Friday, September 21, 2007

Fired Up? Ready to Go?

Folks -- I just watched this video of Barack Obama telling a story about a SC alderwoman who inspired Obama and a roomful of people with her repeated cry "Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" I read it right before reading Tom Loughlin's inspirational final post in the theatre education series we've been doing, and it fit so well. Tom's call to action is powerful and inspiring, and echoed Obama's ringing conclusion: "And it goes to show you how one voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, then it can change a city. And if it can change a city, then it can change a state. And if it can change a state, then it can change a country. And if it can change a country, then it can change the world. Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? Let's go change the world!"

Tom calls for us to raise our voices in order to change a room, and from there we can change the world. Most importantly, Tom writes:

"It is imperative for artists to become involved in this issue as well, both by agitating their own places of education, and by continuing to create a theatre that strikes some sort of chord for every layer of society. The entropic nature of all organic things requires that something new be created to replace what has gained maximum entropy, not to continue to waste time trying to bring balance to the old. If artists and educators can join forces to subvert theatre education from without and from within, we may have some hope of bringing in something new and promising. I’m trying to work on my part from within - can you work on yours from without?"

And by doing so, he reaches out to form a bond between the artist and the educator built on a mutual concern for the health of the art form we love. Yes, this series has been a conversation between two educators about their profession, but its ramifications affect everything that happens in the art form. If theatre education is deadly, it reinforces the deadly aspects of the professional theatre by flooding it with deadly actors, directors, designers and playwrights. But, on the other hand, if theatre education is going to innovate, if we comfortable tenured professors are going to make an effort to teach in a way that inspires and empowers young people, then we need to know that there are artists out there who will join hands with us and with our students to change the face of theatre.

Tom is right -- the academy needs artists to raise your voices and demand a change. To express your frustrations over what you did and didn't learn when you were in college, to call out to education's higher angels and demand that we create artists and not mindless drones. To make us theatre professors do our jobs and serve as midwives to a theatrical future that is vibrant and innovative and exciting.

How do we do that? How can we get this moving? Tom suggests that you talk to your theatre alma mater, or to your local theatre departments, and I agree. And then we need to go further, to create a wide demand for a theatre education redefinition and renaissance that will bring new energy into the professional world.

How do we do that? Please fill my comments box and Tom's with suggestions. Write your own blog posts and give us a link. Share your stories. Tell us what you got from your education that has kept you fired up and ready to go, and what baggage you have had to get rid of in order to stay that way. Tell us what would appeal to your artistic higher angels, and what opportunities we should provide for our students during their years in our care. What in education would help make theatre an exciting, vibrant, and innovative art form that would live up to all the talent that fills it?

And then brainstorm with us -- what's the next level? My first thought, and I suppose it is a typically academic one, is a conference attended by artists and educators who are committed to change, who will issue ringing manifestoes and thundering j'accuses demanding the destruction of the status quo. Something -- anything -- to get us fired up and ready to go. But in some ways, that seems kind of unoriginal and not in keeping with the nature of the effort. So what other options are there?

What's next?


parabasis said...


I've been knee deep in tech and haven't been able to follow this conversation as closely as I'd've liked it, so if you've already address this, I apologize in advance..

SO here' smy question:

How does tenure fit into all of this? Would eliminating tenure (or changing the nature of it) in theatre programs be a good thing? (my gut reaction is to say yes as tenure encourages a retreat into the academy and in many schools emphasizes publishing over quality of teaching both of whihc are contrary to many of the things you and tom have discussed). I'd be interested to read your htoughts ont he issue


Scott Walters said...

Welcome to the conversation, Isaac. I was wondering why the theatrosphere seemed so quiet this week. I hope your show is going well.

With your permission, I will split your question into two pieces: the effects of tenure, and the emphasis of the university.

Let's start with the latter. The amount of emphasis a university gives to teaching or research is separate from the tenure issue. Research 1 universities, which include the major state schools and the larger private schools do emphasize research over teaching -- that's why so many classes are taught by graduate students, for instance. But most universities are not Research 1 universities. The majority, like mine, are undergraduate liberal arts colleges that have a few graduate programs at most (mine has none). These universities put teaching ahead of research and service. I just finished serving on the Tenure Committee last year, and unless you were a very good teacher, you weren't getting tenure no matter how impressive your research or service was. So the publish-or-perish orientation is not quite as widespread as the media would make it seem. That said, in the arts, productions are treated the same as publications. Most professors with MFA's in acting, directing, or design are applying for tenure based on their professional credentials, not on their articles and books. For instance, in my own department I believe I am the only one who has published anything for quite some time, but the chair is doing seven designs outside of the department this semester alone. So for people in theatre, the idea of the retreat into the depths of publishing isn't very relevant.

So the other issue would be tenure itself: does it encourage a laziness and complacency. Certainly tenure is the thing that makes academia seem very unworldly, providing a level of security that exists in very few other places in the economy. And I will agree that tenure can, for some professors, lead to stagnation. However, I would argue that this danger is more than balanced by the protection it offers from administrative pressure toward artistic safety.

If there was actually a push in theatre programs towards encouraging innovation and independent student creativity and exploration of values, there would likely be some experimental productions that would fall afoul of community standards. Often administrators don't have much stomach for defending the more radical experiments, particularly when they are getting phone calls from major donors demanding to know what the hell we're doing up there. We experienced this a little bit last year when a student group brought a performance by sex industry workers to campus, and I suspect there are some who might not be wild about the fact that John Waters just delivered a public lecture as part of the "Distinguished Speakers" series. Without the protection of tenure, I believe that professors would be much less secure in their jobs, and so tend to be much more conservative. If the object was to encourage innovation and exploration, then the revocation of tenure would have the opposite effect. As a former administrator myself, one who was involved in several controversies over art work including on exhibit that was attacked on the floor of the Senate, I know that controversy is not an administrators favorite thing. Administrators prefer all the news going out to the community to be positive, upbeat, and inspiring. Big donors tend to dislike anything too "out there."

So for all the dangers that "deadwood" represents on a faculty, if the hope is for greater innovation and experimentation in theatre programs, then I think it is more sensible to see tenure as positive rather than a negative.

Tom, I don't know if you'd have anything to add to that.

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

This has been a great series, so thank you and Tom for that. For someone who spends more time than he reasonably should thinking about education, it's really drawn me in and given me a lot to think about.

I do admit that the proposal in your last paragraph does seem a little out of place, but that's mostly because it's just another example of talking about activism instead of doing something about it. I don't think we need to make enemies through accusations. What we need is someone like yourself, already established and interested in change, simply doing something about it before anyone gets wind of it. :)

I've thought over the last few years that it would be really terrific to be able to take our company and do a brief residency at a college. It would go something like this:

You take a small-but-established self-producing company whose members are not all that far away in age from the students themselves. You'd want it to be a group who typically works on a tiny budget with new material. You contract them to do two productions -- one brand new script, never-before-produced and one that they HAVE produced before. And then you open up the entire process to the students who can attend every aspect of production from casting, rehearsals, tech meetings, etc.

The brand-new script is put together and premiered at the college with the company while the previously-produced script is produced entirely by the students. That way they have a chance to work with the original director, the playwright, some of the original actors, as mentors throughout the process. In this way they not only get to see, ask questions about, and discuss the process but also find their own ways of solving similar problems. There's an ACTUAL collaboration going on between students and professionals.

I don't see how that wouldn't benefit everyone involved.

It's a thought.

Scott Walters said...

Charles -- That is a great idea, and connects to one of Tom's suggestion. What if the people in the company also gave a semester-long course on the thrills and challenges of starting a company? This might have two effects: 1) the students would get a ground-level view of the process from people who are doing it now, and 2) the process of creating and teaching the class might also lead to some inspiration for the company members as they seek out readings and try to put into words what they are trying to accomplish.

As far as the conference is concerned, here is my thought. Somehow -- and a conference may not be the way -- but somehow we need to identify the "base," the people who are frustrated with the status quo and are ready to try to change it; then we need to put those people in touch with each other, so that they can share ideas and encourage each other as the process begins; finally, we need to "energize" the base, get them fired up and ready to go -- because nothing ever changes without enormous commitment, energy, and tenacity -- and that takes inspiration. So while individuals and individual departments doing new things is a very important thing, it is not enough -- people must hear about it, the ideas must be shared, so that they can be seeds for other such projects. Yes, Rosa Parks served as an important symbol for the Civil Right Movement, but she was trained thoroughly Highlander Center; further, her action would have disappeared entirely without a large group of other people committed to civil rights to support her, and bring her message to the larger public.

sarah deutsch said...


I think you're absolutely right about identifying the "base" of people who want to work for change, and then finding a way for them to connect with each other. Just having discussions like this is a simple way to get each other fired up and excited about the small changes that we can affect - then once there's a real community of people interested in making changes, we'll have the force to put behind something larger.

At that point, I think a conference - or, something more like an un-conference - would be a great way to collaborate and share ideas. Until then, you might want to think about starting a network, or something similar, so that there's a central hub for people to have discussions and talk about their ideas...

I'm totally fired up about this, so if you want help with it, count me in! =)

Scott Walters said...

Sarah -- Thanks for pointing me to Ning! I set up an account under the title "Saving Thespis"! I would love for you to join with Tom and I in getting something rolling. Yes, and un-conference has a lot going for it. What about an on-line thing like, say, Second Life? Or is that too crazy these days? Other ideas?

sarah deutsch said...


I love the Ning group! I just started a forum discussion about how to establish a base of people who want to further the cause - check it out here!

Praxis Theatre said...

Two quick ideas:

1) Every studio art program (in visual art, music, theatre) should have a requisite full-year course called, "How to make a career as an artist" – which focuses on how to be a working artist after you've graduated.

2) Every studio art program should have a course that has an explicit focus on the value of failure.


Scott Walters said...

Ian -- Let me play devil's advocate here for a second. Your #1 above seems really geared toward preparing students to take their place within the status quo -- how do you market yourself, etc. In fact, a large number of programs (particularly BFA programs) are focused on this career aspect. Could such an orientation look at alternate ways of forming a life as an artist? The reason I ask is that, in my opinion, a lot of programs currently are focused on creating cogs -- in the interest of making them more marketable, they train out of them whatever it is that is individual, original, and oppositional. In other words, we are creating "company men" (or women). Is this really what we need right now?

Praxis Theatre said...

Hmm. I guess that wasn't my experience. The program I took was incredibly theory-heavy and real-world-lite. It gave me great tools for thinking about art and even for producing art in a vacuum – but very, very little about how to make it work for myself post-graduate. Not to say that someone who studies painting needs to become a painter in order to validate that education – nor is it deny the benefits of painting theory and practice on the career of – say – an advertising copywriter. But it does strike me that a couple of classes on arts admin tailored to enabling art students to actually pursue what they studied would be helpful. (And, anecdotally, my experience was not unique – the vast majority of my peers in that program are not today working visual artists. Though many of have a visual element to the work we do.)

What I'm hearing from you is that that kind of theory-heavy studio program is not the norm when it comes to drama. That drama programs are particularly geared toward turning out replacement cogs. Usually, in these discussions of theatre education, I simply substitute my visual arts background in and assume it was about the same. Maybe that substitution isn't accurate or helpful.

What do you think? When looking at your colleagues and their programs in the visual arts, do you see a similar trend (to the replacement parts model) or is visual arts education a different beast altogether?


sarah deutsch said...

I agree with Ian that some sort of "business of being an artist" course would be incredibly useful to most of the arts programs I've seen. And it doesn't have to be a "how to fit into the status quo" class - it could be more geared towards the different ways artists can go about achieving their personal goals.

Just teaching young artists the basics of writing grant proposals and how to find funding, space and support for their projects would go a long way towards steering them away from the status quo. It would give them the skills and resources they need to do their own thing, rather than finding a place as a cog in an existing company.

I've seen a few arts departments try to do a class like this, but I can't say I've ever seen it done really well - maybe you can make it happen in your department! =)