Saturday, January 28, 2006


Almost twenty years ago, I dropped out of an MFA program because they kept me so busy with production that there was no time to think. I came to the program hoping to learn new ideas, discover new approaches, develop my own unique aesthetic within a larger context. But instead, I found myself stage managing, directing constantly, and learning "technique." I decided this was no way to become an artist, it was just the way to become another cog in the theatrical machinery.

Over at, I find that the non-thinking attitude is still prevalent. I a comment on an admirable post called "Teaching is Power," Lucas Krech writes: "What makes you good is doing it. If you want to be a writer write. If you want to be a director direct. Reading can’t teach you how to write, it can only teach you how other people write, except that writing is a process not a product, so reading only teaches you what other people produce."

Yes, you must practice your craft, but if every generation must reinvent the wheel, we are wasting an enormous amount of time and talent. Techniques have been discovered in the past that can be used today; ideas have been discussed in the past that still have validity today. Back in the day, artists served as apprentices, which meant that they watched how somebody who knew how to do something did it. Reading is another way of serving an apprentice.

High school theatre does a great disservice to young people: it puts them onstage and lets them figure it out themselves. The result: a bunch of undergrads with horrible habits. What is worse, all the high school kids’ adoring family surround them and tell them how wonderful they are, “better than what I saw on NY last year when I visited.” And of course, young people believe them. As a result, they think there is no real reason to actually LEARN about the art form — hell, they already know how to DO it. And who cares about the genuises of the past, I’m a genius already! The result: the theatre is filled with superficial and unpolished productions by people who think they know what they are doing. As Albert Williams writes in Chicago’s “Performink” newspaper: “if young dancers launched their careers with the same level of technique most young actors possess, they’d break their necks the first time on stage.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. But technique is only half the battle -- thought is the other. You should have something to say, and also the skill to say it effectively. One alone doesn't make it.

I wish there was a lot more care and a lot more thought put into production. If there was, maybe we'd get somewhere...


Anonymous said...

Hey Scott,

Thanks for the nice words about my site. Just wanted to step in for my friend Lucas for a sec.

Lucas's quote taken in this context might make him seem like he has a non-thinking attitude, which couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, in terms of abstract thought, innovative perspectives, and having the basic artist feature of having something to say, Lucas can throw down with the best of them. I respect him and his brain deeply.

I just don't want Lucas to get presented as in any way anti-thought. He's a professional lighting designer in the New York area, and the theatre world's small, and I don't want any sort of "That Lucas Krech sure hates thinking" lingo rolling around teh intrawub. Remember Chekhov's point number one!

It's so strange these inter-blog conversations. I have a hard time tracking them at times. There's no center. Conversaional vectors flying off in every direction. People I know. People I don't know. Some of the folks posting on my site I've known for years, and some I've never met at all, and now they're all connected in some digital way.

Sooner or later I'll get around to a post about the theater blogosphere (that phrase give me hives), and I'll be sure to include yours.

Take care,

Alison Croggon said...

I don't think Lucas's is an anti-intellectual statement. He's quite right: the only way to learn how to make art is by doing it. Artists are people who think materially; ie, they think in and through their work. An artist thinks in paint, a dancer through his body, a poet in the music and rhythm and sounds of words. Some might be able to theorise their process as well, but that's by no means true of all of them; and it really doesn't follow that the necessary focus on the material (the artwork is something that is, not something that means) means that the artist is unaware of, say, the tradition(s) she is working in. In Brecht's conversations with Benjamin, both of them talked about the importance of "crude thinking": to me, that is an artist talking.

MattJ said...

I like this post a lot Scott, thanks for bringing a discussion like this to the fore. I'm in a very practically oriented masters program right now. When I was originally applying to graduate school out of my liberal arts undergrad education, I felt like I was at a huge disadvantage to my peers because I had not gotten a BFA. I was frustrated because I felt like no one was giving me a chance because I didnt get an undergrad degree in theatre.

Now, I made it into graduate school, and I value that liberal arts education so highly. My knowledge of theory, dramatic literature, and ability to write is much more developed than many of my peers, and I credit that all to my liberal arts education.

As we head into the theatre of this new century, I think it is becoming more necessary for artist, practicioner, scholar, creator to meld in a more interdisciplinary way. The theatre artist of the 21st century is maybe less specialized, but more expansive in his/her abilities means of expression. I see things going this way, and your thoughts on "thinking" are wonderfully relevant.

Freeman said...

So much doom and gloom, Scott. I think we've been many places.

Anyone would agree that simply walking onto a stage with no training, or writing a play having never read one would be akin to attempting to re-invent the wheel. That being said, knowledge of a subject is not equal to proficiency. How do dancers begin their "careers?" The don't sit in class and read about how to dance. They practice dancing. Over and over and over.

Doing the work IS thinking about the work.

MattJ said...

But at the same time Matt, how many half-baked directing projects and poor acting performances have you seen that could have been better with more thought behind them, more research, and a greater reflection on the art form?

I've seen a bunch.

Freeman said...

No disagreements from me.

Then again, you're also going to get a lot of well-thought out misfires. Things that have a great deal of theory and you just won't like the execution.

In fact, often, it's not a lack of reflection that dooms many a production. It's simply a bad script, that is without merit pre- or post research. A play about how to meet girls on the internet, or a play about how women are different from men or, um, a Broadway Musical based on Anne Rice are rarely going to be saved by, shall we say, another look at Howard Barker.

Zay Amsbury said...

I teach high-school age students at a summer arts program held at CalArts, and oddly enough I find that the way to get them thinking critically and abstractly about their medium is through the most specific of technique.

All I teach is goals and tactic switching. That's after a lot of trial and error.

Once they've got their sea-legs with those two techniques, we just start to play.

We look at how different writers working in different styles (Ionesco, Lori-Parks, Beckett, Moliere, whatever) use those techniques.

We play against technique, and try to create completely static scenes.

Technique -- when taught in an unsentimentally specific way -- can be the line into thought, inspiration, and exploration of one's history.

The technique give the students a common language and firm ground, even when we spend time destroying them.

Annie said...

Hello there,

New to this (blogging, not theatre), just thought I'd chime in. Having come from a technique-based conservatory to my MAATP at Central, I've found out a few startling things about my peers and the industry. Entering an MA, the goal isn't skill acquisition as much as it is interrogation of the work. That means practice/critical reflection/praxis. The work itself is a research process.

Of course, I'm in the confusing and unbound climate of avant-garde devised and collaborative theatre.There are no rules. We just have to assume that we all know the proper theory as a foundation...and then we leave it behind. That said, it remains obvious when and where it is absent. Everything from the rehearsals WILL be present in the performance.

Alison Croggon said...

Personally, I think what is most important about art is precisely what can't be taught - artists have to find it out for themselves, by dint of much painful trial and error. That's what I mean by doing it. But you can teach technique. And I'm a firm believer that the more internalised technique you have, the wider the possible range of expressivity. Very clear, say, with musicians, and should be just as clear for any other kind of artist. For writers and directors, thinking is part of what you might call technique...

P'tit Boo said...

Hey Scott, I've been catching up with the blogs slowly but surely after my move and extended internet breakage at my work :(

One of the biggest and most important things one of my teachers told me while I was in school was this : "Daydreaming is part of your job. You should be paid to be able to do it a few hours each day."

This coming from a very hard working, very successful man.
I think about it every day.

Lucas Krech said...
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