Lucky for the students at Juilliard that Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman are teaching playwriting and not investigative journalism. This is second time in as many months they have been perpetrators in playwright boycotts and attacks against individuals innocent of the crimes of which they were accused. First Hedy Weiss and now the O’Neill Playwrights Conference.
Durang and Norman have co-chaired the Playwriting Program at Juilliard since 1994 and their recent letter to their former students begins with “Dear Julliard Mafia.” This salutation is only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Most young playwrights applying to graduate programs hope either Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama accepts them because they believe it will fast track their career. The Juilliard and Yale “mafias” do exist in the sense that friends and peers from these schools tend to continue to collaborate in theatre in New York after graduation but beyond this natural continuity, there is no blood oath or secret handshake to learn.
These witch-hunts are at their core really seeking scapegoats for the inability of playwrights to have a career in our culture. Few playwrights make their living from writing for theatre although many have found careers in their “day job” as teachers or writers for film and television. None of these teaching playwrights would be so dishonest as to suggest to their students that they might one day be able to make a living at writing plays but what exactly then is the “business advice” being advanced by these MFA playwriting programs? One can wonder whether Durang and Norman in these wrongheaded “letter campaigns,” are (un)intentionally telling their students that career success in theatre is ultimately a game of politics not talent or craft. And if this is true, what does it say about the state of American theatre today and tomorrow?