Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Tech Tools of the Trade monthly newsletter in January. It is reprinted here with permission. If you don't know Tech Tools of the Trade, you should find out more.
The decision on whether or not to attend a graduate program in Theater Design and/or Technology is, in my experience, an exercise in predicting one’s own future. I have colleagues who have highly successful careers in lighting design or design-related fields who have B.A. or B.F.A. degrees; they have never indicated any regrets about not having attended an M.F.A. program. And then there are the colleagues who, shortly after receiving their Master’s degree, left the field completely. It seems to come down to how well you know yourself and perhaps more importantly, how early in life you know what it is you want to do.
Let’s start with a few generalities. My advice for high school students who are looking into undergraduate programs tends to be very simple: unless you are absolutely certain that you will become a stage designer or technician and are equally certain that you never wish to teach at the university level, stick with a well-rounded B.A. program. The options, should you change your mind after one, two or three years, will be much greater. Study everything you think might be remotely related to what it is you want to do – art, art history, music, psychology, physics, film, engineering, etc. Don’t limit yourself by assuming that designers and technicians need to know only about theater. But if you are absolutely certain about your goals, then do your homework on B.F.A. programs and get into the highest-profile program available to you.
Assuming that you are one of those undergraduates who changed his or her mind once or twice, the decision to enter a graduate program will be an easy one. I began my undergraduate career “knowing” that I wanted to become a chemical engineer. That lasted until day one of my sophomore year, 15 minutes into my first metallurgy course. I eventually graduated with a double major -- Biology and German Language and Literature. Theater was, for me, completely extra-curricular and until my senior year, all about acting. I took one theater course, an acting practicum, because it was a requirement for acting in a production of The Tempest. So when I decided, at the 11th hour, that I wanted to become a lighting designer and not a microbiologist, graduate school was an absolute necessity.
B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs are all about the connections you make while in school. Yes, the training is obviously important but if the instructors doing that training don’t have the connections to the outside world, you are only getting half of what the best programs can offer. Pay close attention to where the instructors in a given program are working and how much they are working. Both are equally important.
Where are you now?
If you are still reading this, I’m going to assume that you are an undergrad not in a B.F.A. program and are contemplating graduate school, or you are a working professional contemplating a return to school. Anyone currently in a B.A. program should be indulging his or her curiosity about the world in as many ways as possible. (See paragraph 2.)
Check off your list
If you are a working professional contemplating an M.F.A. program, make a list. Ask yourself what it is that you wish you could do: read music, draw and render, create puppets, paint scenery, drape an evening gown, program every lighting console known to the world, etc. Once you have that list, find the graduate program that will allow you to accomplish everything that’s on your list. Keep in kind the connections you need to make; your newly acquired skills aren’t going to do you or anyone else any good if no one knows that you have them.
Do you want to teach?
The one question to ask yourself when considering a Master’s program in theater is this: “Do I ever see myself teaching at a college or university?” If that answer is yes, then you will need the terminal degree in your field. For most of us, that’s the Master of Fine Arts. But even if the answer is no, keep in mind that predicting the future can be a tricky thing.
I never thought that I would teach lighting design but times, circumstances and interests change. I did not begin my teaching career until I was in my early-fifties. Without the terminal degree, that would not have been an option. And without the contacts I made while at Boston University’s School for the Arts, I would not have joined the Guthrie nor discovered the Twin Cities theater community. I could not have predicted any of this when I was 17.