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To MFA or Not to MFA? A Perspective from the Field

Bridget Coyne Gabbe interviews recent The Old Globe/University of San Diego graduate Aubrey Saverino about the pros and cons of pursuing an MFA degree.

Aubrey Saverino

These recent weeks have been busy with rehearsals and auditions, including one for a program that could take me away from New York for almost a year. At the information session, the artistic director called it "an MFA alternative."

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a successful actor friend who holds an MFA from Yale. She recounted how the bigwig casting directors, agents and managers were keen to see the new crop of MFAs so they could "snatch up the next possible big thing."

So, I wondered, is an MFA or an "MFA alternative" in my future? For some insight, I spoke with Aubrey Saverino, a recent MFA theater graduate of The Old Globe/University of San Diego, who has been receiving critical acclaim in the regional theater circuit. Since she's not so far removed from the academic experience, I wanted to hear about how having an MFA is helping to shape her career.

BCG: Why did you decide to pursue an MFA? Has it become a sort of "mandatory" degree?

AS: I didn't want to pursue an MFA for the sake of an MFA. The quality of the program was very important. If I was going to take myself out of the working theater world to go to grad school, I wanted it to be a program that was respected for excellent training and that would put me in contact with other professionals and help take my career to the next level. Since I've graduated, it seems to me that more and more working actors have MFAs -- from a few select schools. There are always exceptions, of course, but I feel that having the degree has made a real difference in my career.

BCG: What are the most tangible "real world" benefits of having an MFA? Do you find that people take you more seriously?

AS: I am now able to make at least a modest living off of theater (whereas before I was only working in equity-waiver theaters or showcase codes) and it also helped give me a bump into the regional theater world. Before my MFA, I was having trouble getting auditions for regional theater because my resume lacked those credits. After my MFA, I had professional Old Globe credits and well-known working directors on my resume, which has helped get me into audition rooms.

BCG: Did your MFA help you land representation?

AS:Absolutely -- from the MFA showcase. I've booked four shows and have two more lined up since graduating a year and a half ago -- that wasn't available to me before the MFA. The roles I'm being offered now are all relatively challenging and I think people are more comfortable giving me more responsibility because of the MFA. I feel confident when I walk into a rehearsal room that I'll be able to handle that responsibility because my training has made me better prepared to step into a broader range of roles.

BCG: How do you see your "path forward?" Any aspirations for film and TV, New York or California?

AS: I love traveling around the country, meeting people and working in new places, so I hope to continue to do that and keep advancing to bigger regional theaters. I also hope to forge relationships in New York, which has already started to happen. In terms of TV and film, I would need to think really seriously about my career choices. The focus is theater for now.

BCG: Any advice for an actor at my stage?

AS: Work in whatever theaters you can, create your own work with friends. It's amazing the important connections I've made because I worked in, say, a theater in a strip mall for no pay, and now those people are also moving up the ranks. You never know how those connections and relationships are going to pan out. Also, having "real world" experience will serve you well if you decide to pursue an MFA.

Aubrey auditioned for the Old Globe program four times. "I wore them down," she says. And one of the best lessons she took away was "learning to fail." Aubrey's story had a profound effect on me, underscoring once more that persistence (and talent, of course) is what it takes. If this is the dream, then never give up, never, never, never (thanks, Churchill).

So, MFA, "MFA alternative" or no MFA at all... I've got more people to talk to and some serious thinking to do.