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October 06, 2009

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Josh

Which middle class writers go to Grad School, I'd like to know. I can only think of one really successful playwright under 40 whose background is as bootleg and white trash-y as mine (from what I've been told or read, anyway), and that's Lucy Thurber.

There used to be tons. Paula Vogel comes to mind. It's kind of ironic that she now helps to run the system that keeps people like her out.

You're right about the obsession with MFAs, though. I give them too much power. It's just that I do see a lot of people with MFAs doing a helluva lot better than me and its irksome when their writing isn't as good.

I'm totally slapping a Yale MFA on my resume, either way. It's not unethical. I went there! And, even if I didn't, it just so happens that I'm wearing Lacoste today with my geek chic Ralph Lauren frames, so I can totally pass.

P.S. I could be totally wrong about all this. Who knows? Maybe Neil Labute had to work part-time at the Union Square Virgin Megastore and dated dudes just for free dinners. I have no way of knowing.

Rob Kozlowski

Actually, I think LaBute comes from pretty grimy origins. I remember Chris Jones saying that in the '90s, he saw LaBute's early plays at Cafe Voltaire, a truly disgusting little basement theater on the north side of Chicago which was as renowned for its cockroaches as its shows.

99

I'm definitely one of those middle-class MFA-getters and so were the bulk of my classmates. Granted, I didn't go to an Ivy, but I know a ton of folks from NYU, CMU, and, yep, even Yale, who come from humble beginnings. I think one of the big differences is what happens after. Those of us who took out lots and lots of loans for school are generally stuck doing some job that ties us to one city, and doesn't allow us the freedom to do quite as many things for quite as little money. If your grad school, like mine, skimped on the teaching assistantships, you're also out of luck because you might not have college-level teaching experience, so you're unemployable there. It's a shit circle.

Lucy is a great example. And, yep, bootleg as hell, no MFA (I don't think), but a great career, built on working her ass off and writing terrific plays. Not to be all bootstrappy and up-with-people, but that's the real stuff there.

Josh

@Rob Kozlowski- My bad, but Cabaret Voltaire sounds awesome! It seems like it would be a perfect fit for me.

@99- Either way, the institution (like everything else) is set up in such a way that rich kids get the good stuff.

If theater as an institution wants to stay relevant then it had better embrace the proles too. Other arts (music, fine art, television, fashion) practically trip over themselves to find young/minority/rural/inner city newbies to breathe freshness into the game. Theater should be doing the same.

99

Interestingly, I think profit motive has something to do with it. The coveted audiences in TV or film are younger audiences because they have more disposable income. They pander to youth because youth pays the bills. One of the dirty semi-secret things about theatre is that age pays the bills. But no one wants to get caught "pandering" to the fogies. So they act like young audiences are what they want. But they're really not. They want young audiences their old patrons can stand.

Josh

@Parabasis- I agree that theater wants fogie audiences, but I still think it's a really terrible business plan for. You don't increase your visibility and profit margin by serving only customers who are about to kick the bucket.

Josh

Whoops! I meant @99!

99

I don't mind being confused for Isaac! But yes, it's not the best general business plan, but for the structures in place, it's the plan that works. I think, to change the business model, and get it away from a dependence on wealthy, older audiences, you have to do a lot more heavy lifting. I'm certainly not against it, but we can't expect the institutions we have in place now to change horses midstream. Even if the horse they're riding isn't going anywhere...fast.

Jack Worthing

I'm getting sick of this too, 99. It's a straw man. I mortgaged my life to go to an Ivy. Bills aside, I'm glad I did. It made me a much better writer. For me, it was stand or fall; I didn't want a credential to hang around my neck, I knew what I required to get better. It's not the same for everyone. My family isn't rich, I didn't go to private schools, I didn't have tutors, I wasn't floated on internships, and I didn't go to an Ivy for undergrad. I've never starved, but it wasn't easy. I can think of three direct contemporaries at school who came from circumstances much, much worse than me. And you know what? They don't write plays about rich white people in drawing rooms. Neither do I. It's true that we should focus on the best work, regardless of its origin. But those of us who jump to conclusions about Ivy work are just as narrow-minded as the gatekeepers who keep producing Sarah Ruhl Lite. The argument - and I'm not naming anyone here - often comes close to 'My work is more REAL because I've never been to New Haven.' Rubbish. An MFA is what you make of it. It's true that Ivies can shoe-horn playwrights into formulas, but those writers tend to be the malleable, voice-less, easily-led types who were boring anyway. I can't tell you what got them accepted, but the snobbery from both sides is a worthless distraction.

99

You're definitely being heard, at least by me, Jack. And you are right about the argument being a false dichotomy. I don't think that Ivy League MFA programs are inherently wrong or classicist, though I can see why some people do. My bedrock personal belief is that it's the plays that matter and anyone, literally anyone can write a good play.

I'm sorry if when I say, as I've said above, that there's an aspect of pot-stirring to this for me, and that I do know many, many people like you who mortgaged their future for their education. It shouldn't be a scarlet letter to have one and it shouldn't be a scarlet letter not to.

But. I do think we, as a field, have to address the issue of classism in the work and in the field and in the way that affects the work. I do have concerns about the way we're teaching young playwrights, but more I'm concerned with the world we're ushering them into, but this isn't particularly about that.

One last thing: for me, and I'm just speaking for me, it is a worthless distraction to be fighting against each other. I would rather focus our energy on the gatekeepers who fast-track plays with the "right pedigree" and slush-pile the plays without. I don't think that's a straw man because I've been there, I've seen how it works. And that doesn't serve the work. But it should never be turned against each other.

Jack Worthing

I've been there too, and I completely agree.

99

Oh, and I meant "classist" there. Not classicist. Not that they're not...

Josh

@ Jack Worthing

I hope I can be articulate her. I've been working fourteen hour days for a few months now, so I may just type in circles. I really didn't mean to start a fight. I'm a comedy writer, first and foremost, so what I write should be taken with a grain of salt. I'm prone to hyperbole.

Like I said, I'm not against people getting an education and have a lot of close friends who are Ivy Leaguers (especially since less than a decade ago I'd never met one). The Ivy League is great and I'm mostly just jealous.

That said, I'm merely suggesting that maybe- just maybe- we should find a way to find other voices. Other voices are worth hearing, and its my belief that the theater is dying without them and the audiences they would bring with them.

You mentioned the sacrifices you made to pay for an Ivy. Why? You said that you just wanted to be a better writer, and I believe that, but I also find it difficult to believe that the pedigree of the place didn't enter into your choice. Call my cynical.

I also realize that not everybody in the Ivy schools are rich, but they still got into an Ivy, which makes them a certain class no matter how much money they may or may not have come from. There is no pretending that entry to these schools is simply merit based. Advantages start in the cradle and grow from there. And not all advantages are financial.

To that point, "But those of us who jump to conclusions about Ivy work are just as narrow-minded as the gatekeepers who keep producing Sarah Ruhl Lite." Quite right. But at the end of the day one of these two groups holds all the cards and the other is coming home from their retarded temp jobs. Let them bitch if they want to.

P.S. You don't get much realer than having to fight off a crack head whose wandered into a rehearsal in your East Village basement theater. Somehow I don't think that happens at the Yale cabaret. Just saying!

Jack Worthing

Josh, I have a lot of respect for you. This isn't an argument. I certainly get bitch-happy myself, and I agree with your main point. As I hope I made clear above (and on other blogs), I'm all for getting good plays on, no matter what or where. All I ask for is a little pragmatism and respect on both sides. The Ivies aren't a golden ticket, they're not full of geniuses, and anybody who lords their degree over others can fuck right off. To answer your other points:

1) No one ignores pedigree, but (unlike some contemporaries) I chose my school based on the writers who'd teach me. That was my number one consideration. Not so I could say 'I was X's student', but because they had the most to offer in the classroom.

2) I don't want to get into a pissing contest about who came from lower, but I've got friends who'd resent being told that they were coddled from birth. What's their story? I hesitate to use identifying information here, but I'm hardly talking about 'Daddy left', or 'the National Honor Society rejected me'. They pulled themselves up from nothing, and their success - whatever 'class' it makes them now - belongs to them.

3) Please don't tell me you assume that people like me don't work retarded temp jobs?

PS - do you know what happens past Dwight Street in New Haven after dark?

Scott Walters

Can't we all get along and just do good theatre? Huh? Can't we? Can't we all just ignore the fact that the way the system is set up creates winners and losers based on who has the biggest bank and pretend it's all just merit? Have any of you ever read "Outliers"? Give it a look, and then rejoin this conversation.

David

Scott, I don't think "Outliers" says people with big bank accounts automatically succeed. Maybe you should read it again and think a little more about what it says in regard to the effort successful people put into the circumstances they found themselves in.

It's not a book about solely about luck.

Josh

@Jack Worthing

I offered my crack head story solely as a funny anecdote. I'm fully aware of how icky New Haven is.

We agree on the larger point, I think, which is just that theaters should be looking for fresh voices wherever they can be found: at the Ivys, sure, but also in Compton and Kentucky and everywhere in between.

I just don' think an MFA should be a prerequisite for success in this business and sometimes it seems like it is.

In any case, it doesn't matter. I have one now! I just added "MFA, Yale" to my resume. :)

mirroruptonature

Josh, you're a Yale man, too! I just added it myself.

See you at the reunion!

Jason Grote

Lucy Thurber does not have an MFA. I, however, am from a poor background (I was in fact a welfare baby with a single mom), and I do have an MFA.

I'm not going to air anyone's laundry herein, but I could name quite a few playwrights with MFAs who come from very humble backgrounds. I don't think having an MFA is particularly meritorious, but it seems pretty presumptuous to assume things about people's backgrounds. What is this being based on? What people are writing about? So poor people are only allowed to write about being (or having been) poor?

Lucas Krech

I wonder how many other fields accept "I'm too lazy to do the work and too scared to make the sacrifices so I'll just lie on my resume" as a subject worthy of serious argument.

Because that is what we are talking about. Lies on a resume. I could get a lot of work if I lied on resumes. But it would be pathetic and demeaning.

Most of my classmates at NYU worked through school or took out significant loans. True too of my friends who went to Yale, Columbia, and other schools. The classist argument is a straw man and insulting to those who made real personal and financial sacrifices to get the education they have.

Of course this is the internet and there is no point in trying to win an argument but it makes me sad when a space I read for typically serious and considered subject matter puts nonsense like this up for honest consideration.

99

I think we can all acknowledge that this isn't (or shouldn't) be an argument about who worked harder or had a crappier life. I really think that pitting artists against each other is counter-productive. I know that wasn't my intention and I'm pretty sure that wasn't what Josh (and others) are getting at. Again, an MFA is, in and of itself, not the point. It's that it seems like a fairly arbitrary measure of the worth of a play or playwright. We can line up worthy examples up on both sides. But the point, for me, is about the gatekeepers who place value on these things.

I'm sorry if you're disappointed in this conversation. I don't think of it as an "argument" to win, but a discussion to have. I get frustrated when "I'm bored" or "I'm uncomfortable" or "I've been offended" turns into "This argument isn't worth having."

Jack Worthing

We're quickly descending into silliness, 99. I'd like to see someone actually try this. I've seen people lose jobs for sins of omission, so...hey. It's a small world, folks.

Josh

Wow. I'm sort of stunned. I was only trying to make light of an insecurity I had and the weirdness of being stuck between two classes, but belonging to neither.

I do think theater has a bad problem with class and elitism, but I don't think it's the fault of people who worked hard and went to Ivys. That would be too easy and besides, as 99 pointed out, it's not really helpful to pit artists against each other.

Obviously, I'm not really going to lie on my resume. I apologize for stirring up this beehive. Again, I was trying to be cheeky about my own background and life as a playwright, not denigrate my fellows.

Sheesh.

Ken

"But the point, for me, is about the gatekeepers who place value on these things."

99 is right--let's get the focus back on the real issue, and not fight amongst ourselves as to who has (or had) it the roughest.
The gatekeepers have succeeded in convincing a generation of writers that this bit of parchment, and the tens of thousands of dollars in loans needed to acquire it, are necessary credentials to call yourself a playwright. And they have done this out of fear, and the desire to take as few risks as possible. Therefore, a writer's MFA from Brown or Julliard is one more talisman the artistic directors and literary managers can grip to give them confidence to take a chance on a new play and new writer.

Josh

@Ken

Thank you.

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