In his excellent book The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative force in Your Own Life, author Robert Fritz explains that human beings, like water, will naturally follow the path of least resistance, and that the only way to change the path of a river is to change the direction of the riverbed. In other words, people and by extension systems have underlying structures that control and the activities that occur within them. Winston Churchill described the same phenomenon when he said, "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us." Once we create walls and ceilings and doors, certain paths are created and others are prohibited. Marx wrote about base and superstructure -- same idea. This isn't new. Buckminster Fuller, whose words serve as a motto on this blog, used this ideato c mraft a process of change. "Reform the environment, stop trying to reform the people," he wrote. "They will reform themselves if the environment is right."
I was reminded of this idea while I was participating in the Arena Stage's convening last weekend devoted to "Defining Diversity." We spent a great deal of time telling our stories (extremely valuable -- see my previous post "The Diversity of E Pluribus Unum"), and talking about how "they," the people in charge, must change their attitude. Our understandable tendency was to focus on reforming people, instead of reshaping the environment, remolding the river's bed, changing the base.
While I will have more to say about this issue (as the "Part One" in the title of this post implies), today I want to discuss it in terms of the soon-to-be-released TDF study, Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, a segment of which was mentioned during the diversity discussion, twittered by Isaac Butler to great consternation, and clarified by David Dowers through the following quotation from the book:
... A full 56 percent of the playwrights completed Masters (8%) or MFA (48%) level training, a figure that doesn't include the other 7 percent who attended the non-degree program at Julliard. In other words, nearly two out of three practicing playwrights come through on training program or another. Older playwrights are less likely to have advanced playwrighting degrees, further evidence that this "track" is a fairly recent development. Of the respondents with MFAs, almost three-quarters come through one of six programs-- Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, and Brown University (in order of the number of graduates in this study). Add the non-degreed Julliard students and seven schools account for almost nine out of ten of the study playwrights with advanced professional training or 42 percent of all 250 playwrights responding. The picture that appears is not merely of a track for training, but a system, with a handful of prestigious graduate programs feeding the field*, offering entree to their students where access might otherwise be more difficult. ...One reaction to this piece of information might be boredom. For instance, Matt Freeman's "From the "Knock Me Over With a Feather" Department" begins "This is not some big shock, right?" And Matt is right: every young theatre artist I talk too seems to see these programs -- in playwriting, yes, but acting, directing, and designing have their own only slightly different version of this Big Seven -- as their ticket to The Profession. However, I rarely hear them talk about wanting to study with a particular teacher, but rather the focus is almost always on "making connections," on "having doors opened." In other words, they are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition as, basically, a bribe for access. Everyone smiles grimly and nods -- yes, that is Just the Way It Is.
And while careerist cynicism may be the attitude du jour, all it takes is one step back to see how this one single "system" is tangled with so many other issues to which we all object and that we all wish to see changed. One of these is diversity. And one aspect of diversity -- the aspect that Americans do their best to ignore, even people who are concerned with diversity -- is class. This post is about the intersection of Class Avenue and Education Street.
Take a look at that TDF list again: Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Iowa, Brown University, and Julliard. Five of those schools are very expensive private schools -- they ain't called "elite" for nothing. The ramifications of this fact should be obvious: the people who go there will either be from wealthy families who can pay their way, or alternately will be people who go deeply into debt in order to attend. While there are some who will be foolish enough to undertake such a debt load, the reality is that it is primarily the children of the upper or upper-middle classes who are in a position to even consider going to such schools. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a class issue. It is the last wrung in a series of systemic ladders that privilege the wealthy at the expense of the lower classes, but that we disingenuously portray as a meritocracy.
It begins in high school. If you are fortunate enough to grow up in a wealthy suburb, you are likely to have the benefit of a Drama teacher (or two) at your school and a well-financed and active drama program where you can begin to develop your talents and gain experience in front of an audience. If your parents are wealthy enough, they will notice your theatrical interests and send you off to drama summer camps for further arts training, and perhaps they will pull whatever strings are necessary to get you enrolled in a high school of performing arts, where you will receive more attention, more training, and more experience. The teachers in these programs, being savvy promoters of their students who understand how the system works, will be certain to take their most gifted students to college admissions auditions at places like the North Carolina Theatre Conference, where they will be courted by universities from across the region all waving wonderful scholarship oppotunities. The best of that group of high school students, the ones who combine a certain innate talent and drive with a great deal of buffing and preparation from their teachers, will be courted by elite Ivy League universities. There they will continue to experience all the benefits that money can buy.
If, as Malcolm Gladwell writes in the highly recommended Outliers: The Story of Success, there is a 10,000 hour rule, which says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of any discipline, then the scion of a wealthy family who has followed the path described above, who will not have had to work a part time job during his college years to make ends meet and so will have been able to focus entirely on theatre, will be well along in his or her quest for 10,000 hours of practice. Their classes will have been smaller than those at a large public university, and so they will have received the benefit of individual attention from their highly-paid professors.
Contrast this with another young person who, like his or her wealthy counterpart, has the early stirrings of an interest in theatre. But this person lives in a rural area, or in the inner city, where tight budgets are the rule of the day and there is no drama teacher at all. If there is money to produce a play or two during the course of the year, it is directed by the overworked English teacher and produced on a shoestring in the school gymnasium. This teacher does her best to help this young, talented person, but she has no theatre training, and she has no idea that there are college admissions auditions for theatre, and if she does know it, she has no idea how best to help her student prepare for them. Summers, instead of going off to drama camp, this young person works 30 hours a week at the Wal-Mart to make money to go to college, if he or she is fortunate. This person will likely apply only to public universities that are close to home, regardless of the quality of the Drama Dept, because his parents, who didn't go to college themselves believe they can't afford the price tag of a private school, and besides their son has to live at home to save the cost of room and board. While in college (or community college), he must work 20 hours a week to pay for living expenses, which limits the number of shows he can do. Compared to his wealthy counterpart, he is far behind in the race to 10,000 hours. Furthermore, he hasn't really received much personal attention from his professors, because heisn't around the department very much because of his work schedule.
After graduation, both students set off for the Big City to gain some professional experience. The wealthy student arrives with no student loan debt and living expenses provided by parents; the poor student gets a full-time day job to pay the rent, food, and make student loan repayments. The wealthy student is in a position to take an poorly paid that internship at a prominant regional theatre, where he meets many successful professionals who are impressed with his talent and motivation. The poor student attends as many open auditions as he can without missing so much work that he loses his job, and he lands a gig or two in storefront productions done on a shoestring budget and that go unrearked in the local press.
After three years, both decide they would benefit from graduate school, and they apply to the Big Seven. The professors there look over their resumes. They look at the welathy student's materials and they see the glowing letter of recommendation from the associate artistic director at the regional theatre where the student interned -- the associate artistic director that one faculty member worked with a few years ago and who went to the same graduate school as the department chair. They also see the experiences at "prestigious" schools and conservatories, and they see the long list of projects that the student participated in.
Then they look at the materials of the poor student, whose letters of recommendation are from someone they don't know at a school they have never heard of, and they look at the few obscure projects the poor student did over the past three years.
And who do you suppose they choose? Based, of course, an an objective evaluation of their demonstrated talent and potential? Gee, I wonder.
So now our wealthy student is part of a Big Seven MFA program, and his tuition is paid for by mom and dad, who are proud of their son's talent and progress, and the professors there are well-connected and happy to introduce their talented young protege to people who can help them out. And soon his play receives a reading at the regional theatre where he interned a few years ago, and thanks to a connection from a professor his next play receives a production on the second stage. And pretty soon, lo and behold, he is the Hot New Thing.
And when we discuss his career, we focus on his talent and hard work, and maybe his luck. And we turn a blind eye to all the benefits he's had as a privileged member of our society, because we all know that theatre is about innate talent and desire, not anything as grubby as class or opportunity.
And then a study comes out that hints just a wee bit at tip of the iceberg that is this "system," and theatre people all over the country yawn, shrug, and casually remark that that's Just the Way It Is, and there's probably something about talent underneath it all anyway.