Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Theatre Education Part 1: How We Got Here

As I mentioned in my previous post, Tom Loughlin at Poor Player and I will be doing a series of posts about theatre education. It is an area that, understandably, I am very interested in, since it is how I make my living, and because it is personally important to my mental and spiritual health that I be doing "good work," work that has some value and contributes to the betterment of the world in which I live. But I am also interested in it because I feel it has gone terribly awry, and that, in fact, theatre education is now feeding the stagnation and entropy -- to borrow Tom's image from a series of his brilliant posts that I should have paid much more attention to at the time, but I was much too self-involved in my own tempest to consider Tom's thoughtful analysis -- feeding the stagnation and entropy that, to my mind, is killing the theatre. (Sorry, Matt -- I'm with Tom on this one.)

How did we get here? I am tempted to simply create a link to scholar Joseph Roach's essay in Theatre Topics (March 1999) entitled "Reconstructing Theatre/History." Written for a conference celebrating the publication in 1968 of Oscar Brockett's seminal History of the Theatre, the essay examines precisely the question of how theatre education morphed into what we see today. Since this essay is only available through Project Muse or through a library that possesses hard copies of the journal, or from professors like me who clutter up their office with back issues of academic journals, I will fall back on my computer's cut-and-paste function to fill in the backstory.

Let's start with what Roach calls "several myths of our origins":

Brander Matthews's then unprecedented teaching of drama at Columbia University, George Pierce Baker's "47 Workshop" at Harvard, Baker's move to Yale and the founding of the School of Drama, the inauguration of conservatory-technical training within the academy at Carnegie Mellon, or the granting of the first doctorates in theatre by the University of Iowa in 1929 and then Cornell University and Northwestern University in 1940. What is striking at first glance is how very different these pioneers' objects of study were: Matthews's enthusiastic antiquarianism, Baker's how-to-make-a-play dramaturgy, Carnegie Mellon's trade-school pragmatism, the PhD's literary-historical professionalism--all seem to pull in very different directions. Different, yes, but they are all in some way focused on performance.

Note that all of these degrees were PhD's -- the MFA as terminal "performance degree" had not yet been invented. Theatre scholars were expected to have a firm grounding in research and history as well as in performance. Roach indicates the importance of this double-poled knowledge: "Without the study of history...performance surrenders at least half its content. (Without the study of history, in other words, we can't truly entertain new ideas because we can't recognize them as such."

The birth of the regional theatre movement promised to provide the catalyst that would begin the ascendancy of the scholar-artist. Roach writes about the promise of the late 1960s:

We were a blessed generation of theatre students, changing the world. Part of that boundless revolution, of course, which we confidently aspired both to bring about and to build our careers on, would be the total decentralization of the American theatre from New York into the vast network of regional repertory theatres, many of them located on university campuses. Of course, every city of 50,000 or so would want to support at least one--the new kind of professional but non-commercial company for which we were training. Such a company would need artists who could read plays and scholars who could help produce them, and as we saw physicians moving between their practices in the community and their lecterns in the medical school, so we imagined the artists and scholars of the university-resident theatres expanding and sharing their knowledge as they shuttled between the theatre and the classroom. At far less than the cost of big-time athletics, we reasoned, the repertory--fresh interpretations of the classics and new plays by our contemporaries--would entertain the culture-hungry masses while making the stage look like America: Margo Jones meets Robert Edmond Jones meets Ernest Jones meets LeRoi Jones (as Amiri Baraka was then known).

The last chapter of Brockett's History captures the sense of momentum following the Ford Foundation's initial infusion of funds for this purpose in 1959 and the subsequent founding of the Guthrie in Minneapolis in 1963:

The example of a major director seeking a home removed from New York theatre gave the movement much-needed prestige. The favorable publicity received by Minneapolis motivated many other cities to build art centers and to establish resident theatre companies. . . . By 1967, there were 35 resident companies outside New York. (666)
Brockett notes that the Guthrie was working closely with the University of Minnesota, the APA (Association of Producing Artists) was working closely with Michigan University, Yale was founding its own repertory company (thanks to Robert Brustein). At the same time, the NEA was founded to "encourage worthwile projects and to stimulate local support for the arts."

But as has so often been the case in the American theatre when the promise of decentralization seemed about to triumph, something happened to derail it. Roach describes, in a series of paragraphs that deeply depress me, the recentralization of the theatre, and its effects on the academy:

We now know that this was not to be the thin end of the wedge, but only the thin edge. Even in 1967, while the first edition of the History was in press, the Tulane theatre department and The Drama Review, which had the largest circulation of any journal in the field (or of any scholarly journal in a specialized field of the arts and humanities, excepting PMLA), left New Orleans, reversing the supposed flow of decentralization by moving the Mohammed of the academic theatre to the Mountain of New York City. This move established what was then called "Graduate Drama" and later Performance Studies as a theatre department without a theatre. Ironically, the immediate cause of the countermarch from the provinces was Tulane's failure to honor a longstanding commitment to build a new theatre. This was unusual at a time when other universities scrambled to keep up with the building boom. Even at relatively poor campuses like Kansas University, we almost always got the toys we asked for: black boxes, double-purchase systems, paint frames, cherry-pickers, leikos, big marble lobbies. Build it and they will come. But who were "they"?

In the mid-sixties, Harold Clurman started calling this huge construction project "the Edifice Complex," by which he was telling us, though we couldn't hear him at the time, that we had very little idea about what to put into these massive shells of pre-stressed concrete, the ones that still architecturally dominate most of our campuses, like mausolea, empty monuments to their still-born purpose.

What happened is easy to describe, painful to remember. Into the vacuum created by the non-appearance of the cultural revolution in regional repertory theatre rushed thousands of would-be teachers whose theory was that their practice was self-justifying. Increasingly, they held the MFA degree, which did turn out to be terminal in more ways than were originally intended, and increasingly they felt compelled to create other MFAs, not for perilous careers in the professional theatre (at least not for the most part) but to teach in even newer, even less distinguished MFA programs [and, I would note, undergraduate departments -- SW].

Not wanting to overgeneralize, I am willing to concede that some MFA programs turned out to be wonderful investments. At a certain point, however, which varied from campus to campus, the MFAs, wonderful or not, got the majority of tenured votes, and at that point programs of theatre research found themselves fighting a rearguard action against dwindling resources and a double marginalization on their own campuses: they did not fit among the community of scholars because they were appointed in theatre; they did not fit among the MFAs because they read books. Now too few in number in any one department, they struggled to cover the subjects of theatre history, literature, and theory and to direct the increasingly specialized research necessary to compete. Too few in number in any one department, they discovered that a single resignation or a death might throw their entire program into turmoil.

And so in place of professional regional repertory companies working side-by-side and even overlapping with scholars who were expanding the literature, history, and theory of the theatre, what we got was a faculty generally isolated from both the professional theatre and scholarship, ultimately justifying their anti-intellectualism as creative expression and their artistic failure as experimentation or "process." In the apparently limitless expansion of American higher education from the 1960s, anything seemed possible. Give academic credit for ushering at shows? Sure--and then only years later wonder why theatre curricula have become national campus jokes. Let stage-struck teenagers borrow against their own futures or their parents' retirements for four years of pseudo-training (seven with the MFA)? Absolutely--and then only later let them find out for themselves what it means that they have invested the better part of their twenties learning how to turn on one foot and where to go to get their teeth bleached. But before the final tenuring in of the acting gurus and arc-welders, it seemed possible to have it all, to do it all, for everyone: departments one-upped each other announcing the BA, BFA, MA, MFA (in acting, directing, design), and PhDs, too--departments that ended up being staffed by a handful of full-time faculty, few of whom could either conduct scholarly research or have professional careers as artists outside of their colleges' gates. It was not possible. It is not possible. It's history.

Because most theatre departments are not staffed by artist-scholars who combine practical knowledge with a commitment to original research, but instead are staffed primarily by artists who, as Roach says above, see their practice as self-justifying, student artists are not to educated to reinterpret the past in order to generate new ideas for the present, but are simply "trained" in the skills necessary to fit into the theatrical status quo. Lacking the reflective abilities fostered by scholarly training, artist-teachers are often unable to explain to their students why they should do a particular thing or how something works. They can do it themselves, but they can't explain it. My grandfather was that way. He would give you something to do, and if you fumbled a bit, he would growl "Gimme the goddamn thing" and do it himself. I once knew a brilliant acting teacher who wanted to write an acting text entitled simply Do What I Tell You. It was never begun because she couldn't put into words what she taught. The result of this inability to explain general concepts is that students become totally reliant on their teacher's guidance and insights. Instead of creating self-reliant artists, they create passive and dependent theatrical functionaries -- cogs that will smoothly fit into the existing theatrical machinery. Or, on the other hand, for those students who are stubborn enough to hold onto their own creative vision and who get fed up with being pushed around, we end up with theatre artists who are hostile to academia and, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, who totally abandon the nourishment that knowledge of history and theory can provide for their work (does anybody believe that, say, Eugene O'Neill would have written anything worth reading without the enormous reading in philosophy and aesthetics he did during his youth?). For such artists, whatever is fashionable today is what is worthwhile. Finally, the best emerge from their theatre education scarred but unbowed, defiantly independent, resolutely questioning -- independent auto-didacts. Many members of the theatrosphere seem to fall into this latter category.

The other side-effect of this anti-scholarly orientation is that the curriculum of most theatre departments is depressingly similar. Like the malls that dot America and that share pretty much the same stores and layouts, theatre departments offer a generic and indifferentiated curriculum that allows a student transferring from one school to another can feel relatively confident that what they have learned at their previous school is pretty much what has been taught at their current school. Nice and comfortable. While Tom, in his discussion of theatrical entropy, says that "currently in theatre we have an absence of conventions, shared perceptions and goals," the opposite is true in departments of theatre. Most are the theatrical equivalent of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, dominated by a single unquestioned dogma. The result predictably, is the similarity of most young theatre people who emerge from four (or seven) years of theatre education ground down to a uniform smoothness. Hardly the stuff from which theatre innovation is made.

Joseph Roach asks a series of questions that we might do well to ponder:

So what is possible? Are we training our graduate students for today, or for tomorrow? Where are we headed? Where do we want to go?

Even more specific, Roach writes:

Why can't every season-selection conference, for instance, be an intellectual as well as a logistical planning event, closely tied to the curriculum and the research mission of the faculty, graduate students, and advanced majors? Why can't every department have the confidence that its collective work in performance is making a contribution to knowledge? Why can't every department share its ideas and discoveries with the whole field? Why can't every journal in the field encourage papers signed by multiple authors, in the manner of scientific publications? Why? Because we would thereby emphasize the distinctive potential of theatre and performance studies for collaborative research on the cusp of the arts and human sciences. We would also give everyone a way of contributing to research and being recognized for that contribution. So why not?

Why not indeed.


Alison Croggon said...

Interesting post. Certainly the MFA syndrome you identify there has been widely blamed for a similar ossification in American poetry (the MFA as an end-in-itself, with MFA grads publishing MFA grads and going on to teach creative writing courses which churn out more...MFA creative writers). Of course there are inspiring teachers, proving exceptions to the rule, but the truth is that an awful lot of contemporary American poetry has a kind of deathly sameness - very competent, well written, sensitively observed and dull as dishwater. The same thing is happening here, to a lesser extent. Part of it is of course the laughable idea that one might have a "career" in poetry.

A couple of years ago I gave a poetry masterclass to a group of mainly MFA students, undergrads and post grads, at one of the campuses of USC (I think it was) in LA. The shock that went through them when I said I had never been to university - and there I was, a Published Author - was quite interesting. It was as if the idea that one could just be a writer, without the necessary qualifications, was way outside their universe. Very lovely people, though, and clearly some bright talents among them. But that segues to my memory of first walking across the USC campus, and looking up and to my shock seeing a sign that said "O is for Obedience". (On further inspection, it was part of a series of banners spelling out TROJANS. Bit depressing though).

To transfer to drama pedagogy - you could do worse than look at the model of training done by the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. They are turning out a whole generation of theatre artists who are literate, extremely well trained (especially in voice - they deal with complex language very well), autonomous and self-motivated. They obviously provide an intellectual structure within which artists can thrive. The idea is the "autonomous actor" - or artist - I forget which. They are exposed to a range of demanding classical and contemporary texts, and exciting directors from outside the institution are brought in to work with them on productions. These people are coming out into the culture and making it a very exciting place to be. They're the reverse of industry fodder.

Like so many things here, under threat. But still going strong for the moment.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the tip about the Victorian College of the Arts, Alison. I'll take a look. I'm just not sure what conclusion to draw about the MFA phenomenon. Maybe it is the "professionalization" of training, the idea that you can have a "career" in theatre, as you say about poetry, that is the real problem. I don't know if the degree and the orientation go together -- maybe so.

Alison Croggon said...

The problem is definitely the profressionlisation of creative work. Of course people do have careers, of a kind, and do make their livings from art, so it's complex. Just that it's not like getting a job in a multinational and has very different imperatives.

My friend at USC says his job is to "deprofessionalise" his students, to get them inspired by the pleasures of intellectual play and learning. Which sounds like a fine plan to me.