Friday, December 11, 2009


The conversation continues apace. I keep coming back to it because I think it's really getting into the heart of the matter and the question at hand: how does this system work?

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.

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?
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.

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?


Malachy Walsh said...

Please see my comment on your "Lies" post. It was meant for this post.

99 said...

Here's your post here:
I appreciate your take on the example.

From my experience skipping steps - ie, a script that goes directly to an AD or associate AD - is rarer than you suppose.

I've read for at least 2 large non-profit theaters known for producing new work in NY and on the West Coast - as well as a few Broadway producers. There were programs the managers at these houses had direct influence, indirect influence and no influence over.

What I saw was that ADs listened to what Lit Depts had to say, but rarely took direct action based on a reco from a lit manager - NOT that it doesn't happen. One way it did occur was if, say a lit manager picked a play for a reading series they had direct responsibility for, often the AD would come. If they, too, liked the play or were interested in the voice, further action may have been made.

But I have never personally seen a script get passed directly to an AD from a lit manager without the script having been read by at least two people - one of whom had to be a trusted reader and the other who was usually the lit manager.

And it really didn't matter whether the script was written by an MFA writer or not. If they liked it, they pushed it and tried to help the writer as much as possible.

ADs–who'd worked in theatre depts for years or run other theatres and who made it their business to see shows elsewhere–often had their own list of people they'd been waiting for years to produce.... and so, those people usually come first, whoever they may be.

While there are many things stacked against the new writer, it's easy to think that theatres are not on their side because we don't see what the theatre's are doing.

99 said...

Actually, in my experience, and it may have to do with the kind of theatres I've worked at, projects regularly jumped the line, sometimes on the basis of the support of a board member or another member of the community, but also because it came from the office of an agent and those were generally people from a feeder MFA program. If one of these scripts went to the lit manager, they went to the top of the pile, pushing down the other scripts. I have done this. I'm actually not supposing. I've been on the other side of the table and watched how it happens.

And that's not even talking about the leg-up exposure that the top MFA programs get. When a Julliard is having a reading series for its writers, lit managers get there. If they can't get there, they ask for the script and it goes to the top of the pile.

Like I said, the burden for the "approved" play is whether or not the staff likes it, or even more, whether or not they think their audiences will like it (or, in the case of some developmental theatres, whether or not they think it will have a future). For the uncredentialed play, it's judged more purely on the work, but mostly to decide if they like the writer and want to support the writer's future work. The bar is set higher.

I don't mean to imply that ALL plays from the feeders jumps the line EVERY time, but it's exceedingly rare for a play that ISN'T from a feeder to do any of this.

Malachy Walsh said...

My experience is definitely different from yours.

99 said...

Yeah, it seems so. Not all theatres, of course, operate the same way, and have the same spirit or attitude. But the numbers seem to suggest that there is some direct career benefit that the MFA grads are getting, which is obvious, but at what expense?

Malachy Walsh said...

I have a very hard time believing that education is a bad thing.

And I find it quite disheartening that so many are so quick to suggest that it is.

At the same time, I'm certainly glad to be informed by so many that I'm jumping ahead of everyone because I went out and got an education.

I realize that all sounds "snarky" but it's a much more earnest set of thoughts than you might think.

99 said...

I guess it all depends on how you want to define education. If having a piece of paper (and I want to reiterate I have that piece of paper, so this isn't just some kneejerk reaction against it) is the definition of getting an education, that's one thing. But shouldn't writing plays and doing productions and focusing on your craft that way count for the same thing?

I think all of us who are complaining against the system aren't arguing against education or furthering your work or career, but against a very narrow definition of "education" that's rapidly becoming the only path to success. And it's not even a guaranteed path.

I really want to stress that no one is saying that education isn't worth something or that spending two or three years in a graduate program is somehow worthless, or that it's an automatic golden ticket. Snarky comments or hyperbole or whatnot aside, the concern is that we're all of us stuck in a system based on inequality.

Malachy Walsh said...

Sorry, but the more we talk about this, the less I understand this so-called inequality.

I mean, I get why someone would skip grad school, especially an expensive one, but that's their choice and choice is not a case of inequality. They've decided not to put their effort there. Complaining about the doors that open for those who put in the time, the commitment and more sounds like something else.

But from the content of your reply, I wonder what you think people do at these schools. Do you think they sit around, choosing paper stock for their certificate?

No, they're spending 50, 60 hours a week writing and thinking about plays and spending another 30-40 hours a week working on productions. At least. They don't sleep much and they regularly get comments from people who have devoted their lives to these crafts and are recognized leaders in the field.

For 3 years.

The more we discuss this, the more I understand exactly why a lit manager with 2 scripts, each from a different writer, would read the MFA penned work first, whatever program they got it from.

99 said...

I'm actually trying not to take this to the place you seem to want it to go: everybody angry at everybody else. But it's hard.

Basically, you're saying that going to grad school is the best, and probably only path to making someone a successful writer, that anyone who can't afford the debt, or the time off of work, or needs to feed a child or support a spouse or parent should basically not even bother with trying to be a playwright in their spare time because, well, they just don't want it enough. They're lazy and shiftless and just not bred to be a playwright. These are the undertones of what you're saying.

NO ONE IS SAYING THAT PEOPLE WHO GET GRADUATE DEGREES ARE COASTING THROUGH LIFE. And I'm sorry if I seem insufficiently respectful of your hard, hard struggle and very difficult life. Can I please again, one more time, re-iterate that I HAVE AN MFA. I did the 50-60 hours of writing, pulled the all-nighters, got the feedback from leaders in the field. But you know what? I didn't go to one of the "good" grad schools. So I had to work to get noticed, get attention. I don't care if you feel pity for my poor plight, I'm just saying, NO ONE IS SAYING THAT IT'S NOT WORK. I hope you're hearing my outside voice here. You're creating arguments and straw men and dispatching them passionately. But, at the end of the day, you're saying you deserve your privilege. That you've earned it. When did you earn it? Did you earn it in grad school? Did you earn it before grad school? I mean, you didn't coast through life before grad school twiddling your thumbs, right? The people who applied to grad school at the same time as you, they were all just not as good and should have given up then, yes? Because, since they couldn't put in the 50-60 hours, and get the feedback of the leaders in the field, well, their plays couldn't possibly be as good as yours, now could they?

I could understand if you were arguing that the privilege is overstated, or that it didn't exist. But you're saying it does and it's earned and anyone who doesn't think that's right should shut up.

See, now I am angry. win.

malachy walsh said...

Maybe you should be angry. I don't know.

But obviously I see the argument you're making here - and others are making - is that these so-called programs don't really mean anything.

And shouldn't mean anything to anyone because for some reason that's unfair to those who didn't go through the programs.

That's a negation of what goes on in the programs.

99 said...

Malachy, I don't have a setting higher than all caps, so I don't know how you're obviously seeing something that I keep trying to highlight. But I will try again: NO ONE IS ARGUING THAT AN MFA IS WORTHLESS, USELESS, NOT WORK, NOT A GOOD THING IN AND OF ITSELF!!! I hope that is clear enough for you. Again, I HAVE ONE. I WENT INTO DEBT FOR IT. I obviously think it has some value. But we're not talking about the platonic ideal of whether having two or three years to work on your craft and receive feedback is worth $60K or not. The actual argument is whether or not $60K (or $100K or even $35K) should be the price of admission into the realm of professional playwriting. This conversation would move forward if you would engage on that topic, as opposed to saying that I am (and others are) making arguments that we're not making.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to not forget the psycho test. A playwright's work is NOT done once it's on the page. There are some brilliant plays out there written by people who have never been in production and behave inappropriately when they're in that kind of environment. Part of the reason that I think there are a higher number of MFA's scripts moving up is that the MFA functions as a quick 'n dirty vetting process that certifies that the playwright - hopefully - won't be completely batshit insane.

Hell, a few folks I went to grad school with STILL don't pass the psycho test, and they've been produced!