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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

From the "Well! Knock me over with a feather!" department

This is not some big shock, right?

Not sure what the methodology of the "survey" is/was. But I don't think anyone who's held a theater program in his or her hand in the last few years hasn't noticed that prominence of certain MFA programs. Heck, I made a rather successful joke (if I do say so myself) about the whole thing in a play about a year ago.

One has to ask why this is institutionally? Is it the playwrights themselves serving up big bowls of excellence that are far tastier and more zesty than the work of their peers with different credentials? Could it be? Or could it be that those same departments shepherd their wards into good opportunities?

Quality can't be surveyed. One person's academic navel gazing is another person's compelling theatrical experiment. I do think it's worthwhile to throw water on our faces every once in a while, and look in the mirror. If your MFA becomes a more predicative criteria for your success than, say, how people actual respond to your work in real time: that's probably a bad trend. But that doesn't follow exactly that writers with MFAs are getting opportunities they haven't earned.


Scott Walters said...

No, it doesn't. However, it DOES indicate that there are educational roots to our diversity discussion. If large percentages of playwrights are coming through the same programs, a homogenization occurs that then projects into the theatre in general. Furthermore, look at those programs: Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, and Brown University and Julliard. Of that list, only two are public universities, which has ramifications as far as student debt that in turn plays out as a class issue -- those who go are those whose families can afford to send them. Now look again: five of those universities are in the northeast, which means a certain geographic homogeneity.

Our unwillingness to be shocked, to recognize our own elitism in action, to confront the barriers to a real artistic meritocracy is the issue here. We can pick at the edges and complain about methodology, and we can cynically roll our eyes and say "that's just the way it is," but by doing so we sacrifice any claim to criticize the hypocrisy of other segments of society.

Freeman said...

Scott - I think the key word here is class. I think that's the elephant in the proverbial room.

Scott Walters said...

Abso-fucking-lutely. And here's why it isn't being discussed: because many of those who discuss diversity would suddenly find themselves defined as privileged if class was taken into account.

Freeman said...

It's certainly a can of worms. I'd just like to know what the next step is. How is something like this addressed except by discussion? The prevalence of certain MFA programs isn't in doubt. So... what do we do besides take umbrage?

It seems that MFAs are set up as professional development programs. If those who complete them are, in fact, professionally developed... isn't that what they paid for?

And if that, in and of itself, is a sort of abhorrent calculation... what is the alternative? How do we enforce a meritocracy in an inherently subjective field? All we can do is encourage, even loudly, decision makers to be more aware of their own tendencies, I'd guess.

Scott Walters said...

Excellent question. I think the first thing is to bring the issue out into the light, and to point out the ramifications of the centralization of educational opportunities.

Graduate programs are about education, not professional development. If they are about professional development, about selling access, then they have been corrupted. Tuition should not be a form of bribery.

The idea that our art form is subjective is part of the problem. We haven't developed any standards, and so what remains isn't merit, but simply ass kissing. Now, if that's how we think the business ought to be run, then let's be up front about it, tell young people that's how it works, and give classes in brown-nosing and blow jobs instead of pretending that we are training for "excellence."

It is time to bring the skeletons out of the closet. As bloggers, we can do that.

Freeman said...

I don't think it's ass-kissing entirely. I believe there's a merit factor and some non-merit factors. Like most jobs. We're just seeing a bit more of it now in theater. Standards, again, are a tough one. I've seen plays I thought were great that other people hated, and also the other way around. Whose standards should apply?

It's like that quote from Justice Scalia. He said that he would never hire a law clerk that wasn't from 'the right school.'

Here's the math he does. I would say he's simply saying out loud what is thought by many people in many fields. It's not unique to theater.


Scott Walters said...

Uniqueness isn't the point; justice is the point. I've been rereading Malcolm Gladwells' "Outliers" recently, which reminds me just how much of a myth the idea of merit really is.

The reason we can have such glaring differences of opinion is that we, as a field, have developed no standards, no common vocabulary, no shared sense of what is valued. We're still living in the Romantic world of "individual genius" and "organic structure." Well, even if we buy that, it doesn't mean there aren't things that can be agreed up on if we are willing to discuss it. It isn't easy. But in music, anybody who has any training at all can identify someone who is singing off key; what is the theatre's version of this?

Gladwell talks about law school affirmative action at Michigan State, and the finding that those who were admitted according to affirmative action guidelines, who didn't perform as well in classes as their non-affirmative action classmates, nevertheless were just as successful once they graduated as their non-affirmative action colleagues. All of the students were "good enough" -- i.e., had a certain level of excellence, after which the shades of performance were insignificant. What is that bar of "good enough" in the theatre? Surely we could come to some sort of agreement about this.

Kristen Palmer said...

I just read this article collecting Fornes's writing exercises and reflections on her classes. Reading it I was smitten with jealousy for all the writers, about 10 years older than i am (or who had their shit together younger) who got to study with her in non-university settings for multiple years. There are many because she took teaching and mentorship as part of her mission.

If you're a playwright and you want to work with a master teacher to develop your writing, to grow, to learn about process and product - the 7 places listed (and let's add UCSD) are the places where there are master teachers to work with.

At this point and time it is the universities who are offering these folks a living wage & health insurance as it gets harder and harder to make it at any level.

Theaters are not doing this. It would be interesting, I think, if they could. It might lead to real development of writers and to diversity - age, class, cultural all the facets.

joshcon80 said...

Hooray! I'm doing cartwheels that people are finally talking about class and the MFA problem in all this diversity talk!

I'm in complete agreement with you gentlemen, and I feel like I've talked about elitism in theater until I was blue in the face. A few months ago I wrote about my MFA anxieties, joking that I was going to start saying I had one even though I don't. Folks with real MFAs got really, really angry which totally surprised me.

It shouldn't have. Everybody knows the score, and nobody will talk about it. Privileged folks get really testy when you point out privilege.

The fact is that not everybody gets to attend those schools, even playwrights who are exceptional. For a lot of people they are simply out of bounds, and to act like we live in a meritocracy is absurd.

Class aside, sometimes I wonder how much these programs do to homogenize writers' voices, even when it is a black/female/queer/whatever writer. How do you have different perspectives when everybody went to the same training institutions? Even when we do get a minority voice, it seems like its always an Ivy League minority voice.

I'm not against education, but I do think there should be another path to success for people without a grad school option.

Locally, for instance, it would be great if ADs and Lit Managers would actually go to see indie stuff instead of just producing whichever Yalie is in season. Because not all of the best young playwrights are at at Yale. Some of them at The Brick. And Dixon Place. And The Ontological. And Horse Trade.

Oh, and there a playwrights who aren't New Yorkers too. Just saying...

@Kristen Palmer- Interesting point, but one needn't study under a master playwright to become one. Others have learned by doing.

I think my writers' group has made me a much, much stronger writer. One place to start would be to have more theaters with writers' groups a la EST, Ars Nova, The Public etc. Just a thought.

99 said...

@Kristen- I think you've got a good point, something that jibes with joshcon's experience. In previous generations, theatres took young writers under their wing and developed them and provided a home. That doesn't happen, nor do apprenticeships happen in the way they used to. MFA programs grew to fill the gap. But I think it's important to note that the main issue here isn't the importance of grad school or its worth, but the idea that, in terms of the field, it seems that only 7 grad schools matter. If it didn't matter where you went, just that you went and studied, I don't think there would be as much concern.

Freeman said...

I hearby ban this "@" person jargon that comes from twitter on my blog! Begone, notwords!

Otherwise, interesting thoughts.

Malachy Walsh said...

I think part of Kristen's point is that there have been other ways to work with a mentor in the past. And is quietly suggesting there may still be.

My experience in an MFA program suggests words like "homogenization" are a bit broad. My program had writers from very different classes, geographical locations and financial backgrounds. And none ever wrote in the same style as the others... None of our mentors attempted to force anyone to write like someone else. (It might be more worthwhile to look at those making choices at theatres as the source of homogeneity...)

It's also worth noting that meritocracy is not at all dismissed in Gladwell's book. He argues strongly that practice (which is what people do in school) is one of the more important keys to success. His larger argument is that, along with committed practice and talent, a third thing must also be present: luck/opportunity. His example of Bill Gates is good. Gates probably would have been considered brilliant in any generation but he happened to be in the right place and the right time to exploit and expand his talents.

Anyway, I don't claim to know whether theatre is a meritocracy. Certainly working hard is not enough for many, even those with MFAs, to get productions/notice at the "right" theatres.

There is some question about what the 7 school "statistic" means... which may change once the parameters of the survey group are understood or more clearly defined.

It will be interesting to read the whole book.

Scott Walters said...

See my latest post on Theatre Ideas, one of a series: http://theatreideas.blogspot.com/2009/12/changing-riverbed-part-one-education.html

Malachy -- Indeed, Gladwell does indicate hard work (the 10,000 hour rule) is important to success, but that, too, is something much easier to achieve if, for instance, you aren't working a part-time job to make ends meet during undergrad or working a full-time job to pay food, rent, and student loans while pursuing your professional career. As far as how the teachers in your grad program didn't homogenize the writers, let me ask a question: if a teacher doesn't teach anything, i.e., doesn't offer the benefit of their own experience, doesn't promote certain "standards" regarding "quality," then how can it be said they are teaching? And if they are not teaching, then why would someone pay high tuition in order to study with them? To have an important person say, "OK, read your play to the group" and "So what do you people think"? Young playwrights, actors, designers, and directors are all taught what is "good," by which we mean what has been recognized as "good" for the past generation at least.

Kristen -- The Big 7 are the places where the mythology says the master teachers are. There are many, many master teachers scattered across the US who remain unpromoted. Let me give an example: I got my MA at Illinois State University, where I studied with the same acting teachers who taught Gary Cole, Gary Griffin, Moria Harris, Reggie Hayes, Tom Irwin, Judith Ivey, Terry Kinney, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perry, Rhondi Reed and many others. But ISU was located in Normal Illinois, far from the metropolitan centers of the northeast. A review of the books published over the past decade about great master acting teachers never included Jean Scharfenberg, Cal Pritner, Ralph Lane, or Patrick O'Gara, but just about every acting teacher within train distance of NYC is included. We're not dealing with data, we're dealing with mythology and ideology. It isn't that Maria Irene Fornes wasn't a great teacher of playwriting, but rather that she asn't the ONLY great teacher of playwriting.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Having studied at 2 of those 7, I can tell you, they are ivory towers, yes. But as Malachy points out correctly, not everybody there was rich and Malachy and I were in the same class at Columbia and write very very differently from each other and from the others in our class.

I got saddled with a big debt from Columbia. That may have been less of a problem for the wealthier of my classmates, but for me it was a big deal. Still is, though my recent TV job helped me wipe out the private loans. But don't forget, Juilliard is free. As is Brown, and possibly one or two of the others.

Also it should be said, each of these 7 are churning out 4-10 people a year. Very few of these playwrights are part of the national conversation. So the homogenization you refer to is only among those that you've heard of. The successful ones may have picked up the same tricks. But also, the tricks may be why they are successful. Part of grad school is seeing and reading lots of theater and learning what is already going on across the country.

I definitely learned a thing or two about storytelling from my profs and I was definitely influenced by my professors. But I doubt you could look at my plays, especially my recent ones and tell where I went to school.

In both of my schools, there were vastly different kinds of writers with very different voices and they were chosen partially I know, because of their strong voices.

Freeman said...

I honestly don't have anything to add to the "standards" question because, like it or not, this sort of thing is subjective. It's the definition of subjective. I've seen plenty of work I thought was sub-par that others felt was worthy of great praise. It's frustrating, but it's also frustrating that flowers die in autumn. What are you gonna do?

I really appreciate the thoughts of those who attended or have good knowledge of the actual programs themselves. It can be easy to treat that which we don't understand like the sinister Illuminati. In truth, everyone is just trying to learn, find a way to be heard, and do well.

I guess for me, the question is less what happens inside the programs, and more what happens after. Do artistic directors and literary departments at well-funded theaters overweigh MFAs from these programs?

joshcon80 said...

Adam, I don't really think that everybody who goes to these schools is rich. I'm prone to hyperbole. But I have to take umbrage with this statement: "But don't forget, Juilliard is free. As is Brown, and possibly one or two of the others."

It's true, of course. But what you're statement presupposes is that by virtue of being free it eliminates all the nasty elitism. At the risk of seeming like a pinko socialist, your chances of getting into these free programs are much better if you've done time consuming internships at theaters, which people with jobs can't do easily, or went to a fancy schmancy undergrad, which many people can't afford. You're chances of getting into a fancy undergrad are better if you get a top notch education in high school, which may or may not be available depending on location, class, having good parents, etc. Privilege starts at the cradle, and doesn't disappear when the program is free.

Don't get me wrong, it's awesome that they are free, but it doesn't erase classism.

Good point about homogenization though. I hadn't thought of that.

Malachy Walsh said...

All I can add to what Adam says here is that (paraphrasing a little) offering the benefit of experience, commenting about what one hears in a play, and suggesting areas to explore is quite far from "homogenizing."

The debt is an important part of the equation to understand. However, I'm paying mine off just fine, have continued to write plays, gotten a few produced and have even taken on the responsibility of a family. And it clearly hasn't stopped Adam.

However, I won't belittle the chunk of change I send out monthly that gave me 3 years to do something I wanted to do - so when people ask me (if they're considering a program that costs) if it's worth it, I make sure they consider that angle very carefully.

Especially knowing the reality (which I knew before I went to back to school) that playwriting is not a "real" source of income for almost any playwright.

99 said...

This is a really, really terrific conversation and I'm glad it's happening. I threw some thoughts here: http://99seats.blogspot.com/2009/12/assume-ladder.html

Thanks all. See, the interwebs can do good things.

joshcon80 said...

Malachy, even if these programs don't homogenize writers' voices, it's still not okay that they seem to be the only point of entry. It's not as simple as simply being willing to take on debt.

I don't argue that these programs have value, I argue that it's that their domination of the industry is a detriment to the art and that writers should have other paths to choose from.

Malachy Walsh said...

As Adam suggests...

Many who go to those schools get nowhere on the "track". Those who were expecting to suddenly be launched onto the stage at the NYTW or the Public usually discovered pretty quick that wasn't going to happen. Examples of it happening obviously exist - but they are extraordinary.

Your play still has to be liked. And it really doesn't matter if the Lit Manager read it first because you got an MFA. If they don't like it, they don't like it. End of "advantage."

To that point, the Magic Theatre in SF is currently producing a season by writers who don't seem to be coming from any of these 7 schools (maybe Alfaro?) so obviously they are not the "only point of entry."

Hopefully the book's publication will clarify more.

Scott Walters said...

Wayne Gretzky once said "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." I would add to that "You ,iss 100% of the shots if you don't have a puck." No plays of your will be produced, Malachy, if they aren't read. One way to get your play read is to be from a Big 7 school, or better yet have your play recommended by a professor from a Big 7 school. Yes, once it's read, it has to be good -- duh. But a play that remains unread, languishing in the slush pile -- doesn't matter if it is good or not.

Why is this point so hard to understand? Perhaps because you don't want to see yourself as privileged, which is understandable. I don't like to think of myself as privileged because I am white and male, but I am.

Scott Walters said...

P.S. I don't think the book, or I, or anyone has said that playwrights ONLY come from the Big 7 -- just that a disproportionate number DO.

joshcon80 said...

"Your play still has to be liked. And it really doesn't matter if the Lit Manager read it first because you got an MFA. If they don't like it, they don't like it. End of 'advantage.'"

Yes, but the chances of my play getting read by a Lit person in the first place are not as good as a play by somebody with a Yale MFA.

And I certainly don't think that everybody who has an MFA from one of these schools goes on to become a great success. The real question is, how many great successes went to one of these schools? There's a difference. Good for The Magic, though.

And, yes, hopefully the book's publication will clarify more.

Malachy Walsh said...

I'm privileged, Scott, because I worked hard and took a risk for it. Those not willing to take those risks take others.

And again, there may be some simple and very good reasons alumni from these schools are "disproportionately" represented - though it remains to be seen exactly what the numbers mean since the parameters are still somewhat murky to me (anyway).

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Josh, I went to a public high school and a state school undergrad. I do think Columbia helped me get into Juilliard but I got into Columbia because they liked my play. (They liked my play at Juilliard too)

What you say about getting people to read your stuff is true. It's harder without some sort of stamp of approval, if not an agent, then an MFA. But honestly, just because the Lit office reads it, doesn't mean the Lit Mgr reads it and often the Lit Mgr doesn't even have power over what gets produced.

It's hard to get through at all. That said, there are places to apply to that read blindly and there are schools to apply to and festivals and theaters who do read everything. Not as many as there used to be, sadly...I don't know. Having plays produced in nyc does help. People have heard of you. But yeah, the biggest problem for playwrights is just getting access to the decision makers of a theater. Sometimes it's through an actor or a director. Sometimes shit just happens. I'm hoping some shit will happen.

Scott Walters said...

Right, Malachy. Bootstraps. Got it.

Adam -- I don't think anybody;'s saying the system is easy for Big 7 folks, or any less filled with luck. What is being said is that it is easiER.

Malachy Walsh said...

Um, Scott, I don't know what to say to you except, yeah, straps were - are still - involved.

Anyway, let's think logically about one reason WHY it's easier.

You're a lit manager. And you accept un-agented scripts. You get scripts by 2 different writers you don't know and haven't heard of. Both are young and well spoken in their letters, have productions at small but unknown (to you) theatres but one mentions that they've recently finished the program at Brown.

Now you know that that person had to apply to Brown - a process that you know requires some effort, got accepted there, and has gotten 3 years of committed exposure to a known group of theatre professionals.

Now which one of these scripts will you read first?

It's one thing to say that certain credentials give you an advantage. They do - that's the point of Matthew's headline. It's another to broadly attack credentials as unearned advantages or products of elitist class predispositions without delving any deeper.

And I certainly don't think those 7 institutions should be embarrassed about having had a hand in bringing to the fore several interesting voices in American theatre.

By the way, I'm also a product of public schools from kindergarten through college. State boy, all the way.

99 said...

Malachy, no one is trying to take your personal achievements away by saying the system is skewed and unfair. Essentially it sounds like you're arguing that the 7 schools are demonstrably better and produce better results. I'm not sure if that's helpful. All MFA programs have a rigorous admissions program, as do other professional training institutes. Also not going to grad school can be as fulfilling an experience and produce as good a play. I think you're going to get pushback from lots of corners if your argument is that the graduates of those schools are intrinsically better than playwrights who didn't go.

The scenario you describe is exactly the problem. If the two plays are equally good and both playwrights are worthy of support and production, but have just taken different paths, why should the Brown play get a read first? Why should it matter? How could it possibly be fair? Not to mention, especially in the current environment, the chance of playwright without some pedigree getting an agent is pretty miniscule. So there's that level of gate-keeper to deal with. A playwright that doesn't have an agent is not going to get to the lit manager easily or quickly. A play from one of the feeder programs jumps through two or three levels automatically.

99 said...

I just noticed that I misread part of Malachy's post. Apologies.

Malachy Walsh said...

Yeah, you definitely did not read my post.

While I am suggesting that going to school offers benefits (there's just no denying that whatever else, taking time to practice something for several years can help you) I did not say going to any school made anyone slam-dunk better than someone who did not go.

Or that people who make a different decision aren't deserving.

But I have trouble with any POV that asserts going to school for an MFA in playwriting is worthless, MFA populations are not diverse, all MFAs write the same way and that all those who gain advantage by credentials do so without merit.

I take serious exception to all of that.

99 said...

I don't see any of those arguments being made in any serious way. I can see their offense and why and I apologize for skimming your post.

The concern is that, given the very small number of slots available, the industry's automatic dependence on "the track," as they put it in the excerpt, does keep other, worthy plays on the outside.

Again, I think this conversation works best when we stay away from issues of quality and whether or not grad school or any professional development program has intrinsic worth in making a playwright better. I don't think that's really in question. Two or three years of solid work in any field will make you better. In fact, part of Scott's Outliers argument is that 10,000 hours of practice is what makes someone an expert and grad schools provide that kind of time. I definitely believe it because I went to grad school for exactly those reasons.

MFA populations and personal histories may be diverse, but if MFA grads dominate the field (the stat from the excerpt is 56% with either a Master's or an MFA) and the graduates of 7 programs dominate those with degrees (nine out of ten of those in the study), then those 7 programs dominate the field. And that's not exactly what one can call diverse. I'd like to think that we're all on the side of increasing the diversity of voice in the field.

Tony Adams said...

Hope I'm not too late, was buried today.

But I'm confused about how Fornes fits in with the 7 MFA schools discussion?

Nick said...


Here in the opening comment, and more so on your blog post, you present the very false notion that the students admitted to these schools arrive there via privileged backgrounds. This sometimes happens, but it is not the norm. I can’t speak for today’s schools, but my experience in the early '80's was the same as Adam and Malachy had (I was accepted into NYU as playwright and my wife into the Yale School of Drama as actress). Both these schools were competing with one another for those students believed to have the most potential for success, choosing student applicants from a very diverse social, racial, and geographical background. I am an Illinois farmer's son, high school dropout, who returned to school to earn my masters degree on the GI Bill. My wife's stepfather was an Army sergeant, then a truck driver when he brought her to the US when she was an eleven-year-old child who didn't speak English. So neither of us fit your financially privileged or “Northeast elitism.”

These schools’ reputations are built on the "who's who” list of students finding careers in their disciplines. So the criteria for accepting applicants were likely some combination of talent, diversity, and marketability. The students’ financial means never came into play. In fact, Yale pursued an especially aggressive agenda to make the program financially viable, offering grants and work-study programs supplementing the student loans were readily available.

Although these schools ostensibly choose their students primarily for their talent, that "who's who” list of successes is what cements the school’s reputation. That celebrity list consists mainly of alumni who find careers in film and television. So there is an obvious hypocrisy or pretense at work at these "theatre" programs, but the students who apply tend not to mind. By the time graduation arrives, few expect to find financial success or celebrity in a theatre career; the general culture doesn’t award such.