Except for a handful of playwrights and screenwriters in this country, so-called “professional” script writers are faced with an ongoing sustainability issue in their careers.
At the top of the list of goals for any writer for the stage or screen is to get his or her work produced. This, without question, is (or should be) the prime motivator for tackling time and again the task of writing one viable and producible script after another. Needless to say, this is an arduous and long term undertaking involving total commitment and a persistent never-say-die attitude as works are released into the world and forced to face the gauntlet of the gatekeepers. And the most legitimate (albeit oftentimes resentful) measure of “success” in the script writing arena is having those works land well received professional productions on a consistent basis.
Of course, this measure of success does not necessarily mean that a writer “has arrived” at being able to make a living off their writing. In our field (theatre/film/TV) the words “professional writer” are stretched a bit to include getting established as a well or somewhat known produced scriptwriter regardless of whether or not sales or royalties are supplying the monthly nut for the mortgage, groceries, and at least a large portion of everything else. It’s the productions that trump the dollars earned that generally lands someone the label “professional.”
So that leaves the “successful professional” playwright or screenwriter with a dilemma. How can he or she continue their “career” as a writer if they can’t make a consistently reliable living from that effort? The answer in many cases is looking for a teaching job in script writing. This makes perfect sense, of course, because these writers have already proven at least to some degree their credibility as being successful in their field and one would think that success would automatically qualify them for full or part-time teaching positions in undergraduate and graduate script writing programs. In fact, you’d think these writers would be sought after aggressively. But, alas, there’s one catch.
Welcome to the world of academia, where by far the most important consideration in hiring new faculty is the degree a candidate carries with them in their back pocket. And this can’t be just a B.A. degree. With very rare exceptions, it must be a terminal degree–an MFA or PhD. Professional accomplishment in their field as playwrights or screenwriters takes a distant second. As a result the best potential teachers are passed over and not seriously considered for the positions that open up. They are shut out from the get go and it’s almost always the fellow academic with the advanced degree that is eventually hired regardless of the kind of track record as a produced playwright or screenwriter they bring to the table. And often hidden in these job searches is the unspoken issue of professional jealousy and envy that the current faculty choosing the candidate harbors secretly for anyone who has actually had any serious professional success in their field.
I think this need for an advanced degree explains why there are so many MFA programs being offered in playwriting and screenwriting. Professionally produced and emerging writers are looking for a way into college teaching to achieve some level of sustainability and have realized that their only entrance ticket is the graduate degree. And the MFA programs that are worth their salt are those that understand this and have hired fellow working professionals to make up their faculty and have first and foremost a serious commitment to nurturing and promoting the professional careers of their students.
In other words, it’s the work itself that counts and the best programs are those that look at their students as fellow professionals seeking to sustain their careers and that boast a faculty who treats them accordingly.
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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I’m the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).