PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, Brown University will provide scholarship funds to cover the full cost of tuition for all returning and future students in the Brown University / Trinity Rep master of fine arts (MFA) programs in acting and directing.
Not only will the additional funding ease debt for individual MFA students, Brown and Trinity Rep officials say, it will diversify the pool of actors and directors in training, encourage innovation and experimentation in art-making and ultimately redefine whose stories are being told through on-stage performance.
“In the theatre world, diversity is often hampered by the inability of low-income artists and artists of color to afford to be creators,” said Patricia Ybarra, chair of Brown’s theatre arts and performance studies department. “As one of the premier MFA programs in the country, we produce future leaders and innovators in the field. By expanding access to our program, we expand access to theatre world more broadly — ultimately redefining in really important ways whose stories are being told and by whom.”
Often, even very successful artists are unable to repay debt because their success is not reflected in their salaries, Ybarra noted. The result is that prospective students from low- and middle-income families often do not apply to MFA programs, she added, or that artists live in debt for substantial portions of their careers.
Lessening or eliminating the debt burdens of Brown’s acting and directing students will open opportunities for more students to apply. That will have a broad impact on the field nationally, Ybarra said, both by expanding the diversity of artists and their creations and enabling experimentation and risk, essential elements of innovative art-making.
“You cannot take risks and choose your own path when hampered by debt, and I am hopeful that we will see riskier and more innovative work as a result of this change,” Ybarra said.
The master’s programs, established in 2002, provide students with three years of professional training and education in a unique partnership between Brown and Trinity Rep, Rhode Island's Tony Award-winning professional repertory theater. Students in each program hone their crafts working directly with Brown faculty and Trinity Rep professionals. And they study and collaborate with students in Brown’s MFA program in playwriting and doctoral students in Brown’s Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies.
In addition to full tuition support, students pursuing an MFA in acting will continue to be eligible for stipend support to cover living expenses based on demonstrated financial need, as determined by Brown’s financial aid office. Students earning an MFA in directing will be offered teaching assistantships and proctorships, through which they will receive the same level of stipend support as students in Brown’s two other MFA programs — playwriting and literary arts.
Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep’s artistic director, said the tuition policy change will strengthen the Brown/Trinity program’s ability to bring a range of world-class young acting talent to the theatre’s stages.
“The professional experience that our MFA students gain by acting at Trinity is invaluable to them, and they are equally valuable to our audiences and to the kind of work we can produce,” Columbus said. “This program is one of the best of its kind in the nation, and this investment by Brown makes us able to attract an even higher caliber of actor. “
Angela Brazil, director of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA programs in acting and directing and a member of the Trinity Rep's acting company for 18 seasons, began spreading the news of full tuition support by phone to this year’s accepted students. She said responses on the other end of the line varied from screams of joy to stunned silence.
“For us to be able to tell artists that they are going to go out into the professional world unburdened by tuition debt is life-changing for them,” Brazil said. “There is a different future that’s now possible for them as art-makers. It’s an incredibly rare opportunity.”
Provost Richard Locke wrote a letter to Brown/Trinity students detailing the new policy, noting that the MFA programs were points of pride for graduate education at Brown.
“These additional investments ensure that all MFA programs at Brown are tuition-free and allow the University to continue to recruit exceptional graduate students in the arts, regardless of financial need,” Locke said. “These enhancements also reflect the centrality of the arts to the University’s mission.”
The increased support for the MFA students follows the recent launch of the Brown Arts Initiative, which aims to make Brown the primary destination for students who want to integrate the arts into a complete liberal arts education. The initiative integrates six academic departments and two programs at Brown — history of art and architecture; literary arts; modern culture and media; music; theater arts and performance studies; visual arts; the David Winton Bell Gallery; and Rites and Reason Theatre — and acts as a catalyzing force to bring together ideas, expertise, skills, spaces, partners and audiences to create new opportunities for student and faculty collaboration and experimentation in the arts.
“This change in funding coalesces with the larger vision of the Brown Arts Initiative, which supports experimental and engaged artists as part of its core mission,” Ybarra said. “It signals the idea that art-making, like arts scholarship, is a public good, and that as such it deserves to be supported as part of the mission of a research university.”