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  I've welcomed this opportunity as it's allowed me to design a graduate-level playwriting and screenwriting program that will be the most hands-on and practical program of its kind in the country. The focus is on learning and developing craft, of course, but what makes it unique is its lab-based approach to testing student work with an ensemble of theatre and film professionals at each residency, allowing for scripts to be given voice and to provide extensive and realistic feedback to our student writers. We've gathered a stellar faculty of proven pros and are launching the program this coming June 2013 in beautiful Peterborough, NH nestled in the heart of the famous Mt. Monadnock region of New England.. Please take a look and spread the word to any potential students you may know who might be looking for an MFA program that will give them a very special professional launch as well as their graduate degree.