Sunday, December 13, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Privilege (or the Confessions of a Self-Hating MFA)

These conversations can get really, really frustrating really, really quickly. But I think it's extremely invaluable for us to be talking about it. That's the reason I keep coming back to it. I took a look at the NEA Audience Survey and the breakdown of audience members you can find on pages 22 and 23 and it's all pretty bleak. Take a look and you can see that the numbers support the general fears: the audience for plays skews heavily towards the older, whiter and wealthier. It's pretty unavoidable and it seems to be progressing. (The participation numbers are really fascinating, and worth a post of their own.)

So if that the audience we're serving, and the feedback we're getting and I think it does relate to the conversation about the system that we've set up and that's also growing apace: there is a rising bar to joining the conversation as a playwright. David Dower has posted four quotes and a link to Diane Ragsdale's overview of the Mellon Foundation's New Play Initiative. Right on the first page is a money quote for this whole conversation:
Too few artistic directors, too few Master’s playwriting programs, and too few critics function as gatekeepers for the entire system—thus, a relatively small number of playwrights inevitably receive the vast majority of commissions and production opportunities. Because too much rides on the success or failure of each new play, many excellent plays die with their premieres, and many good works are not given the opportunity to continue to evolve and improve. Fear of alienating subscribers, critics, and donors leads many to produce “do-no-harm” seasons, which lack artistic or regional distinction. And, at some theaters, commissions, readings, workshops, and new play development programs have become a way to reduce the risks associated with producing new work; these close the gates while appearing to hold them open. They do not provide authentic paths to full production or serve as tools for nurturing and investing in playwrights.
That's really it in a nutshell. I've stressed this in every comment I've made and every post I've written: I'm not saying that a degree is useless or worthless or an empty piece of paper or that everyone who went to these programs has had an easy life of it. But we have a system where, increasingly, having an MFA is the price of admission and it comes with a big price tag and that limits the people who can participate which limits the voices heard which the audiences they attract. Which actually perpetuates the system, since it means the number of slots available remain small, which means a gatekeeper is required and empowered. The issue is access, not the idea of education or formal education.

In this long and excellent post, The Prof breaks down a thought experiment similar to what Malcolm Gladwell does in Outliers. Everyone should rush out and read that book. You may not agree with all of his opinions and ideas, but it's got a ton of great things in it. (A side-note: isn't it interesting that Malcolm Gladwell's book on marketing techniques and how to manipulate them was everywhere, but this one isn't. Anyhoo...) One of the nuggets that gets around is the 10,000 hour rule, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert in something. What gets left out that discussion is the obvious thing: it takes a hell of a long time to amass 10,000 hours. Malachy throws out the idea that someone in an MFA program is spending 50-60 hours a week working on their craft, so, if it's a three year program, at the end of it, they come out just shy. Which makes sense. But if someone starts a theatre company right out of college, puts $60-70K into it, at the end of three years, chances are they've come pretty close, too. It's about the time, not the place, ultimately.

But time is money. For most people in this country, they have to find a way to afford rent, food, clothes, skittles and beer. That cuts into the time you have to pursue your art. Time to spend pursing the arts is where privilege kicks in. Time not spent directly making money to survive is a privilege in this country. It's hard to see, but it's there.

When the word "privilege" comes up in this conversation, amongst people who are, by and large, not coming from the upper classes, it carries this stink. In the minds of most people, it means coming from serious money, living a life of ease and having an entitled attitude about it. It's the old saw about George W. Bush being born on third, but acting like he hit a triple. It's galling and angering and totally out of place in this discussion. When I think about privilege, I'm thinking something akin to the classic invisible backpack of white privilege. There are subtle, hard to see advantages that don't fit into our standard thinking about privilege. But they are key to understanding what's going on and how it functions and how, hopefully, we can change it and make our field stronger.

I'm keenly aware of the limitations I put on myself as an anonymous blogger. I've been kicking around "outing" myself lately, but I'm still not sure about it. One of the limitations that crops up, especially in conversations like these, is the natural suspicion. I'm someone on the internet. I could be anyone, I can make any claim I want and it's unsupportable and unassailable because you don't know who I am. But I want to give this sense of privilege some context and my experience does that. I'm not going to tell you my name, but I'm going to tell you my story using as many details as I feel comfortable. Anyone who's met me will probably be able to figure it out, if they haven't already, and some savvy person can probably find me on the internet somewhere. If you do, you do. This is important enough to me to risk it. So here goes.

The last line in my bio is always "a proud product of the New York/New Jersey public education systems." And I am. I added the word "proud" when my stepmother objected, saying it sounded like I was some kind of thing, just a "product." But I am. And I still have experienced a lot of privileges that other public school students haven't.

I was born in Brooklyn in the early seventies and lived there until I was 10. I went to standard NYC public schools. The classes were pretty big. The textbooks were pretty beat up. The teachers were overworked. My parents divorced when I was about 1, so I shuttled back and forth between single parent households. My parents weren't rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but they were solidly middle-class. Especially my mother, who had a stable family home, owned outright by my grandfather (a union organizer). My father worked as hospital technician. They both had a love of reading and instilled that in me. My father worked hard, working nights and weekends so he could spend time with my brother and I. My mother went to Medgar Evers College, studied poetry. It's worth noting that she was living at home for a lot of this time, with an extended family. She did wind up on public assistance for a while, too. But reading and writing were a part of my life from early on.

I was a bright, hard-working student, and wound up in an accelerated program at P.S. 45 in Bushwick. I was with a mix of Latino and black students, primarily. I was living with my mother at the time, had her at home to support me with homework help when I got home, and she was really involved in my schoolwork and life (she wound up going back to school and working in the public school system). My older brother, with similar support, wound up in an advanced arts school, studying fine art. We had a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother at home, helping take care of us. But there were limits to where our education in the NYC school system in 1983 could take us.

So my dad moved us to a small, predominantly white town in North Jersey, located in one of the wealthiest counties in America. He'd remarried, we relocated and I went to the local public school. While I'd been at the top of my class in Brooklyn, I fell to the middle of the pack in New Jersey. I was up against kids who'd had professional tutors, better resources, even more support than I'd had. But I also had more opportunities. I took an improv workshop. My town had a summer theatre program, all offered either free or at minimal cost. These programs didn't exist in Bushwick. These opportunities didn't exist. Before moving to New Jersey, theatre wasn't a part of my life, and wouldn't likely have been, and certainly wasn't at the same age. So my 10,000 hour clock starts ticking at 10.

When I got to high school, I was writing short stories, taking advantage of a well-stocked library, reading well, and still, as bright and hard-working as I was, I was not even in the top third of my class. I joined the school's theatre company and over the next four years, I was in at least two plays a year. The drama club had a good budget, did high-quality work. The teacher who led the club was ostensibly an English teacher, but his one English class? Senior year, and it was one semester of creative writing and one semester of drama. The town was (and is) wealthy and, although my family wasn't particularly wealthy, I benefited from the town's resources.

My father, having worked for nearly fifteen years as an hourly worker, had risen to a very comfortable wage, but my stepmother still worked as well. She still managed to be home for me when I got back from school, and they both were able to help me with my school work. My dad's wages were enough, though, that I didn't need to work. I didn't have to choose between being in a play and going to an afterschool job. (Well, once I did. And I quit that job, bagging groceries at Grand Union. With my parents' blessing.) My parents supported and prioritized my love of arts, reading, and theatre.

So my 10,000 hour clock just keeps ticking, adding up three hours of rehearsal afterschool, for a straight play and a musical every year (well, except the year they did The Diary of Anne Frank. I'm still bitter I didn't get to play the old man. I gave a hell of an audition...), learning how both how to act, but also how to be professional, how rehearsals are supposed to go, experiencing theatre from the ground up.

All of this occured in a public school. A very good public school, but public school nonetheless.

When I was ready to graduate, college was an assumption. My brother went, to an exclusive arts academy in the city. Incidentally, he got into that school, not on the basis of his grades, which were not his strong suit, but his talent. And the recommendation of a very respected artist who happened to be the father of our half-sister. A similarly talented student with similarly bad grades, but no recommendation wouldn't have made it.

I wanted to go to the University of Oregon (a public school), but it was too expensive. My parents were doing well, but not that well, but, more importantly, they wanted to be able to pay for my education outright and not leave me saddled with a lot of debt at the start of my adult life. So I went to a SUNY. Not the fancy conservatory, but the liberal arts college with a strong arts program. While it was a fairly big school, it wasn't a university center and the theatre program, where I wound up, was pretty small, so I got a fair amount of attention. As an undergrad, I had a number of plays read, workshopped and produced. Still the 10,000 hours are counting down.

But it wasn't an elite school, so I didn't walk out with connections to theatres or grad programs. I just moved to New York and started all over again. By then, though, my parents had left suburban New Jersey and moved to the city, so I could stay with them as I found work, got my legs underneath me. Through a friend from undergrad, I found a job that was flexible and understanding about my life as a playwright. I was able to add an internship. But not a premiere internship, one that's 40 hours a week and pays nothing or a small stipend. So it wasn't at a "top level" theatre with connections to the "top level" grad schools. Still, I learned a lot, worked a lot, and made the connections that would get my professional life started. That professional life led me to my grad school, which wasn't one of the "top level" ones. I applied to several in the New York area, wanting to stay close to home and to the connections I'd made, but only got into two. One, ironically, was one of the feeder schools. One wasn't. I chose the other one, not being aware that it would matter in ways beyond the work itself. But it was also the one that would allow me to work my day job at the same time, to keep myself afloat. But at the end, I was saddled with six-figure debt and very few ways of paying it off, other than having a day job. That's about where my privilege runs out.

These are the ways privilege informs and affects us. I worked hard, I did the work. My parents sacrificed and saved and did tons to benefit me. And I am grateful. But I also acknowledge that I didn't do it alone and that other people, the kids from my class at P.S. 45 way, way back when, didn't have those opportunities to build up their 10,000 hours. Talent isn't all. Hard work isn't even all. To coin a cliche, it really does take a village to make a playwright. A lucky, lucky village.

I don't think MFAs should be abolished or eliminated. I don't think they're worthless. But I do think the role they play in the system of making theatre that we're developing should be examined. And we have to talk about privilege in order to do that. It's funny: when we talk about why minority audiences don't come to theatre, we're all very comfortable talking about content and affirmative action and engagement. When we talk about why poorer people don't attend theatre, we leave our comfort zone as soon as we stop talking about lower ticket prices. But what's on the stages and who it's by and for also matter.

My deep, abiding, straight-guy man-crush on the work of Josh Conkel is well-established, but this post does a lot of the heavy lifting of my long babbling here. Read that and ask yourself if having an MFA should be the price of admission to the life of the professional playwright.


Tony Adams said...

For what it's worth, I think the counter argument may be that a few playwrights have lacked MFA's in playwrighting like: Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner, Tracy Letts--for starters.

So if we have gotten to the point that they wouldn't have careers if they were starting out now for lack of one . . . we are in trouble.

joshcon80 said...

Tony, I've often made the point that Paula Vogel may not have gotten to the point where she is if she were coming up in the system she now helps run.

Kate said...

I agree that the landscape has changed a lot, and I don't mean to quibble but I wanted to throw in: Tony Kushner does have an MFA-- or at least some graduate study, I'm not sure if he graduated. He trained as a director.

Tony Adams said...

Kushner has an MFA in directing from NYU.