Blame Game

Blame Game


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?

5 thoughts on “Blame Game

  1. Hi Nick,

    I’m on the inside here and this is a much longer off the record conversation but I can tell you that Chris and Marsha do not tell us that “career success in theatre is ultimately a game of politics not talent or craft.” There are a lot more much longer conversations that go on in the room. They are however instilling a fight for your rights attitude which I appreciate.


  2. I’m not sure I would draw all of those conclusions (re: an attempt to shift focus on why no-one makes money in playwrighting) from the letter. (Plus, Julliard is free – which means it’s not hindering anyone financially.)

    But the tone of the letter was a little weird.

    And it’s even weirder that they didn’t contact anyone at the O’Neill about their allegations. Careless. Reckless.


  3. Hi Adam,

    I see the playwright’s rights as the straw dog here. I think Chris and Marsha were flexing their muscles. Not as playwrights, but as teachers of playwrights, the young talents that make the O’Neill relevant. The muscle flexing was a calculated political maneuver insuring they will have ongoing “veto power” over policy at the O’Neill.

    A comment you made at your blog is right on, “If there was only more money for everyone perhaps this would be less of a concern.” So the paternalism of kingpins Marsha and Chris would maybe justified in this affair if the Juilliard Mafia had an actual market to steal.

    But as a writer and producer of theatre I am the Capo di tutti capi, the Boss of Bosses. If I want a critic to review my workshop production in Chicago, I’ll have a critic review my workshop production in Chicago. If not, not …end of story. I don’t need no stinkin’ Guild to protect my rights or my relationship to the critic and the market.. “I’m Tony Montana! You fuck wit me, you fuckin’ wit da best!”

    What’s needed is a dramaturgy that places text within the collaborative process in new way. Writers within this process of course need to have equal rights with their actor, director, designer, marketer, dramaturg, producer peers. This dramaturgy needs to invent its own market even as it steals chunks of the market from what’s left of existing theatre. This collaboration in the new dramaturgy will not take place in school or at the O’Neill, and not so much in US where the model of scripts (text as first and final authority) dominates. So TheatreWithoutBorders. The core of the new dramaturgy will still be text but more specifically language. Luckily, the first language of the whole world is not English. So no authority. Authority can happen only in translation, i.e., collaboration. This is not something for the future; it is happening now and has been going on for some time.


  4. Hey Nick,

    This was a serious thing the O’Neill was asking for. A ridiculous thing. I don’t think that can be ignored. and part of the problem is that playwrights cannot be a union–because we don’t sell our work, we rent it. And so we can’t have the power of the Writers Guild. So I think now, the DG is trying to figure out how to protect us and maybe they are stumbling a little along the way (although I don’t believe the O’Neill thing is a stumble at all). And we are worth protecting.

    And because there is so little market and so little money, it means all the more that we get paid at all and don’t give our money away to all the many many people that want what little money we get.

    There is room for your new dramaturgy and for playwrights too. and my point is mostly that we don’t want our collaborators taking away what little money we have.

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