Thursday, February 09, 2006

Education of the Artist

Isaac over at Parabasis (see blogroll) responded to my post entitled "Baffled" with the following questions, which I didn't want to address too quickly or glibly. He wrote:

"This little post has actually provoked me to ask you several questions... and I don't mean the rhetorically, I honestly want to know what you think:
1) Do you think you can teach someone to be a playwright?
2) Do you think academicizing theater has been, on the whole, good?"

I'm afraid I don't know much about the teaching of playwriting specifically -- in an early division of labor, that course ended up in the Lit Department rather than in Drama, and no other program I've been in had playwriting, either. Nevertheless, I think my general attitudes about theatre education are at least somewhat applicable. I have only taught in an undergraduate program, but I have been educated in an MFA program (at Illinois State University) as well as a doctoral program (City University of New York Graduate Center).

First, let me say this: I have serious qualms about undergraduate BFAs and conservatory program. I think the intense focus on theatre, and on the acquisition of technique, prior to receiving a broader education of the mind and heart is a disservice to the young artist. I think all artists, even "interpretive" artists, need to have a wide knowledge of the world and of themselves before their focus narrows. In addition, I think BFA programs and conservatories, even more than other undergrad theatre programs, are focused too much on the status quo. They tend to "train" student to fit in as smoothly as possible to the way things are done today, and anyone who has read this blog knows that I don't believe that our current way of producing and creating theatre is sustainable. In short, I think these young artists are being trained for a vanishing theatre -- like students being trained in card punch computer technology...

That said, when I look around at most non-BFA/conservatory undergraduate theatre curricula, I don't see much difference from BFA/conservatory programs -- and I include my own department in this assessment. They are, for the most part, BFA-Lite. The focus is on "training," not education, and they are equally focused on preparing students to fit into the current theatre, not creating the next. In every department, the courses and approaches are almost identical: Stanislavski-based techniques that build from personal exploration to improv to scene study to "styles;" a couple theatre history courses; intro to technical theatre; maybe a play analysis course, although not consistently -- we tend to train students to rely on the director's analysis skills, rather than develop their own ideas that might lead them to have an idea of their own and so not be malleable. Most undergraduate drama departments are little more than play clubs, where the emphasis is placed on production, and education comes a distant second -- or third or fourth. Of course, general education and non-major courses are things to be gotten "out of the way."

To a large degree, I tend to agree with Tony Kushner who, in his 1997 keynote speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published in the January 1998 American Theatre as "A Modest Proposal": "we should abolish all undergraduate art majors." He goes on: "any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition....[and instead] must prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts."

This speech (which is a good example of an artist provoking the audience, since the audience was comprised of college teachers most of whom teach in undergraduate arts departments) deserves to be quoted more extensively, and to receive a wider circulation. I was in the audience when he delievered it, and aside from a few chortles ("Oh, that crazy Tony" kind of stuff), it caused nary a ripple. I guess drama professors are simultaneously unable to be shocked or consider an alternative -- which, now that I think about it, goes together. Anyway, more Kushner: "Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be." To me, this is his most inspiring idea, and one which gets little attention in academe. Taechers conceive of themselves as purveyors of "content" and "skills," and we leave the exploration of self to happen on its own in late-night, beer-soaked musings known popularly as "bull sessions." But aren't these questions, questions of self and self-in-the-world, truly what a young artist should be considering? So that when they arrive in the world ready to create theatre, they might have a sense of what is important in their art and the art they are interpreting.

He goes on: "The vocationalization of the liberal arts undergraduate education echoes the loss in the world at large of interest in the grand dialectic of life, in all dialectics, in breadth, in depth, in thinking as a necessary luxury, in the Utopian. The vocationalization of undergraduate education is, I think, akin to all sorts of social malaises, all of which commenced or burgeoned simultaneously with the death of Utopia as a place about which serious adults devote serious thought; and its replacement by corporate-sponsored Never-Never Land, a place in the name of which Peter Pans and Inner Children, instead of reading, devote serious shopping time....

ENTIRELY TOO MUCH TIME HAS passed without sounding my keynote: We should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I travel around the country doing lectures--after tonight I expect the invitations to dry up--and I am generally tremendously impressed with the students I meet and talk with, and generally unimpressed with what they know, and among these impressive and impressively undereducated students the worst, I am sorry to say, are the arts majors. And it isn't simply that they seem remarkably non-conversant with the pillars of Western thought, with the political struggles of the day, with what has been written up in the morning's paper--these arts majors know shockingly little about the arts. Forget literature. How many theater majors do you know who could tell you, at the drop of a hat, which plays are by Aeschylus, which by Sophocles and which by Euripides? Or the dates of any of those writers? How many undergraduate playwriting majors, for instance, know even a single sentence of ancient Greek, just to have the sound of it in their ears and the feel of it in their mouths? How many really know what iambic pentameter is? How about alexandrines? How about who wrote what in alexandrines? How many know the names of a single Chinese playwright, or play? Or of more than one or two African playwrights? How many have read Heiner Miller? Suzan-Lori Parks? How many have read more than one play by either of these writers? How many have never heard of them? How many know who Lessing was, or why we should care? How many have read, I mean really read and absorbed, The Poetics? The Short Organum?

And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.

WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together."

I know that quoting Kushner so extensively is rather a cheat, since Isaac asked what I think, and I am, in essence, saying "What he said." Nevertheless, I think Kushner is on to something important. If arts departments were focused on the developing of artists, as opposed to the development of craftsmen or interchangeable cogs for the theatrical mill, I think they would make a real contribution to an American theatrical renaissance. As it is, I think we contribute to its diminishment. O'Neill, following the model of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, had an epiphany and decided to become a playwright while in a sanitarium reading philosophy and the plays of modern European experiment. When he began writing, he had something to say.

In the January 06 American Theatre, Eric Booth, founding editor of the quarterly Teaching Artist Journal and author of The Everyday Work of Art, and head of the Julliard School’s Faculty and Professional Mentoring program is quoted as saying:

“The longer students stay in a conservatory the narrower their definition of life in the arts becomes. Julliard’s president, Joseph William Polisi, noticed, as he traveled around, that many graduates were not leading full, juicy lives. He began to feel responsible for too many graduates who were thinking that a life in the arts is only about technique and gigs. Faculty members weren’t be encouraged to send graduates out there to explore other art forms or ask big questions. We weren’t modeling the very life we wanted them to lead.”

He goes on: “The old assumption is that you follow a path of training – and when you graduate, you are an entry-level artist whose career will build to larger roles that create a good life, which leads to an advanced and more financially rewarding place in that field. The fact is that fewer than 10 percent of graduates of conservatories have careers that look like that. Ninety percent will be piecing it together in some different way: working in other fields, originating work, collaborating with artists of other fields, starting theatre companies and launching business endeavors. We need to model the way for students and young artists to think and be joyful and make meaning of this hodgepodge that is a contemporary career. We’re good at rehearsing Shakespeare scenes and improvising the hell out of awkward situations. But we’re not so sensitive to training inner skills that will make a sustainable creative life in the theatre.”

And again, I say: ditto, except I think it extends to all arts majors, not just those in conservatories. If we, as teachers in drama programs, focused on creating artists, and I mean artists prepared to confront the type of career that Booth describes for the "other 90%," I think we would be doing the theatre a favor. The development of virtuosity is something that should occur after the development of a soul, a mind, a heart, and an imagination.

Isaac, I hope that at least partly answers your questions. It pertains as much to playwrights as it does to actors, directors, designers, and secondary school teachers. These are opinions that, as the non-response of the ATHE crowd exemplifies, will probably not be heard much less accepted. Most teachers have come up through the ranks of MFA programs, which focus totally on "training," and understandably they think that is how they should teach. The demands on a theatre teacher are heavyt enough that, once hired, there is rarely time to reflect on what you do and why -- you hit the ground running, and keep on running until you retire.

But if we could conceive differently what educating an artist should be, I think wonders would happen.


George Hunka said...

Good post, Scott. I have my own response here.

Zay Amsbury said...

Yeah, this sparked one for me as well.


P'tit Boo said...

I think you're definitely right here.

But I also think that the real problem isn't with undergraduate art programs. The real problem starts with High School education.

In France, as a high school student, my final year of high school, included three languages, 8 hours of philosophy a week and five hours of math. We all had to take greek or latin for at least one year at 11 or 12 years old ( don't know the american grade equivalent).

By the time a French student gets to college, they haven't had as much time to "play" as most American students ( that is a downfall i think ) but they definitely have a very solid general education. So I think blaming it on the college education is bit simplistic because really ,it's the entire education system which is a failure in my opinion.

I went back to school for theatre ( here in the us...) at 28 and the BFA Education I received here in Seattle at Cornish College was stellar. It was not just focused on theatre and while I do think that having lived a life before getting that education was a major benefit, I also think that forbidding 18 years old to take it would be ludicrous. Some students don't learn well through books and they still make fabulous actors and directors. Eventually, if they are really into their art , they will make their way to the literature, they will go see these classics and learn more about them.

I hear you , when you say that every artist should be educated in many other areas and have a wide range of knowledge to build craft on . But I think that's not aknowledging raw talent and what can become of that if that raw talent is taken at a young age and supplemented with a good theatre education in a good BFA program.

P'tit Boo said...

Also, it's not allowing for fabulous mentors to come into these kids life and actually giving them the inspiration to read or learn more . Loving a subject barely ever comes alone. It often comes from meeting someone you admire and being inspired to do like them.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - I've sort of commented already at Superfluities, so won't repeat myself here. But just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful post.

MattJ said...

Boo you make a lot of great and valid points, a couple of thoughts: 1) There's no jobs, and the pool is huge. Coming in at 22 years old with little to no connections is ridiculously difficult. 2) You'd be surprised at how many BFA programs really don't give a well-rounded education like you got. Many are more based in conservatory-mode so they can pump out actors on a conveyor belt. 3) The promotion of the theatre status-quo is so present and the theatre doesn't want to go that way. I feel like theatre as an art form has a magnetic desire to the fringes, but the training programs aim their sights away from the fringes, so the theatre continues to fight itself constantly.

P'tit Boo said...

I hear that Matt. Good points.

George Hunka said...

I think Matt's quite right on all these points, Boo--I can't help but envy the secondary schooling you had, but there you are. And to contribute my own whine, Matt: try to come in at 44, like me.

Jeff Sweet said...

Yes, you can teach the technical aspects of playwriting. I've been doing it for years and many of my students have gotten their plays produced professionally (all due to my efforts, of course).

But I agree with Kushner that you should develop a critical perspective with some substantial study of philosophy, history, literature and whatever else you can cram into your young brain before claiming the right to demand the audience's attention to your take on such questions.

I have had too many students who have contented themselves to do their versions of Mamet, Durang, and Wasserstein without doing the intellectual work that made those writers worth paying attention to in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Why do you keep referring to yourself and to those with whom you keep company as "artists." Why not, "I'm a person who writes plays," or simply "I write plays." What do you do?" "I'm an artist." No you're not, you're a sudent. Yes, Kushner's on to something, but you must take it with a grain of salt: Anyone who advocates for the banishment of something (unless it's the killing of little old ladies or something like that) is obviously being polemical, and your lack of critical skills kept you from realizing that very simple truth. The world is not made up of "artsists" and "philosophers" and "peasants" and the "bourgeoise" anymore. Those are taxonomic labels which make it easy for intellectuals to classify and categorize large groups of people in their journal articles; the world has become much more fluid than that. Don't get me wrong, there is a dominant ruling class and the rest of us suffer under its yoke in varying matters of degree, but students' ignorance of the Cartesian dualism which so shocked poor Tony is not really a matter of great consequence, is it? There are more pressing matters at hand! Must everyone start sounding like an old fart after a certain age? Tony, supposedly, reads the paper: Didn't he hear about the multicultural curriculum that's taken a little bit of time away from his beloved heroes of the West? My God! The King of Queer has his panties in an uproar over the fact that dead white males aren't getting their due. Doesn't he realize that he was, in part, indirectly, one of the reasons that the traditional Liberal Arts curriculum in America has been deconstructed. (Angels in America was a watershed moment not only in the American theater.) He's, of course, much too smart not to choke on his own irony, but Boo, whoever you are, are not nearly as smart as you think.