Monday, September 10, 2007

Theatre Education 2.2 -- Corporate Training

As a drama professor, I represent our department at many university Open Houses where potential students and their parents come to see what we offer. We have our brochures and production photos on display boards to dazzle the students, and of course we don't have a stack of handouts showing the latest Actors Equity employment figures -- no sense scaring people away, right? But we do have a plastic file for the parents that is filled with a hand-out called "What Can You "Do" With a Theatre Major?" This hand-out lists 25 "special advantages" that a theatre major has over other majors as far as employment in the corporate world. These run the gamut from "oral communication skills" to "self-discipline," and are designed to mollify fearful parents who worry about junior's employment fate. Junior now will have a repost when someone makes the inevitable "you want fries with that" crack. The central argument is that business leaders are looking for exactly the types of skills that drama majors develop. I have seen parental worry lines fade as they read the hand-out, because it makes a lot of sense.

Of course, once junior decides that our department is where he wants to be, and shows up all dewy-eyed on our doorstep on the first day of classes, we quickly forget about this handout and re-promote the Romantic image of the theatre artist as rebel anarchist whose imagination, Outsider Status, and ethical superiority places him above and beyond the normal corporate drudge -- indeed, above and beyond almost everybody in the world. Luisa in The Fantasticks utters the theatre person's creed: "I am special! I am special! Please, God, please -- don't let me be normal!" And over the next four years, we feed this self-image of theatre people as different than other people, better than other people, more creative than other people. People with a mission.

Except it is all a lie.

In reality, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world.

1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director's bidding. And the director does the producer's bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because no only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he's also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn't like your attitude. In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholders, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: "You can't make art by committee." We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tatooed on the psyches of every drama major that is "trained."

2. Efficiency is everything. If you don't believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after "You can't create art by committee,") is that we "don't have time" for that, we have to get the show up. We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question this value. It's too expensive to spend money on rehearsal -- better minimize the investment and hope for the best.

3. Do what you're told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don't take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it -- that'll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die. Remember Larry Tate on Bewitched? That's what you should be. See number 1 above.

4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is "Dance Ten -- Looks Three" from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with "Razzle-Dazzle" from Chicago. What does the market want right now? That's what you should be. Great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well. What's conventional wisdom about getting your second job? Play well with others. Theatre is Dale Carnegie central.

5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I'm currently working on, always say its the best thing you've ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else on the show -- you're dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill -- it's ingrained in theatre people, too.

6. Don't let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opps in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you'll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist's responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it's only theatre -- we don't actually affect anyone's ideas, right? Film filled with violence and misogyny? It's entertainment -- nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women's shelter or something.

And so truly, when junior's Dad looks me in the eye and says, "How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?," I can say, with confidence, that he is being imbued with all the values that will make him successful in the corporate world. Compliance, obedience, and patience is what we teach.

It makes for great corporate careers -- unfortunately, it makes for really boring theatre.


raqqash said...

This is a great piece thank you. Great irony in the face of grim reality ;)

Brian Santana said...

Perhaps I'm just tired after a long day, but your reference to Larry Tate from Bewitched made me laugh so hard I almost fell out of my chair.

Your vision of contemporary theatre is vivid and horrifying!

Junior's dad: "How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?"

Professor: Have you ever seen Bewitched?

nick said...

“He did not know how wide a country, arid and precipitous, must be crossed before the traveller through life comes to an acceptance of reality. It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”
— Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham

Mike said...

That is a great post.

Tony said...

Wow, theatre degrees sound really useful when you put it like that.

Maybe my English/Theatre double major will be in vogue someday, though the French minor probably never will be.


RebeccaZ said...

Would you haul off and point Junior or Junior's Dad in the direction of your blog?

I'm very curious to know what your faculty and students think of your blog, knowing what independent thought and sarcasm can do to a theatre department ... do feel free to share. And, if you would point them in this direction, I give you many rounds of applause!!!!


Scott Walters said...

No, I probably wouldn't point junior or junior's Dad to my blog. That said, I do not talk about getting a degree at my school as leading to a professional career. I talk about choosing a major not as a professional decision, but about what lens you want to look at the world through for four years. And I will talk about the Big Lies of the conservatory approach to theatre education, and how we differ. I also would point out the application of the education to the corporate world. Unlike many of my fellow artists, I don't find the outsider status of the artist a model I endorse. I am as proud of my former students who become lawyers or parents as those who work in the theatre.

I don't know that my drama colleagues read my blog. They know I write one, but they may not be interested. I think one or two have dropped in occasionally, but they don't mention it. My students do know about it, and occasionally will comment. Again, most are more interested in "doing plays" than thinking about issues that underlie them. I do, however, bring some of these issues into the classroom, asking questions that encourage students to explore their own values. Sometimes, the students get annoyed with me.

But you are right -- independent thought and sarcasm (although I was not trying to be sarcastic in this post as much as truthful) are not applauded pretty much anywhere. But the only way things can change is if the status quo is questioned.

Art said...

Another aspect of ethics:

Don't worry if you are halfway throught the rehearsal process with that small theatre company that is only paying you 100 Dollars a week. If you get the opportunity to be an understudy at the local LORT, or you get a part that will give you more pay and equity points, just leave the small show. They will understand, they're artists as well. They know how much the money means to you. And...well, they would do the same thing if they were in your shoes.

Anyway, they still have two weeks to opening night. Lots of good people were at the audition you were at. I am sure somebody will be able to jump in, and if need be, the director can play the part.

And if they are mad, who cares, you are never going to have to worry about them again. You are on your way, baby.

Robin said...

Thank you very much for that post. I look forward to reading about the big lies of the conservatory system! I used to believe in "Follow your bliss"(Joeseph Cambell - not a theatre person, but clearly quixotic), until I went through hell. Then I read "A great truth is a truth for which the opposite is also a great truth." (Thomas Mann, who I know nothing about) So. Follow your bliss, just be prepared to go through hell on the way, and don't expect it to last forever when you do get there. Maybe a big lie is a lie for which the opposite is also a big lie! Sounds postmodern...
Anyway, thanks.
(recovering theatre person)

Jeremy said...

This is a very good post about corporate training. I work for a company that employed an organization called Novaces. They provided lean six sigma training, process improvement, and specialize in healthcare lean training. They gave very similar information regarding corporate training. This is very valuable information.

Good post!