Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Coloring Outside the Lines

From Jordan Ayan's book on creativity, Aha!, quoted by Tom Peters in Re-Imagine!:

"My wife and I went to a [kindergarten parent-teacher conference], and we were informed that our budding refrigerator artist [Christopher] would be receiving a grade of 'Unsatisfactory' in art. We were shocked. How could any child -- let alone our child -- receive a poor grade in art at such a young age? His teacher informed us that

he had refused to color within the lines...

which was a state requirement for demonstrating grade-level motor skills."

Another quotation, this time from Gordon MacKenzie's Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace (and also quoted in Re-Imagine!):

"Following his 'retirement,' Gordon devoted a lot of time to the school system, coaching and commenting. He recalled a typical visit to an American elementary school at the turn of the century/millenium:
'How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands.' FIRST GRADE: En masse, the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving. ... Every child was and artist! SECOND GRADE: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. [Their] hands were still. THIRD GRADE: At best, 10 kids out of thirty would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously. By the time they reached SIXTH GRADE, no more than one or two kids raised their hands, and then ever-so-slightly ... betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a 'closet artist.' The point is: Every school I visited was participating in a systemiatic suppression of creative genius."

Like Tom Peters, and John Taylor Gatto in A Different Kind of Teacher, I believe our school system "is a thinly disguised conspiracy...to quash creativity."

And it gets worse.

Those one or two sixth graders fearfully raising their hands admitting to being artists -- those were us. Remember? And what happens is that, having held onto our creativity throughout high school (defiantly, secretly, questioningly) we are passed along to college drama departments that, in the interests of "helping" students to be "marketable," deprive us of nearly every shred of creativity, and independence, that we have left. I'm one of those college teachers. I went through a theatre department to get my BA, then another to get my MA, and finally one to get my doctorate, and at each level I learned how it "should be done." And now I, and most other drama teachers, pass this along. "You have to know the rules before you can break them," we chirp, as we deprive students of any sense of independence by casting them in mainstage shows that WE chose, that WE direct, and most of the time that WE design.

I propose that theatre departments start looking, and looking hard, for the kids who color outside the lines, force the Admissions Office to let them in, and then once they're there teach them to color not just outside the lines, but off the page entirely. Don't teach them to "fit in," teach them to question everything, to create plays and productions that they care about, and to produce them themselves in ways that they think speaks to today's audience. Months ago, Joshua James forcefully argued that drama departments should devote their seasons to new plays. I say go one step further -- new plays chosen, directed and designed by students, with faculty present only to facilitate their creativity. Help them to problem-solve, experiment, go one step further. Help them prepare for the theatre of tomorrow, not the theatre of yesterday.

Does this mean they shouldn't study the plays and techniques of the past? Absolutely not! But I think students should hold the figures of the past at arms length in order to pick their pockets of anything that is of value, and then they should be abandoned. Ruthless? Yes. Disrespectful? Maybe. But frankly, it is what those same figures did themselves to such great effect. A theatre history verison of Survivor. American Theatre Idol.

It is time for schools, from kindergarten to graduate school, to actively promote coloring outside the lines. Such coloring isn't accidental, it isn't a sign of a lack of socialization, it is exactly the kind of thinking that is going to lead to success in this new world that changes at the speed of light.

So what will I do in this effort? Well, I teach in a department, and like most departments, and most theatres, and most theatre people, it is pretty traditional. Want proof? Visit the webpages for almost any theatre department in the nation and see for yourself how similar the curriculum is no matter where you go. The old joke goes: QUESTION: "How many college professors does it take to change a light bulb? ANSWER: CHANGE??????" If anything, theatre departments are even worse than other departments -- why else are we still teaching Stanislavski almost a century after Creating a Role was published in America? It's as if
the ideas were brought down on tablets from Mt Sinai. Hasn't SOMEBODY had a better idea in the last, oh, fifty years? Oh, sure, we have Meisner (Stanislavski lite), and the really risky ones get some Viewpoints and some Suzuki, and their is a smattering of Mamet at oddball schools around, but mostly these courses are taught after the students have been innoculated with Stanislavski -- they are "advanced" courses, right? Only OK for students who have already had their legs hobbled.

All of which is to say: I'll do what I can. I'll make my courses as forward-looking as possible; I'll figure out ways to give students the freedom to color outside the lines; I'll encourage the oddball, and entertain the off-beat. I'll figure out ways to teach theatre history that isn't like piling stones on the souls of young artists, and play analysis in a way that opens up possibilities, and directing in a way that encourages the development of a new vocabulary. And I'll keep pushing for more student productions, more student involvement in play selection, more questioning of the "way things are done." Baby steps -- I must learn to be patient.

But dammit, it pisses me off!


Mark Fisher said...

I've got a lot of sympathy for this argument. Children are born inquistitive and interested - not just in the arts, but in everything. I watch in fear as my own children get older and the weaker aspects of the education system try to kill that interest. Keeping the doors open is a big challenge.

Margie Blystone said...

I was poking around, looking at blogs and found your site... I couldn't agree more with your post regarding 'coloring outside of the lines'... The problem with traditional education is the desire to make kids conform, sit up straight in their seats and allow their heads to be filled with facts rather than allowing them the opportunity to seek the things that interest them and build new and engaging ideas from those interests.

It was W. B. Yeats who said:
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

7 yrs. ago my husband and I were witness to the fact that our son was being slowly broken down by the traditional school system. He had always been bright and inquisitive but his teachers never spent any time encouraging his strengths. They focused only on the areas he lacked interest. We saw a boy who was once positive about learning become a child who was made to think he was stupid.

We were fortunate to find a place where he was praised for his intelligence and allowed to focus on his interests. He attends a place called 'The New School'... They believe in what's called a 'Democratic Education'... There is a very interesting article about 'Sudbury Valley School' in the May/June issue of 'Psychology Today' which gives an overview of this type of education... The title of which is called 'Class Dismissed'

I thought you might be interested to know that there are schools out there where coloring outside the lines is not only encouraged but celebrated!

P'tit Boo said...

Great post Scott !

There aren't very many things in the world I like more than kids drawings .

I know that wasn't your point.
I totally agree with you. and i am glad you are taking responsibility and action in these matters.

Scott Walters said...

I know the example was about kids, and they are very, very important. But we aren't doing anything differently when we train theatre artists, or even when we just think about how we do theatre. Lucas Krech is talking about Brooks' Deadly Theatre, and the fact is that most of the way we think about theatre is deadly -- mired in the cliches and conventions of the past.

Rachel Ann Allred said...

Scott--I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, I couldn't take the traditional way anymore after going to Governor's School and so I had to quit TheatreUNCA. I hope changes do occur--I love the possibilities of theatre and theatre artists.

--Rachel Ann