Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Lottery, Part 1: A Dollar and a Dream

Well, now that we've put one controversy to bed, I might as well try to stir up another one. For funsies.

No, seriously, I think there's still some merit in talking about paths to diversity and the nature of our business. A while back, silentnic@knight posted this comment over at Freeman's place:
Statistics show that the Lotto sells best in poor neighborhoods. Tom and Scott are trying to sell the exact same as a viable option for the disenfranchised in theatre. Both are theatre educators. They would be rightly ridiculed at any faculty meeting if they proposed this notion. So why they allow themselves to propose the same in the theatrosphere is a puzzle. Similarly Tom proposes we read the anonymous comment hosted by the anonymous blogger competing with two other anonymous kibitzers in the comment section of an anonymous blog post and to accept what is said as fact without any added scrutiny or concern. Again, is this the research an educator would have students practice? So it’s puzzle to me why this is acceptable to the discussion here.
(Links added and one small sentence cut out for clarity; otherwise unedited or altered.)

This struck me because I was having the exact same thoughts and planning to post about them, but in the exact opposite way: I feel like the folks arguing in favor of the status quo are the poor people who fight to keep the lottery going. At the very least, Scott's big wacky idea makes it more explicit and quite a bit fairer, since it allows more people to play.

I can hear the pushback already about quality, hard work, talent rising to the top and whatnot. I know, I know, you worked hard, we all worked hard. In the end, though, it all comes down to some odd quirk of fate. It's even more than who you know, or who knows you, though that adds to it. Really, in the best of all possible worlds, without some way to minimize or eliminate the effect of cronyism and group think (Aaron Riccio has a great post on that up right now), it's just as much of a lottery as Scott is suggesting. In fact, just like Scott's lottery, some plays and some playwrights have extra chits in the kitty, chits marked "grad school" and "theatricality" and "unit set." No selection process is without rubrics. The question is always how you get your chit in there.

One of my longtime obsessions here on this blog has been the lies and assumptions and illusions we tell ourselves about the nature of our business. I think they should be confronted and discussed. The idea that it's a meritocracy is one of them. (As a sidelight, this book is the best book I ever read about the myth of the American meritocracy, written, ironically, by the son of the guy who came up with the term.)

Despite the words of insiders like this commenter, or Zak Berkman's pretty revealing and surprisingly candid comment here, we still hold onto this idea. So much that if someone upsets the apple cart before the big wheel comes around to our number, we get very, very upset. It's unfair!, we cry out, You're cheating! When the whole system is the cheat. We think that talent or sanity or something that we can possess will bring it around. It's just another chit in the kitty, though.

I thought up a kind of thought experiment about it, along the lines of the old Goofus and Gallant cartoons from back in the day. You remember them, don't you? But I don't want to tip the balance, so let's go with something more neutral (sort of): Good Guy and Good Girl.

The Good Guy comes from humble beginnings, but catches the theatre bug early on. In between jobs and trying to stay in school, he writes his plays, reads plays, tries to see as much theatre as possible. He makes it into a good grad school, works hard there, works a job as well as doing his class load and writes the best plays he possibly can, with good, constructive feedback from excellent teachers. When it's done, he sends it along to a theatre with a great cover letter from a professor.

The Good Girl comes from a privileged background, but catches the theatre bug early on. With her parents' financial support, she goes to theatre camps and receives training from Broadway-level professionals. She goes to an elite undergrad with a great theatre program, cuts her teeth working all night putting up shows, deals in professional environments. When it's done, she interns in a major theatre, makes connections, friends, contacts. She writes the best play she can, gets into a top grad school, gets instruction from the best teachers and playwrights in the field. She writes hard and works at her craft there, and when she finishes, has a great play on her hands and sends it to the people at the theatre she interned at.

Both plays land on the desk of the artistic director the same day, one right after the other. Which one gets the nod?

Good Guy? Good Girl? Or the latest thing with a great review in the Times that shows up an hour later? Where does the big wheel land? And what hand spins it?

Maybe I'm being fatalistic. But I really do think it's all kind of a crap shoot. Not even. It's a lottery. But the balancing factors aren't race, class, culture, and they aren't in any way standardized. And maybe they shouldn't be. I can accept that, honestly. But then we need to be more honest about it and let the cult of "quality" as a standard thing go.

In part 2, I'll talk some more about what's going into the kitty right now.


joshcon80 said...

I'm sorry to go all pinko socialist but, um, I'm a pinko socialist. I'm also on cold medicine, so I'll use that as an excuse if I seem crazy.

That said, who on god's green earth thinks we live in a meritocracy? I want to smack this person. I've said it before and I'll say it again, what's true of EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE is also true of the theater. A few people have everything, everybody else has nothing, and for the most part we all end up exactly where we started.

There are entire mechanisms in place that protect privilege. The Ivy Leagues, as one example, have long been one of the tools that the elite have used to protect their privilege and pass it on to their broods. How is this suddenly not true of playwriting?

I wrote about this on my blog, it got reposted on Parabasis, and people treated me like I had a swastika carved into my forehead for even suggesting that rich kids have an unfair advantage in the industry. God, what an asshole I am! Everybody knows that Yale and Brown etc are crammed with poor people from trailer parks and the inner city.

Sorry to rant. I'm just so sick of people pretending that all is fair and just when that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Ugh. That's it. Happy Holidays.

99 said...

Preach on, brother, preach on. And I am a former card-carrying socialist, so I'm right there with you.

Ironically, the guy who invented the term "meritocracy" invented it sarcastically to argue that such thing could never exist. And then we go and act like it does.

Advantage breeds advantage and that's the story of America. Thankfully, there are ways to game the system and move up, inch by inch. At least I gotta believe that.

Jack Worthing said...

I'm also sick of being told I wear blazers with gold buttons and talk like Wm. F. Buckley just because I managed to rise above where I came from and do well for myself. I got where I am on the strength of my work. Have I accumulated friends in my life? Yes. But when I was less of a nobody, no credits, nothing, my work opened the door. I'm not the biggest success in the world but for this business, I've done better than most. Daddy didn't make any phone calls, and he didn't endow a chair. He was too busy breaking his ass at a job, just like I was. I went to school with people from backgrounds a lot worse than mine. Meet them sometime. It's not a secret society, for heaven's sake. Yes, the institutional theatre leans on these programs too hard. But as far as who gets in there? Quit being insulting and hysterical.

joshcon80 said...

Jack, I didn't insinuate anything about you or anybody else. I'm sure that there are people such as yourself who got into these schools by sheer hard work and determination. But you know as well as I do that there are lots and lots of other people who didn't. One only need to look at our last president to see the effect that money and an Ivy League legacy can have on one's future.

It's not hysterical to point out that there are mechanisms in place to protect privilege and that these schools are a part of that. There is, and they are. That's as clear as day to anybody with eyes.

I honestly don't know why you are so sensitive about your education. You earned it, yes? I'm not trying to take that from you. I'm merely pointing out that life is unfair. That's hardly a radical idea.