Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lilly Awards

So last night was the Lilly Awards in NYC, which describes itself on Facebook as "An annual awards party to celebrate the work of women in the American theatre." Lest we forget the discussions we had surrounding Outrageous Fortune, let's take a look at the educational background of the six winners in the playwriting category:
  • Melissa James Gibson graduated from Columbia University and from the Yale School of Drama with an M.F.A. in Playwriting.
  • Chisa Hutchinson got her undergraduate degree at Vassar and an MFA in playwriting from NYU.
  • Deborah Zoe Laufer is a graduate of The Juilliard School.
  • Annie Baker graduated from the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
  • Sarah Ruhl studied under Paula Vogel at Brown University (A.B., 1997; M.F.A., 2001)
  • Young Jean Lee attended college at UC Berkeley, where she received an Phd in English. She went on to receive an MFA from Mac Wellman's playwriting program at Brooklyn College.
  • Lucy Thurber -- I was unable to find any information on her educational background.
So here's the list in another form:
  • Columbia
  • Yale
  • NYU
  • Julliard
  • Brown
  • Brooklyn
It isn't that these playwrights are not deserving -- I'm certain they are -- or that they all have privileged backgrounds -- several of them don't. But rather that the track of success in the field is very, very narrow. If we are looking for diversity in our plays, we just might want to look at diversity in the way our playwrights are educated.


Parabasis said...

The list also includes two people of color, and at least one from a quite lower-working class economic background. Also, Annie Baker also got her MFA from Mac Wellman at Brooklyn. The Brooklyn program, it should be noted, costs next to nothing if you are a Brooklyn resident. It's a public university (I want to say it's $2K a semester, but i could be wrong about that).

I think you are right about the narrowness of educational background, it's just worth remembering that there are all sorts of different kinds of diversity out there.

Scott Walters said...

I do believe I said that in the last paragraph. Indeed there ARE different kinds of diversity, which is not to say we should ignore this particular one. Which we do. All the time. We don't like looking at this, because it rearranges the hierarchy in ways that makes us real jumpy.

Zak Berkman said...

Hey -
I'm all for putting a microscope on this issue, so here's my lens: imagine you're an artistic director looking for non home-grown plays for your season. BUT

1) You don't have the resources to cultivate a large number of readers who have a diversity of tastes but share (or can be trained to fully grasp) your vision and mission -- quality, reliable readers who can report on hundreds of unsolicited scripts and help select a short list for you to consider. So you need to only consider solicited material.

2) You prefer not to rely on agent recommendations unless the agent has a pre-existing appreciation for your theatre's goals, budget constraints, and audience preferences. So you look elsewhere for recommendations - talking with people who are invested in your company, often other artists.

3) and then Paula Vogel calls you, or Erik Ehn, or Chris Durang, or an Artistic Director at another theatre and they say "I have this amazing student..."

Look, my company is producing Sarah Ruhl right now, but prior there's not a Yale, NYU, Columbia, Brown et al alum among our past roster. So I actually am not defending a practice of mine or anyone else's. There's wide evidence that you can go Universiry of Guelph, Iowa, or no university at all and be brilliant, original, necessary. I just think that there is a systemic problem that exists that is not about elitism so much as exhaustion - human exhaustion, an exhaustion of resources, an exhaustion of community, and an exhaustion of imagination. All linked together. And if we work collectively to raise awareness of vital voices in the theatre world, the narrow pipelines might widen substantially.

So here are five writers I think deserve more attention:
Jeanne Sakata
James Still
Mieko Ouchi
Hannah Moscovitch
Leila Buck

and I'll mention more another time.

Scott Walters said...

Zak -- I think there are many reasons why this occurs, and your explanation is certainly one of them. Indeed, it is systemic. But at the same time, a system is comprised of individual choices that are either condemned or allowed to continue. This is as much an "old boys network" as anything in corporate America. We can't keep having convenings about diversity without acknowledging this particular elephant, which affects the homogeneity of our theatre as much as anything else. Gatekeepers are gatekeepers. The Lilly Awards exist to confront the lack of gender diversity in the theatre -- well, they need to look at their own issues as well.

RVCBard said...

The list also includes two people of color, and at least one from a quite lower-working class economic background.

I'm starting to suspect that that fact is not coincidental.

These schools are a kind of shibboleth. They function as a way of proving that people belong on stage. Which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so obvious who's really pulling the strings (Sorta like Broadway, except perhaps less honest about it). The people making the real decisions* in those schools are probably not working class or people of color.

(*I'm not talking about a professor or a department head - I mean the individuals who maintain the financial and administrative infrastructure that allow those programs to exist)