Friday, December 11, 2009

Assume A Ladder*

The conversation I mentioned here has continued and expanded, especially with the last comment posted from Adam Szymkowicz, all-around good guy and very excellent writer. His post highlights an very important part of this discussion. To quote, at a little bit of length:
Having studied at 2 of those 7, I can tell you, they are ivory towers, yes. But as Malachy points out correctly, not everybody there was rich and Malachy and I were in the same class at Columbia and write very very differently from each other and from the others in our class.


Also it should be said, each of these 7 are churning out 4-10 people a year. Very few of these playwrights are part of the national conversation. So the homogenization you refer to is only among those that you've heard of. The successful ones may have picked up the same tricks. But also, the tricks may be why they are successful. Part of grad school is seeing and reading lots of theater and learning what is already going on across the country.
This is all unbelievably, importantly and unerringly true: not everyone who goes to these schools are from the upper classes, or walk out with a free ride into fame and fortune, not all are turned into whimsy-writing automatons who sneer at naturalism, only concerned with the problems of the upper class audiences they entertain. That is a truth.

It is also true that, as The Prof points out in a very excellent, long post, many of them have enjoyed subtle privileges that don't seem apparent, and, as the upcoming study appears to show, the graduates from those programs enjoy career benefits and favoritism and that favoritism appears to come at the expense of other playwrights, who, while talented, don't have the pedigree to get in the door.

Both of these things are true. Both matter. And I think we can still have this discussion holding both of these things in our minds.

What becomes frustrating for all when class enters the picture and enters the story is that it becomes personal. In the same way in the old realism vs. experimentalism battles, it becomes personal. I think Adam's perspective is incredibly useful and important and should be reminder to all that it's not actually about the playwrights themselves. If I start talking about how much our financial system sucks, is unfair and tilted towards a bunch of rich, fat cat i-bankers who are getting rich off of all of us poor people, The Wall Street Journal or the New York Times can trot out a dozen hard-working men and women from meager beginnings who have worked hard, try to play fair and don't deserve to be strung up by their thumbs until we get our $700 billion back. Personalizing this discussion takes the focus away from the problem: an unfair system. Systems are made up of people, righteous people who behave in perfectly human and understandable ways, but, in the end, it's the system that's the problem.

Adam is totally right: we're talking about a grand, whopping total of maybe 50 playwrights, maybe 100. Out of...Lord knows how many. The real problem is that there are 4 slots available for young playwrights. And the demands of our system of theatre-making mean there have to be gate-keepers and shibboleths at every step of the way. If you don't have the right password, in the immortal words of a certain wizard, you shall not pass. And sometimes, even if you do, you're not getting by.

I'm in a similar boat as Adam; I went to grad school. I got my MFA, not from one of the Great Seven, but from a school that in the next couple of years might just make it into their ranks. I'm saddled with mind-numbing debt. My MFA hasn't given me a good teaching position. I have a day job and bills just like most of the playwrights I know. A playwriting friend of mine, who was considering grad school at the same time as me, opted out, didn't go and has a demonstrably better career than I do. There are a lot of factors that lead us both to the place where we are. But one of them is the system, the standard model, the way theatre is being made in America right now. That's the matter of concern.

The playwrights who scrimped, saved, worked and bled to go to those schools to get an education aren't too blame. The playwrights who couldn't aren't a bunch of bitter also-rans, having a pity party, though, either. It's a system that's skewed and disproportionate and out of whack that's the issue. Making assumptions about either side doesn't move the conversation forward. I just wanted to say that now, before we get bogged down in imaginary fights.

*Cf. (I changed the link here because the other one was...well, nuts.)


Scott Walters said...

You hit the nail on the head, 99: it is the system that is the problem, and we first need to acknowledge that the system is unfair and doesn't serve the art form well. Yes, it does become personal, because nobody likes to have to acknowledge they were the beneficiary of the system. That is why the concept of white privilege or male privilege is so difficult to discuss as well. Many of us feel as we we've had to struggle and work incredibly hard, and to be told that we had a headstart because of our race/class/sex annoys the hell out of us. If you read, for instance, Peggy McIntosh's "White Privelege: Unpacking Invisible Knapsack" (, you can see how a system privileges in many subtle ways. This is one. Nobody is saying that those who attended the Big 7 programs lack talent or haven't worked hard for what they've done; what is being said is that access is important, centralization limits access, and what looks like merit has an underlying class bias.

joshcon80 said...

Thanks for this. I too often forget not to make sweeping assumptions about people.

That said, I think there are lots of things people can do to stop this. Playwrights can stop going to these programs. Or, like I suggested earlier, playwrights could simply say they have an MFA even though they don't until the MFA no longer means anything. It was a joke, but... hell, why not? Theater companies who support emerging writers could add "no mfa" clauses the way that The Public doesn't take writers with agents in its group. ADs/Lit Managers could start seeing indie shows when they want fresh blood.

There's lots that can be done!

99 said...

I think, in terms of fixing/replacing the system, that more pressure applied to the theatres would help. Again, I don't think it's the programs that are the problem in and of themselves. Training is training and it's all good and necessary and good and there is actually (as I'm sure Scott would attest) a lot of training and different kinds of training already available. The problem is that ADs and Lit Managers see the 7 as a seal of approval. That's what needs to change. Honestly, that's why I dig the automatic MFA idea. Quick and easy playing field leveling...

Adam said...

Again, speaking for myself, I can tell you Juilliard has helped me a lot careerwise. At the same time, my career is not where I want it to be.

Having a good agent is just as important if not more important than an MFA. Also having the right play at the right time and old fashioned luck.

But I know for a fact I have benefited from Juilliard and from being a white male. Although from where I'm standing, a lot of the developmental stuff doesn't come my way at this stage because I'm a white male. I'm not talking productions. But prizes and fellowships and development. Which I totally get. I think my work is pretty fucking great but at the end of the day if it's between me and someone non-white and you love both of our work, you got to support them instead of me. Because the white males have been and will be all over everything. That doesn't stop me from being pissed I didn't get the award or whatever, but I do get it.

Now how I ended up writing for an African American sitcom for the past 5 months, I remain mystified, but I'm pretty sure I got the job despite being white, not because of it.

joshcon80 said...

Adam, I'm sure Juilliard and Columbia didn't hurt your prospects though. Just saying.

99 said...

I do love our glorious American tradition of white writers for African-American entertainment. I think Chris Rock poked fun at that a couple of times. But if there's any white guy I want writing a black sitcom, it's you!

Kidding aside, the whole agent thing is exactly right on and exactly part of the system, maybe even a more significant part of the system. In a way, they're the real gate-keepers and intermediaries and are rarely talked about. When I had a sort-of agent for about six months, I immediately got a reading at a big summer festival. Once my kind-of agent dropped out of the biz, my phone stopped ringing. I know that agents look to the big 7 for the next big thing and that advantage, more than any other, is what creates the gap.

I will say, as an African-American artist, that if you're taking production off the table, yeah, minority artists do pretty well. But once you put production back on the table, that advantage dries up pretty quickly. All things being equal, a good play about love and life by a white writer is more likely to get produced than a good play about love and life by a black writer. A play about race by a black writer is more likely to get produced, but it will still get produced less than the good play about love and life. This isn't to compare sorrows, but just to say, privilege is pernicious and this is one of the ways it hurts the work.

Scott Walters said...

And what I hear is that an MFA is one way through the door to an agent, and having an MFA from a Big 7 opens that door a lot faster. We can kick the can down the road as much as we want, but the system creates a privileged class, and it needs to be acknowledged and condemned.

And by the way, I don't think anybody is arguing that the training at the Big 7 isn't good, or that being at one doesn't help your career. That's not the point.