The Real World, Theater Edition: A Playwright’s Guide to Grad School, Part One

I’m a little delayed from adding this to the blog since I came down with something recently that confined me to the couch for a good week, but here is the first part of a series that attempts to be a guide for those interested in pursuing graduate playwriting/dramatic writing programs.

For a little bit of background, about a year after I finished my undergraduate degree from UCSB and had studied playwriting with Naomi Iizuka, though not as a major or minor, I entered a period of intense anxiety and depression over what I was going to do next. Whenever I was asked by family or friends, “What I was going to do now?” My heart started to race, “I DON’T KNOW!!” What I knew was that I liked theater and that playwriting was where I felt most comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t know anything about how to pursue it, however, and I wished that I had a little bit more practical knowledge under my belt so that I was secure with what I had started at UCSB. I took unpaid theater internships, worked crew and drove the hour long drive up to San Francisco almost every day, while still living with my folks in San Jose. I took a part time job at a retail store in the mall. I hung out with other recently graduated friends, who also had no clue what they were going to do next, and I drank too much too often. I started a relationship with someone who really wasn’t good for me and when it ended I felt completely lost. I was shy and insecure and I had no clue “what to do with the rest of my life”. But I pursued my passion as best as I could anyway. I felt like that was the only way I was going to be happy. I saw an ad for the New York Film Academy’s Screenwriting workshop in Oxford, England, and I decided I needed to go. So, I took on any and every temp job I could to raise funds and I went across the ocean alone. Being in the classroom and practically learning the principles of storytelling is what made me think, hey, maybe I should pursue a graduate degree. Maybe this is the right direction.

Still, it took another year for me to act on that. I got back and immediately got back into theater, but not as a writer. Though I was learning so much and fortunate to work with some amazing artists, it felt tangential to what I really wanted to do. I got a full time job as a Grants Coordinator at a great nonprofit with wonderful people to work for and with, and it can be so tricky when that happens because you’re working full time. I had moved out of my folks’ house and could finally afford a place up in Berkeley. I thought being either in the East Bay or San Francisco would make me happy. I started another relationship, and it was so much better and different than the last, that I quickly put a tremendous amount of energy into this new life: 9 to 5 job, steady/stable boyfriend, some (though small) involvement in the theater scene, my own place, a community I liked being in… But I wasn’t writing and I felt the anxiety creep back in. I tried to pursue writing retreats, playwriting classes, and talked with playwright friends about what they would do. It somewhat helped. I knew that I would have to take decisive action if this life was not the one I wanted.

I applied to UC Berkeley’s Performance Studies PhD program for absolutely the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to move. I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I wasn’t ready to completely change the focus of my life. I thought if I stayed in the Bay Area, that all would be well. I only applied to one program. I didn’t get in.

The next year, I didn’t apply again, but I did try and do more writing. It was slow, but it was finally getting going a bit more. I did more playwriting retreats, networked more, tried to write in a journal, tried to be involved in theatrical productions again. I ended up writing a one-act at a retreat I went to, and it ended up being performed alongside other plays that the attendees wrote at La Mama ETC in New York. I saw the play get on it’s feet and I worked with a director. It was the first time I’d been asked solid questions on my writing since graduating from UCSB.

I got back to the Bay and I moved to San Francisco to get my life in gear. I still kept looking at the MFA programs, thinking, “if only”. I took a big, unexpected break-up to really truly shift my focus. I realized that I had again, not truly put my heart and full self into pursuing playwriting. So, then I did. And everything changed.

I read everything. I talked to everyone. I went to as many shows as I could. I tried to volunteer my time with new theater companies. I expanded my social circle and network. I did heavy research on the main graduate programs for playwrights out there. I met with mentors and discussed my goals. I wrote them down. I read Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way” and I did it and it worked. I started pursuing interests I never knew I had. I started going out more. I took my work, in all realms, whether creatively or professionally seriously. That was the time I could finally look someone in the eye and without flinching say apologetically, “I am a playwright”. And by the time this was all happening, I was in my late 20s. So, it was A LOT of soul-searching… I worked backwards to give myself the time to finish two new plays and prioritize my goals and needs. I worked hard and saved my money and paid about $1,000 to apply to ten different programs. And I tried to be okay with the idea that I might not get in.

In the process of doing this, I ended up writing a play I didn’t even realize was inside of me. All on my own without school programs, writing exercises, retreats, or classes. Of course, I used what I had developed there, but I ended up with something I still feel immensely proud of, “i stole lance armstrong’s bike”. I was able to get a staged reading together. I was finally making theater on my own.

Low and behold, my first year, I ended up having positive responses from UCSD and the New School for Drama. They both identified me as finalists. And through the process of traveling down to San Diego and over to New York, I learned more about what I wanted and needed. Being there in the place, I could feel what was right and what felt off. So, I crossed my fingers, and hoped.

It didn’t happen that year, but I didn’t lose heart. Still, that spring was a hard one. It took a lot of gusto to get back up and work even harder. I had laser focus and I’d done it before. I refined my school choices. I kept on writing and in the process I was able to secure a production for one of my plays, “It’s All in the Mix”. I tried more new things, like kung fu and tai chi. And the process of applying started once again. Though this time, I realized, that I was doing so much in the Bay Area scene, I could imagine myself being happy living in the city and making things happen on my own, without a graduate program. I was just getting used to this idea and feeling like there was so much I enjoyed about my town. Maybe I didn’t need to go.

Then, I started getting positive responses. First, from Rob Handel with Carnegie Mellon University, then Alice Tuan from CalArts, and Velina Hasu-Houston at USC. I was put on NYU’s waitlist, then they contacted me to bump me up. I was starting to have to make very real decisions about where I wanted to spend the next two to three years of my life. And after speaking with all these wonderful playwrights, I ended up feeling like CMU was the place that was going to be best for me. Ironically, my mom and I ended up finding out that her cousin, Judy, actually works there as the dance professor! It seemed like all signs point to yes. And then the question was just how to make this happen.

So, I know. I realize that all of this is a hard decision. It’s never easy for anyone to know “what to do with the rest of their life”. Heck, I’m here now trying to figure out what jobs will allow me to pursue playwriting and screenwriting, but still allow me to eat and get around town. I have no clue. I’m no expert. But what I do know, is I wish, when I had been applying, there was just more to read about the process of applying and what the challenges and pitfalls are. I wished that I could at least read someone else’s experience and figure out if there was a better way I hadn’t considered. I don’t regret pursuing this degree, but it was a very hard path. And I see people now who seem to make the decision very quickly and lightly. I at least want to pass on some things to consider. Not necessarily do as law because this is the way you will have success, but just something to try (if you haven’t already). Other than that, it’s just my take and maybe it won’t work for everyone (it probably won’t), but if it generates a new idea in someone about how to make playwriting a reality and not a pursuit, then I absolutely am humbled and thrilled to hear that.

Til then, enjoy! 🙂

San Francisco Theater Pub

Barbara Jwanouskos won’t be going back to school this fall, but she’s got some advice for all you playwrighting grad students out there.

Summer’s coming to a close and many are headed back to school. You may be toying with the idea of going back to school to get a degree in a theater-related field. If you’re a playwright, you may be looking at grad schools and thinking about applying. Well, as a recent graduate, I can give you some of what I’ve learned not only in the process of applying, but also what my experience was like while in it. I’m putting together at least a two part guide to the schools to look at, things to consider (for instance, is there a need to go back to school all together? SPOILER ALERT: No, but we’ll get to that), and ideas on where you might want to focus your…

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