Incite/Insight Spring 2018 Volume 2 - Page 20

20 Incite/Insight M em b er’ s Corn er S pr in g 201 8 21 In c it e / In sig h t Towards a Fully-Funded Future in Theatre Education Y A long-building tension in higher education about student debt was whipped up with passion in the 2016 presidential election. And as 2017 rang in, our field was publicly forced to grapple with the implications of student debt in our backyard. 2017 brought high profile articles in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Boston Globe about a theatre degree and debt. The graduate theatre training program at Harvard—one of the wealthiest and most prestigious schools in the world—was given a sour ranking from the United States government. Harvard’s program for theatre was listed in a long lineup of—mainly for-profit— institutions that charge for more than their degree can return. The criticism wasn’t about the training. It was about the financial cost. The amount of debt graduates from Harvard’s American Repertory Theater’s program—The A.R.T. Institute—are saddled with is disproportionate to the potential earnings they could make in the field, the Department declared. The whole scenario jeopardized the program’s eligibility for federal financial aid. As a result, and presumably embarrassed, the A.R.T. and Harvard announced that they would suspend admissions into the program for three years’ time. With revelations that the Institute was relying heavily (if not exclusively) on the tuition of students for subsidization—$63,370 for two years according to the 2015/2016 admissions application—it is assumed that the leaders of the highly successful Cambridge- to-Broadway theatre program and the administrators of Harvard will use the three-year term to raise an endowment for the A.R.T.’s training program. Or, perhaps the three-year sabbatical indicates a slow and gentle swan song for the 31-year-old program which uses a partnership with the Moscow Art Theatre School as a defining appeal. Scott Zigler, the now-former Head of the A.R.T.’s program is en route to being the next Dean at the North Carolina School of the Arts—a move announced in June 2017. In a New York Times article, the Artistic Director of the A.R.T., Diane Paulus, said that since arriving at the theatre in 2009, her mission was to make the graduate training program a fully-funded one. And while Paulus has been able to send several shows to commercially successful runs on Broadway, she has not been able to attain that level of financial aid for A.R.T.’s students. The scenario isn’t just a blow for Harvard—it was an embarrassing revelation for theatre education and the professional field as a whole. And certainly, while Harvard was made an example of, it is not an anomaly. There are presumably many other programs which operate similarly. Cut to February of 2018 when Harvard’s Ivy League sibling, Brown, announced that beginning in the upcoming academic year, all incoming and returning MFA students in the acting and directing programs would have full scholarships. “In the theatre world, diversity is often hampered by the inability of low-income artists and artists of color to afford to be creators,” Patricia Ybarra, chair of Brown’s theatre arts and performance studies department said in a press release. “By expanding access to our program, we expand access to theatre world more broadly… You cannot take risks and choose your path when hampered by debt.” Spring 2 018 “If we, as a field of educators, support a system of higher, post-graduate learning—what, then, are we endorsing financially?” By Alex Ates ou could call these past few years ones of a financial awakening—or reckoning. M e m be r ’s C o r n e r Brown’s announcement and Ybarra’s statement stab at the essential question of our American theatre educational landscape—as long as our field deems Master’s degrees useful and essential, what ethical role does the tuition cost play? According to the 2016/2017 Annual Report from Actors’ Equity - the nation’s union for professional stage actors and stage managers - roughly 18,422 professional actors are working annually on an average of 16.4 weeks. Thirty-seven percent of Equity members earn between $1,000 and $5,000 annually; 31% earn between $5,000 and $15,000 annually. The American theater does not offer financial stability. It’s not much better in higher education. In a growing study on the matter, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education wrote, “What the data seem to show is that the market for faculty positions in theatre in higher education has remained reasonably consistent between 1996 and the present. Unfortunately, given the distribution of full-time tenure-eligible positions versus temporary or non-tenurable positions, this consistency is by no means an indication that everything is just fine. Rather, it suggests that the current state of affairs has been in place for at least 15 years, and that we need to move away from thinking of a temporary ‘job crisis’ and toward a recognition that this is ‘the new normal.’” If we, as a field of educators, support a system of higher, post-graduate learning— what, then, are we endorsing financially? As long as we assign importance to “prestigious” programs with high tuition costs in high cost-of-living epicenters, we embolden an ecosystem that accelerates and celebrates the wealthier students and limits the poorer ones—if not shutting them out altogether or setting them up for a financial coma. The conundrum of American theatre hype is a noticeable knot—the more we celebrate expensive programs in a field that doesn’t pay enough to cover tuition costs, the more inequity we create in our field. Our American field of theatre education needs to confront this inequitable social dynamic as aggressively as we are interrogating the deeply- sewn mechanisms of racism, sexism, and other gate-keeping injustices. And while postgraduates, in particular, have a responsibility to interrogate the impact of potential costs, the way we as educators place value into specific degree programs can convince a student that incurring such costs could be worth it. In this way, educators contribute to the financial quicksand that too many American theatre artists fall into. So, what do we do? We must shift the dynamic. We must research, celebrate, promote, and encourage programs which subsidize graduate students in the same way that graduate students in most other post- graduate academic fields are supported—with a tuition waiver, stipend, and even—(in exceptional cases) health care in exchange for teaching or research assistantships. Concurrently, we must cheer on responsible graduate student unions who protect assistants from being easily manipulated by departments who wish to overwork graduates in attempts to cut staffing corners. The most prestigious postgraduate programs must now become the ones with the least financial burden on students, our country’s future artists and future theatre educators. This dynamic shift does not necessitate a pedagogical stretch.