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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2015

Applying to MFA Directing Programs? Seven Things I Wish I'd Known

Friday, April 24, 2015   (1 Comments)
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By James Nelson

Ever since I finished my undergraduate degree and began working as a theatre director, I’ve set my sights on getting an MFA. For years, I’ve explored websites and sized up programs, striving to become a strong enough artist to land one of one of the few coveted spots. MFA Directing programs typically accept only one or two students a year—if any—so the competition is intense. Late last year, I decided that I was finally ready to give it a go. I selected a dozen programs, got my transcripts and letters of recommendation in order, and began the application process.

Ah, how young and innocent I was back then.

It's now five months later, the smoke has cleared, and I wish that I could travel back in time and have a few words with that naive version of myself. "Oh, you poor sap," I would tell him. "You still have stars in your eyes and a small amount of money in your bank account. Let me tell you what you’re getting yourself into."

"I don’t have much time to listen to you," he would reply. "I’ve got a lot of statements of purpose to write. Can you keep it to, let’s say, seven things? The seven things you wish you had known before applying to grad school?"

“Yes. Yes I can.”

1. Save up—It’s Going to Cost a Lot More Than You Expect

I went into the application process knowing that it would cost a pretty penny—after all, the application fees alone totaled nearly $500, and if I got an interview or two, I’d have to take some time off from work and pony up for plane tickets. I knew about the University Resident Theatre Association (URTA), a tremendously helpful resource for prospective grad students that hosts annual National Unified Auditions/Interviews. Like TBA General Auditions for would-be grad students, this event allows hundreds of actors, directors, designers, and stage managers to interview with multiple schools at once, in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. For a $100 application fee and the cost of a round-trip ticket to Chicago (they weren't interviewing directors in SF that year), I could meet with six different schools. Of course, if I was lucky enough to be a finalist somewhere, that would mean another visit. Based on all that, I figured that the expenses for my whole grad school application season might come to about $1,500.

Nope. It cost me $3,411.

Yep. For the price of applying to grad school, I could have paid my car payments or bought groceries for a year. I could have taken a vacation to pretty much anywhere in the world. I could have paid for some serious training right here in the Bay Area.

What cost so much?  Here’s the breakdown:

Application fees: $490 (7 application fees, ranging from $25 to $110 each)
Flights: $1348 (3 round trip tickets, 2 one way tickets)
Lodging: $102 (1 bed in a hostel for 4 nights. Luckily, I had friends to crash with in most cities)
Rental cars and public transit: $455 (2 multi-day car rentals, 1 Chicago transit pass)
Food and drink: $480 (Granted, I drink more than most)
Books and materials: $90 (Preparatory materials for applications)

Surprise #1: As it turned out, almost all of the schools I applied to granted me an interview—something I hadn’t expected. Most requests came with fairly short notice, too; several times I got a phone call and had to fly out the very next week, and last-minute plane tickets are no joke—as I learned the hard way. $570 for a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Columbus, Ohio? Seriously?!

Surprise #2: Food and drink expense wasn’t something I’d considered, but should have. It was incredibly valuable to invite a current student out for dinner or drinks to speak candidly about their experience in the program, and usually I’d pick up the bill. And because of the amount of travel, I often found myself stuck in an airport or facing limited food options, and overpaid for a quick bite.

This sudden surge in expenditures was hard to absorb, since I had also had to reduce my work hours to make time for all the travel. In retrospect, I seriously under-budgeted, and it added a huge layer of difficulty to the process.

2. Get Ready for Some Intense Waiting

Putting together a bunch of complicated applications with individualized statements of purpose and essays was stressful. Traveling all over the country and spending insane amounts of money was stressful. Driving through an Indiana blizzard in my rented Ford Focus at two in the morning to get to the airport, then finding out my flight was cancelled, which caused me to miss the designer run-through for a play I was directing—that was all very stressful.

But the grand prize of stress goes to…waiting. Once you’ve sent off your applications, each passing day might bring either wonderful or devastating news. Most schools aren’t clear about when or how they’ll follow up with your application. One school called me eight days after I submitted my application. Another waited three months before they sent a rejection by email. So in the interim, every unknown number that comes through to your phone and each buzz from a new email gives a little squeeze to your innards. This lasts for months, getting worse as your options diminish.

The waiting doesn’t get easier after the interviews, either. At the end of my interview with Yale, I was told, "we’ll contact you by the middle of next week." You can bet that the following Monday and Tuesday were the longest days of my life. By Thursday, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I drew my own conclusions, and my anxious caterpillar of hope turned into a bitter butterfly of disappointment. When I received a rejection letter the following Monday, it was almost a relief—the waiting was over.

3. Become One with Loneliness

 There’s something intensely isolating about going through all this. Even if your friends, family, and coworkers are wonderfully supportive, nobody has a frame of reference for what you’re going through. Well-intentioned words of encouragement tend to have the opposite effect, and you’ll find yourself forcing a smiling when told, "You’re going to get in everywhere!" Additionally, it’s hard to have a productive conversation about grad school without it going to Magical Opinion Land, because everybody has something to say on the topic. Pretty soon you’re talking about the validity of graduate study for directing, or why any sane person would leave California for any reason. While these are perfectly legitimate topics, they’re frustrating to discuss when the only thing on your mind is the interview you have in Chicago next week.

Although judging by the weather, maybe they were right about California.

But there’s always Facebook, right? Our virtual community, there to support us in our times of need? The problem is, it’s inappropriate (and unwise) to discuss the details of such a private process in a public forum. Besides, the majority of online comments would probably do more to increase anxiety than to relieve it, and there are ramifications for announcing to the world that you’re putting serious thought into moving on from your current situation.

The process of applying to grad school is a journey that you take alone, but it’s also strangely empowering. Since you’re forced to rely singularly on yourself, a certain kind of strength emerges, and you may be impressed by your capabilities.

And just when you’ve come to terms with being on your own…

4. You’ll Make Some New Friends

 Because of the isolating nature of the graduate application process, there’s instant camaraderie when you come across another person going through it. One website in particular, The Grad Cafe, exists to facilitate these connections. There are discussion forums for prospective graduate students in every discipline to chat about where they’re at in the process, share news and resources, and offer congratulation or commiseration when results come in.

Having that support network of anonymous people going through the same challenges and struggles was incredibly comforting, and I found myself checking the Grad Cafe forums with a frequency bordering on addiction. The thread for MFA Directing hopefuls was active from early December through late March, so I was able to track my digital friends throughout their whole process, becoming increasingly more invested in them along the way. "Clementiney", whoever you are, I’m so excited that it worked out for you this year, and thanks for all your encouraging words!

The closest anonymous friends I have.

I made some real-life friends as well. As I was leaving my interview in New Haven, I briefly met another prospective student. A couple weeks later, I saw her at the URTA conference, where we were each interviewing for a number of different schools. We chatted for a bit before the day kicked off, and soon became close allies, meeting up before and after every interview to download information and share impressions. When the day wrapped up, we hit the Chicago bars and talked for hours about grad school, our theatre careers, and the crazy ride we were on. After Chicago, we kept up through email or text, sharing our news and results. Weeks later, when we were both finalists at a Midwestern school, I picked her up from the airport and we spent a weekend on the campus, seeing shows and visiting classes together. While we were there, another directing hopeful joined us, and she too became an instant close friend. I can’t understate how much the support of those two helped me through the process, and I’m excited to keep tabs on their work for years to come.

5. Experience a School in Person Before You Draw Conclusions
How do you learn enough about a school to know if you actually want to go there? The schools' theatre department websites are a great place to start, but the information they offer is skewed to promote their programs. I was astounded by how quickly my opinion could shift based on an interview, and even more after visiting a campus. Your dream schools may not actually be a good fit for you, but that’s only really apparent when you experience them in person.

During my interview for a state school that I initially liked, the conversation took an abrupt turn when the faculty member told me that they have to choose work that is safe for the community and commercially viable, so I wouldn’t have a lot of say in what kind of projects I would work on. Also, I would have no interaction with the major repertory company that the school partners with, or any other professional theatres. Also, I wouldn’t be directing any of the MFA actors in my three-year program, because they would all be working at the repertory theatre. What a compelling package, huh?

Also, the person interviewing you will likely be one of your major collaborators and mentors throughout the program. In some cases, that person will be your only directing teacher for the duration of the program. This means that the way you feel in the room with them is very important. I turned down a couple of otherwise appealing opportunities because I just didn’t feel the connection.

It’s important to feel some affinity for the location, too. Places have definite identities. You want to feel good about where you’re going to spend three critical years of your life. The city itself provides the larger context for your theatre education and professional opportunities after graduation, but even more important are the school’s theatre facilities where you’ll be spending nearly every day. I visited two state schools that sounded similar on paper, and I had completely different reactions to them—one felt claustrophobic and isolated, the other felt wonderfully comfortable and exciting. Who’d have guessed?

"Your second-year text analysis class actually takes place in this parking lot."

Lastly, it’s a red flag if you’re treated badly as an applicant, no matter how awesome the reputation of a school is. One of my top picks invited me to interview at a hotel halfway across the country…then stood me up. No call, no email, nothing. After fifteen minutes of waiting, I called the school’s theatre department and learned that the interview had been cancelled due to bad weather, and that they would be in touch to reschedule. I had to fly back to the Bay Area that evening, so I let it go. Without regret.

In sum: you may think you know which programs you’d like, but don’t be surprised if your opinion changes drastically over the course of the application process.

6. Prepare for Ethical Dilemmas

 One of the most uncomfortable side effects of the grad school application process is that, for three or four months, you have to go about your daily life anticipating two drastically different futures:

Future #1: You get into school, and will move halfway across the country within months.

Future #2: You don’t get into school, you cry a lot, then continue business as usual. Which for a theatre artist, usually means lining up your next year of work.

Having to prepare for multiple outcomes forces you into some degree of duplicity. It’s important to make the case to interviewers that you’re very serious about attending their programs, and that the timing is perfect for you to begin your graduate school training—that you’d go live in Philadelphia tomorrow if they asked you to. But to avoid waving red flags to your employers and potential employers, you will also feel the need to downplay your prospects and remind people of the improbable odds of landing a place in a program.

Around the beginning of this year, I chose to share my plans with both of my employers, and fortunately both workplaces were very supportive of me. They seemed to understand that my desire for further education didn’t derive from job dissatisfaction. It was harder to know how much to share with the artistic directors who were considering me for directing slots in their next season. I didn’t want to misrepresent my intentions, but I also needed to ensure that I had exciting work lined up in the case that school didn’t work out—and season announcements don’t usually read, “Directed by James Nelson…unless he screws us over!”

I went the route of guarded honesty. I let one artistic director know that I was considering school, and he graciously (though probably warily) kept me on the slate, for which I’m incredibly grateful. Another asked me about my 2016 availability—to finally tackle my dream show—but when I mentioned my grad school situation, I was quickly dropped from consideration, with a note to “let us know if it turns out you don’t end up going back to school and we’ll consider you for a future season.” In that case, I shot myself in the foot by being honest.

7. Value the Experience – In the End, It Might Be All You Have

 So this where I reveal the happy ending: After all this time, money and stress, I’m attending the school of my dreams!

Nope. It didn’t work out for me this year.

In hindsight, applying for 12 schools was a bad idea, because I didn’t have the resources to completely follow through with that many schools. I didn’t quite understand the full cost of what I was doing, and that put me in a very difficult position.

I didn’t make the final cut for most of those schools, and I got cold feet and withdrew my interest at a few more. One of my favorites let me know that I made their top two, but they only accepted one, and it wasn’t me this time. The one offer I did receive didn’t feel right, and I turned it down. So one by one, my doors were closed, and I was left where I started.

It would be easy to be crushed, considering the insane amount of time, money, and effort that I poured into the process.  Three months of my life, thousands of my dollars, and nothing to show for it.

But it didn’t kill me, and I am stronger. I know so much more about what questions to ask, what the process entails, and what I’m looking for. I have a dozen interviews under my belt to unpack and deconstruct as I set my sights on next year. Oh, yes, next year. I’m coming back with a vengeance, and I’m going to be ready for it. Let’s hope my bank account is too.

“And so, Me-from-the-Past,” I conclude, “get those stars out of your eyes and get ready for a crazy few months. You’ll be pushed to your limits, expend all the resources available to you, and come out with nothing tangible. But someday, when you show up for your first day of class on the beautiful campus that is your new home, you’ll feel pretty good about yourself. You’ll have fought tooth-and-nail for the chance to be there, and you’ll be determined to make the most of it. In the meantime—good luck, kid.”

James Nelson is field services associate for Theatre Bay Area and a freelance director.


Kris Neely says...
Posted Sunday, April 26, 2015
James: I'm not kidding -- there's a book in this. Really -- keep all your notes, recollections, stories and so on. There's a book in this experience that thousands of MFA candidates will be thankful they read (and you wrote). Seriously, there's a book in this experience. Next, this is such an entertaining (and sobering) article. I'm sure that more than a few readers will be wide-eyed at what they (and I) thought should be a fairly "straight-forward" process, and clearly it's not! On another front: you've learned a valuable lesson -- always surf the web for food options at airports (in this country and around the world). As someone who in the past has faced the same dismal airport food choices you did, I soon learned to check-out food options ahead a time. A little "carry-on luggage" snack from Whole Foods -- which you wisely stopped at on your way back to the airport -- can make a 6-hr coast-to-coast flight a LOT more palatable. A great article, James! Thanks!