Malachy Walsh has joined in and makes a perfect example:
You're a lit manager. And you accept un-agented scripts. You get scripts by 2 different writers you don't know and haven't heard of. Both are young and well spoken in their letters, have productions at small but unknown (to you) theatres but one mentions that they've recently finished the program at Brown.We all know the answer to that question. The argument is whether or not that's a good thing. I know some what folks would answer.
Now you know that that person had to apply to Brown - a process that you know requires some effort, got accepted there, and has gotten 3 years of committed exposure to a known group of theatre professionals.
Now which one of these scripts will you read first?
I think that Malachy is skipping steps, given the way it actually works. The script from Brown is not only read first, it jumps a level or two. By the time that script crosses a lit manager's desk, chances are they've heard the name, even been invited to a reading or seen one. The other script, from someone who slogged away outside of the system, just as hard and wrote just as good a play, that one is by someone no one knows. So it drops to the bottom of the slush pile and get handed to an intern or volunteer reader. The Brown play goes to the lit manager, or even over his/her head, to an Associate Artistic Director or even the A.D. directly.
In both of their comments, Adam and Malachy say that the important thing is whether or not the lit manager or other staff members like the play. That's absolutely true. The end product is what matters. We all know that not every playwright who comes out of a grad program is of equal skill. If the staff doesn't like it, they get the same rejection letters as everyone else. But for the uncredentialed, there's a different calculation: is this good? Malachy has it exactly right: the assumption is that, because someone got into one of these programs, they've already gone through a rigorous selection process. Even if they spent their time there resisting all of the advice given and didn't actually grow or learn anything (yeah, it's possible), they're still assumed to be good already. And bypass the lower levels.
The uncredential play has to prove its worth and it proves its worth with the bottom rung of deciders, often the least experienced, certainly the least influential gatekeepers in the system. Plus the assumption is that those plays are not good. That's how even the open admissions systems are built. Full plays are rarely read. The first pass readers are encouraged to whittle the slush pile down and look only for exceptional plays. I mean, out of this world good, knock your socks off good, jaw-droppingly good. And that just means that it moves up to the literary manager. If the play is flawed, but the voice is strong, maybe, just maybe, they get a meeting. Chances are, they just get a form letter back, eight months later.
I know all of this because that's what I did, what I've done. It's what happens in literary departments all the way around.
Malachy is very, very right: these programs have turned out a high number of excellent playwrights. They have history, a track record, a legacy. They're run by big-name playwrights and directors. If a theatre treats one of their grads roughly, they're going to hear it, and they might miss out on the next big thing. So there's an element of self-interest in the attention paid to their grads.
Again, none of this is actually news. The question is its worth and its causes. Aren't more voices better than less? Isn't more playwrights finding an audience better than fewer? Shouldn't that be the goal?
I want to bring up the idea of feeder schools. I think this is a more apt description of what's going on. The seven schools mentioned in the the TDF study are currently "on top," but not all of them have been for that long and some others might already be gaining on them. It's the whole class of things and there are levels going back from there, undergrads, summer programs, even high schools that are part of the system. Public or private, in the end, it doesn't matter.
Things get dicey when you start talking about whether or not the writers in the feeders are better. I'm trying not to wade into those choppy waters. Others can. All I want to say is to second what Scott's saying: we're rapidly setting up a caste system. If you're in the right track, you stay there. If you're out, you're out. How can that be good?