Thursday, December 10, 2009

Changing the Riverbed, Part One: Education and Diversity

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.


7 comments: said...

A very bleak and realistic picture, and one that has, as you say, pretty much been accepted as standard. I am always astonished at the number of people who don't understand that the great majority of talented artists do not make a living at it but maintain "day-jobs" their entire lives. I hope the conference offered some scenarios for dealing with that class discrepancy.

isaac butler said...

Hey Scott,

Great post! Here's a question... how does this equation change as the tuition to the elite 7 changes? Yale is now both the #1 drama school in the country and somewhat (soon entirely if they can raise the money) free.

What will happen as other schools follow suit to compete?

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- It changes it somewhat, but since the Big 7 are the last wrung on a ladder that consistently privileges the wealthy, the situation isn't changed all that much. As the post indicates, it starts in K-12 education, where students in wealthy school districts receive their first boost, and continues through undergrad and into the profession before it gets to grad programs.

Jeremy -- The conference barely addressed this issue, focusing largely on racial and ethnic diversity. That said, jumping to solutions too quickly bypasses the most important aspect of this issue, which is dragging it into the light and having everyone acknowledge its existence and its intrinsic injustice. The desire to immediately jump to solutions is informed by a desire not to look at the ugly fact.

joshcon80 said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. This is exactly what I've been saying, only reasoned and articulated well! You are my favorite person today.

Isaac, the fact that a couple of the big 7 are free doesn't really change everything, since class privilege begins at birth.

Nick Keenan said...

The fact is, the easiest way to short circuit this system is by rewiring the hiring / acceptance practices in theatres and programs. Cronyism is far, far, far too rampant in theatre compared to other industries. Yes, it's easier to trust the folks we've developed our careers with. But we have to take responsibility as hiring organizations to reach beyond our comfort zones and remember the EFFECT that each and every hiring or recruitment process has on the greater cultural dialogue. I think we forget that a coddled but financially unsupported process powered by our regular collaborators still has a powerful effect on the way students, teachers, dreamers, and policy makers. The fact is, we as an industry are not leading on the issue of enfranchising artists who don't fit a mold, we're lagging way behind, and that speaks to the reality that the system as it stands doesn't create a particularly compelling vision for the future.

We DO need to reroute the many rivers of privilege, but those will be rerouted AFTER a greater and greater number of disenfranchised artists who developed their skills in non-traditional ways - who also represent and understand whole swaths of new audiences - are able to develop their work in either these powerful regional infrastructures or a different, new infrastructure that replaces them. What need to happen is they need opportunities to practice the real work of theatre and build growing audiences. That short circuit creates many, many more opportunities to inspire teachers, students, and policy makers to rethink their assumptions about how we should be developing new artists.

I'm happy to see the big 7 make efforts to open its tuition to be more accessible. I don't think that changes the fact that they're an influence that largely serves to make our industry more homogeneous and thus more anemic.

silent nic@knight said...

Scott, this is a well-written essay but its basic premise is way off the mark. You have no first hand knowledge or real information about the background of the students attending these schools, and with that you are presenting the very false notion that the students admitted to these schools arrive there via privileged backgrounds. This sometimes happens, but it is not the norm. I can’t speak for today’s schools, but Adam and Malachy do over at Matt’s blog Matt's blog, and counter your privilege premise. But my experience in the early '80's (I was accepted into NYU as playwright and my wife into the Yale School of Drama as actress) was that both these schools were competing with one another for those students believed to have the most potential for success, choosing student applicants from a very diverse social, racial, and geographical background. I am an Illinois farmer's son. My wife's stepfather was an Army sergeant, then a truck driver when he brought her to the US when she was an eleven year old child who didn't speak English. So neither of us fit your privilege premise.

These schools’ reputations are built on the "who's who” list of students finding careers in their disciplines. The criteria for accepting applicants were some combination of talent, diversity, and marketability. The students’ financial means never came into play. In fact, Yale pursued an especially aggressive agenda to make the program financially viable, offering grants and work-study programs supplementing the student loans were readily available.

Although these schools ostensibly choose their students primarily for their talent, that "who's who” list of successes is what cements the school’s reputation. That celebrity list consists mainly of alumni who find careers in film and television. So there is an obvious hypocrisy or pretense at work at these "theatre" programs, but the students who apply tend not to mind. By the time graduation arrives, few expect to find financial success or celebrity in a theatre career; the general culture doesn’t award such.

Uke Jackson said...

These schools are all part of a self-perpetuating machine. The professors want the 6 figure salaries, and so they do the networking, bring in the big names for big speaking fees, etc, all to get their students connected, so that a percentage experience the success that comes when the fix is in.

None of this, however, makes these students good writers, or even good playwrights. That's why so many of them slink off to Hollywood and tv land, and why American culture is such a wasteland of faux violence and genuine idiocy.

Changing the riverbed should not simply be about changing the way theater "careers" evolve. The riverbed that needs to be changed is the homogenized message that the class system perpetuates.

Where are the anti-war plays by veterans? (I've written a couple.) Where are the anti-death penalty plays by ex cons (I wrote one after doing time in Bruno Hauptmann's death cell, for possession of weed.)

When I write a play, I first figure out a way to write it without writing about family and the trashy molten emotions that substitute for actual discourse and revolutionary thinking. Family is bourgeois and boring. Simply showing what it's like to grow up Jewish/white/African American/ gay/ Lesbian/ bi-sexual/ transgender/ Hispanic/ etc etc ad nauseum doesn't really help change anything. In fact, it helps perpetuate all the problems because it allows the audiences to feel righteous for just sitting through these shows, when what is required is fundamental social change.

It's not just the theatre that has to change. It's the whole ball of wax.

Uke Jackson