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Blind Submissions

09.07.10 | 20 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, playwrights, rabble rousing

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?

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  • As a literary manager, one immediate snag to the idea (an interesting one, to be sure) comes up: playwright relationships. A part of the selection of the plays we develop or produce has to do with our relationship with the playwright. Are they easy to work with? Collaborative? Diva-ish? We can’t know from our history, or check with our colleagues, if we don’t know their names.

    Still, there may be a way to make some element of blind submission a factor–I’d be interested to hear ideas.

  • That’s secondary (said the playwright). Let the work stand for itself at first glance.

    If the company likes the work, talk to the playwright, look into his/her resume, get to know them. Doesn’t mean you have to produce the work. The relationship and the development of that relationship and script will come later. If it’s apparent early on that it’s not a love connection, it doesn’t have to continue.

    And this would mainly be for new playwrights, finding new voices for your company, as opposed to commissioning work from a specific playwright or working with playwrights you already know.

    Maybe building a new relationship this way pulls the company out of its comfort zone in a good way, too. Maybe it encourages them to find work they might not otherwise have looked at.

    Either way, that’s exactly the point. You shouldn’t be checking with your colleagues or your history when you’re looking for new work. You should look at the work. Period.

  • I agree: relationships are critical. (Though good productions have come from good plays written by, well, not-good playwrights.) Who wants to collaborate with a meanie or a stick-in-the-mud or a standoffish boor or an uncouth oaf?

    So… what if the relationship question were investigated after the plays were selected, but before the season was announced? Five plays are chosen, then the AD interviews the playwrights he or she doesn’t know? Checks their references? Does whatever is necessary to find out who the person is?

  • Tony Adams

    What happens if, for the sake of argument, a small company tries to do blind submissions, and gets 265 plays submitted in one month?

  • This reminds me of what is called, in the personnel hiring process, “fit.” Bad fit is one of those unfortunately non-falsifiable assertions often used as a reason not to hire somebody, and it doesn’t get involved until the interview process, after other intentional bias-reducing processes and mechanisms have run their course.

    Bad fit can be a perfectly good reason to deny employment, as the culture of an organization is important to that organization’s success. It can also be a mask for discrimination. I’m frequently suspicious of the “fit” excuse, especially if nearly all the jobs in a company are going to white people, or men. And I frequently believe this factor is over-weighted.

    Also, I will mention the obvious: if a playwright is never getting produced simply because of gender, ethnicity, or educational background, there will be precious little information to determine whether this playwright develops good working relationships with producers. You can’t know about a playwright’s working history if there are systematic biases in place that have denied that playwright the possibility of generating a working history.

  • RVCBard

    Exactly.

    I think the whole point of blind submissions is increasing risk tolerance. All these “new” variables aren’t all that new, and the risk is about the same.

    To go on another tangent . . .

    Another danger with this (insofar as the Big Reveal comes about) is that the people in charge of the production wind up investing very little in this newfound talent – skimping on marketing, not doing much with publicity, and so on – then acting like the reason why it doesn’t get as many butts in seats is because women/people of color/non-MFAs/whatever don’t sell shows.

  • RVCBard

    This is a real problem, but it’s no different, I think, from any other open submissions policy.

    Perhaps something saying that the first X scripts will be considered for period Y?

  • That’s a really good point. There is a big difference between knocking down obstacles (biases during the screening process) vs. bridging chasms (by which I mean enthusiastically inviting and fully supporting under-represented artists). Since we often have walls and chasms, both are necessary, but neither is enough.

  • I think — but I’d like to know what you think — that open and blind submissions aren’t necessarily the same thing, technically. A small theater could do one, the other, or both.

    Really, though I wonder if this shouldn’t be thought of in the context of the script submission/review database I wrote about a LONG while back here on 2amt. Look for the post about Disruptive Technology, if you don’t recall it…

  • I think you’re both onto something. Changing play selection techniques would really only work if it were part of a larger cultural shift in the way theaters think about what they do.

  • Aaron Andersen

    I work at a symphony orchestra, and I can say that while women are now well-represented in orchestras, they are very rarely conductors, and principal musicians are usually men. So biases still exist. This is despite the fact that women are predominate in American symphony orchestra management.

    Also, there are very few Latino and African Americans in symphony orchestras. Color-blindness just can’t solve problems created over the course of generations.

  • Steve

    Hey Zev,

    Wasn’t DrekFest blind? If so, that right there is a way to establish a relationship with a theatre & have work judged by itself, not by the writer’s pedigree. Was it a logistical nightmare?

    Good times.

  • It’s definitely not a panacea… but it’s part of the solution, I think, rather than part of the problem.

    Very interesting re: gender biases. Not surprised there’s still a glass ceiling… especially since interviews for conductors aren’t held behind screens.

  • Hey Steve,

    DrekFest was blind, and it worked pretty well. However, there were a couple of factors which made it easier than having the regular play submission process be blind:specifically, the plays were all short and there was a limited number of plays submitted. It’s one thing to read 40 ten or so page scripts, another to read hundreds of full-length. And even then, it took the efforts of our managing director to strip the identifying information, code the scripts, and then contact the playwrights when we picked their plays. It would be a much larger challenge if our entire submission process were done that way, especially since nobody on the literary team could do that work, as it would “bias” their reading.

    And here’s the odd thing with DrekFest: while it was completely blind, seven of the eight semi-finalists were white men. So it hardly guarantees a greater diversity.

  • Every place I’ve had to submit for a blind reading, it fell on me to make the script anonymous, not the company. So you make that part of the requirements. That’s easy. And yes, you’ll still have someone who’ll need to coordinate and keep track of names, but that someone wouldn’t be part of the reading process. It’s really not a big deal if done right.

    And no, there’s no guarantee about diversity. That’s beside the point. If it’s your theatre’s mission to produce a specific gender/race/etc, that’s one thing. But if you’re simply looking for new work, then you should look at the work first without an agenda either way.

    This isn’t about diversity, it’s about the work itself, period.

  • Tony Adams

    How do you do blind submissions without them being open? Or are you talking about blind reading of submissions?

    A big problem that needs to be examined is the funnel through which plays are taken in. Blind readings of submissions that have been curated doesn’t really change much. They’re still coming in from the same sources, and will come through a lit dept in much the same manner.

    But there is a secondary issue. Often plays submitted by women and writers of color do not seem as “good” as those by white men upon first reading by people in lit depts.

    I think there’s two main reasons for this: one is there are as many different ways of telling a story as there are stories to be told. Culture can act as a filter through which we see the text. However, many readers have their “filters’ set almost exclusively by euro-centric male writers. A writer who works from a different tradition will often be misread when first encountered by readers.

    Also, writers improve through production. When resources and productions are dominated by men (mostly white) the writers who get the productions will improve more with each play (the more productions, the better the writer gets) and tend to submit what seem like more polished scripts in line with what lit dept. readers want to read.

    Neither speaks to the potential or quality of the script or how audiences will react, but to the need for opening up how AD’s and lit depts view the landscape.

    • Tony, these are definitely some challenging questions you’ve raised.

      I was speaking about blind reading, but I suppose what I’m really imagining would be far easier to implement with open submissions. However, I’m not sure I see your concern. Are you thinking that blind review will increase the number of submissions? I mean, if you’re going to get a lot of scripts anyway, why not review them blindly? The only objection I can imagine is that seeing the name of the playwright, or his/her MFA, will help you filter a list of contenders down… but that’s precisely what we’re trying to avoid, isn’t it?

      Your secondary issue, I think, is actually my primary concern: biases against different modes of storytelling that would “leak through” in the text itself. All I can say in response is that, as I’ve said, I think the method I’ve described will be most useful within a larger cultural shift in which ADs are embracing an effort to look for new modes of storytelling. They’ll have to actively work against the biases you’ve identified: to think perhaps about the stories their audiences (or their un-reached audiences want to hear, rather than the stories they want to tell. That’s a huge selfless leap that has to be made, and I don’t mean to diminish it at all.

  • Anonymous

    With the technology at hand, It would really not be a terribly difficult thing to create a digital submission form that will take in identifying data with a submission, separate it from script proper and funnel the anonymous scripts to a lit dept with something like a number/barcode etc that can later be entered back in to pull up contact/personal information of the playwright.
    I wonder if Brian Seitel would be interested in such a project.

  • Steve

    Zev,

    I don’t think your entire submission process could be blind & I of course love the relationships you discuss (I have a few myself). I was using DrekFest as an example that it can be done & this model might be useful in finding new voices/new play development (beyond the synopsis level). Doesn’t the process you described in your initial response pretty much favor already established writers?

    Nice conversation.

  • Keith Beck

    The work of the the development of new plays has not changed much since the invention of the 8 track came and went. Blind has nothing to do with it. Going back to Blink, you need to have your 10,000 hours of practice to have the opportunity to get close to the something that creates the talent – in this case that would be if you beleive Malcome a Blink able event or compeling theater. Now if you add an ensemble that works from that premise and a director that works from that premise can the New Play selection process leap forward toward a distruptive technology for new play development? I think so which is why I have a patent pending on re-inventing how a theater company can discover news plays with the “Blink” potential. It has nothing to do with Blind submissions, Literary managers or ensemble bonding beer drinking retreats. Its all about where in the work is the 10,000 hours of Blink time and can you reduce that time if you work with the tools of another Book called “Flow” We keep on looking at the playwrite and the script. When we should be looking at the tools we use to review that work.

    e working form a state of “Flow” another book that is similar to “Blink”


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