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.

Right.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Diversity of E Pluribus Unum

Democracy is built on a multiplicity of voices -- E Pluribus Unum, right? From the many, one. That motto is the description of a process: unification that develops through the consideration and integration of many viewpoints. And it never ends -- there are always new voices to consider, because times change and new people are either born, arrive from elsewhere, or begin to speak -- so the unum is always temporary, contingent, a circle.

There are people who believe we ought to just be happy with the pluribus -- "you believe what you want, I'll believe what I want, let's just not talk about it" -- a concept of social balkanization, intellectual separatism. This is becoming easier in our mass media world where we can create a gated intellectual community with the touch of a computer filter button. But a functional democracy is built on constant friction.

If you look at the way that "Angels in America" Part 2 ends, it is with a conversation between a straight Mormon woman, a gay Jewish man, a gay Protestant man, and an gay African-American man. They are talking about Perestroika in Russia, not directly about diversity, not about sexuality, not about religion (although all of these things are or very easily could be brought into the conversation). Rather, they are talking about something happening in the world that they see through different lenses. They are a diverse group sharing ideas, which gives those ideas dimensionality, depth. Because we have two eyes, we are able to perceive depth, because each eye perceives the same object from a slightly different viewpoint. The world seen through only one eye, from only one viewpoint, is flattened. On the other hand, think of how deep an object might look if we each had dozens of eyes. But we don't; we have two. So the best way to attain depth, to add dimensionality, is by seeing the world through the aggregated eyes of diverse people who discuss what they've seen.

A play gives us a view of the world as seen through the playwright's two eyes. That view of the world is passed on to the theatre artists who transform the text from two dimensional words on a page to four dimensional embodied experience -- a production. In the process, they add many more eyes to the worldview, and so add depth. This four-dimensional embodied experience (the production) is then observed by those who are in the audience, who add even more eyes, more experience, more dimensionality. Thus, depth is added to the work not to the extent that it is unified, but to the extent that it is diverse. The more diversity at each stage of the process, the richer the artistic experience becomes.

That's the pluribus part; where theatre falls down is in the unum.

Unum results from the sharing of diverse viewpoints, so that each individual experience of the production is informed by the aggregated viewpoints of the group. Anyone who has ever posted a controversial idea on a blog ought to recognize the truth of this instinctively. Our ideas acquire complexity and depth to the extent that they are informed by the comments of those who read them and either disagree or agree while adding on.

But our current model of theatre skips this process entirely. People are allowed into the theatre thirty minutes prior to the show, are plunged into darkness during the show so that they cannot see each other, are told to shut up while the show is in progress so that they cannot share their observations, and then they are hustled out of the theatre as soon as the show is over so they cannot share their viewpoints with anyone other than the people they came in with (and usually not with them, either). In other words, we miss the greatest opportunity for our productions to resonate most powerfully: dialogue, discussion, diversity. With apologies to Hegel, the play is the thesis, the spectator's experience is the antithesis, and then we skip the synthesis, the unum, entirely and thus short-circuit entirely the dialectic process that leads to progress, to understanding. We all of us, artists and spectators alike, are allowed to remain within our personal comfort zones and are not asked to incorporate the viewpoints of anyone else.

At the "Defining Diversity" convening at Arena Stage last weekend, the second day was spent doing what in educational circles is known as "fishbowling." A subset of the participants were asked to sit at a central table to discuss a specific topic, and the rest of the group sat in a circle surrounding the table listening to the conversation. That's theatre, right? The group at the table talked and the other listened. The members of the outside circle were not allowed to interject, nor were the people at the table allowed to engage with those in the outside circle. However, that wasn't the end of it. After a topic was finished being discussed, there were breakout sessions where everyone was remixed into groups to further discuss what was said at the table. It wasn't a Q & A session where the members of the outside circle asked the table people what they meant, which in the theatre world is the equivalent of the traditional post-show discussion where the actors (the table people) are questioned by a handful of audience members (the outside circle). No, everybody talked to each other as equals, sharing our ideas, our reactions, our perspectives.

And from those discussions can emerge an unum, a temporary understanding that comes from having many voices heard. We weren't all in agreement after the breakouts -- unum doesn't mean unanimity; but we all had been unified through shared experience. There was a closeness created, a relatedness, a unity, a collective respect. And as discussion followed discussion, that respect deepened.

There are some who say that we, the artists and the spectators, are afraid of diversity, because we dislike being asked to confront aspects of reality with which we are uncomfortable. I disagree. In my opinion, what makes people avoid diversity is an understanding borne of experience that they will be confronted with a viewpoint that makes them uncomfortable or with which they disagree, one that often will portray them as villains, and then they will not be allowed to share their experience or response with anyone -- not the other spectators, and certainly not with the artists. They will have been shocked, accused, disrespected, and then silenced.

Theatre today takes a sit-down-and-shut-up approach to the audience. Artists are hostile to the audience, fear them, disrespect them. I can't tell you how many times over the weekend I heard disparaging references to the "blue hairs" in the audience, as if age somehow made them less human, less aware, less intelligent. This is the American youth culture at its ugliest, one that dismisses the wisdom of age as irrelevant. But if we took the time to discuss a play with these spectators, we would soon come to another conclusion, and their insights and observations would enrich our understanding of the play and of our society. Age, after all, is a kind of diversity.

There was a great deal of hand-wringing over the weekend about how we could get a more diverse audience, a more diverse company of artists, a more diverse season. Many solutions were offered, many of which would benefit the theatre if implemented. To these solutions, I would add one that is easily done, and that would lay the groundwork for greater diversity through a greater sense of understanding: build into each production a discussion. Let people talk to each other as a part of the play. Not as something that happens after the lights are turned on, but as a part of the play. Stop the play and ask the audience a question, and then have them turn in their seats and discuss amongst themselves for five minutes. Make sure they talk to people they don't know, not just those they came with. At the very least, put this before the curtain call, so it isn't an add-on, but an expected part of the show. Big regional theatres with a ton of space ought to then make a room, or part of the lobby, available after the show for those who want to talk about the play. Get facilitators to help stimulate the conversation. Let people talk to each other.

Focus not only on the pluribus, but on actively, consciously, intentionally facilitating the creation of unum.