In Praise of Being a Blind Reader
Though the play was being read anonymously, from what I was hearing, the author had to be our resident toad, since the piece was one long pretentious croak. Critique sessions sometimes hatch a resident toad, someone who leans forward, skin stretched tight over his small-boned face, and slams every piece, then leans back, tiny eyes glittering in satisfaction. I did not like the guy. Therefore, I did not like his piece.
I always take notes during readings, both to give precise criticism and because, sometimes what I want to say I should not say, and writing relieves me of the urge to say it. In this case, I soon gave up critiquing and just got nasty: “pompous crap,” “It’s so dull,” “I wish pirates would invade this room.”
American society might drift away from an art form that seems disconnected from it, weakening the cultural ties that keep us relevant and the financial ties that help us survive.
However, when the author was revealed, it turned out to be a friend of mine. That’s when I realized the value of blind readings, not just for playwrights, but for American theatre as a whole, which is in danger of losing its focus on scripts in favor of becoming an insider’s game for an insider audience. American theatre is cutting off fresh creative blood from outliers who didn’t major in theatre or graduate from sanctified MFA programs. The resulting insularity puts us at risk of becoming a cloistered academic art. Anonymous submissions could counteract that.
Theatre’s always had a cliquish rep. I get that. I know our labor-intensive, low-paying art form encourages people to bond with their comrades in the trenches. However, as today’s hermetic network hardens over our subculture like a cholesterated artery, it could cut off oxygen from the outside world in the form of audience, interest, and money. American society might drift away from an art form that seems disconnected from it, weakening the cultural ties that keep us relevant and the financial ties that help us survive.
I sense shrugs of indifference rippling from sea to shining sea. You might be thinking, “Aw, stop crying and suck it up. Theatre’s tough for everybody.” This isn’t a case of tough. It’s a case of theatre excluding artists whose craft improves with wider life experience. A graduate degree doesn’t necessarily make you a better playwright, and not everyone can afford to go to grad school (grad students tend to come from families who can afford to send them there). The resulting playwrights tend not to have kids, or strong interests outside of theatre. This limits both the variety of writer and their life experiences, which can limit the scope of their playwriting.
Our growing academic insularity was noted five years ago in Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, “The training track for playwrights begins in college… nearly two out of three practicing playwrights come through one training program or another. Older playwrights are less likely to have advanced playwriting degrees, further evidence that this ‘track’ is a fairly recent development…. Seven schools account for almost nine out of ten of the study playwrights [playwrights interviewed for the book] with advanced professional training… . 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….”
Today’s theatres are largely run by graduates of ten sanctified institutions: Yale, Columbia, UT/Austin, University of Iowa, FSU, Brown, Julliard, NYU, Tisch, and San Diego. Their artistic and literary directors want twenty-something playwrights with MFAs, preferably from their alma mater. In the two decades I’ve been writing for theatre, I’ve witnessed a disheartening trend toward selecting only playwrights fitting this criteria, as well as theatres dropping open submission policies in favor of agent- or professional-recommendation only. How does a playwright get an agent? Your best shot is as a fresh MFA with a few university productions under your belt and a professorial recommendation. And so the system burrows into itself.
Today, script quality is a quaternary consideration, after personal connections, age, and academic pedigree. Scripts submitted by someone from the desirable demographic are much likelier to receive full and thoughtful consideration than outlier scripts. Theatre also has a strong flavor-of-the-month effect, with insider directors jostling each other to produce newly-hatched playwrights promoted by influential theatre insiders. However, how many audience members really care about the latest offerings from the MFA spigot? You’d think they’d be keener about well-written plays that connect with their lives. That’s why I sing in praise of blind readings.
Anonymous submissions put sole focus on the script. They are especially important in writing competitions, since that’s how outliers usually get a foot in the door. When you read an anonymous script, you can’t have a preconceived bias about the playwright’s region, age, gender, sexual preference, race, or ethnicity. You might deduce it from the script, but the point is, you deduce it from the script, not from contextual bias (and you may be wrong, as I was at the “anonymous toad” reading, which can give you a wake-up call about your personal objectivity). You say that seeing a familiar name or the name of the author’s agent on the title page doesn’t affect your judgment? Then you don’t need that information in the first place. Context can blinker your evaluation of a script’s quality because you automatically make extraneous assumptions. Strip out context and you have a better chance of judging the script by itself alone.
Artistic and literary directors may think they only consider the script while reading it, but everyone thinks in context. For instance, an author's gender influences reader assumptions, female literary directors being more biased than male literary directors against female playwrights. This startling response was discovered when researcher Emily Glassberg Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers nationwide. Ms. Sands said in a New York Times article in 2009, “The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s. The biggest surprise? ‘These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers.’”
If blind submissions became standard, we might experience the revolution that hit classical music with standard blind auditions. As described in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, it used to be that almost every orchestra musician was a white man of European descent. Since classical music was a white male European art form, the assumption was that only a white man of European origin could understand and perform it. But when auditioning behind a scrim became de rigueur, orchestra conductors discovered that many outstanding auditionees were black, brown, Asian, or Hispanic, and quite a few were women. This caused a fundamental shift in the composition of today’s orchestras. Another powerful example of the value of anonymous submissions is the Vietnam Memorial. The review panel received more than 1,400 anonymous design submissions, many from prestigious architects, but selected the one by Yale student Maya Lin. She later wrote, “From the very beginning I often wondered, if it had not been an anonymous entry [Number] 1026 but rather an entry by Maya Lin, would I have been selected?”
Blind submissions wouldn’t mean theatres would have to program the next season from the slush pile, but if a theatre is touting a developmental workshop or barebones production or anything involving new work, blind subs will make the process appear more fair and give outliers a fighting chance. A national method for ensuring blind subs is certainly doable. Mark Gordon, a Manhattan theatre person and software developer, has proposed a website where theatres could submit scripts whose identification is automatically removed; IDs can be retrieved after scripts are selected. If software can sequence the human genome, creating an anonymous submission site can’t be that difficult.
Americans believe in the romantic notion of a meritocracy, and though it might be more honored in the breach than in the observance, blatant bias surely jaundices the general population’s perception of our field.
Some of my friends disagree with the concept of anonymous submissions. “People want to work with friends,” said one, mentioning in the same conversation her high hopes for a playwriting competition, since she knew one of the judges. Another said there’s no point in anonymous submissions since the process can be circumvented. I agree. If you want to get around such a process, there are ways to do so. Then again, people blow through stop signs. That doesn’t mean we tear the signs down.
Perhaps the rise of academic networking is a survival mechanism, bleak times engendering a lifeboat mentality. If so, it’s shortsighted: a reputation for insularity and cronyism makes any occupation easier to dismiss. Americans believe in the romantic notion of a meritocracy, and though it might be more honored in the breach than in the observance, blatant bias surely jaundices the general population’s perception of our field.
A few years ago, I contacted the literary director of an Off-Broadway theatre in The Village. He invited me over, and I pitched my plays and creds to him in the theatre aisle. A staffer came up to him, so we parted ways. As I tromped down the stairs to the street, I heard the staffer ask, “Who was that?” The LD replied, “I dunno. Someone from Georgia.” I realized that even before I’d reached the last step, I’d disappeared. He’d identified (and dismissed) me by the region I was from. Not surprisingly, when I sent a follow up email mentioning a play that might fit his theatre’s sensibility, I never heard back.
Being an outlier can leave you feeling invisible. I once attended a reading by an author I admire because he knows what he’s doing and does terrific work. It was a packed audience, and I was having a great time until it struck me that this was like The Rapture, and I was one of those being left behind. It didn’t matter what I wrote, or how much I wrote, or how well I wrote —as far as professional theatrewas concerned, I didn’t exist: I was too old and lacked an MFA. I drove home feeling physically sick. It was as if, after spending twenty years on my craft, I faced nothing but a closed door.
Maybe it’s time for me to leave. Would American theatre suffer a loss if I do? No. But multiply that by hundreds of potential writers a year, by thousands over the years, and as this army of outliers tromps up the stairs in search of theatre heaven, each writer disappearing before s/he even reaches the landing… yes, that’s a loss.
What if it became sexy to accept only blind submissions? What if theatres that did so were considered cool? At the least, I guarantee there’d be fewer plays about twenty-something middle- or upper-class urban writer/roommates battling Society’s Indifference. Wouldn’t that alone make blind submissions worth it?