Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The shocking statistic that surprises no one

The theatrical blogosphere is currently abuzz about a supposedly shocking statistic coming out of a new study from the Theatre Development Fund by Todd London and Ben Pesner (with research by London and Victoria Bailey, and statistical analysis by Zannie Giraud Voss).

Of course the statistic is disturbing - it's just not surprising.

In the study, titled outrageous fortune: the life and times of the new american play, London and Pesner have apparently surveyed some 250 American playwrights, and discovered that 42% of them have received advanced training at various MFA programs (or the equivalent), and that of these, 9 out of 10 came from only seven programs.

To quote the study (in a leak from David Dower):

"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."

Many bloggers seem stunned by this - although it's been obvious to me for some time, as I've often noted, that universities have been encroaching on theatrical practice in a disturbing way. Would we be suffering Sarah Ruhl's career, or Jordan Harrison's, for instance, without the influence of Paula Vogel, late of Brown and now of Yale? Probably not. And would we be getting more productions of our best playwrights (few of whom have MFAs) without this farm system, and the production slots it claims? Probably yes.

Another troubling aspect of the "universification" of the theatre is, of course, the homogenized sense of "diversity" that suffuses so many of our stages, along with a growing sense of empowered political correctness; the blogosphere's own "diversinazis" (Isaac Butler, Adam Thurman, and Scott Walters) have recently been musing about actually suing theatres over staff quotas, for instance. Meanwhile it becomes harder and harder for individual voices without academic advocates to be heard - nobody, it seems, cares about that kind of diversity. So are the universities the enemy? Or is the new mode of "diversity as career ladder" the problem? More to come, after I've read and absorbed that new study!

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