I want to start by asking a simple question: what plays would get produced if artistic directors were only allowed to select from anonymously-submitted blind scripts?

What if, in other words, artistic directors had to choose plays without knowing the names of the people who’d written them – or their genders, their ages, their races, or whether they had  MFAs or not (let alone where those MFAs were earned)?

Whose plays would get produced?

Before you answer, let me paraphrase a story from Malcolm Gladwell’s very compelling and much-discussed book Blink.

For many years, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra was a no-girls-allowed he-man club. They literally didn’t have even a single female musician. In fact, they didn’t even audition female performers out of a misinformed belief that men were – get this – inherently better musicians: a belief that, sadly, used to be prevalent at orchestras around the world.

One day, however, they accidentally invited a woman named Abbie Conant to audition. It was a clerical error that quickly got out of hand.

As it happened, because one of the other candidates they were auditioning was a relative of the conductor, they seated each performer behind a screen so that nobody knew who was who – which meant, of course, that nobody knew Abbie was a woman when she did her thing.

Her audition was a rousing success – so much so that the evidently-misogynist conductor, upon hearing her play, cancelled the remaining auditions: “That’s it,” he announced very loudly, “We have found our new orchestra member.  Send everyone else home.”

The resulting conflict – which took years and untold legal fees to resolve – completely transformed not only the Munich Philharmonic, but the entire classical music sphere. More and more, orchestras began to adopt the behind-a-screen audition process, and in short order – a couple of decades – every orchestra who used it became gender-balanced. The “men are better musicians” theory was dead.

So… back to plays and playwrights.

A great deal of attention has been paid of late – and rightfully so – to the fact that plays by men vastly outnumber plays by women on Broadway (and elsewhere). What do you think would happen to that balance if scripts were always considered without names attached to them?

The question could be asked about ethnicity as well, couldn’t it? And maybe even age? Or how about city of residence? What if an artistic director had no idea whether a particular playwright lived in New York or in Hays, Kansas?

Thanks to Outrageous Fortune, we learned about a significant bias toward the work of playwrights who have emerged from a small subset of the country’s MFA programs. Do you think their work would be produced as often as it is if it had to be submitted blindly?

I suspect, without knowing for sure, that things would change significantly… and for the better. Work would be judged on its own merits. More stories by women playwrights and playwrights of color would enter our national dialogue, which would be an immeasurable gain. Playwrights would make different decisions about which MFA programs to enter – and whether to enter them at all.

So why doesn’t every theater start doing this right now? What are they afraid of? Are there case studies from theaters that have tried blind submissions that would illustrate how they worked? Are there any problems that need to be considered?

Why shouldn’t we transform our industry, the way the world’s orchestras seem to have transformed theirs? What are we waiting for?

  • September 7, 2010
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