This story is part of a larger special issue on playwriting training.
A college degree is not a requirement for writing a play. Plenty of playwrights have found inspiration, resources, and a creative cohort outside academia. But before facing the dreaded question other writers in this issue are tackling—to MFA or not MFA, to put it simply—most writers do obtain a bachelor’s degree, whether it’s in theatre, creative writing, or an entirely unrelated field.
Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives at 18 (or so I’m told). But most American college students will change their majors, pressured by parents or lured by the promise of a more financially secure future. Many might transfer colleges, as I did, or they may not discover their true passion until the tail end of their school years. In my case, I always knew I was going to be a writer, even if only in an amateur capacity. I wasn’t too concerned when the school I chose, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., didn’t have a playwriting concentration in their theatre department. I studied acting and directing in-depth there, and supplemented that creative training with classes in film criticism and nonfiction writing. When it came time for me to propose my senior thesis, I petitioned the theatre faculty to let me write and produce a play—something I figured had about a 50/50 chance of getting approved. (They said yes.)
Adina Kruskal, a Boston-based writer, composer, and music director, also attended a liberal arts school without a distinct playwriting track, let alone one devoted to writing musicals. She knew she wanted to study theatre when she entered college, but couldn’t predict that she’d have written a full-length musical by the time she was done. “I could’ve made it so much easier for myself if I had admitted in high school that I actually liked writing and that it was something I wanted to pursue,” she says in retrospect. Instead Kruskal auditioned for conservatory programs for clarinet performance and music education, but ultimately went the liberal arts route to keep as many options open as possible.
At Skidmore College, Kruskal performed with the theatre department, studied clarinet and piano, and served as an accompanist and music director for a student-run musical theatre collective. (That’s also where I met her, pre-transfer, as we shared monologues and tried to write a web show about changing your major.) To round out her education, Kruskal applied to spend a semester at the Eugene O’Neill National Music Theater Institute. She was following in the footsteps of many Skidmore alumni who had studied acting in Moscow with the O’Neill, but because Kruskal preferred a domestic program, there were a few bureaucratic bumps in the road. “I had to take a leave of absence from Skidmore because it wasn’t on their approved list of study-away programs,” she says. “It was as if I had transferred to another school for a semester.”
Despite the paperwork, Kruskal found the program rewarding, as it sharpened her skills in music direction, performance, and composition. It was at NMTI that Kruskal first developed Unison, a musical about a group of high school band kids deciding whether or not to pursue music as they await SAT scores and college acceptance letters. Unison came out of an assignment for NMTI’s Playwrights and Librettists Week, in which every program participant must write a one-act play or musical, and a selection of the scripts are then staged.
“It was only 20 minutes long at the time,” Kruskal says. “It had four named characters and five songs. I was terrified.” She credits the intense environment at NMTI with inducing a fair bit of anxiety, but also with reshaping her approach to writing and composition and maturing her artistic voice.
Back at Skidmore, Kruskal couldn’t get her budding musical out of her head, and organized an informal reading of Unison with friends. She then approached the theatre department for a potential Playwright’s Lab, a semi-regular staged reading series of student work. Because of the expertise she gained at NMTI, Kruskal’s Playwrights Lab qualified as her senior thesis in theatre.
While she and I both bolstered our writing résumés with outside resources to petition for senior theses in playwriting, Kruskal and I entered our respective producing processes with unfinished scripts. Kruskal endeavored to polish her first act by the start of her senior year, as Skidmore gave her two separate staged readings for each act; for my part, I walked into auditions for my play Dear Kitty: a travesty with only 20 completed pages. In retrospect, we both wish we’d been held more accountable to turn in drafts at regular intervals. The blessing of liberal arts school is that students figure out how to pave their own way and make the work they want to make—but the curse is that this often means you’re doing the work by yourself. More structured playwriting programs may not leave students in the dark as much, but BFA degrees for playwriting are rare, and come with the same question that haunted Kruskal years ago and now bothers the characters of Unison: Can going to a conservatory program limit your development of other skills, passions, and potential career paths?
Kruskal and I both found that the writing process eased up considerably when we began working with student actors. I was looking for actors adept at movement and choral work for a piece framing Anne Frank’s legacy as a Greek tragedy at a school with a small theatre program; Kruskal needed strong singers at a school without a musical theatre training program. These were both challenging prospects, and because we were undergrads, we were both still attending other classes during the development of our respective works. But while some colleges cordon off actors, writers, and musicians in separate programs, Kruskal and I both had access to our casts, regardless of their majors. Kruskal music-directed her two staged readings in the fall of 2017 before graduating a semester early and setting her sights on the show’s future. Last year Unison had its first full production at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, where it won the festival award for Best Ensemble. A few months later, I directed an entirely student-run production of Dear Kitty: a travesty at Dickinson, with scenic and technical elements designed by my peers and I.
Now, like other young writers, Kruskal and I are both wondering if further schooling is next best step. Although we’re probably both too green to head back to the classroom right away, thoughts of tuition, housing, stipends, and the opportunities we might or might not encounter keep us up at night. If there’s one thing the do-it-yourself ethos of liberal arts theatre teaches, it’s that you don’t need to be in a conservatory—or even at a theatre program beloved by college guidebooks—to make quality work with qualified people. Big-name programs may carry more weight for some, but there’s something to be said for the scrappy determination of the small theatre department.
If only all it took to succeed as a playwright was what the high schoolers of Kruskal’s Unison laud in a song: “patience and practice.” It takes ample time set aside for writing, enough money to take a big risk in self-production or festival opportunities, and usually a few elite connections—things most working-class people just don’t have in abundance. As we continue the conversation on gatekeeping in the arts, we need to remember that a degree is no guarantee of a good career, and that there are resources available for writers without the collegiate support system.
In looking back on how she grew into writing in college, Kruskal cites not only the classes she took, but the outside resources she sought to help develop her voice: books she read on writing musicals, lectures and community events she attended, and advice she sought from people she admires. “I would say go and seek it out wherever you can,” Kruskal advises. “Education is about what you get from it. If you can build up your skills by practicing, by reading books, by joining a playwriting group with your friends, that’s just as good as having a degree.”
Amelia Merrill is a former intern of American Theatre.