Money, Opportunity and the Development of “Talent”

A theatrical representation of the struggle non-wealthy students face in pursuit of a theater career. (Ironically, as performed at a school that seems to have a well-funded theater program.) / via

The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz

The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz

In his excellent book The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life, author Robert Fritz explains that human beings, like water, will naturally follow the path of least resistance, and that the only way to change the path of a river is to change the direction of the riverbed. In other words, people and by extension systems have underlying structures that control them and the activities that occur within them. Winston Churchill described the same phenomenon when he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Once we create walls and ceilings and doors, certain paths are created and others are prohibited. This isn’t a new idea. Marx wrote about base and superstructure — similar idea. Buckminster Fuller wrote,”Reform the environment, stop trying to reform the people. They will reform themselves if the environment is right.” This was what I was trying to say last month in my post about diversity: we need to change the river.

That essay spent a great deal of time talking about how “they,” the people in charge, must change their behavior — and why they don’t seem to be able to. Our understandable tendency is to focus on reforming people, instead of reshaping the environment, remolding the river’s bed, changing the base.

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Back in 2009, Todd London published a book entitled Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, in which he shared some facts about the playwrights who participated in the study, and also pertinent to this discussion:

A full 56 percent of the playwrights completed Masters (8%) or MFA (48%) level training, a figure that doesn’t include the other 7 percent who attended the non-degree program at Julliard. In other words, 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. Of the respondents with MFAs, almost three-quarters come through one of six programs — Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, and Brown University (in order of the number of graduates in this study). Add the non-degreed Julliard students and seven schools account for almost nine out of ten of the study playwrights with advanced professional training, or 42 percent of all 250 playwrights responding. 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, offering entree to their students where access might otherwise be more difficult.

Outrageous Fortune book

Outrageous Fortune
by Todd London

One reaction to this information might be boredom with the statement of the obvious. So many young theatre artists I talk to seems to see these programs — in playwriting, yes, but acting, directing and designing have their own only slightly different version of this Big Seven — as their ticket to The Profession. However, I rarely hear them talk about wanting to study with a particular teacher, but rather the focus is almost always on “making connections,” on “having doors opened.” In other words, they are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition as, basically, a bribe for access. Everyone smiles grimly and nods — yes, that is Just the Way It Is.

And while careerist cynicism may be the attitude du jour, all it takes is one step back to see how this one single “system” is tangled with so many other issues to which we all object and that we all wish to see changed. One of these – perhaps the most important — is diversity. And one aspect of diversity — the aspect that Americans do their best to ignore, even people who are concerned with diversity — is class. This post is about the intersection of Class Avenue and Education Street.

Take a look at London’s list again: Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Iowa, Brown University, and Julliard. Five of those schools are very expensive private schools — they ain’t called “elite” for nothing — and while they often have generous financial aid packages available, the reality is that preference oftentimes goes toward those who can pay their own way. The ramifications of this fact should be obvious: the people who go there will either be from wealthy families, or alternately will be people who go deeply into debt in order to attend. While there are some (all too many) who will be foolish enough to undertake such a debt load, the reality is that it is primarily the children of the upper or upper-middle classes who are in a position to even consider going to such schools. In other words, admissions is a class issue. It is the last wrung in a series of systemic ladders that privilege the wealthy at the expense of the lower classes, but that we disingenuously portray as a meritocracy.

It begins in high school. If you are fortunate enough to grow up in a wealthy suburb, you are likely to have the benefit of a drama teacher (or two) at your school and a well-financed and active drama program where you can begin to develop your talents and gain experience in front of an audience. If your parents are wealthy enough, they will notice your theatrical interests and send you off to drama summer camps for further arts training, and perhaps they will pull whatever strings are necessary to get you enrolled in a high school of performing arts, where you will receive more attention, more training and more experience. The teachers in these programs, being savvy promoters of their students and who understand how the system works, will be certain to take their most gifted students to college admissions auditions at places like the North Carolina Theatre Conference (NCTC), where they will be courted by universities from across the region, all waving wonderful scholarship opportunities. The best of that group of high school students, the ones who combine a certain innate talent and drive with a great deal of buffing and preparation from their teachers, will be courted by elite Ivy League universities. There they will continue to experience all the benefits that money can buy.

Let me give you a real life example.

Every year, representatives from my department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville used to go to the NCTC to attend the high school theatre auditions. Most of the colleges and universities from across the state sent their representatives to recruit talented young people who are interested in theatre. We all sell our programs, and many of the private schools make scholarship offers on the spot.

I had been wondering about the demographics of this group of young people, who usually number around 100, plus or minus (the year I examined, the number was 84). So I gathered together the resumes of the auditionees and started crunching numbers. What I found is interesting in a lot of ways. What follows is a snapshot:

  • There are 100 counties in North Carolina; the auditionees come from 18 of them.
  • Two counties — Mecklenburg and Forsyth — provide 61% of the auditionees.
  • The median household income for NC in 2012 was $45,150; the median household income for Mecklenburg County was $55,961 and the median household income for Forsyth County was $45,809
  • The average median household income for the 18 counties who sent students was $51,514.
  • Of the eighteen counties who sent students, only one was a county with a median household income below the median for NC; the two students from there attended a private college preparatory school.
  • A total of five schools provided 52% of the auditionees; three of them were schools for the arts.
  • 73% of the auditionees had some sort of arts training outside of high school (classes, workshops, etc.); for the students who attended the arts schools, that figure rose to 91%.
  • 20% of the auditionees were people of color; of those, 76% were from Mecklenburg or Forsyth Counties.

While one might argue that this seems normal – Mecklenburg County, after all, has a population of over 1.2 million people or almost 12.5% of the state’s population – the fact remains that those two counties were over-represented at these auditions by five times. So unless we believe that talent is unevenly distributed within states – that some zip codes are just more creative than others – we have to look elsewhere for the reason. We need to look at the riverbed.

The benefits of being a resident of a particular county where an arts program is available and well-funded, and the child of parents wealthy enough to send you to cultural enrichment programs make you more likely to be heavily recruited at a place like NCTC.

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A theatrical representation of the struggle non-wealthy students face in pursuit of a theater career. (Ironically, as performed at a school that seems to have a well-funded theater program.) / via

Theatrical representation of the struggle of less wealthy students in pursuit of a theater career.
(Ironically, as performed at a school that seems to have a well-funded theater program.) / via

Contrast this with another young person who, like his wealthy counterpart, has the early stirrings of an interest in theatre. But this person lives in a rural area, or in the inner city, where tight budgets are the rule of the day and there is no drama teacher at all. If there is money to produce a play or two during the course of the year, it is directed by the overworked English teacher and produced on a shoestring in the school gymnasium. This teacher does her best to help this young, talented person, but she has no theatre training, and she has no idea that there are college admissions auditions for theatre, and if she does know it, she has no idea how best to help her student prepare for them. Summers, instead of going off to drama camp, this young person works 30 hours a week at the Wal-Mart to make money to go to college, if he is fortunate. This person will likely apply only to public universities that are close to home, regardless of the quality of the Drama Department, because his parents, who didn’t go to college themselves believe they can’t afford the price tag of a private school, and besides their son has to live at home to save the cost of room and board. While in college (or community college), he must work 20 hours a week to pay for living expenses, which limits the number of shows he has time to do. Compared to his wealthy counterpart, he is far behind in the race to the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell shows in his book Outliers to be the requisite number to acquire mastery. Furthermore, he hasn’t really received much personal attention from his professors, because he isn’t around the department very much because of his work schedule.

After graduation, both students set off for the Big City to gain some professional experience. The wealthy student arrives with no student loan debt and living expenses provided by parents; the poor student gets a full-time day job to pay the rent, food and make student loan repayments. The wealthy student is in a position to take a poorly paid internship at a prominent regional theatre, where he meets many successful professionals who are impressed with his talent and motivation. The poor student attends as many open auditions as he can without missing so much work that he loses his job, and he lands a gig or two in storefront productions done on a shoestring budget and that go unremarked in the local press.

After three years, both decide they would benefit from graduate school, and they apply to the Big Seven. The professors there look over their resumes. They look at the wealthy student’s materials and they see the glowing letter of recommendation from the associate artistic director at the regional theatre where the student interned — the associate artistic director that one faculty member worked with a few years ago and who went to the same graduate school as the department chair. They also see the experiences at “prestigious” schools and conservatories, and they see the long list of projects that the student participated in.

Then they look at the materials of the poor student, whose letters of recommendation are from someone they don’t know at a school they have never heard of, and they look at the few obscure projects the poor student did over the past three years.

And who do you suppose they choose? Based, of course, on an “objective evaluation” of their demonstrated talent and potential (i.e., a 2-1/2 min monologue and 10 bars of a song)? Gee, I wonder.

So now our wealthy student is part of a Big Seven MFA program, and his tuition is paid for by mom and dad, who are proud of their son’s (or daughter’s) talent and progress and who continue to be supportive as they were when he was a teen, and the professors there are well-connected and happy to introduce their talented young protégé to people who can help him out. And soon he manages to land a small part at the regional theatre where he interned a few years ago, and thanks to a connection from a professor his performance is seen by an agent who takes him on. And pretty soon, lo and behold, he is the Hot New Thing.

And when we discuss his career, we focus on his talent and hard work, and maybe his luck. And we turn a blind eye to all the benefits he’s had as a privileged member of our society, because we all have learned that well-worn myth that theatre is about innate talent and desire, not anything as grubby as class or opportunity.

But when a study like Todd London’s comes out that hints just a wee bit at tip of the iceberg that is this “system,” theatre people all over the country yawn, shrug and casually remark that that’s Just the Way It Is, and there’s probably something about talent underneath it all anyway.

And then they go back to struggling to create diversity on their stages.

We need to change the riverbed much further upstream than the point where people enter the profession through graduate schools. We need to make changes at the source.

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  • Yes, the two students are not “real,” they are an amalgamation. There are many books available that discuss elite school admissions — most recently “Excellent Sheep” — that show that class demographics are pretty homogeneous, “need blind” or not. As I mentioned in the first part of the essay, the sorting process begins much earlier in K-12. So the idea that admission is based on “brain power” and an ability to “do the work” is not quite as merit-based as it seems. For instance, the SAT is less useful for predicting college success than predicting the income of the parents. Summer enrichment programs, presence of trained HS teachers and well-financed program, available course offerings — all affect the “ability to do the work.” I think it is not quite as meritocratic as we pretend.

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