Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Quality Dodge

The Prof's big idea got some tongues a-wagging. The conversation has been...interesting. And apparently focused on the question of quality. It's the thing that often bedevils these questions about diversifying our field.

Let me leave aside the implication that we're talking about the bad ideas of affirmative action and the implicit assumption that work from outside the mainstream system will necessarily be of lower quality. That's annoying and offensive enough. I'm having the most trouble with the circular logic of the argument.

When we were talking about the MFA system and the barriers it puts up to diversity, the counter-argument came that MFA programs were important for quality control (see Anonymous' comment here). The "elite" schools, went the argument, were places where serious, talented playwrights went to learn their craft and become better playwrights and they should be considered before a playwright who didn't because they were objectively better. The MFA was a seal of approval as a good playwright, some folks argued. Their hard work shouldn't be held against them because it produced objectively better plays. (Malachy Walsh, yes, I'm looking at you.)

But now that Scott is suggested that there is a standard level of "good play," an objective barrier, now the same folks are saying that saying there's an objective level of good is antithetical to artistry. You can't say that plays are all equal or can be measured objectively and therefore Scott's idea of using a lottery to pick your season is art-killing and mechanical.

So...plays from an MFA are objectively better than plays by non-MFA playwrights, except there is no objective measure of playwriting and you shouldn't treat plays as equal.

Huh. It's almost as though they don't want to surrender any part of their privilege, isn't it?

Like Isaac's rhetorical, theoretical idea about suing theatres, I don't necessarily think Scott's idea is practicable, but it does show us some of the implicit problems and assumptions in the way we select plays for production. Let's just be clear: as far as I can tell, that's what Scott is talking about. The way we pick plays for production. Which is already about two steps away from random. It's just random within a very small set of plays and playwrights.

One of the nice, tidy little lies we tell ourselves is that literary managers are out there, making decisions about which plays are being produced based solely on their personal tastes. That's only true for a small group of theatres. A lot of the major theatres, the ones less interested in new plays, are programming based on an already complicated rubric, one that involves whatever got the best recent review in the NY Times. Basically a lottery in and of itself.

What about the question of quality?, you ask. What about it? I'm sorry, I missed the memo where theatres only produce perfect plays. Did that suddenly happen? Sometimes you set out to produce a play and it turns out well. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you think it turns out well and no one else does. There's always an element of chance in what we do. A while back, Don Hall quoted a Broadway producer who said, in essence, "If I'd produced all the plays I didn't and didn't produce the plays I did, the outcome would have been the same." Theatres pass on plays that go on to great success all the time. What's the fear? In fact, it takes some of the pressure off. A theatre spends three or five years developing one play, putting it through its reading/workshops/studio production paces, finds summer development programs to host it, raises money and then finally, after all of that, it's a dud. Now you can just say, "Well, that's the play the barrel turned out. Next one might be better."

Why not embrace the randomness, the chance and oddness of what we do? By arguing that there isn't some objective standard of what's good or not, but insisting that the theatres act as though there is, leads us down the same path we're on. And that one isn't going anywhere.

It's an extreme solution, yeah, but what else do you suggest?

(slight update for clarity)


joshcon80 said...

I just read a lot of the counter arguments again.

This is some Ayn Rand shit.

99 said...

That's a good word for it. Or to paraphrase another great American poet: I got mine and don't worry about his.

Anonymous said...

OK, so here's a little true confessions moment under the coward's cover of anonymity. The whole system of reading plays and lit managers is b.s. You think I'm some sort of gatekeeper? A quality control enforcer? Not even close. Here's the real deal: Most lit offices are swamped with plays. 400? 600? 800? 1000 a year? I've heard all ranges from my peers. Newsflash: I don't read all those plays. The scripts are read by volunteers and interns. They have no special training for reading plays. They have an interest, they mostly have solid educations, and they have time. Now I love my crew. And I couldn't function without them. But. I'm just saying. The gatekeepers of the system have nothing close to the training adequate to their authority. And yes, they are mostly young, mostly white, mostly from backgrounds of privilege that allows them this much time for reading plays for free (or close to it). And most have very big gaps in their knowledge of theater.

Yes, I eventually read some of them-- if the first reader says "hey- you should consider this". But for the most part I've got my hands full with the rest of the job of lit manager and read very few plays that come in the mail. I read things my Artistic Director, Associate Artistic Director, and even my Managing Director drop on my desk, but these so-called open submits? A very small percentage of them. And the things those three drop on me generally come from their own colleagues-- some agents, mostly other AD's or AAD's and commercial producers (who seem to have more adventuresome tastes than the other colleagues at the moment). So I'm no gatekeeper. Nor am I really a quality enforcer. I am an expediter--like the role in a kitchen where the person tells everyone how many things are on order and when to expect to see the food come up. That person rarely actually cooks anything anymore. That's me. Triage. And research. And data entry. Sure, I say my piece about the things I read and pass them up the chain. Rarely do I simply pass on something outright, especially if it comes from one of the bosses. From the volunteer and interns, yes-- but they've already done the gatekeeping. I don't have anything close to the time I'd need to make sure they weren't missing something. I'm doing the fulfillment part- making sure a timely letter goes out on these hundreds of plays I haven't read. If they hate it, I write a polite letter about how the play doesn't fit our needs. And never do I get to greenlight anything. And for what it's worth, every one of the readers would recognize the theater I work for as one of the majors. We've made some contributions to the canon. You see me at your new works festivals and conferences and you generally think I'm doing a good job. And I feel that I am. I'm just not doing the job you think I am, or that the stories would have you believe I am.

Is this the way I want to do it? Not really. But right now there's not an alternative on the table. Or is there and I've missed the memo?

Anonymous said...

You might be misreading what other people are saying about how an MFA works, how it's viewed by others, fits into the "system" and what it might mean.

Honestly, it appears like you're saying commitment through a program should have no logical weight to it.

Anonymous said...

And the long winded ANON above points out why a demonstrated commitment through a program does carry weight.

99 said...

Both (or all three Anon's): Thank you for sharing, even under the "coward's" cover. I think this conversation can't actually move forward without your contributions and I plan to put move the long-winded up to the front page. Because your experience is totally germane to the questions at hand and is exactly the experience I've been trying to describe and explain. I apologize to all and sundry for the easy shorthand of "gatekeepers," or for making it sound like I think you're a bunch of lazy snobs sucking the lifeblood off the American theatre. When I sat in your chair, I felt the same way. I watched the same conversations happen and did many of the same things. And yes, in order to talk about it, I've put on the "coward's cover of anonymity." Because otherwise, it's pretty hard to tell folks the truth. I appreciate you doing so.

99 said...

To the second Anon: in all of my various comments, I've really, really tried to make sure it was as clear as possible that I'm not talking about the MFA as a degree or as training. I went out and got one because I wanted to be a better writer and there are ways in which it made me a better writer. That's not really the point I'm talking about. In fact, what I'm saying in this post is that when we turn the conversation to quality, we lose the thread and it becomes about the individual writer and their individual gifts or life story. The goal here is to talk about a larger thing, where a system that precludes some people from joining becomes a replacement for pure quality.

Forgive the sports metaphor, but was Josh Gibson qualitatively a worse hitter than Babe Ruth? Was he a worse hitter than Jackie Robinson? When we're looking at system that, in one way or another, creates an inequity, we have to look past pure quality and look at the big picture.

I don't think this conversation would happening, or at least that it wouldn't be happening in the same way, if the TDF study didn't say that the majority of playwrights with MFAs came from 7 seven school. If just having an MFA was the key access point, it would be bad, but it wouldn't be that bad. That it comes down to 7 seven schools, and several of them are among the elite schools...if we want a representative theatre we have to figure out a way to open that up.

Justin Alexander said...

The Minnesota Fringe Festival selects its material entirely by lottery. This is not exactly analogous to the solution proposed for a couple of reasons:

(1) There is absolutely no screening for a "minimum level of quality", so there is a significant number of completely craptacular shows that make it into the festival.

(2) The Festival doesn't pay the development costs for the individual works. (This is why they can afford to skip screening for quality.)

(3) The Festival presents more than 160 productions (800+ performances) over the course of 10 days. (This means that the pool is large enough to make it statistically viable in a way that doesn't work for a single theater.)

Basically, the Minnesota Fringe Festival makes it work by creating a massive free market of theater where anybody can compete for an audience. The model wouldn't work for a smaller theater company producing 6 to 12 shows sequentially.

The "minimum quality threshold" solves that problem to some extent, but I'm not sure it actually solves the problem of diversity: You are, after all, narrowing your pool using the exact same biases you were using to narrow it before. The fact that you're narrowing it slightly less than you did before and then choosing randomly doesn't remove the bias.

The lottery system also creates its own host of problems, since it completely ignores other factors that go into selecting a script:

- What actors are available?
- What budget can be afforded?
- What is the balance of shows that make up a season?
- Is it material that the creative staff is going to feel passionate about?

Anon inadvertently suggests a better solution to the problem: Proactively choose to reach out and establish a more diverse selection of first readers. If the bias is coming from your gatekeepers, work to eliminate the bias in your gatekeepers.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Alexander pretty much outlines the problem with diversity by "chance."