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.