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.

Happiness According to State

A new study published in Science magazine ranks states in the US according to the happiness of its residents. The happiness data came from a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of 1.3 million people across the US. The Science study by economists Andrew J. Oswald and Stephen Wu sought to understand why the numbers fall out the way they do, and they found that "The places where people are most likely to report happiness also tend to rate high on studies comparing things like climate, crime rates, air quality and schools." The complete list follows, but for those who know my personal orientation, the Nylachi numbers go like this:

45. Illinois
46. California
51. New York

[I just know that there will be comments to the effect of how this data should be discounted because we don't have the names of all those who were interviewed, and because "I know some people who live in New York and they're happy."]

The state-by-state list, from happiest to least cheery as reported by the Associated Press in The Charleston Gazette:

1. Louisiana

2. Hawaii

3. Florida

4. Tennessee

5. Arizona

6. South Carolina

7. Mississippi

8. Montana

9. Alabama

10. Maine

11. Wyoming

12. Alaska

13. North Carolina

14. South Dakota

15. Texas

16. Idaho

17. Vermont

18. Arkansas

19. Georgia

20. Utah

21. Oklahoma

22. Delaware

23. Colorado

24. New Mexico

25. North Dakota

26. Minnesota

27. Virginia

28. New Hampshire

29. Wisconsin

30. Oregon

31. Iowa

32. Kansas

33. Nebraska

34. West Virginia

35. Kentucky

36. Washington

37. District of Columbia

38. Missouri

39. Nevada

40. Maryland

41. Pennsylvania

42. Rhode Island

43. Ohio

44. Massachusetts

45. Illinois

46. California

47. New Jersey

48. Indiana

49. Michigan

50. Connecticut

51. New York

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Changing the Riverbed, Part Two: Education and Class

Lately, we've been talking about class and education, and its effect on theatre. First, let me say that my interest in this topic is strong, obviously, and is so because I am an educator in a theatre department who was a first-generation college grad from a working-class family. I grew up in a city of 100,000 that had the greatest amount of industry per capita of any city in the entire United States (Racine, WI). In my family, the main career question was whether you would work on the factory floor or in the office. I started out on the factory floor: I spent a couple years soldering gun barrels together at Sheridan Air Rifle. I didn't finish my undergraduate degree until I was 28 because I had to drop out for several years for financial reasons. I attended the University of Minnesota for undergrad, Illinois State University for my masters, and City University of New York Graduate Center for my doctorate - all public schools. It took me seven years to write my dissertation because I was working a full-time job as an administrator at Illinois State and researching and writing nights and weekends. I am now 51 years old, and I just paid off my student loans last year.

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: 872
$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
What 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.

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.

And Speaking of (Geographic) Diversity...

Below is the list of four theatre artists recently named USA Rockefeller Fellows by United States Artists. The award is $50,000 and can be used at the discretion of the artist. Here is how you become a USA Fellow:

Selection Process
To become a USA Fellow, one must be nominated. Each year nominations are made by a different anonymous group of arts leaders, critics, scholars, and artists chosen by USA. Nominators do not know one another; their identities remain confidential.

Nominators are asked to submit names of artists they believe show an extraordinary commitment to their craft. Artists at any stage of career development may be nominated. To be considered for fellowships, artists must be 21 years of age or older and U.S. citizens or legal residents in any U.S. state. A legal resident is any individual who has the status of having been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the U.S. as an immigrant in accordance with the U.S. immigration laws. Artists must have the following:

  • Expert artistic skills
  • Artistic education or training (formal or informal)
  • A history of deriving income from those skills
  • A history of active engagement in creating artwork and presenting it to the public

Artist Applications
Nominated artists are notified of their nominations and encouraged to apply. Artists are required to fill out a simple online application and submit work samples.

Peer Panel Review
Discipline-specific peer panels composed of leading artists and art experts meet to select the program finalists. The USA Board of Directors approves the final recommendations.

Here is the list of the theatre winners for 2009:

Dan Hurlin -- New York
Ruth Maleczech -- New York
John O'Neal -- Louisiana
Anna Deavere Smith -- New York
Hmmm. See a pattern? Let's look at 2008:

Karen Kandel -- New York
Will Power -- New York
Bill Rauch -- Oregon
Rosalba Rolon -- New York
Jennifer Tipton -- New York
Pat Bowie -- Florida
Rhodessa Jones -- California
Tina Landau -- New York
Elizabeth LeCompte -- New York
Michael Summers -- Minnesota
Robert Woodruff -- New York
Anne Bogart -- New York
Ping Chong -- New York
Anthony Garcia -- Colorado
Marc Bamuthi Joseph -- California
Merdedith Monk -- New York
Dominique Serrand -- Minnesota
Basil Twist -- New York

Total Score:
New York: 14 (63.6%)
California: 2 (9%)
Minnesota: 2 (9%)
Colorado: 1 (4.5%)
Oregon: 1 (4.5%)
Louisiana: 1 (4.5%)
Florida: 1 (4.5%)
Other 43 states: 0 (0%)
No, seriously, those peer review panelists (from where? Gee, I wonder) are doing a great job acknowledging the whole USA -- you know, the USA that's in the title of the grants.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Swamped: Grading

I have many things I want to say about diversity and class and education...but I have to have grades in by Wednesday at noon. In the meantime, read the following:

Tom Loughlin: The Survey Says
99: What We Talk About When We Talk About Privilege (Or the Confessions of a Self-Hating MFA) and Assume a Ladder and Feeders
David Dower: Chew On This: Four Quotes from Diane Ragsdale's Mellon Article
Joshua Conkel: Theater and MFAs and Stuff
Isaac Butler: Quick Diversity Thoughts
RVCBard: Hipster Racism
Thomas Garvey: Things I Disagree With

Those are just the blogs that have leapt to my attention, but I know there are many others addressing these issues as well. If you know of some, please put their URLs in the comments.

I'll surface soon.

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 ...