The university men (and women)

I’ve been thinking lately that the business, if not the art of playwriting, has changed and that many playwrights are in a club to which I don’t belong.  The number of people with MFAs, many from prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale, who are produced and talked about and who are literary managers or artistic directors in charge of who gets produced and talked about seems to be proliferating and those without graduate degrees are on the outside looking in.

I have a friend who is going back to graduate school so that she can make it in the theatre.

It seems to me that this situation in turn affects the kind of theatre that’s produced.  People who come from a similar background will naturally choose to produce the kind of plays that reflect their lives and their political views and others will be left out, which makes the theatre world less vigorous and adventurous.

This is a huge generality, I know, and many literary managers will recognize a good play if it’s a good play but I still wonder if the cards are stacked against those not in the circuit.  I’d love to have people weigh in and discuss it.  Do others see the situation differently?

Marchette Chute says that something like that was happening in Shakespeare’s day.  “…university men were turning out popular plays, and although their choice of actual subject matter was not very different from that of their predecessors in the public theater, they brought with them a sensitive ear for words and a well-trained mind and some of them were real poets.”

Furthermore “….they valued their university training as something that set them above the common herd.”

One of the most successful writers from the university crowd, Richard Greene, was appalled that actors made so much more money than playwrights and he disliked one in particular who was intruding on his territory.

“There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

The upstart crow was William Shakespeare who continued to do quite well in spite of the criticism.

3 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, September 8, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    Just wanted to say thanks for the food for thought. I have no answers to your questions… I’ll just keep writing and hope to find my way through whatever preconceived notions are out there 🙂

  • By Tiffany, September 8, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I think this is a fascinating (and endless) point of discussion! I am one of those people who went into an MFA program, not necessarily because I thought it would guarantee employability OR producability (making up words here), but because I knew I needed to learn my craft. I graduated feeling like I had made invaluable discoveries, but with the very sober understanding that the Arts have always been and will continue to be, a market place ruled more by talent and ingenuity than by college degrees.

    As a sometimes literary manager and full-time-emerging playwright, I can say that it hasn’t been my experience to respond “better” towards fellow MFA’s – Although I have found that many plays written by MFA’s fall into the “Well-formatted” and “well-crafted” category, if not necessarily the “Most exciting story” bag. In my book, a play that has an exciting story is always the one that catches my eye… but those are hard to recognize if the person doing the telling doesn’t know how to do it. On the other hand, I’ve won some attention and awards, but my plays still aren’t getting produced (I”ve only just had my first “world premier” last year) MFA or no.

    Finally, I will share this short quip from a super-awkward experience I had last year at a meeting of LA Artistic Directors and Literary Managers: The meeting was called together to discuss the recently (at the time) released “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play”

    As these people sat together discussing the miserable pace at which new plays actually get produced in America, I stared in shock as first one, then two, then THREE of these theatre professionals spoke about the “uselessness” of MFA playwriting programs – in essence calling them a waste of time and money. One of the people commenting also made the remark (paraphrasing from memory) “If schools think they can churn out playwrights like lawyers, we’re in big trouble”

    So, it would seem (from this bunch at least) that there continue to be many camps on the subject – those that hold their nose high and in reverence to the degree’d, those that don’t think much of those expensive credentials, and those that fall somewhere in the betweens.

    Really good post! 🙂

  • By Robin Byrd, September 8, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    I must admit that I am sometimes annoyed – greatly – that the selected pieces in some conferences are MFAs and Artistic Directors and Founding Directors and Professors and the famous (at whatever — who have written a play). I try very hard to continue to believe it is about the work. Since I can not say yea or nay in many cases as to whether or not the plays have merit, I choose to believe the best. I am a firm believer that “your gift will make room for you and bring you before great men.” I remind myself that Edward Albee dropped out of college and August Wilson dropped out of high school. Then, I remind myself that I am a very good writer. Had circumstances in my life been different, I’d have a Ph.D. (not in Theater) and I would still be writing plays at this point in my life. Whether or not education or lack thereof affects my chances to get selected, I think it might in some cases. I read a lot of bios and one can tell by reading the bios of past playwrights produced how much degrees come into play for that particular organization.

    However, not having an agent affects how and to whom I submit which does, in turn, affect whether or not I get read. Most theaters don’t read unsolicited work and unless you are recommended by an Artistic Director or other Theater professional when allowed (in lieu of an agent), you are limited to the first 5 – 10 pages and a synopsis. If that snippet of your work catches their eyes, they’ll ask to read the whole piece which is a long shot. It’s very hard to get selected if you are not getting read. Getting read levels the playing field. Now, if agents are only looking for writers with MFAs…that there is a perpetual catch 22…

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