Saturday, September 08, 2007

Theatre Education Part 2.1 -- Addendum to Tom Loughlin

Tom Loughlin's description of theatre education's Big Lies does an excellent job of laying out the false advertising most theatre departments use to sell their programs to the young and hopeful. Given the way "The Biz" is currently configured, academia is churning our far too much theatrical cannon fodder to be considered rational or ethical. Even at liberal arts colleges such as my own, whose focus should be less on pre-professional "training" than on using theatre as an educational "lens" through which to learn about the world for four years, we teach semester-long courses in auditioning. Auditioning! The end result of all this pre-professional careerism is a bevy of actors who are simultaneously desperately needy (to quote A Chorus Line, "I need this job, oh God I need this show!") and incredibly passive ("I'll do whatever I'm told") and ultimately lacking in a sense of personal aesthetic values to guide them in deciding what they will or will not do with their artistic energy.

My focus in this essay will be on the undergraduate, since that has been my occupation for the past nine years at a university that has no graduate programs. I am ambivalent about graduate programs; I learned a great deal at Illinois State University (MA) and City University of New York Graduate Center (PhD). But much of what I learned came from constant practice -- the ability to focus entirely on my art form and the expectation that I would constantly produce (productions at ISU, and essays at CUNY). Trial and error under the watchful eyes of instructors with very high standards was where I learned the most. What I absorbed came more from the values my teacher's lived than anything specific that they taught me. At ISU, every day I was marinated in the doctrine of risk, of making choices that had high stakes; at CUNY, every day I was marinated in the doctrine of critical thinking and rigorous professionalism. Nevertheless, I agree with Tom: I could have learned a whole lot using that $75,000 to produce play after play or article after article -- with the caveat that I would want a very demanding critic to visit each production and respond to each essay.

But on to my topic: undergrads. Let's start with the American Theatre ads Tom mentions in his essay, and the ubiquitous offer of "training." In an interview with Ian MacKenzie at Theatre Is Territory, I snapped "Dogs are trained, not artists." When you train a dog, you train him to obediently respond to orders from his master in a skilled, unquestioning way. You don't want a dog who, when you say "sit," decides for himself whether he wants to sit at that particular moment, or questions whether sitting is really the best option. The same is true when we "train" actors -- we're not creating independent and critical thinkers who bring their own ideas to the table, but rather "performers" who can produce efficiently and effectively whatever effect a director decides he wants. We train for compliance; we should educate for artistry.

Furthermore, we train, for the most part, solely for technique. Students are rarely asked to wrestle with the larger questions of theatre's purpose, theatre's value to a contemporary society, theatre's viability as an art form in an age of mass media domination, theatre's usefulness to those who might buy a ticket, theatre's relationsip to its audience, or alternate purposes theatre might serve. They are rarely asked to develop their own values concerning these questions, much less come to terms with the values of artists past that might provide grist for their own mill. They are trained to accept without question that the status quo is the best of all possible theatrical worlds, and to see their role as being to develop the technique necessary to fit within it. They are also trained to believe that the theatre will always survive because, well, it always has survived before. I call this the Tinkerbell Syndrome: if we believe in theatre hard enough and clap our hands, it will always survive, a faith that supports the passive complacency required to become a theatrical cog. It is the faith of the Cowardly Lion running full speed down the Wizard's corridor frantically repeating "I do believe in spooks! I do I do I do I do!" -- just before he leaps out a window.

This emphasis on compliance and complacency is particularly crippling when it comes to 18 - 22 year olds who have not yet developed enough life experience nor intellectual ballast to offer resistance. They are easily molded by any adult with a strong personality and rhetorical flair.

None of these complaints are new or original with me nor with Tom. In fact, Richard Schechner expressed them all powerfully in his essay in the Summer 1995 issue of TDR entitled "Transforming Theatre Departments." In the dozen years since he published his proposal, few theatre departments have addressed the questions he raised, much less changed their approach to theatre education in light of those questions. Perhaps this lack of response connects to my previous post about how we got where we are -- most college theatre instructors are not scholar-artists, and they probably have never read TDR or any other journal of theatre ideas.

For anyone who has followed this blog over the years, you know that I am very smitten with Tony Kushner's Association for Theatre in Higher Education keynote speech which I heard him deliver, and which was published in American Theatre as "A Modest Proposal." In it, he calls for the abolition of drama majors, and proposes that all undergrads be liberally educated in the great ideas of the past and present rather than narrowly focus on the acquisition of theatre skills and technique. The idea is that, by doing so, we will educate artists who have something worthwhile to say, rather than performers with well-trained vocal chords but not a thought of their own worth vocalizing.

But that is for another post.


Brian Santana said...

Scott--I think the issues that you and Tom raise are complicated and, perhaps, amplified when applied to drama programs at public, four-year, liberal arts, colleges.

Liberal arts drama programs are caught in a strange predicament because they are not focused enough on preparation to provide strong technique- based training for actors (in the way that a conservatory approach, like that of Julliard would) but, at the same time, many of these same programs (due to the lack of PhDs and the preponderance of MFAs in theatre) are not qualified or prepared to offer a strong scholarly focus either!

As a result, I feel that many students are left in limbo. Unless they arrive at the university with an exceptional level of talent, chances are they won't find consistent work when they graduate. The lack of rigorous research and scholarly based coursework also means that they will not be given an ample opportunity to take advantage of a period that, for most people, represents the one time in their life that they can devote a substantial amount of their time to thinking, reading, writing, etc...

I'm not advocating the conservatory model. All I'm saying is that I know people who have graduated from programs like Julliard and NC School of the Arts and they have phenomenal technique. This is not to say that they are working consistently in theatre--it varies widely. Their training did, however, for better or worse, give them certain skills that are observable.

However, many of the people I know who have attended liberal arts based curriculums are not given the same level of technical training in the theatre or subjected to the rigorous critical thinking of the scholarly-research based model of other humanities departments, like philosophy or literature.

It seems like these people in the middle, who most likely comprise the largest majority of graduates nationwide, are the ones who suffer the most.

Scott Walters said...

From my perspective, the big losers in this are not the liberal arts students, but the conservatory trained. I'm talking at the undergraduate level. Because the focus has been on the vessel instead of what is in the vessel, the packaging instead of what is inside. To my mind, the theatre doesn't demand virtuosity as much as it demands depth, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual.

Brian Santana said...

My point is that liberal arts drama programs leave students worse off because, in practice, they send conflicting messages to their students. The absence of a coherent message that is reflected in the school's practices threatens to leave students in limbo.

Julliard is conservatory training. It might be an extremely ineffective model that perpetuates the status quo and short changes the undergraduate student, but they bill themselves as a conservatory and their coursework and faculty beliefs reflect this mission, for better or worse.

In the case of liberal arts drama programs, many claim to offer training that will "prepare" students for the industry (in voice, auditioning, etc..), but in this regard they will never compete with conservatories. Many of these schools, however, try to sell themselves as conservatories in their advertising, but in actuality many are far from this standard.

At the same time, many liberal arts drama programs also give lip service to developing the individual, yet, an inordinate amount of time and energy is spent on productions and production-centered coursework (or vocational, "skill," based coursework). Such an emphasis does not send the message to their students that they value critical thinking, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual depth. It conveys that they are most interested in productions.

I'm simply calling for a greater level of transparency and honesty. The trouble is that many liberal arts school do not seem committed, in practice, to the ideals that they expose in their mission statements. These ideals must be believed by all members of the faculty and reflected in their actions. Otherwise what's the point? The student will end up with inferior technique AND will have missed the opportunity to take advantage of what a liberal arts school can and should offer.

Scott Walters said...

Absolutely, Brian. Most liberal arts programs are neither fish nor foul. The conservatory creates actors "like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side." But the liberal arts programs say they're different, but instead are just conservatory lite!

Tom Loughlin said...

Hi guys,

One might even go just a bit farther. The major issue I have at the moment in my own institution is that the BA degree becomes a "dumping ground" for students whom we considered to be not talented enough to enter the BFA degree. The BA degree, therefore, has the added ignominy of being identified as the place where the less talented end up, and then no one pays much attention to them anymore. So now they are doubly screwed: not only do they get tagged as the "less talented," but they are also deprived of the opportunity to find some viable alternative or at least a curriculum of study where they can get a solid background in literature, theory and history, given the weakness of our BA degree. Despite my mentioning this on many occasions to my colleagues, we have yet to do anything to reform our approach to the BA degree in terms of making it that solid liberal arts degree Brian speaks of. It depresses me no end. -twl

Brian Santana said...

Tom and Scott--Considering that a B.A. degree is completed in such a short period of time, during such an early part of the student's life (18-22), it's amazing that such an inordinate amount of time would be spent on productions. Technique and "skills" can always be learned from practical experience!

For example, I'm not a professional actor or a technician, but I did work as a technician doing summer stock the summer after completing my freshman year in a BA drama program. At that point I had not even taken any of the technical coursework that my undergraduate college offered (I didn't start such work until the second semester of my second year). However, over the course of the summer, I became fairly competent at and learned a great deal about carpentry, electrical work, lighting, sound, etc...You pick up things pretty quickly when you work virtually every day for 3 months!

My point is that nurturing a student's capacity to think critically and abstractly is more difficult than teaching them how to build a flat or how to wire a dimmer.

I think students would be in a much better position if they spent the year focusing on coursework that asked them to critically examine and understand literature, history, theory, etc...THEN, when school is out over the summer, if they desire to learn skills, I think they should do summer stock or something very intensive where they will learn and hone those abilities.

In most professions, if you want to learn a "skill," you do begin an apprentice program. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters...most do it. Why should acting or design be any different? Individuality comes from the imagination, not the tools of the trade. If the mind and the imagination are properly developed, teaching the use and function of various tools to bring this vision to life is the easy part!

The theatre is not going to suffer because a student can't identify a 6" fresnel by the time he is 19. The theatre will suffer if the students, who are the next generation, can't read a play and don't have any conception of their personal aesthetic, role, function, and responsibilities as an artist.