After the Department of Education criticized the debt loads in January, the institute halted admissions for a year — and then, last month, extended the freeze to three years. Some students and alumni worry that the resulting notoriety will sully the institute’s name and the value of their degrees. In a recent letter to institute leaders, the A.R.T. Institute Alumni Association also expressed a lack of confidence in Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, who oversees the institute and is a prominent Broadway director.
The troubles have cast a spotlight on little-seen difficulties and pressure that graduate acting students face, as well as a conundrum for Harvard officials. They have expressed great pride in the American Repertory Theater, Ms. Paulus and their Tony Award-winning shows like “Pippin,” yet they have done relatively little to address the financial or academic concerns of students in that theater’s graduate program.
Ms. Paulus, in a recent interview at the A.R.T., said that the three-year admissions hiatus will give the institute a chance to try to address three key areas: increasing financial aid for students; renovating facilities; and exploring the possibility of a master of fine arts degree with Harvard.
The alumni association’s letter accused Ms. Paulus and others of neglecting those three concerns. But she described them as longtime priorities of hers.
“It has always been my goal since the day I arrived nine years ago to pursue a fully funded M.F.A. with Harvard,” Ms. Paulus said.
Asked whether there had been pushback from Harvard over those years, Ms. Paulus said: “I can’t grant the M.F.A. I mean, you understand that. Harvard University has an enormous procedure for that, and we’ve reiterated our interest in that from the day I got here.” She added, “Harvard’s never granted an M.F.A., so it’s a process.”
While many top universities grant master of fine arts degrees, Harvard has long resisted creating them. When Robert Brustein, the founder of the American Repertory Theater and the institute, arrived at Harvard in 1980, he said the Harvard English Department wasn’t receptive.
“They told me, ‘We don’t give degrees in butchery, so why would we give one in acting?’” he recalled, though he declined to name names.
Notable alumni of the A.R.T. Institute include the playwright and actress Katori Hall, who said she still owes tens of thousands of dollars in loans, as well as Jon Bernthal (“Baby Driver”) and Steve Zahn (“War for the Planet of the Apes”).
In 2008, a Harvard task force on the arts endorsed the creation of master of fine arts degrees, particularly through the institute. Scott Zigler, the institute’s director, said the 2008 financial crisis led Harvard officials to hold off on some sizable initiatives like the degrees. None have been created, but there is an undergraduate concentration called “Theater, Dance & Media” that began in 2015.
A Harvard spokeswoman declined to make administrators available to answer questions about the master’s degrees and the institute. Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities at Harvard, issued a statement in which he expressed support for Ms. Paulus. He wrote, “Pausing the Institute will enable Ms. Paulus and her colleagues at the A.R.T. and elsewhere at Harvard to consider new and creative ways to support our shared pursuit of the dramatic arts.”
The institute’s relationship with Harvard is convoluted, which some students say is a cause of their frustrations. The institute is housed within American Repertory Theater, but from 1999 to 2016, students were granted master of fine arts degrees through Moscow Art Theater School, where they do a three-month residency. Starting with the class that graduated in 2017, however, students are being granted a master of liberal arts degree through the Harvard Extension School, a division that also includes open-access online courses like “Masterpieces of World Literature.”
With the exception of a small fund that distributes scholarships, institute students are not eligible for financial aid grants through Harvard. Me’Lisa Sellers, who will graduate in 2018 with roughly $135,000 in debt, said that she once went to a Harvard financial aid office in desperation. She recalled that an employee there asked her, “And this is a Harvard program?”
Institute students are given Harvard IDs and can live in Harvard graduate housing. But when one current student, Shawn Jain, went to join a campus gym, workers at the front desk had to look deep into the computer system to find him. Mr. Jain and Ms. Sellers also said they were initially denied access to discounted transit passes because they were told that they had to be administered through Harvard’s 13 schools, and the institute didn’t count. Though they were eventually given passes, it contributed to Mr. Jain’s sense of being a second-class citizen at Harvard.
“I feel like we’re the stepchild that no one really wants,” Mr. Jain said.
The 13 current students and alumni interviewed for this article emphasized the high quality of their theater training, the institution’s excellent faculty and the unique opportunities they have in their residency in Russia. As for their frustrations about the loan debt and the degrees, some put the blame on Ms. Paulus. Under her leadership, the A.R.T. has been involved in artistically ambitious and experimental theater as well as new, commercially popular productions like the musicals “Waitress” that she staged here and later on Broadway. The letter from the alumni association contended that Ms. Paulus had shown “little respect or interest” in the institute.
Ms. Paulus rejected claims, made by students as well as Mr. Brustein, the founder, that she was preoccupied with directing for Broadway, and pointed to the A.R.T.’s many productions that do not transfer to New York.
“Every show we do is about our nonprofit mission to expand the boundaries of theater and talk about how theater can galvanize compassionate citizenry in America, and that is what drives my vision,” Ms. Paulus said. She also said that she spends about half her time raising money, for the A.R.T. and the institute, and emphasized that she is committed to restarting admissions in three years.
Of the high student debt, she said, “I feel the real question here is how artists make a living in America, and this points to the underlying issue of how the arts are valued in America, in a transactional capitalist economy.”
Several alumni said they took responsibility for the debt they found themselves in, acknowledging that they were aware of the institute’s costs and paucity of aid but still chose to enroll.
“We all went into it knowing how much it cost,” said Natalie Battistone, who graduated from the institute in 2015. “I went into this knowing that I would have this large amount of education debt to pay off.”
Ms. Donohue described being starry-eyed when she enrolled.
“I was 21, and it was like, this is it, this is my dream,” she said. “I remember thinking: O.K., if this is what I’m supposed to do, sign me up. So I’m the jerk in a way.”
Still, Ms. Donohue wonders why Harvard and the institute haven’t done more to support students and alumni. The institute long provided students who applied for aid with roughly $2,500 per year, which did little to dent the estimated tuition of $63,370 over two years, not to mention living expenses. There was an uptick in financial aid for the class of 2018 in the coming year, but the institute declined to provide specifics. Graduate acting programs elsewhere offer a range of fellowships, grants and scholarships.
Ms. Donohue foresees this financial burden hanging over her head for years to come.
“You immediately graduate and are handed the bill, and it’s like, good luck, you better book something huge and if you don’t, you’re never going to survive in this industry,” she said. “If you want to have a family or a house or kids, this will be hanging around your neck, and you really might need to do something else.”
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