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February 22, 2009, by

Are American MFAs a Ponzi Scheme or just ten times better than Canadian MFAs?

Mike Daisey’s visit to Canada was overshadowed by that of another charismatic Yankee who rose to success through a combination of excellent public speaking skills, fully harnessing the potential of the internet, and the notion that a broken system requires change. So it goes.

Mike Daisey performed this month at Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and judging by the overwhelmingly positive response he received from folks like Simon Ogden of The Next Stage, America’s most prolific and relentless theatre blogger seems not to have disappointed with his abilities as a performer in his visit to Canada.
While he was there, Daisey was not blogging about the scenic wilderness or the high quality of our maple syrup. He was responding to the firestorm he started off, when he pointed out the numerous parallels between American MFA acting programs and the characteristics of a Ponzi Scheme
The basic premise of Daisey’s argument is thus: A system that encourages artists to incur $100,000 + debt while the average wage of graduates hovers somewhere below the poverty line, is a corrupt one that will eventually collapse under the weight of its inability to provide a return for its investors.
This scheme implicates academia, a large swath of artistic institutions, and of course American Theatre Magazine, whom in a matter of months it seems Daisey has singlehandedly de-legitimized as voice genuinely representing the interest of American artists through a critique of its role promoting and benefiting from deeply flawed institutional and educational models.
These are all very good and valid points, but they raise an even more interesting question for North American theatre artists who enjoy their beer with a higher percentage of alcohol under the benevolent rule of a Constitutional Monarchy
If it costs roughly $40,000 a year to go to New York University, and $4000 to go to York University, is NYU ten times “better” than York? What added value does your extra $36,000 a year buy you?
Although there are a number of excellent undergraduate or certificate conservatory programs, there are actually very few MFA theatre programs in Canada period. What’s up with that? Are MFAs necessary at all – or do we not have enough? Two thirds of the cast of our recent production of Stranger (and the producer) trained in the US after completing an undergrad degree in Canada…

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  1. Murph says:

    To be fair the price disparity is largely because York receives a great deal more public funding than NYU. If that veil were lifted, I imagine York would jump up to a similar price bracket.

  2. Michael Wheeler says:

    Absolutely. The increased funding Canadian institutions receive is the precise reason why schools here are more affordable. (Or just plain affordable.)

    In the mind of a 24 year-old recent BA holder looking to train for a career in the theatre, there are some disparate options regardless of their funding levels though. I am conflicted in my own response to this as an American MFA holder in the midst of a Canadian system seem to be a much better deal for artists…

  3. Aaron says:

    I find it kind of funny that an indie theatre blog would reason that because an American tuition is 4x the size of a Canadian one it means that the quality of the education is 4x as good. Is a Mirvish show 4x as good as a local co-op production just because the tickets are 4x as expensive?

    The Canadian system and the American system are like apples and oranges. You need to do an MFA in Acting in the US just to get the equivalent conservatory training from the National Theatre School or the University of Alberta’s BFA program.

    I’m totally proud of our education system — even more so because it’s more affordable than US post-secondary, to anyone who has the talent and the dedication to pursue the craft. I think those should be the only determining factors in choosing who should get to attend the programs.

    Don’t you?

  4. MK Piatkowski says:

    I keep waffling back and forth on the MFA issue. Is it really necessary on a training level? Or has it become necessary because there isn’t as many conservatory programs as there were 30-40 years ago? Is it really worth going into debt to get?

  5. Michael Wheeler says:

    Aaron, you’re totally right that a quantitative analysis of cost can not be applied to a qualitative attribute like the value of an education.

    I am certain that my brother and sister and I had a better time at the Raptors game in the nosebleeds than many courtside attendees. The question is deliberately ridiculous and in general I think our education system in Canada is a model of affordable excellence. It is a blessing

    Daisey’s Ponzi Scheme has more merit in its analysis of the economics of a corrupted system that is funded by young artists going into massive amounts of debt because they have learned that it is the only/true way to pursue their craft. That being said, you CAN learn a lot in these programs.

  6. Aaron says:

    Sounds like Mr. Daisey has been reading Mamet’s True and False.

    Education issues aside, I think you’re alluding to a much larger and more serious issue among actors and the greater artist community: poverty. More specifically, our acceptance of it.

    Why is it artists believe that they must accept debt and impoverishment in order to be successful? Why do we put our life on hold while we attempt to acheive some sort of greatness? It only leads to misery.

    There’s a quote about artists must suffer for their art. Which may be true. Most people don’t realize that the quote continues on to say that one must ensure that the suffering should be as brief as possible. (… er, I’m paraphrasing here…)

  7. Michael Wheeler says:

    Funnily enough, I was about to bring up True and False, but then opted out because Mamet’s pro-war/screw everybody agenda lately has me much less enamored these days.

    Nonetheless, discussion of the utility of professional training in as a North American artist can’t really happen outside of the context of his critique i suppose. Even if he did START A THEATRE SCHOOL!

    The mercury thing was pretty Mamet vintage though so he’s still got it….

  8. […] from the Peddling of Impractical Degrees: Similar to Mike Daisey’s American MFAs as Ponzi Scheme critique. Botvinik wonders if many US MFA programs would meet the standards of The Gainful Employment Act […]