This story is part of a larger special issue on playwriting training.
A question I get frequently from students and younger writers is, “How did you become a journalist?” I suspect my answer usually disappoints them: I was lucky. I graduated in 2011 from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I left the program in June and moved immediately to New York City, and a month later I was hired as an editorial assistant at American Theatre. They happened to have a job opening at the same time as I was looking for a job (and I had amassed enough unpaid writing experience to qualify). Key point: I found out about the job via an alum of the Newhouse program, not a job posting.
In the eight years that I’ve been covering theatre, I’ve noticed the same is true of the theatre. How do you become an artist? You acquire the skills, you work on your craft however you can (even if it’s unpaid—an unfortunate fact that still irks me), and you are open to whatever opportunity presents itself.
Because I have an M.A. in arts journalism, I’m frequently asked if journalism school is a necessity to be a journalist. And my answer is: It depends. That qualifier is the foundation for this issue, part of our annual focus on theatre training. This year we decided to home in on playwriting, but with a twist. While we do train our focus on university programs, including in Marcus Scott’s story about playwrights being trained to write for various media, not only the stage, we also look at playwrights who created their own opportunities without the benefit of an MFA, or who forged their own way as playwrights within undergrad theatre programs. And we look at an artist who built a successful career but still decided to go back to school.
We hope that in showcasing the variety of ways that playwrights are getting trained, in and out of academia, we can show that there is no one path to becoming a theatre artist. As Tony-winning playwright (and Columbia University head of playwriting) David Henry Hwang notes, in a quote we cut from Scott’s story: “I don’t believe every playwright needs to get an MFA.” He dropped out of Yale himself, he notes. For those who do go to grad school, Hwang advises that students look for programs that will give them practical skills they don’t otherwise have. “MFA playwriting programs can also fail students, due to the high costs of tuition or by ignoring instruction in areas such as professional development and other forms of dramatic writing,” Hwang says. “I believe a good MFA playwriting program should focus not only on artistic growth, but on preparing its graduates for the practicalities of life as a professional dramatist.”
I too have mixed feelings about having gone to grad school, in large part because I’m still paying off the debt. But there is one thing I don’t regret about that experience: It led me to this job. My first print issue of American Theatre was September 2011 and this one, January/February 2020, will be my final issue with the magazine. I did not plan this departure, and my newest opportunity, as a features editor at Broadway.com, came to me serendipitously, in much the same way the job at American Theatre did. I did not predict this newest chapter in my career, but I also couldn’t predict when I stepped into the American Theatre offices eight years ago what would await me and what I would be able to accomplish here. What I had wanted to become was not what I ended up becoming, and what I did end up doing, and the gratifying impact it would have on the field, I could not have imagined.
That is why editor-in-chief Rob Weinert-Kendt asked me to write this note, as a goodbye but also a last word (for now). In the best plays, you can’t predict what will happen; the same is true in your life and career. You may think there is one path that will lead to success, but take comfort in the unpredictability. If you have love for the work you’re doing, then when one path seems closed to you, another will open itself up.