Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do MFA programs actually hurt the theatre?

Provocateur Mike Daisey thinks so, and has set off a small Internet rumpus with his initial post on the subject here. A theatre professor (Tom Loughlin of "A Poor Player") responded here and here. The Guardian weighed in here. Daisey snapped back here, where he likens MFA training to "a Ponzi scheme." Okay, actually, it's not really at all like a Ponzi scheme, but I think what Daisey means is that MFA training essentially lures a large number of students into making an investment which will never pay off, but will instead support the salaries of a smaller number of academics. As Daisey puts it:

“If a teacher is teaching in an MFA program that charges a tuition its students can never pay through the craft, the onus is on the teacher to justify for his or herself how this can be ethical.”

And he's quite right that the Poor Player posts didn't actually respond to his arguments at all.

There is, however, at least one response possible, although it's cold comfort to the students involved: MFA programs keep theatre and theatrical traditions alive past the validity of their economic model. In short, students' tuition is sacrificed not merely to the bank accounts of their professors, but to the preservation of the art form. Now there are those who feel art forms simply should not outlive their economic models - it's an interesting moral quandary, though, for those who feel otherwise, whether or not to exploit the finances of students in order to perpetuate, say, large-scale productions of the classics.

But then there's Daisey's other point - that MFA programs actually harm rather than preserve theatre, by forcing those deep in MFA debt from the very profession they trained for! This argument is less easily disposed of, even though it's worth pointing out that the bills for MFAs don't actually affect the theatre audience, which would have to be the prime mover in any theatrical renaissance.

This all reminds me that I never actually finished my series on "What should an academic theatre be?," perhaps because my ideas on the topic keep shifting under different circumstances! But I have to get back to it, and ponder a response (if there is one) to Daisey in the meantime . . .

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