The Year of Living Statistically

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By Thomas Garvey
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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If Oscar Wilde believed he lived in an age of surfaces, then we believe we live in an age of statistics. Or rather, that what we believe can be supported by statistics. Our world views aren’t irrational, we educated folk tell ourselves, much less driven by personal predispositions, or collective mythology. No, our views are evidence-, not faith-, based; what we believe aligns well with the data, with what can be shown to be true about the world.

But actually, the data doesn’t always back up that self-assessment. Just ponder, for a moment, the theatrical blogosphere, which has been reeling over the past year in a near-orgy of statistical claims – most of which have faded faster than Martha Coakley’s lead in the Massachusetts senate race.

Only last summer, Emily Glassberg Sands announced that she’d demonstrated female playwrights were facing a landscape of entrenched sexism — and for a brief moment, her work was a cause cél√®bre. But it turned out Sands didn’t actually have the data to back up her thesis. Indeed, under scrutiny, all her claims fell apart but one: many women believed they were facing a landscape of entrenched sexism. Which is hardly the same thing. What’s more, Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout recently unearthed a startling bit of news: of the 10 new plays most produced by American theaters in the past decade (according to the magazine American Theatre), four were by women. Which would have been obvious to anyone actually watching the plays rather than drinking the post-feminist kool-aid.

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But Teachout then stumbled himself, as he mused that his data seemed to show all classical authors but Shakespeare were disappearing from the boards. He bemoaned the fact that he had could find in his rankings “No Samuel Beckett, no Bertolt Brecht, no Anton Chekhov, no Georges Feydeau, no Henrik Ibsen, no William Inge…no history, in other words.”

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Only Teachout was wrong, too. His method — he had simply synthesized the “Top 10” lists for 10 years running — had an obvious flaw (which he openly admitted): plays — and playwrights — could, over time, build up enough productions “under the radar” to beat the tallies of the authors in any single year’s Top 10. And utilizing the “advanced search” features on the very website Teachout had consulted, other bloggers soon found that classic playwrights were in fact being performed, just not in numbers that gave them any statistical prominence. Indeed, shows like The Importance of Being Earnest, though never in the golden circle, still racked up enough productions over the course of the decade to put Oscar Wilde ahead of many playwrights in Teachout’s pantheon.

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Still, the critic’s doubters found plenty of evidence supporting one of his surmises: In the national database under consideration, 1,163 productions of Shakespeare were listed for the years from 2000-10, far more productions than were given any other classic author, or indeed any author, period. “Shakespeare crowds out everything else,” one excitable blogger huffed (who later decided, in between musings on “the Bruckheimer phenomenon,” that we have “a Shakespeare problem”).

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Only he may be wrong, too. Here in Boston, erstwhile blogger Art Hennessey went to work assembling a spreadsheet of every professional theater in the Hub, categorizing each of its productions for the past decade. And Hennessey found that, at least locally, Shakespeare wasn’t crowding anyone out at all — except, perhaps, as Teachout had speculated, other classic authors. But new playwrights were doing just fine. Indeed, in the Hub they may even be crowding out Shakespeare: roughly 72% of Boston productions of the past decade were of contemporary plays.

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But wait, there’s more. Hennessey’s spreadsheet didn’t quite align with the database Teachout and others had been consulting; some Boston theaters and productions seemed to be missing. Questions began to bubble up about whether its numbers could be trusted. Like almost all such databases, it was self-reporting, an obvious problem for any kind of rigorous analysis.

And therein lies another rub in our ongoing love affair with statistics — like so many significant others, the data’s not always there when you need it. In fact, we can’t be 100% sure that it’s ever there, or even could be there.

To some bloggers, of course, this is merely a speed bump in a breathless race to find some data — any data — to fit their politics. (Or their career path.) To others, the lack of back-up is actually unthinkable: the data has to be there; those clever proofs we all read about in Freakonomics couldn’t all be exceptions to the rule, could they?

Of course the trouble is that yes, they oh-so-could, and yes, even with a degree from an East Coast liberal arts college, you may be driven more by self-serving assumptions and prejudice (particularly of the subconscious kind) than by dedication to social justice and art.

Not that I can prove that on a bar chart, mind you. But this may be an opportune moment to stop and ponder: what precisely have we in the theatrical blogosphere learned from our year of living statistically? More on that in the next post from Hub Hubbub.

Thomas Garvey has at various points in his checkered career impersonated a director, screenwriter, architect, strategic analyst, and Boston Globe theater critic. He’s still impersonating a critic at www.hubreview.blogspot.com, where you can read his “cantankerous, but brilliant” reviews of theater, music, art, film and dance.