Over at Freeman's place, Matthew and the Prof get into a good discussion about the whole MFA mess. They raise, as many have, the spectre of class in the discussion and it's well-warranted. It's certainly something I believe wholeheartedly. And the intertwining of class and privilege and economics is certainly a huge part of the morass that theatres face. I wanted to throw another thing into the pot, though. Fear.
So many theatres operate from a place of fear. Back when we got the first glimpses of this study, one of the things that came up was that most theatres are one failure away from closing. This warps your thinking. I've talked about the bunker mentality and that reigns supreme.
The Great Seven MFA programs have one big thing going for me: an aura of success. Not just of good playwriting or important voices, but of successful playwrights coming out of them. They are the "best" programs with "rigorous" admissions policies and the "top" teachers. For an artistic director who really has only slot to take a flyer on, and it's not even a real flyer, these calculations factor in. Freeman, in his comments linked above, quotes Scalia saying he's only going to take a clerk from the "right" school. What lets Scalia sleep at night (and something other than heavy duty tranquilizer has to) is that he believes that the students at those schools are better. Right or wrong, when a play comes across an AD's desk with the stamp of approval from Yale or Brown or Julliard, they breathe a sigh of relief. "Someone else thinks this is good, so I'm taking less of a chance." Same goes for agents, literary managers, you name it. It's the same reason why when something makes a splash in England, theatres are lining up to get it over here. Someone else took a chance and it turned out okay.
A study I'd like to see is whether or not that holds true at all. Are the success rates better, actually, in terms of reviews, box office, audience response? I think a lot of us out here in the blogosphere want to puncture the aura of invulnerability that cloaks the Great Seven, but a study like this actually bolsters it: in a way, it says the successful playwrights come from these programs. Which must mean that they're good. I don't think that's what anyone intends, but I think it will reinforce the thinking, in private, far more than in public. That thinking will perpetuate the system.
But if we can get out into the world that, despite the name, you have an equal shot at a successful play coming from a non-Great Seven person, well, then that's what we call leveling the playing field.