Advice to Prospective Grad Students: Don’t Forget the Community (Advice from a current ASU grad student)

When applying for graduate school programs in theatre for young audiences, it is natural to focus on your energy on researching the academic program to which you are applying. What kind of courses can I take? What requirements will I need to complete to earn the degree? What financial aid opportunities will be available? These are all crucial things to know as you apply – but don’t forget to think about the place in which the program is located and the life you will be living in that community.

In my third year of the MFA program at Arizona State University, I have realized that my interactions with the community outside of the university have been as important as the coursework for my degree. I have been reflecting on the questions I asked myself, and the questions I should have asked myself, about the communities surrounding the grad programs I was interested in.

Do you like the weather? You might be a big fan of snowy winters. Or perhaps you are like me and despise the sight of a snow shovel. Think about the climate of the places you are applying to and how the weather will impact your mood, because that will affect how you function while you are doing your grad work. I haven’t had to scrape ice off of my car for three years, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

What is the political climate? I admit that I didn’t give this much thought when I was applying. I wish that I had, because the Arizona political climate has had an impact on everything I do inside and outside of the university. It affects funding for the theatre companies and public schools that hire me, it affects my tuition at ASU, and it affects the way that I interact with children and families. Take a close look at the political climate in the cities you might be living in, especially regarding arts and education funding.

How is the theatre scene? Outside of university theatre programs, what companies are doing innovative and interesting work? Are there professional children’s theatre companies that you could work with? What shows would you want to see when you’re not writing papers? Do some research to find out if the theatre community tends toward straight plays, musicals, new work, performance art, etc. When I applied to ASU, one of the major bonuses was that Childsplay, a leading professional theatre for young audiences, was a short walk from the university. I knew that I wanted to have opportunities to work with acompany like Childsplay, and its proximity to the university definitely influenced my decision to attend ASU.

What are the employment possibilities outside of the university? I knew when I started my MFA that I wanted to freelance and work as a teaching artist in the community, and I have been fortunate to find several theatre companies and schools that will hire me to teach occasional classes or facilitate residencies. These opportunities have been invaluable to me, because it gives me a chance to concretely apply the strategies that I am learning in my coursework. Look for potential employers outside of the university so that you can put your skills into practice.

What could you do in your spare time? That is, if you can manage to scrounge up some free time while doing your graduate work! I am an avid reader and knitter. I was really lucky to find a charming local yarn store and a fabulous independent bookstore where I like to spend what little free time I have. Take some time to evaluate what you would choose to do when you have some time off, and see if the communities you are looking at would support your interests and hobbies.

Good luck with your search! I hope that you can find a graduate program and a community that fits your needs.

Brianna Stapleton Welch is a teaching artist and graduate student in the third year of the MFA Theatre for Youth program at Arizona State University.

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