Several people are getting impatient. "Don't just complain about the problem" they protest, "tell us the solution. If all you can do is point at the problem, it is better to just keep it to yourself!" Or "Sure, this isn't right, but that's just the way it is and always will be!" But as I have said in the previous posts about class, the first step to a solution is for people to admit that there is a problem. A look at the comments on the posts below in relation to the "Big 7" MFA programs indicates that we're not quite there yet. There is a lot of denial about class, as there is denial about race, gender, and geography when it comes to the theatre. Everybody claims to recognize that things aren't going so well, but nobody wants to actually admit that there are multiple problems, or heaven forbid do anything different to help change the status quo. Instead, we focus on doing better marketing or using Facebook or something.
But let's pretend for the moment that we all agree that we would like to see more diversity in new plays being given productions (this technique could be used in hiring as well as college admissions -- hell, you could even do it for casting). Here's the problem to be overcome: there are many, many plays being written, and a fairly small number of people reading them, and they are being asked to determine the "best" play to be produced. All of this is fraught with problems: time crunch, pressure for a play to succeed, attempts to project what an audience will like, and many more. The solution to this problem often leads to the problems I have been writing about. If you don't have time to read every play in the stack, you are more likely to read the play that Paula Vogel or Lynn Nottage recommends, or one sent by someone who went to your alma mater, because you trust them. It makes sense, of course, and I'd likely do the same thing. But it also leads to a narrowing of the "track," and a sameness of offerings. Even with blind submissions, what happens is an application of standard ideas of what a "successful" play looks like (i.e., whatever looks like what's been a hit of late).
Here's my suggestion.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about how once a certain IQ is achieved there is very little difference between those with higher IQs and those who have achieved the line. So for instance, the difference between someone with an IQ of 120 and one with 160 is minimal. There is a leveling off of impact at a certain point. What is most important, Gladwell writes, is achieving an accepted level of competence.
Using this as a model, here is my suggestion for a process: literary managers for regional theatres who are tasked with finding a new play to produce read plays and separate them into two piles: those who achieve some specific level of competence (and the theatre can prepare a rubric for this -- number of characters, settings, style, etc. -- you know, guidelines), and those who don't. The latter, which are usually identifiable without reading the entire play, are discarded. The successful plays are assigned a number.
The numbers are put into a jar. Any play by a playwright that has certain characteristics the theatre wants to seek out (say, African-American or international or lower-class or rural, whatever) has additional slips put into the jar. And then a lottery is held. (This is sort of like the NBA draft lottery, and also like the admissions lotteries used by many, many private and magnet schools for admitting its students.) So instead of trying to fine The Play, the readers are simply finding a group of plays with a certain level of competence (and the bar could be set very high -- it doesn't have to be minimal acceptability), weighting them according to a theatre's priorities, and then letting Chance take over. You could also include classics in the mix as well, and choose your whole season this way.
If theatres did this, I'm pretty certain that the plays (or hires, or students) would likely be more diverse, and the effects of cronyism would be diminished. Yes, we'd have to give up some control, and some sense that we can actually find the Best Play Available through sheer merit, but I think we'd all agree that the track record for recognizing Good Plays is pretty low in practice anyway. It really tends to be a crap shoot, so why not use a fair set of dice rather than loaded dice? No need for sensitivity training, no need to February slots, just a jar with slips of paper.