My interest is also strong because I believe in the power of systems to shape day-to-day life. Theatre exists within a economic, social, and political systems that shape every aspect of the art. And the theatre itself is its own system, one that responds to the larger system, but also one that reflects ideology and historical decisions. I do not believe that the discipline of theatre as it currently exists came about "naturally," the inevitable and irresistible result of outside pressures. I have discussed, for instance, how our current centralized theatre system is the result of decisions made in the late 19th century by powerful people involved in the Theatrical Syndicate.
A system is larger than an individual. The things I have written about the system that supports the so-called "Big 7" MFA programs, for instance, should not be seen as a slam about the individuals who graduated from those programs, who are doubtlessly talented and hard-working and deserving -- they would have to be in order to get in and, more importantly, stay in. Nor are comments I've made about the homogeneous nature of that system meant to say that every single person who attends such a program or emerges from such a program is the same, either in terms of their background or their aesthetic. When discussing a system, however, it is necessary to look at the general trend rather than individual cases. The fact that I am employed, for instance, is not a refutation of the fact that our economy is in a severe recession.
The education system in the US is a system, and theatre education, undergraduate and graduate, is a part of that system. For the moment, I am going to discuss undergraduate education, because it is what I know personally, and because it is what I have data about. While graduate education is somewhat different, there are enough parallel to make this illustration useful.
Let's look for a moment at Harvard. Admittedly, Harvard is not one of the Big 7 for graduate theatre education (or at least for graduate work in playwriting), and it would be better to have to hand data for Brown, say, or Yale. But like the majority of the Big 7, Harvard is an elite private school, and the parallels are fairly strong.
One of the things necessary to being admitted to Harvard is the SAT. The idea of the SAT, which is only one part of the admissions process, is that it can serve as a predictor of college success. However, as Nicholas Lehman points out in The Big Test, what the SAT more effectively correlates to is Annual Family Income. Here is a look at the numbers from the College Board's College-Bound Seniors 2004: A Profile of SAT Program Test Takers:
Average Family Income: Average SAT Score
Less than $10,000: 872What you're seeing here is the effect of privilege I discussed in a previous post: quality high school or private prep school, good teachers, abundant extra-curricular activities (because Harvard will look at that, too), likely an SAT prep course -- all adds up to a 250+ point increase on the SAT.
$10,000 to $20,000: 887
$20,000 - $30,000: 926
$30,000 - $40,000: 960
$40,000 - $50,000: 989
$50,000 - $60,000: 1005
$60,000 - $70,000: 1017
$70,000 - $80,000: 1033
$80,000 - $100,000: 1057
More than $100,000: 1115
Now Google "Harvard SAT Scores," and you will come up with this answer on WikiAnswers: between 1400 and 1580 -- this represents the middle 50% of incoming freshmen; 25% scored lower than 1400, and 25% scored higher than 1580 (remember, 1600 is a perfect score). Got an 872 SAT that is the average score for students from poor families -- good luck with that. You better have a backup. Following Lehman's assertion about the SAT tracking family income, how does that average Harvard SAT correlate with incomes for the families of Harvard students? According to Walter Benn Michael's book The Trouble With Diversity, "almost 75% of Harvard students come from families with incomes over $100,000 per year," compared to 20% of America in general. And a whopping 90% of Harvard families have incomes over the median US family income of $54,000. So there is definitely a preponderance of upper-middle class and wealthy students.*
How does this affect racial diversity? According to the Fall 2008 Harvard Fact Book, there are 20, 320 undergraduates enrolled. Of those, Asian/Pacific Islanders represent 12.8%, Black/Non-Hispanic 6.3%, Hispanic 5.2%, and a variety of other ethnicities less than that. In fact, all told the White/Non-Hispanic portion of the Harvard student body is only 43.1%. So if you were sitting in a Harvard class and looked around, about six out of ten students would be non-White, and you'd think "Man, this place is really diverse. That is so cool!"
Unfortunately, class isn't visible. If it were, and all students whose family made more than the national median income were green, you'd feel as if you were in an Astroturf factory. Everywhere you look, green green green. So while Harvard's students are phenotypically different, they have in common two things, as Michaels notes: "very high SAT scores, and, not coincidentally...wealth."
To my mind, this sort of undermines the claim for diversity at Harvard, even though it has a student population with races represented roughly according to their proportions in the US in general, and is the 40th-ranked university in the US for diversity. Nine out of ten of the students all share the same economic background, the same experiences of American society, the same privileges. Now, it could be that at the graduate level in theatre programs this trend is totally reversed because of the emphasis on talent, and to some extent this is probably true, but not enough to reverse the overall trend: there is probably a good amount of racial diversity, but a pretty above average group economically.
This is why, at meetings like the one I attended at Arena Stage, there is a reluctance to include a discussion of class as part of diversity, because all of a sudden most of the room turns green, which kind of takes all the wind out of the conversation. During the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. DuBois rested his efforts to affect racial equality on what he called the Talented Tenth -- the elite of the African-American community. Today, Harvard culls its student body from exactly this group.
This is the problem with the Big 7. Graduate schools have a tendency to draw their students from a pool that got their undergraduate degrees from similar elite schools. If you look at the well-known contemporary playwights who are old enough to have gone to school when playwriting graduate programs were becoming well-known (born after, bsay, after 1960 or so), you'll notice something that they have in common: most went to elite prep schools or high schools in wealthy suburbs, and/or they went to private elite undergraduate schools. Doesn't matter what their race. Several of them come from families of modest means, others come from wealthier backgrounds, but one thing they have in common is that they spent their young adult lives among the privileged. And that just isn't diverse.
It's something we don't like to acknowledge, because we like to think it is all about talent. But the road into the profession is pretty narrow, and follows a pretty specific path.
* By comparison, at the University of Michigan or University of Illinois, both public institutions, 40% of the families of students make over $100,000 -- about half as much as Harvard, but still pretty wealthy compared to the US population in general. College is increasingly a middle-class and wealthy activity.