Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

This isn't Auld Lang Syne, but it'll do.

This has really been quite the year. On a snowy morning here in New York City, as I'm ready to head down to my day job for the last time this year, I'm thinking about 2009, about the last ten years, about a lot of things. Again, I want to thank all the commenters and linkers, fans and detractors, allies and antagonists for a great, great year. I've been stuck in a loop of depression, cynicism and pessimism for the last few months, but I'm feeling oddly optimistic about 2010. I'm sure it won't last, but as long as the snow is white and clean, the New Year's parties haven't started yet and my next work day is three days away, I'm going to hang onto that feeling.

There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year, indeed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quick Hits

I'm still on my holiday break. Honestly I am. I've popped up here and there, sure. But that's it. Well, except for this. I just have a couple of things to throw out there.

- I'm about shoulder-deep into Outrageous Fortune, the much-discussed TDF study on the state of American play making. It is basically everything you've heard and more and there will be MUCH discussion of it very soon. Until I get my act together, read responses from George Hunka and most excellent playwright Timothy Braun (for some reason, it's not letting me hyperlink to Tim's piece, so go here: Strong stuff.

- You know why I don't play poker with Scott Walters? He always ups the ante. And then he follows up. Some key quotes:
So the problem is: if we define quality in relativistic terms, we can't use it as an objective way to prefer one play over another; on the other hand, if we define quality objectively by referring to education, we cannot deny that access is limited (these elite programs accept only a few each year) the definition is ideological, and thus diversity is diminished.

Which is why I say: quality doesn't exist. As a pure, usable, non-ideological, objective concept quality doesn't exist.
Go read them both.

- Speaking of the Prof, I'd be remiss if I didn't congratulate him and the other theatre bloggers tagged by Chris Wilkinson in the Guardian as the top blogs of the year. I don't always agree with the folks listed, and I certainly read many of them as much as I should, but they certainly all make the blogosphere an interesting place.

- I've seen Avatar and have some thoughts to share and will, but no matter what you think of it, well, James Cameron is very, very icky. James Comtois shares some thoughts here.

- CultureFuture. That is all.

- In the comments here, RLewis and Thomas Garvey both manage to perfectly display fogeyism. Yep, videos on YouTube and Seinfeld couldn't possibly have any effect on a person or be influential in their life. Only great, important works of art that are generally fifty years old do that.

Okay, I'm out the door again. See ya once the new year's hangover wears off.

Monday, December 28, 2009

From The Journals of Ian Thal...

...Comes a modest proposal. I dropped some thoughts in the comments.

Breaking with Tradition

I have an unfortunate habit of announcing a break or slow down in the blogging, followed immediately by a burst of posting. As we motor around the bend on 2009, I'm trying to break some bad habits and start new ones. This will hopefully be the beginning of a new habit.

So expect intermittent posting, if that, until next Monday. Really. Honest. I swear.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy X-mas

This is my favorite Christmas song. Okay, second favorite.

It's been a great year here with all of you folks, even the ones who make my blood boil. Thank you all for the thoughts, comments, e-mails, digs, and pats on the back. All were warranted, earned, thoughtful and welcome.

Though it will be hard, since I have an addictive personality, I do intend to take a break for the last week of the year. We'll see how that goes. If I do actually do it, I'll see in the new year. If not...I'll be back next week. Either way, happy holidays and happy new year to you all.

The Lottery, Part 2: In It To Win It

I first learned of and met Sarah seven years ago through an actor friend who appeared in an early Wisconsin production of EURYDICE. And ever since then I have discovered that Sarah is a writer so beloved by the actors she's worked with - actors truly loyal and vocal in championing the work separate from their own personal participation in any reading or production -that she does possess a distinct advantage.


In Sarah's case - in large part this devotion has to do with a mutual understanding of the collaborative, communal nature of making and experiencing theatre. In fact, this appreciation and empathy is at the heart of her PASSION PLAY. So while her success may spark giddyness in some, envy in others, I hope this community and others don't miss out on applauding an artist whose own personal efforts are to engage and include rather than alienate.

That's from Zak Berkman's "nickel" comment here. Obviously, this comment ties into the ongoing discussions of privilege, MFAs, success and whether giving play selection over to a lottery system would be a step forward or back.

To start, I want to applaud Zak for throwing his nickel in the jar and saying his piece, publicly, for attribution. That's a kind of courage a lot of us lack (and I include myself, your humble anonymous blogger, in that). It's also something that happens so rarely in the NY part of the theatre blogosphere. I wish it would happen more, so I hope Zak isn't too upset by what I say here, or, if he is, he comes back to keep talking about it.

Part of the whole problem is that we, out here in the interwebs, are often on the "outside": outside of the system by choice, in some cases, with gnashing of teeth in others. Those on the inside, as I've mentioned before, tend to view us with a mixture of pity, distaste, wariness and condescension, but are generally too busy putting out fires to worry about some guy in his pajamas talking about arsonists. I think that leads us to some of the loggerheads we find ourselves at.

A lot of people heap scorn on the Prof's head for being, well, a prof, having a cushy university gig and not having to scramble out here to make a living in this crazy business called show. He openly acknowledges that he doesn't have the same concerns and doesn't approach the problems from the same place. On the balance, I think that's a good thing. We need academics, who aren't trying to get their plays written, produced, reviewed, to sit on the sidelines and try and see the bigger picture. We need outsiders to sometimes tell us what's actually happening on the inside.

To belabor a metaphor, as is my wont, and to fold in a great, awful movie, Scott is Robert DeNiro in Backdraft. There's a fire raging itself through the American theatre, burning away resources and opportunities. Most people who work in theatres are Kurt Russell, hard-driving, busting their asses against a kind of machinery as well as just trying to put out as many fires as possible. Then there's us, out here, a combination of writers and directors, but very few firemen and women. Maybe we're Billy Baldwin. Ugh. Maybe this metaphor sucks. Well, too late now. We're Billy Baldwin. We're firefighters at heart, in our blood, but we're also working to figure out why the hell these building keep blowing up and killing the poor kid from the Iron Eagle movies. (Backdraft AND Iron Eagle in one post? If I can get Con Air in, best post ever! Wait. I just did. Best. Post. Ever.) I'm not sure who's Scott Glenn here. Or Jennifer Jason Leigh (what the hell was she doing in that movie?). Regardless.

From where I sit (and I think close to where Scott sits), there is so much randomness, chance and unpredictability in how plays are chosen, when looked at from the outside. Here, on the inside, we seem to fall into two camps: The "It's all who you know" camp and the "It's all what you do" camp. The most cynical of us thinks that it's all connections and backroom deals and p.c. considerations and real talent is lost on the shoals of commercialism and liberal highmindedness. You know who those folks are. At the other end of the spectrum are the earnest, open-hearted people who think that it really is about the work, first and foremost, and doing hard work and committing to your vision and eventually, it'll break your way or you'll find your natural level. A great many of us cycle between those two depending on how many rejection letters we've gotten recently or what show we just saw.

I really did love this post from Freeman, even though I kind of disagree with it. His first paragraph is key:
I don't agree with Scott's provocative idea because I prefer choice over chance. If we stop trusting people to make real decisions, we give up on their ability to make good choices and grapple with complexity.
No matter what, here on the ground, we believe that there is some intelligence, some plan or pattern to it all. People are making decisions, even if we can't see them or hear from them, and they have their reasons. Sometimes we understand them, sometimes we don't. But there is somebody at the wheel.

What I find is one of the more spiritually troubling aspects of Scott's idea, as I've thought about it for a couple of days, is that, from a place a little away from the ground, it can actually look like there isn't much of a plan at all. That we're a few steps above a random lottery, with some plays and playwrights getting some extra chits in the kitty.

Look at Zak's quote. Now, granted, he's the Executive Director of a theatre that's about to produce a playwright and that particular thread had its issues, but do you notice that, nowhere in his comment, does he talk about Sarah's work, in and of itself? He doesn't say that he, or the other leaders of the theatre, were struck by her language or imagery or the power of her words. He talks about her commitment to theatre-making and the effect she has on her collaborators, but not her work. Maybe it was just an oversight, but I think it's a telling one.

Someone goes to a grad school program, meets some actors, works well with them. The actors head out into the world singing their praises. The chain of events that leads from there to actually being produced is long, broken and bizarre. One flip of the coin, one way or another, and it never happens. For want of a nail, right?

Chaos theory (or at least the bastardized versions I remember from Steven Spielberg movies) tells us that what seems like order can have chaos bubbling underneath it and what looks like chaos is underpinned by order. The same can be said of theatre. It's seems like a mad scramble, but there is some kind of order underneath it. It can also seem like a system that behaves by certain obvious rules, but those rules aren't fixed or dependable. Scott's big idea nudges this a bit further into the light.

For someone with no interest in acting ever in my life, I have an incredible amount of training it and I've done it a lot. I've sat through a lot of acting seminars and one of the big things they tell actors, especially in professional training sessions, is that you can never really tell why you get a job or don't, so don't beat yourself up. Go in, do your audition and then leave and let it go. You might get it, you might not and even if you do, you'll never really know why. How is that not like a lottery? Someone who walks in off the street with no training has almost the same chance as you do to win. Someone who didn't go to grad school, who never studied playwriting, could write a play, mail it to a producer and get produced. In the end, no matter what, the chances are the same.

Except that's a bit of a fiction, isn't it? It's something we tell ourselves to make it easier, to keep us off the ledge, or out of the bell tower, picking off literary managers with a high-powered rifle. The playing field isn't level. Some people are going in and buying more tickets, having more tickets handed to them. Maybe it's more like a raffle. Because, on the other side, when a play gets picked, they really have no idea what they're getting.

A couple of years back, I was commissioned by a theatre, along with a number of other writers. We wrote our plays and submitted them. Some were selected for production. Some weren't. Mine wasn't. When I asked the Associate Artistic Director why, he actually had a good answer for me and we had a good chat about it. But here's the thing: of the plays they produced, some did well. Some didn't. If they'd picked mine, would it have done well? I don't know. Neither do they. They had their reasons for not producing mine, but in the end, if they'd put all of the names of the playwrights in a hat and pulled four or five at random, I bet in the end, the average would be the same.

This whole conversation has ranged far, far afield and hit a lot of things. I know we're all, out here, a bit tired of it and over it. But I just wanted to say I think it's good. It's actually, I think, been productive. Frustrating, yes. Annoying and angering, sure. But it's a good thing. I am a fan of the talking cure, so take that with a grain of salt. Or an entire Elvis-shaped shaker of salt. Whatever floats your boat.

It's Christmas Eve, we're coming around the final turn on the year and a whole decade. Next year, there will be new outrages, new ideas, new stuff to talk about. I can't wait.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


As the year wraps up, I'm doing a little bit of mental housecleaning. I read about this little controversy a couple of months back, had some thoughts, but then I got distracted. As happens. But I did want to weigh on it.

I think Laura Parker was totally right. Albee is indeed an old fogey with outdated ideas about the way a playwright should be. If the interview he gave in Australia was in any way like the interview he gave at my grad school a while back, I can definitely imagine her walking away thinking, "Jeez. I'm not even sure this guy likes anyone in the world."

Just for shits and giggles, I think the same of David Mamet. A dinosaur, mucking around in the tar pits. Okay, a very, very successful and rich (well, maybe not so successful after all) dinosaur who will probably live a long time, but you get the picture.

Either way, I think they're both equally mired in old school thinking. And a fair dollop of just plain orneriness. Seriously. That Michael Riedel bit about the royalties for American Buffalo? Dude.

But onto Messr. Albee. He did indeed come to speak at my grad school when I was a student there and we all crowded into the hall to hear him. To give him his full credit, he is known as a teacher and he was gracious with his time and energies. It's just that, after an hour and a half with him, you didn't want to work in theatre at all.

I think one of the great, more modern advances in the general thinking about theatremaking is the idea that it's a collaborative art, that the play begins as a text, words on a page put there by one person's hand, but in the hall, it becomes something...else. Something more. More than the sum of its parts. There's been a lot of talk about the director's art and how to describe what a director brings to the table and it's all interesting, but this is all a relatively new development in theatre. I personally think it's a good thing.

But to hear Albee's all about the playwright. End of story. He's a big proponent of the Artist as Magician. When he spoke to us, he said that some people were playwrights, whether they write plays or not, and some people just aren't, no matter how many plays they write. It's just something intrinsic to their nature and no amount of training or craft will actually do them any good. Talking about his own plays, he said that he walks around, musing, going about his business and then, one day, finds himself "with play." Then he writes the whole thing down, leaving a few lines in so the director feels like he's doing something. No rewrites, no revisions. That's it.

I think that's really old school. And not in a good way.

There's a distinct difference between the situation that Laura found herself in here, and the situation Bruce Norris describes here, where the director is going completely off the reservation and refuses to actually collaborate. Collaboration should be the goal and when either side digs in their heels and doesn't want to play along, the whole waterworks falls apart. You might get a good play, a fine play even, but you can get a better one when you work together.

And speaking of working together, we have Messr. Mamet. Now, to be honest, when I think talkback, my skin crawls. To re-phrase the old joke about Hitler in New Haven, I'm pretty sure that wherever Hitler is right now, he's doing a talkback after a reading. Because he's in hell. Get it! Moving on. So I can see, if it was one of those things where you sit on the stage with a fake smile plastered on your face and you get asked why you made your characters so stupid, I would never want to do it either. But the way that it's described by Michael, it actually sounds pretty cool. It invites the audience into the experience in a new way. We don't just send people out into the bars to talk to just the people they came with, but to talk to other people in the audience, to hear differing opinions, connect with each other.

We want engaged audiences and audiences want to be engaged. They want forums and chat rooms and phone numbers to text to affect the outcome of the story. Giving them a little of that in the theatre could have changed the experience. Make it more of a two-way street. Instead Mamet opted for the old model: they're the passive receptor, I hold them captive for 80 mins., take their money and then let them go. All that's missing is the ransom note.

And I don't think there's anything wrong about calling them old fogeys for this stuff. And, yeah, I'm probably being ageist. And taking their words out of context and throwing it back in their face. What can I say? It's my house, y'all.

Like, Totally Awesome

This does triple duty for me. A) It obliquely allows me to pay some tribute to the latest dearly departed, B) Ta-Nehisi has some pretty great things to say about the portrayals of race, and C) I get to highlight a blogger that's new to me but saying some good things. So H/T Culturefuture.

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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If You See Something...

...say something, the MTA asks. And so I respond. I think this comment thread is all kinds of wrong. It starts off okay, but then, well, Thomas Garvey starts in and it takes a distinct turn for the worse and just gets worse and worse and worse.

I've thought about this all afternoon and thought about letting the whole thing just go and letting the parties hang themselves with their own words. But...I think there's been too much letting things go and not calling them what they are. And that thread is straight up sexist. By the end of it, they're basically saying that Sarah Ruhl is a sneaky, uppity bitch who has either somehow suckered the world into producing her or a completely incompetent writer who is receiving her accolades as some sort of affirmative action sop. Both are offensive.

The really funny part is that when folks like me, Isaac or Scott Walters talk about the MFA system providing writers a leg up, these are the same folks who leap out to say that MFAs are places where people go to learn their craft and shouldn't be assailed. But here they are, pillorying a high-profile grad as an affirmative action case, whose plays shouldn't be produced as widely because they're no good. As I've said before, it's a complete flip-flop dependent on who they want to trash.

But back to the thread, I'm in full agreement with jmdirexodus: the main charge of Art's post is she's a CAREERIST. And in full context, it reads like a slur. Again, it's just a synonym for uppity. Even the bulk of his comment is more about her interviews, which may or may not be her at her best, but not at all about her work.

She's "positioned herself to have a successful career"? How? By...being produced? By writing produceable plays? I mean, is she kneecapping other playwrights? Insisting that no one else ever be produced? I just don't understand the substance of the complaint.

Even Kris Vire's excuse is her ubiquity isn't much of a fig leaf over the sexism. I've never heard a complaint about a male playwright being ubiquitous. Not even Mamet, who just had two plays running on Broadway, and is the most produced living playwright in America. Not Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, who's been produced more this last season. Not Michael Hollinger, also produced more. Is Sarah Ruhl worse than all of those playwrights? Are her plays worse?

To be clear: I have my issues with some of her work, that's absolutely true. And I have lots of issues with a system that singles out one playwright as the new voice of a generation. Those are not the same things. I have issues with Sarah's plays, but that doesn't mean I can't see why someone else wouldn't. I don't pass myself off as some kind of arbiter of absolute goodness in playwriting. Is Sarah Ruhl the equivalent of other playwrights, older, more accomplished playwrights? That's not for me to say. I guess it's for these guys to weigh in on with absolute surety.

In my couple of years of reading these kind of threads, I've never seen these kind of attacks on a male playwright. Never. I know lots of people with issues about Chris Shinn's work or Adam Rapp's work and I have never seen a thread calling any of them a "fake," like some sort of con artist.

It's one thing to say that she's overrated, or overproduced, but those are issues for the theatres and the press, but they're not her fault. Acting otherwise just demeans the work we all do. And acting this way towards the highest profile female playwright working right now smacks of misogyny and sexism.

It's well known that Thomas Garvey and I don't see eye to eye. I don't know who Jack Worthing is, but we also have had our flare-ups. In general, I have respect for Art at The Mirror Up To Nature. But I think that entire thread is all off-base. And I think those three guys should be ashamed of themselves. I doubt they will be. But if I didn't say anything about it, I would go to bed ashamed. We shouldn't let things like this slide.

(Edited slightly for some spelling issues and clarity to remove one thing that, on further reflection, didn't quite jibe. Jack Worthing's reponse is in Isaac's comments.)

UPDATE: Make sure to check out the thread here and at Parabasis for some interesting additions and updates. For my part, I do want to make clear and reiterate that I don't think the individual commenters on the thread were or are sexist or misogynist, but that the conversation felt that way. See? Anonymous people on the internet can play nice.

Okay, then. Let's Talk About Race.

Read this. Now read this. (Not to mention this.) Now watch this:

Now. Let's have a little chat about diversity and the need for diversity in the arts.

I recently went to see a friend's show. Before I go further, I just want to say this: I liked it. I enjoyed the show, the performances, the whole shebang. Okay? Can you trust me on that? Thanks. Anyway. I go to see this show that is about race. No, it's not this. (Though what a lovely website you have, Mr. Mamet.) It was a small little show about the racial divide. And, in it, I saw a scene that practically made me roll my eyes out of my head. It's a scene we've all seen in every play, movie or TV show where a white person who "doesn't know black people" encounters a black person for the first time. The white person makes some offhand, casual remark with racial overtones. The black person (usually a male) responds, "...What?" Suddenly there's tension in the air. After a beat, the black guy smiles and says something along the lines of "Just kidding!" And we all have a laugh. But we all know that he wasn't kidding, that he was offended and in the climax of the play, there will be fisticuffs over it. It's a standard trope of plays written by white people about how they interact with black people.

Here's the thing: I've never, in my life, seen it happen. I've lived, as I've mentioned before, an exceedingly assimilated life. I'm very aware that I'm, generally, the only black person most of my white friends are close to, probably, in most cases, the only black person they really know. Since I was young, I was the first black person a lot of people have encountered. And, trust me, I've gotten almost all of the racially insensitive questions, remarks, observations. (Yes, I know my hair is just like steel wool, thank you very much. And no, I don't play ball.)

But this scenario, repeated over and over, I've never encountered. Usually, when I'm meeting a white person for the first time and they make an insensitive or bigoted remark, it's not casual. It doesn't slip out. It's part of a testing mechanism to see what my reaction is. And, in general, my reaction is to either get offended and make that known or get offended and let it slide for any number of reasons. I'm pretty sure that most of my assimilated black friends have similar calculations in their head. But this gotcha? Never seen it.

Granted, early on, I made a choice about the kind of person I would be in the world. Angry black men don't go far in this world, so I've generally opted for affable, easygoing. And people generally respond in kind. They may think and say some awful, horrible shit when I'm around the corner (and I bet they do), but they actually know better than to say it when I'm around. Even the most insensitive, obnoxious people I know know better.

But this scene...this scene is important, I think, to understanding what happens when a white person writes about black people. In Rob Weinert-Kendt's think piece about race on Broadway, he makes these observations:
With few exceptions, though, America's black playwrights write about race— when they choose to write about race at all—as it's lived within their own families and communities; precious few have chosen race relations as their main subject.
When white playwrights, on the other hand, write about race, they gravitate toward redemptive civil rights dramas, wary-friendship-between-the-colors buddy comedies, racial "problem" plays.
This, I think, sums up the Dances With Wolves/Avatar problem and leads us to the problem of why black people on TV are treated so poorly. In the Gotcha scene, the writer is setting us up with one central character trait for the black guy: he's an Angry Black Man With A Chip On His Shoulder, even if he's hiding it right now. It's the gun in the first act. We're just waiting for him to explode.

The white person may be insensitive, but he (or sometimes she) is insensitive out of inexperience and naivete. The Angry Black Person, though, is angry out of experience and needs to learn that this white person is different. And they almost always are, by the end of the play. The journey is all on the white person to learn about another person's experience and grow. The Angry Black Person, if they even survive, has only to learn some grudging respect for the newly enlightened white person and it's all good. Hell, half the time, the play or movie ends with the black person pulling the same Gotcha on someone else. The anger is always there.

When I was a kid, the only black kid in my class, we had a class discussion about race. And sure enough, I was being called on to defend all manners of bad behavior. One thing that still sticks with me was this one girl telling a story about how she tried to get on a bus and some black girl called her "Whitey" and told her to get out of her way. The white girl wanted me to explain why this girl would do that to her, when she hadn't done anything, and how wasn't that racism? And I did. I tried to explain that sometimes people have bad days and take it out on strangers. The girl wasn't having it. At that early age, I realized that for too many people, their brief interactions with people of other races were largely unpleasant and somewhat mysterious. We were all the other, moving through life according some bizarre, dream-logic that made no sense to a rational, young woman like her. Maybe that's when I opted for Nice Guy. I don't know. But I see this pattern repeat again and again.

Art is one of the places where we can have an effect on this. And we have. But too often it's the wrong effect. Think about your favorite show with a single black regular character. (Or even semi-regular.) What kind of person is that character? I'm betting they're either arrogant and talented or angry, talented and arrogant. They usually have escaped some urban hellhole to get where they are and are constantly throwing that in people's faces. Sure, they have a soft underbelly, but they're hard. And chances are, they're a subordinate to the main character. Maybe they're an equal in another department. Maybe. But if they are equals, they're rivals.

This happens because so many shows and movies and plays are written and conceived by white people. Honestly, it's not just because they don't have a lot of experience with black people or minorities, exactly. It's because, as white people, they're trying to fix a long history of doing wrong, I think. On some unconscious level, they're thinking, Maybe this play, this movie, this script can make a difference. That it's up to them to show that black people aren't all that bad. So to begin with, they kind of have to be all that bad.

This matters, though, because it affects the way people think and act in the real world. It affects the expectations of the real world. If people expect black people to be overly sensitive (as most black characters are), they don't want to hang around them for fear of an explosion. Hell, just thinking that sooner or later, this person is going to explode in a fit of Keeping It Real Gone Wrong, is reason enough to keep your distance.

We do have a chance to make things better, to make this a better world, but, in order to do that, we need more variety, more diversity, more voices. One of the great things about this novel is that it brings the world of the minority nerd to the forefront. We exist, just like y'all. It might be good for you to meet us.

When Freeman asks what I mean by diversity, it's my one place to get all racialist: I want more black people on stage, more black people in administrative positions, more black people in the house. To do that, we have to stop teaching black people that, deep down inside, they're all okay. They know that.

PS - I meant to say, H/T to the irreplaceable Josh Conkel for the HP video.

Quote of the Day

From the Prof:
The hammer must come from without, because we don't seem to be able to effectively wield it against ourselves. We need to be "encouraged" to follow our professed values. Seth Godin wrote in Tribes, "When you fall in love with a system you lose the ability to grow." That's where we're at right now. We have ignored our faith in order to follow our religion, i.e., our institutional system.

Tom Loughlin was right yesterday when he posted the clip from Northern Lights and noted "the demographics of the audience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if theatre like this existed across the United States in communities from coast to coast?" Indeed, it would. And it would be wonderful if the plays they were watching had a connection to their culture, their place, their sense of being. But as long as we are fearful about stepping outside the system, as long as there is no negative ramifications for staying comfortably inside the box, we don't seem to be capable of doing the right thing.
In the comments at his place, I followed it up with this, one of my favorite quotes ever:
Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
That's Reinhold Niebuhr. It sums up a lot of how I feel about life. So that's two quotes for the price of one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Love The Playa...

...Hate the game, as joshcon quotes so eloquently in the comments here. It's been a bit of a flurry back and forth around here this afternoon, but I just wanted to remind people that we as human being can hold two different, somewhat contradictory thoughts in our heads at the same time: it is possible to recognize that the way theatre is made in this country, particularly at the top levels, is calcifying into a system that that is becoming monochromatic, less integrated, and more tilted towards the wealthier classes and that part of that system is the cronyism, elitism and moribund thinking of our institutions AND that great, wonderful, talented and awesome people work within that system, many trying to change it from within, some profiting from it, some being as harmed as anyone on the outside. Both things can be true, are indeed true. I certainly don't begrudge anyone making a living, making art, doing the work that they feel comfortable or happy doing or making decisions to further their career and their art. If anything, I want to expand those numbers, have more people contributing in more ways. I think that's a noble goal. Maybe you don't. That's okay.

Theatre in this country is in trouble. Maybe not in as much trouble as some other art forms. (H/T Isaac and others.) But we are in trouble. The current way of doing things isn't fixing it. What's wrong with looking for some other way?

The Insider's View

From the comments below. I thought this was worthy of its own posting. An anonymous reader writes:
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?

More Things to Agree With

Matt Freeman edition. He lays it down.

Things I Agree With Wholeheartedly...

...and intend to discuss as well. Sooner or later.

Parabasis edition.

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)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Grist for Isaac's mill...

I wonder if this could be applied to this? I wonder...

Three Parties

This is the season for parties. Every theatre, organization, company, you name it, is throwing a holiday/Christmas/Solstice bash and inviting all and sundry. They're sometimes good times, sometimes a chore, sometimes even exciting and full of drama. That's why we love 'em. Well, that and the free booze and vittles. Nothing beats a good cheese spread and a plastic cup of cheap wine.

In the last week or so, I've gone to three parties hosted by three different theatres, two on the same day. In light of the ongoing discussions of diversity and community, what I saw there was in ways interesting, a bit encouraging and definitely noteworthy. So I figured I'd share my observations with you all.

The first fete was actually not a holiday party; it was a benefit for a company I've worked with as a staff person. I volunteered to help out, because I'm a nice fella and because I want them to produce my work someday. The name of the game, right? I figured I'd give them a couple of hours, do a little gladhanding, remind them that I exist and score some free eats. I should have known better. Those people worked my ass, for about eight hours, especially at the end. Most of the event staff was made up of former interns, all largely doing the same thing I was, but all were about ten years younger. Old folks like me shouldn't be up at midnight on a school night lugging boxes down the back stairs of a fancy banquet hall.

This was a big gala benefit for a company that's a bit known for, not to put too fine a point on it, starfucking. Having worked there, I can say that accusation is both true and not true. Yes, it's true that they lean towards finding "name" people for parts and have traditionally done so, but it's never (or very rarely) at the expense of finding good people. They don't produce a lot and want to get a lot of bang for the buck, so...stars of stage and film with some theatre cred get the nod. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes, yeah, less so. But it's genuine starfucking, if that's a term.

Benefits are really board events and the board of this theatre is fairly high-powered. Big Broadway producers and dealmakers. Yeah, they tend to use this theatre as a place to try out works on the (sort of) cheap. That's part of their business model. Like most other theatres, the other part is the one, big, gala benefit that pays for the bulk of your season. You rent out a big fancy hall, get the whole thing catered like a wedding, your board invites their fanciest friends, whether or not they've ever set foot in your theatre and you throw a party and ask people for money. A lot of money.

This benefit featured auctions: a silent auction and a live auction, with a real, live auctioneer from Sotheby's or something. The things auctioned off were high-end watches and cigar humidors, trips to Italy, set visits on hit TV shows, all donated by board members and friends who have things like villas in Italy and produce hit TV shows. Nice work if you can get it.

The crowd was dotted with recognizable stars, stars of TV shows and movies. There were photo ops a-plenty. Hell, I was even a bit starstruck and I'd worked with some of these folks before. It was glamorous and it was supposed to be. Looking around the room, the attendees were almost uniformly white, with a median age around 55 or 60. A lot of couples, a few single ladies, very few single men. I worked with this theatre for a couple of years and I'd never seen the majority of these people at any shows. But I gathered that many had attended galas like this one before.

The staff working the event, like I said, was mostly former interns and staff members. I knocked the median age up quite a bit. They were mostly in their early twenties, it was mostly women, and almost all white. Most of what we did was invisible, in support of the event. They did feed us, nicely, but the opportunities to meet the attendees, talk to them about the company or theatre were limited. When it was over, they left with their gift baskets, all smiles, having had a nice meal, flowing booze, and the warm feeling of supporting the arts.

A couple of days later, I was at a holiday party, hosted by a developmental theatre, another one I'd worked at. Needless to say, it was a very different affair. It had, obviously, a different ostensible purpose, of course: it was a party. No admission, no auctions, no money changing hands. It was catered, really, but there was food, provided by the theatre. It wasn't a fundraising opportunity, but many, many board members and funders were there, mixing and mingling with the staff and the artists. It was HUGE. Really. A shit-ton of people packed into the space. Loud, hot and sweaty. Like a party. Because it really was a party.

Here, the median age was about 45, roughly. The largest clump of people were artists between 30 and 40, I'd say, playwrights, actors, directors. The racial mix was pretty diverse. Still, though, the funders were primarily white and older and the artists were diverse and younger, but the spread wasn't quite as pronounced. We all circled around each other as the staff schmoozed both the funders and the artists. The main goal was to make sure everyone had a good time and felt welcome. And we did.

This crowd was a Who's Who of indie theatre in New York. Artistic directors of small, upcoming companies and some established homes for new work bounced off of Obie-Award winners and emerging playwrights. It was a business crowd, even amongst the fun. Everyone was talking about their last project, their current project, their next project. Someone asked me, "How's the work?" I launched into a bit of a diatribe about my current day job and my frustration with it. She looked at me blankly until I said, "Well, at least I have time to write." "Oh," she said, "that's what I meant by 'work.'" It was that kind of crowd. The people there were moving solidly into the prime of their careers and the room felt like it. There was a buzz there, a palpable buzz. Okay, the free flowing beer and decent wine helped. But also the atmosphere of the place itself. As a developmental theatre, it doesn't produce. Instead it really does just develop, and provide a place for writers and artists to explore and grow without the pressures of production. It's a rare thing in this field and people love it for that.

Then I left that party to head over the holiday party at the theatre that's my artistic home. I'd already run into a number of people headed for the same party, but we all said the same thing: "We're waiting to head up there because there won't be a lot of food and we want the old fogies to head home." A bit tongue-in-cheek...but largely true. This party was a "potluck," i.e. everyone brings the cheapest thing they can in the hopes that someone else bring something better. You see the logical flaw there.

And sure enough, there were some nice hors d'oeuvres, good cheese plates, but no real food. Plenty of booze and still some old folks left. It's a membership theatre with an aging membership, so that's be expected. The median at this party was hard to figure out, though, since there were two distinct clumps of people: 50 and up and 30 and down. Not a lot in the middle. The older crowd were the longtime members. The younger crowd was largely made up of staff, interns, some actors and a young playwrights group that's a part of the theatre. There wasn't a lot of mingling between the groups. When I got there, the younger folks were pushing for louder music and the start of the dancing, while the older folks had arrayed themselves in the theatre, and wanted to keep talking. Again, this crowd was almost entirely white (I was one of a couple of flecks of pepper in the sugar bowl) and on balance more women than men. The conversations were generally small talk-y, some catching up with people, some sharing stories. This group, for all of its dysfunction (or maybe because of it) functions more like a family, so it was more like a family reunion than a work party. I didn't see any board members or funders, just artists and friends and significant others.

Like a family, this theatre is often a hotbed of tension and simmering resentments, and this party was no different. There always seems to be some malcontented faction somewhere, skulking about and glaring at their rivals. Sometimes that's me. This time, I had had a couple of beers and was well into a good mood. Or at least a mood for some dancing. I joined the ranks of the youth movement and agitated to get the Christmas music off and drop some good danceable music. Eventually, it happened. The alterkochers shuffled off (largely...some hearty souls remained), the Beyonce and Prince started and the groove was attained. By then, the crowd had given way almost entirely to the under-30 set, finally ready to do their thing on the stage. I might have hung for longer, but someone had busted out the cheap bourbon and before I knew it, it was time to go home. Before I did something regrettable. The place was still jumping when I bundled up and went back out into the cold.

This was a thoroughly, utterly and totally non-scientific and subjective study, but it does seem to come close to the kind of demographics you see in the NEA study that just came out. Again, not much of a surprise, but still it's always interesting to see it in actual life. I'm sure there are other parties you've attended lately. Who's been at those parties? What have they been like? We're in a social business and the social side is just as important as the business. This is the season of parties. Who are you seeing gathered around the cheese plate?

Another County Heard From...

Another regional voice weighs in. In the interest of full disclosure, I know Paul and worked on some of his work when he was in New York. He's good people, a firebrand and a heck of a writer. I'm eager to hear his thoughts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Million Little Cosa Nostras

In this post and this post, Isaac gets into some interesting areas. I'm particularly interested in the last paragraph here:
In other words, what's going to help them launch this thing is social relationships. And how do they come to have these relationships? They travel in the right circles. They know the right people. They live in the right places. This young good looking guy is now talking about how he ran into The Boss in an elevator. Class affects these social relationships. The more social a business is, the more likely class networks are to dominate it.
And theatre is the ultimate in social businesses. I started me thinking about the flip side of the whole MFA debate and the obstacles to achieving more diversity and the fact that sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes.

We build networks, make connections and, one of the things I and others of us have railed about out here on the interwebs, we should be nurturing these connections into communities. Communities are a good thing. We want them, we need them, and our theatres depend on them. But there's the other side of it: communities, by their nature, are exclusive. Even the most inclusive of communities can't take everyone. More on that shortly.

So in the conversations about the MFA feeder system kicking around, those who speak in defense of grad school talk a lot about the time to work and the access to excellent teachers, which is definitely part of the attraction and the benefit. But there's another aspect that grad schools use to attract students: their alumni. Showcasing the alumni is one way of showing success, but it also highlights a resource available to the students. Alums will generally take meetings, give advice, and certainly provide opportunities. That's part of how the feeder system works.

It certainly worked that way for me. When I came to New York, I interned at a theatre. When it was time for grad school, I applied to a school where the entire playwriting faculty were members of that theatre. I'm sure that my association with that theatre helped with my admission. When I graduated, I wound up working at that theatre and over the next couple of years, introduced a lot of the people I went to grad school with to that theatre. Some are still associated. Not to mention that one of my co-workers wound up attending the same school, largely due to the influence of a playwright who we worked with on a project. That's how things happen.

The thing is, we all know it. It's not even an open secret. It's even in Wikipedia: The Purchase Mafia. You can hear about Brown mafias, Julliard mafias, you name a school, there's a mafia. Oh, they'll call it an alumni network or some other gussified term, but it's a mafia: a closed circle that acts in a shadowy manner, works to further its own ends, and is only available to small segments of the populace. Pure RICO, folks.

And it's true at all levels. Here in New York, there are all of these overlapping circles. When you get in with one, you go around and around. You may get out, you may not. But one gig will lead to another and that will lead to another. People who like working with you will hire you again and recommend you for other gigs. You meet their friends and colleagues and it goes on like that. Before you know it, you've joined a community.

But this is the thing: it's supposed to be good. It's supposed to be that way. You go to undergrad or grad school, you work with people, figure out common ground, shorthand, a shared vision. You build on that, working together, giving each other opportunities. You build a community. That's good, right? Isn't that good?

But when you read posts like this, it gets frustrating. Because the social networks trump the work. Communities, as much as we need them, are part of the impediment to diversification, of all kinds. I've seen it in my own life. You connect with some people and build a community. You attract other people, and soon you're all rowing in the same direction. Then more people want in. If you bring them on, sooner or later, they'll want to row somewhere else. (To belabor the metaphor.) Sometimes people are happy to hop in a dinghy and head off on their own, but more often, they want to stay with the boat. The mission creeps, and it gets harder and harder to add new people, new voices to the mix.

Mafias protect their own and protect their own interest. And the line between healthy community and mafia is pretty thin.

I'm certainly not advocating ending communities or forcing people to never work with people they like again. But the good things we do and encourage can have unintended consequences.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Agree and Disagree

I ran into Josh at one of many holiday parties last night that the conversation that had begun primarily focused on talking about racial diversity had morphed into a conversation largely about class diversity. Obviously both are important to discuss. I happen to think they're intimately intertwined and we actually learn a lot simply by the way we talk about class and the assumptions that inform the conversation.

Isaac brings the topic back around with this list of conversation-starters. Each one could spawn a blog of its own. Since I already have one, I'm just going to bite off a little bit and take up one of Isaac's hot button issues: suing theatres for workplace discrimination. I agree with a lot, well, let's be honest, most of what Isaac has to say, but I think this particular idea is a bit off the mark, but in a useful way to discuss and in a way that ties into our thinking about diversity and class.

Some folks seem to get the vapors when someone brings up the idea of suing a theatre, because, I guess, they're poor and struggling and therefore don't have to do the right thing. Whatever. That's not why I think this kind of suit would be hard to bring and especially hard to win.

To stick with Isaac's clarification, I'm going to take off my "playwright" hat and put on my "theatre administrator" hat and focus, as much as I can, on staffing and infrastructure and not on programming. In Isaac's parlance, we're talking about intracompany diversity.

In my time, I've applied for many a theatre job, at various levels, gotten some, missed out on others. At no time, in all honesty, have I ever felt like my race came into play in a negative way. If I'm being absolutely honest, I'd have to say that once or twice, it probably helped a bit. Not that I got those jobs, but I was a more attractive candidate because of my race. I'll also say that, as in most of my life, my race was probably a surprise more than once. I have a "mainstream" name, no traces of an accent in my over-educated voice, my resume is not dotted with very racially specific positions. Now, I also have to say that I'm pretty much a poster child for the thoroughly assimilated negro, so I don't have a very sensitive radar to that kind of thing. But I think that many other black theatre professionals would have similar experiences. I'm EXTREMELY open to being contradicted on this, so feel free to comment, e-mail or whatever any contradictory examples.

Suing an individual theatre for a specific job would require a fairly precise set of circumstances: two candidates of relatively equal work histories, experience and education. Or a theatre that had regularly and systematically rejected minority candidates at several levels, if not all levels. On the second point, most theatres would be pretty adept at making the case that they hadn't rejected minority candidates using every actor they'd ever hired. No matter how lily-white a theatre is, some black folks have to cross their stage sooner or later, even just in a reading. Those stats, as they say, can be juked, at least enough to pass a smell test.

Theatres are also, in general, staffed and run by highly educated, fairly well cultured people, so the other standard tact for this kind of suit, an unfair or unsafe work environment, is also remarkably hard to find (except if you're a woman, in which case, I'm sorry to say, it's pretty easy to encounter...but that's another diversity post for another day). An off-color joke here or there or some casual hipster racism, sure. (H/T to the Prof and RVCBard on that link.) For some, that may qualify, but I think that, outside of being called the N-word to your face, on a regular basis, it would be hard to make it fly.

The first kind, though, with the two people of equal backgrounds, that's the pernicious one, and the one where the institutional racism of this country comes into play. Because it's just plain unlikely that, for most positions available in a theatre, there will be a black person who's equally qualified. As I write that sentence, it sounds harsh and scary and I'm concerned about the appearance of internalized racism or prejudice with it, but I still think it's right on. Before you get upset, let me back it up a bit.

As I broke down here and as the Prof broke down here, and as most people know, our education system is largely unfair and full of inequities. One of those is that minority students, particularly African-Americans, have less of a shot at even making it to college. And those that do are generally coming out of the gate with less support and more debt. Most theatre jobs, particularly entry level, pay for shit. Even if a black student has an impulse towards working in the theatre, that's an impediment. Even as theatres become more specialized, the entry level positions are filled with people who, at least, started off as actors or directors or writers and are looking for career advancement. But even at that level, a lot of young white people are starting off with a leg up, particularly those from the upper classes.

One of my theatre jobs was working at a summer theatre with an apprentice program. High school and college students paid thousands of dollars for six weeks of classes and working behind the scenes. I did it for two summers and, over the course of the two summers, there was maybe 1 minority student. Out of about 40, 45 students. All of those students, coming out of college and applying to a theatre for a job, have a qualification that a minority student doesn't have. And that matters.

That kind of inequity increases as the years go by and the general numbers dwindle. So, going back to the start, if you have two applicants for the same position, one white and one black, the chances are the white person will have more qualifications. If you took the race off the resumes, the white person would get it. If the interviews were phone interviews or held blind, the white person would get it. Because, chances are, they've had advantages.

There's also the ghetto-ization factor. Most minorities who work in mainstream theatres are working very specific briefs, usually on minority issues. They're hired to run "hip-hop" theatre programs, do outreach to the Latino communities, program after-school events for the Asian community. The assumption, across most of our culture, is that while a white person can connect with anyone, given the right training or attitude, but a minority can only really connect with their minority group. If you hire a black person as your development director, the concern is that they won't be able to connect to your white donors. I guess the fear is that they'll start busting into jive or that the donors will be counting the silverware after they leave the fancy dinner. The same fear goes for a black lit manager; all of a sudden you'll be running a "black" theatre (Once you invite one, they always invite their friends over...). And no one wants that.

These are culture-wide assumptions, but in theatre, what that means is that, in general, minorities' work experience is far more limited that most white workers. Their resumes are dotted with short-term, grant-based jobs, limited briefs and limited exposure to the larger theatre community. Again, we're at a disadvantage.

But these are the macro issues. On the micro, despite what I've said in the past, I think most theatres aren't run by racists who are resistant to hire minorities. I simply think there aren't enough qualified applicants. If we want to diversify our theatre staffs, starting there would be a good thing. Sue the schools and the summer training programs.

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.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and...

..Statistics, statistics, statistics, statistics...

Lots and lots to read and think about. I have a busy weekend ahead of me, but I'm hoping to tuck in and come back with some thoughts for ya.

Update: Oops! I put the wrong link in the second "statistics." Fixed now!


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?