Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mike Daisey on MFA programs

Mike Daisey is one of my favorite working artists. He's a powerhouse on the stage, a wit with the pen, and a passionate teacher with original, down-to-earth insights. In 2007, I spent a weekend at one of his solo-show intensives in New York City. I came away not only with pages of notes, but fresh ideas that I've since put to work in my performance and prose material.

That said: Daisey's raised my ire.

He writes in a recent blog post on MFA programs:

When I talk to young people in schools, I am constantly asked which MFA programs I would recommend. They are routinely lied to and told baldly that without MFA training they couldn't possibly be ready to perform for the public. In undergraduate programs professors of the theater (who very often have never come near the professional theater) push students on to further studies, encouraging them to believe they need further training before working.

In this way our best and brightest, who want so badly to do the right thing and are willing to sacrifice to make their careers work, get saddled with the largest debts, ensuring that they'll have the hardest time staying in the profession.

He goes on to assert that graduate-level theater programs are creating what he calls in a later blog post "a kind of Ponzi scheme, if you will."

So who are the Bernard Madoffs of theater, according to Daisey? Professors.

The equivalent of the corporate job in the American theater is to work in academia. Keep climbing the ladder, and then you can finally pull a salary which, while small, is still more stable and more supported than artists will receive. Then those artists become complicit in the system, and perpetuate the cycle of abuse by passing their debt on to the next generation.

It is a broken system, and a huge number of artists and schools are complicit in this failure.

Earlier, Daisey rails against the cost of MFA theater programs:

[F]uture artists get saddled with over $100,000 in debt for many three year programs.

What makes this reprehensible is that there is no rational way for the VAST majority artists to repay this massive debt through the practice of their art.

I got my MFA in writing, not theater. Still, my guess is that there's similarities between the two programs.

I never considered an MFA my solitary ticket to professional writing success. Before graduate school I'd already made strides in the writing world: publications, solo performances based on nonfiction pieces, and the adaptation of one of my shows for San Francisco television.

I entered St. Mary's with one intent: improving my craft. No one ever told me -- before grad school, as a student, or post-graduation -- that the MFA was a necessity for good writing. Quite the opposite: Many of my professors said straight-out that they knew plenty of great writers with no degrees, but a multitude of talent and life experience. There was no attempt to brainwash us into becoming professor clones. There was no Ponzi scheme. There was the love of writing and the desire to share it with others.

I'm angry at Daisey for slandering arts professors in this manner. My professors worked their asses off to help us become better writers, often setting their own work aside for the summer months in the process. If there was a conspiracy afoot on the third floor of Dante Hall, I never knew it.

I had criticisms of my program. I never made those a secret. But I never considered the MFA a bit of trickery to get me to spend my money footing what -- again, I must repeat -- Daisey is calling a Ponzi scheme. In fact, I'm not sure where he gets this $100,000 figure. Though I'm sure some blue-chip programs cost that amount or higher, you certainly don't need to spend six figures to get a quality grad-level arts education. Look at San Francisco State University, where a full-time graduate student who is a California resident spends $2,235 per quarter. That's a total of $6,705 per academic year, and if you take summer school, a grand total of $8,940. Let's say you spend the standard two years as a full-time MFA student at SF State. That's less than $20,000 for your degree, and State offers some of the more impressive (and, I might add, competitive) programs around.

Sure, even these figures are steep considering the lack of money-making potential in the arts. Do I regret the debt I incurred? Hell no. I look at my writing today and I compare it to 2004, when I first enrolled in grad school. The words world of difference do not suffice.

I've heard the accusation that MFA students are clones, groomed and trained to produce the same art and think in similar fashions. This is not my experience. Of my classmates at St. Mary's, several have book contracts (like Mary Volmer, author of Crown of Dust), others are balancing teaching and writing, and others are using their talents to carve their own paths. Plenty of my colleagues had no aspirations to become professional writers, not did they feel their degree might entitle them to make a living at their craft. They simply wanted to improve their work.

None of us is owed a living, regardless of our profession. We are not promised top-flight jobs, nor are we owed even subsistence-level salaries. Such is the promise and pitfall of a capitalist society.

It saddens me to see Mike Daisey, arguably one of the top artists in his profession at this time, hit out at people who make choices different than his. Some learn in the classroom, others in unheated Seattle garages. The venue is not the villain, nor is it the magic bullet. In the end, talent may not truly save us, but it our one true arbiter.


Mike said...


I responded at my site:

carla said...

Hi Allison,

Thanks for your thoughts in general about arts programs & studio degrees. I'm currently in the MFA app process, and thinking about St Marys... would you be willing to share with me what you see as the nitty gritty... good bad and the beautiful? Would be kindly appreciated, thanks!

fellow berkeley-ite,

Allison Landa said...

Hi Carla:

Thanks for your comment! I'd be happy to share my thought about SMC. Hit me up at

- A.