Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Scott Walters Talks Diversity II: Don't Give Up On Quality.

99 Seats has a post up tackling the question of "Quality" as defended by those people who are against Scott's idea.

I wrote a much longer post as a response to Scott Walters' original post because, although I objected to his idea, I get nervous talking at length about diversity largely because I'm half North African, but because that North African heritage is Jewish I still usually count as Caucasian, and it's hard not to sound like a status quo apologist when you're arguing against a measure put forward in front of diversity.

Luckily, I get tossed something across my plate like 99 Seats, which is written not with just enough lazy scorn, calling the concern of people like me that the quality of plays might be important "The Quality Dodge."

Let me leave aside the implication that we're talking about the bad ideas of affirmative action and the implicit assumption that work from outside the mainstream system will necessarily be of lower quality. That's annoying and offensive enough. I'm having the most trouble with the circular logic of the argument.
First off, wasn't Scott talking about a form of Affirmative Action?

The numbers are put into a jar. Any play by a playwright that has certain characteristics the theatre wants to seek out (say, African-American or international or lower-class or rural, whatever) has additional slips put into the jar. And then a lottery is held.
In his scheme, he proposes not just a lottery, but a lottery in which the odds are deliberately inflated in the direction of certain groups of people. I'm not actually one of those people who have knee-jerk negative reactions to Affirmative Action--I think it was a very important move at the time, and I don't know if its continued utility pays off in a lot of forums. I also agree with the court's ruling in Bakke v. University of California that it is inappropriate for the government to continue the practice on legal grounds.

Anyways, I'm getting sidetracked. My point is that the "implication that we're talking about the bad ideas of affirmative action" is off-base because what Scott proposed was affirmative action. The lottery was only one part of his idea. The other part of his idea was gaming the lottery. Otherwise there's no guarantee that your lottery is going to be any more diverse than your selection process! After all, who says that an equal diverse group of people are submitting?

Secondly the "implicit assumption that plays outside the mainstream" is not the problem. I would be against a lottery system that only selected plays that have won Pulitzers. I would be against a lottery system that only selected Shakespeare plays. The point is, as someone who is in the position of choosing plays, I want to at least be able to say one thing: I chose that play. This is the play I felt strongly about, the one that I walked away from the process thinking it was mine. I wrote a post over at my theater company's blog about how producing a play is an act of love. I really mean that.

It's related to what seems like 99 Seats' central point about our concerns about quality:

What about the question of quality?, you ask. What about it? I'm sorry, I missed the memo where theatres only produce perfect plays. Did that suddenly happen? Sometimes you set out to produce a play and it turns out well. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you think it turns out well and no one else does. There's always an element of chance in what we do. A while back, Don Hall quoted a Broadway producer who said, in essence, "If I'd produced all the plays I didn't and didn't produce the plays I did, the outcome would have been the same."
I mean, I don't know who that Broadway producer is, and honestly, that's exactly what's wrong with Broadway these days anyways. We're not talking "quality" in terms of successes, necessarily. The Broadway producer that put Assassins up on Broadway, I think, did something of quality that people across the country are indebted to, whether or not he could in any way be called successful. The point is that if I didn't produce all the plays I d and did produce all the plays I didn't, I'd have produced plays I didn't like rather than plays I feel strongly about.

If we're not going to put up plays we feel strongly about, why are we doing this? What is the point of diversity if it's not in the service of plays that we're passionate about, performances we're passionate about? What I'm afraid of (since 99 Seats asked) is that the theater field we're a part of becomes even more about putting on plays for so many reasons other than because we're trying to put on a good show.

99 Seats is aware of that danger. His criticism of many theaters today is not inaccurate:
One of the nice, tidy little lies we tell ourselves is that literary managers are out there, making decisions about which plays are being produced based solely on their personal tastes. That's only true for a small group of theatres. A lot of the major theatres, the ones less interested in new plays, are programming based on an already complicated rubric, one that involves whatever got the best recent review in the NY Times. Basically a lottery in and of itself.
I dunno what self-deluded straw man 99 Seats thinks actually believes that literary managers are perfect people doing their jobs right--but that sort of "oh no they're not the saints we thought they were" applies equally to Congressmen, police officers, and my mother. (By the way, Isaac responds here, and 99 Seats posts an insider response here) But this problem 99 Seats doesn't care about solving. On this problem, 99 Seats counsels:
Why not embrace the randomness, the chance and oddness of what we do?
Why should we embrace our failure on the issue of quality any more than we should embrace our failure on the issue of diversity? It would be equally easy for me to say "Why not just embrace the connection system of the MFA program and just help more black people get in?"

Just because a proposed solution is "extreme" doesn't mean it actually is a solution.

By arguing that there isn't some objective standard of what's good or not, but insisting that the theatres act as though there is, leads us down the same path we're on.
Two separate ideas just got lumped into one there. Nobody (or at least not me) is asserting that there is an objective standard of good, a golden ratio, a well-made play. But one of the most poisonous ideas that Post-modernism (which brought in a lot of great ideas but a few poisonous ones) brought to fore was the implication that because there is no objective standard of good, there are no standards of good at all. And that just simply is not true. The fact that standards might be relative doesn't give us an excuse to simply abandon the concept of good any more than the fact that moral good is relative allows us to just say "well shouldn't we embrace the randomness?"

That last point, by the way, is the subject of a thesis I'm writing and it's something I'm a bit steamed about lately, so I'm going to let it lie there.

My final point: diversity is worth fighting for. So is quality. I don't think we should settle for a solution that guts one for the other.

(also, just as I was finishing up this post, I saw Matthew Freeman's two sentence summation of the same idea I've been writing as:
I don't agree with Scott's provocative idea because I prefer choice over chance. If we stop trusting people to make real decisions, we give up on their ability to make good choices and grapple with complexity.
That's it exactly)