Over at A Poor Player, Tom Loughlin has posted a thoughtful essay about the conservative nature of most drama department production programs. His most provocative paragraph says: "Why must theatre departments feel they need to produce seasons at all? If it’s the case that there are relatively few audience members, why go through all that trouble? Is it really the best type of training?" He goes on: "If theatre is to become more innovative, I think that the time we take to produce a theatre season might be better spent allowing students to be creative rather than re-creative. Given the opportunity, young people can be astoundingly expressive. If the usual time spent in rehearsals were spent as time learning how to write and do shows in found spaces, we’ve be better able to make some breakthroughs, perhaps, in theatrical form, in writing style, in thematic content, and perhaps in many other areas."
I, too, have made that argument. In fact, one year I turned my annual directing slot into a "Festival of Student Creativity" in which any student could propose a project and be part of the festival. The students responded with a wide variety of performances, from sound-and-light show to readings to a full production of Death and the Maiden. Afterwards, some students felt very empowered; others complained that it was too much work. From my perspective, students were much more likely in the years that followed to mount their own independent productions. In fact, the students who did Death and the Maiden formed their own production company and performed as part of the second stage at a regional theatre in Asheville.
I also used another of my directing slots to do a student-created show based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that a group of students and I wrote from the ground up in a little over a semester. In it, Dr. Frankenstein, on the last night of his life, had a fever dream in which he was put on trial for "crimes against humanity" by a group of trickster gods from a variety of mythological traditions. We created and rehearsed the script in a little more than a semester, and the result was respectable. We also totally changed the play's ending for the second performance because we didn't like the audience take on what was being said. We could never have done that with a regular script. As a result of seeing that play, the same students who did Death and the Maiden created a play from the ground up based on Dante's Inferno, which was truly extraordinary. It was called Nine Modern Cantos.
All of which is to say I think Tom is on to something. One retired member of the Drama Department opined that it was dangerous to give the students the "keys to the car," but I quoted my own mentor, Cal Pritner, who often said that the best thing about theatre is that it is "bio-degradable." So what if they stink up the place -- the air will clear. The question is what they have learned from the experience.
Most theatre departments justify their production programs as their labs. Like science labs, theatre productions exist for students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom. It is a persuasive argument, but the reality is quite different.
Departmental productions are focused almost exclusively on putting on a "good show," not teaching those involved. If in acting class the actors are taught to score their script, directors never ask them to do so for rehearsals; if everyone is taught to research the play's background, nobody is asked to produce that research during the production process. The casting process is rarely about what the students need to learn, but rather on who can best play the role right now. Oftentimes, actors who play a certain type of role will simply be typecast over the course of their career, and never have the opportunity to stretch their talents. Faculty directors feel that they are being judged on the quality of the final product, not whether those involved furthered their education.
To my mind, if we put on a "good show" but nobody learns anything new from it as a result, the show is a failure. On the other hand, a show that is a failure may have led to great growth in those who were involved.
Let's go back to the "lab" parallel. If I am a biology teacher and in class I teach my students how to dissect a frog, my lab will be designed to have them put those skills into practice. If my students come into lab and dissect the frog with their teeth instead of a scalpel, no matter how effectively the frog was dissected the student will fail. Not so in theatre. In our labs, students are applauded solely for the quality of their product, regardless of whether they are ignoring everything they have been taught to do in classes. This is more common that not -- students arrive from high school having spent years developing a bag of personal tricks, and they often rely on those tricks in production. Faculty directors don't mind, as long as those tricks make their show "better."
In fact, most drama departments are little more than Play Clubs run by the faculty and doing shows that the faculty want to do. There is little educational purpose, which is not to say a whole lot of learning isn't going on. One of the things the students learn is that what they learn in class is largely irrelevant -- that they are going to get cast according to type, not talent; that the focus is going to be on product, not process; and that what counts is whether the audience loves you.
It is the disconnect between curriculum and production that bothers me. I could see the value of an entire curriculum based on hands-on experience that would be designed to research, experiment, and learn what is needed as it is needed (just-in-time learning). I could also see a curriculum that was totally focused on the classroom experience, and that played to only small invited audiences, and that was focused on student self-discovery.
But to have both with little connection between the two strikes me as a waste of time and resources.