Friday, December 18, 2009

Diversity, Education, and the Arts: One Approach

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.


The Director said...

I actually like this idea, though I'm not sure to what extent. I can see a number of practical limitations to this -- number one being that it's time consuming (and expensive) to read a large enough number of plays to determine whether they fall into the "put in a jar" category.

It's easy to find the popular plays -- Death of a Salesman, Oleanna, etc -- because you can find those at any library or bookstore. But to find the more obscure (or more accurately, the more recently published), you have to go to the catalogs, read a 3-sentence description and order it for $7, wait for it to be delivered, and then when you devote an hour or two to reading it, you may not even be happy with it.

Repeat 15 times and you've already hit your small, independent company's budget for scouting out new plays.

There are solutions (I'm working on one -- if you know of any copyright lawyers who wouldn't mind giving some advice, send them my way), but for your average small theatre company in Podunk, Iowa,...

I can think of two or three other practical barriers to this. But, like many things, your idea has a lot of theoretical merit. I'd love to see a theatre company do it this way.

newsBlitz said...

Perhaps social media can help a little with practical solutions?
Why do all of us have to read the same plays? Why not form an online community of play-readers-and-recomenders, and then draw from this common pool for our individual lottery?
If we trust each other in our basic skills to identify a text that has achieved an accepted level of competence - I am shure this would produce some good diversity and surprising results.
And, who knows, perhaps one or the other publisher or playwrite would choose to contribute a copy of their latest play to such a group free of charge ...

Kate said...

I think that this idea, while it will avoid blatent favoritism will not help your cause all that much, Scott... but let me talk a little about what I think you're calling for and then you tell me if I've got it?

From what I understand you want to see both a change in the kind of theater that's produced and who's making that theater (these things are inexorably linked, of course). I want to take a moment and say (in case you feel that my past posts tell something different about me)-- there *is* a class, race and wealth tendency in who's being produced and it does tend to be middle to upper middle, white and full of bank. I agree. But I think it needs a two-pronged approach that makes audiences as responsible towards change as theaters.
Ok, so here's why I think your idea isn't going to change and overhaul the system the way you'd want: scripts are not theater. We have a system in place now that is set up so that the WRITER (who I have amazing respect for-- my parents were writers, I'm classically trained to revere the writer above all else), the WRITER pushes the piece. And the way the we learn to read and appreciate scripts is completely linked to that educated Aristotle/Ibsen-based idea of structure, drama, etc etc etc. By making the script the God, you continue the classist system.
There are a million scripts that are brilliant theater that almost no one would know from the page. Even though she is a product of the classist system, I would point to Sarah Ruhl as a mainstream example. Her scripts, on the page, are SO SO far from a production of her show.

And there's incredible work in old scripts coming from new places that has nothing to do with the old script.

So in order to *really* open up the playing field, your idea is a fine start to weed out blatent classism, sexism, racism, etc. I'm not sure that I would be able to recognize a great piece of theater from a script that wasn't mired in all the trappings of education. But I have *experienced* some great theater that came from other other sources, like life learning.

Kate said...

I'm also a little confused about using the IQ example from Outliers... and I'm assuming you mean that as a parallel for artistic competence, not that IQ and creating art have much in common?

Tommer Peterson said...

The weak link in this wonderful idea is

"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."

I am not convinced there IS a common definition of a "level of competence" that means anything.

Anonymous said...

I have felt this way about a certain level of competence for years. Really, there are always about ten to twenty plays that for whatever reason appeal to the decision makers. Then we spend hours, days, weeks, months arguing over which ones to produce usually based on pretty meaningless criteria as they are all pretty good, produceable plays. Not to mention that some plays read poorly and play beautifully. And sometimes, really bad plays in terms of literary quality do very very well.

Most importantly, though, and this also gets at why it's so hard to diversify a season, is that on a fundamental level, you need to know how to produce a particular play. So, if there's something the producer/AD/lit manager doesn't get about a play--it's tone, it's political outlook--then it mostly likely won't get done by that theater. This would be fine if most of our theaters weren't run by white baby boomers most of them from upper middle class backgrounds.

But really, you are right. In the grand scheme of things, this play or that play would both be equally good.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...