Friday, June 15, 2007

Warning: Academic On Board

I want to be upfront about any ideas I post in the future: I am a teacher, not an artist. I am a teacher who does theatre, not a theatre artist who teaches. I am a teacher by choice, not by accident. I am not a "frustrated artist" who "fell back on" education.

When I was in grad school, I originally went to get an MFA in Directing, but I soon discovered that I wasn't happy. I was good at it -- I had been directing since I was 17 when I started, with city funding, my own summer theatre and had had a string of successes as a freelancer in Minneapolis (where I was known for my comedy and farce skills), but when each show opened, I found myself more relieved it was over rather than excited by its reception. During my second year of grad school, I won the ACTF national criticism contest, which allowed me to spend a month at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Conference. One afternoon, I found myself sitting around talking with Gitta Honegger and a bunch of Yale dramaturgy professors about Brecht. Afterwards, I thought: those are the kind of conversations I want to have! I want to focus on ideas! And so I switched to the doctoral track and never looked back.

I now teach play analysis (see my textbook Introduction to Play Analysis published a few years ago by McGaw-Hill), theatre history, dramatic lit, directing, and Theatre of the Oppressed. All of which is to say: I'm an academic.

As someone noted, I often give what he called "advice to the players," by which I mean that I come up with suggestions for different ways to do things. I'm not going to go out and do them myself, which I suppose might seem a bit duplicitous. So let me explain how I justify giving advice to artists trying to actually make a living in the theatre.

My experience is that the amount of energy needed to start a career in the arts AND manage to pay the bills is huge. It is exhausting work, and it takes up a lot of time. Most theatre artists don't have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They're just trying to keep their head above water!

To my mind, academia ought to be the R & D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.

So I will float ideas and opinions about things I have thought in the hopes that some artist, looking for inspiration, will be inspired by something I've written to try something different. Many people will read these ideas as disguised attacks on the status quo, and feel the need to defend current practice. Obviously, to suggest an alternative is to imply that the status quo isn't satisfying. But when I suggest that we need to decentralize the theatre, for instance, I am not saying that every theatre person in NYC ought to pack up and head for the heartland. But I am suggesting that there are other possibilities available if NYC doesn't call to you in a full voice.

I guess what I am warning my readers about is the fact that I may suggest fairly radical solutions to problems, which is easy to do if I'm not actually going to do the thing myself. So I am not suggesting a universal panacea, no matter what I say, but rather an idea to be added to the vast array of possibilities. If the idea doesn't appeal to you, don't feel that I am judging you for not doing it. Heck, I'll make all kinds of suggestions, some of them harebrained! So don't feel it is necessary to defend yourself. But if you have a suggestion on how to make the idea better, please please please contribute it.

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