This is the second part of my expansion of my interview on "Theatre is Territory," and as with the first part, I will use responses from others as a way to extend the conversation.
In response to the question, "What do American theatre educators need to do better, generally?," I wrote "Teach students to value, above all things, innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure...Let students fail! Give higher grades for risk takers who really make a huge flop!" In the question that preceded this one, which concerned any unifying theories of the role of formal education for theatre artists, I made what I think was an important differentiation between what I believed was the priority of education and those who are "trying to create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine."
Ian, the Praxis Theatre interviewer, wrote that he felt this statement "seems like an argument in favour of the avant-garde," whereas David Cote felt that I had a more conservative agenda that involved theatre artists "eschewing esoterica and avant-gardism, thinking positively and bending over backward to accommodate the common man." He also offered that " Taking a big risk and daring to fail can also mean moving to NYC to try and 'make it,' whatever that means to you."
So what just did I mean? Was in endorsing the avant-garde or a conservative approach to theatre? And does my idea of risk taking include going to New York to "make it"?
Let's start with the last question first. While on a personal level, moving to New York to "make it" may, indeed, be a risk -- a huge risk -- for a young person, I would not include it in my definition of "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." Let me hasten to add that if a student came to me and confessed that this was their dream, I would do everything in my power to support and encourage them -- I think following one's "Personal Legend" (ala Paulo Coelho's wonderful novel The Alchemist) is first and foremost the most important thing anyone can do. But if they came to me with this dream early enough in their academic career, I would gently encourage them to transfer to another college. Because what I have to teach them will not give them the skills they need to fit into the status quo. I cannot, in good conscience, "create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine." I just can't do it. The skills that I will teach will lead to frustration, disappointment, and failure if used within the current theatre climate. This would be especially true of actors, who more than other theatre artists are expected to trim their sails to whatever winds the director blows their way. I want to help create innovators more than I want to create mainstream successes.
So what about the other question: do I support the avant-garde, or a conservative agenda? The answer is yes to both. Or no to both. Let me explain by reiterating the main statement: "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." If what you mean by avant-garde is the genre that Matt Freeman, in his perceptive post on that subject, describes as a form of theatre that "has become, for the most part, divorced from its roots, which is to experiment with the form. It's become a genre term, much like Alternative Music was in the 1990s. Foreman, for example, isn't experimenting, one could argue, but is presenting the sort of theatre that he has established as his style for a very long time," then no. Why? Because what we call the avant-garde is no longer innovative -- the experimental has become the traditional. And that isn't "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." It doesn't make what Foreman does any less vital, but it isn't experimental - he is reaping the fruits of his earlier experiments, which is what mature artists should be doing.
So does that mean I support a more conservative agenda? No, if you mean doing what is currently mainstream. But if you mean by conservative the looking back to previous forms for ideas that have fallen by the wayside, then yes. Older techniques like storytelling, verse and rhythm, community involvement and movable productions (ala medieval mystery plays), choruses and narrators (the Greeks, for instance), popular music (like 18th century ballad opera), direct audience address (ala morality plays), or any other techniques you can unearth and adapt from the past -- these are all rich veins to be mined for contemporary experiment.
So yes: conservative appropriation and recontextualization of past forms; and yes avant-garde: creating something entirely new and newly conceived. And no to just recycling the old plays, and no to recreating the 1960s.
In addition, I would insist that, when students experiment, that they truly experiment -- by which I mean design a particular experiment to test a hypothesis, evaluate the results, and generalize from those results ideas that might be successfully applied in the future in another context. Experimenting doesn't just mean "doing weird shit." You have to do it for a purpose, and pay attention to the results. And if your purpose is simply, solely something like "to confuse the audience" or "to offend the audience," then I am going to say "That's too easy. Raise the bar." Because in order for an experiment to take place, there must be a serious chance of failure. Creating confusion or giving offense, as a goal, is too easy -- there is no chance of failure, anybody can do it. Which is not to say that an audience may not be confused or offended by a performance -- on the contrary, it may be the result of a particular experiment. But it must not be the goal.
All of this is very, very difficult to do in an educational setting. Teachers find it much easier to teach "what works for them," or "what their teachers taught them," or (perhaps worst) "what will make you employable." It is much more difficult to inspire creativity and innovation. I can't say I succeed, but every semester I try to wrestle with the problem and try to achieve that goal. And I look for some small glimmer that a student wants to be an artist, and not just working union member.