Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Theatre Education Part 5 -- Suggestions for Improvement

OK, Tom at A Poor Player and I are finally coming to the end of the series, where we make recommendations for how theatre education can be improved. I'll warn you: I've been listening to business guru Tom Peters today, so I am feeling blunt and honest.

I want to start by quoting from a book entitled Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transofrming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development by M. B. Baxter Magolda, a college professor who writes books about education. She writes:

"Educators have multiple expectations for the journey that is called college education. For example, we expect students to acquire knowledge, learn how to analyze it, and learn the process of judging what to believe themselves -- what developmental theorists call complex ways of knowing. We expect students to develop an internal sense of identity -- and understanding of how they view themselves and what they value. We expect them to learn how to construct healthy relationships with others, relationships based on mutuality rather than self-sacrifice, and relationships that affirm diversity. We expect them to integrate these ways of knowing, being and interacting with others into the capacity for self-authorship -- the capacity to internally define their own beliefs, identity, and relationships. This self-authorship, this internal capacity, is the necessary foundation for mutual, collaborative participation with others in adult life."

Most theatre programs are really good at the first part about acquiring knowledge (or skills) and learning to analyze it (or apply it). But we tend to ignore the rest of the paragraph, assuming, instead, that all that stuff just takes care of itself as a person gets older.


We need to ask questions that help students develop a sense of personal identity -- how do they view themselves, their art -- what do they value. Make them put it into words -- on paper, in conversation, whatever. Watch it change and grow. Don't just teach them what the French Neoclassical Rules are, ask them what they might be useful for now, today, in their art. Ask them whether they think there are uses for such rules, or whether they are impediments. Draw analogies to current rules that may be less explicitly acknowledged but are nonetheless as inflexible -- for instance, the way that the 30-minute TV schedule structures the way TV shows are structured. Make them decide what from the past speaks to them, and what doesn't. Help them make their values explicit.

Teach them how to construct healthy relationships. No, I don't mean read Cosmopolitan with them. I mean move beyond the master-apprentice mentality that many professors have in relation to their students. Teach them how to work together, how to value the ideas of others, and to value their own ideas as well. Discourage slaves and toadies. Teach them lots of ways to collaborate. Teach them to form partnerships. Put them in situations where they must get involved in the community and meet and talk to people who have power, and with people who don't. Be an example of someone who actively seeks out diverse opinions and people who don't agree with you.

Make your primary goal a student's self-authorship, "the capacity to internally define their own beliefs, identity, and relationships." That will make them stand out more than any theatre skill they might learn. And it will promote happiness, integrity, and authenticity. Now THAT'S what a real artist is.

A few more bullet points, some slightly redundant:
  • Ignore "The Biz" -- don't helicopter students onto a sinking ship. You're not doing them any favors preparing them to excel in a dysfunctional system that is doomed to collapse at any moment. Help them to look for lifeboats.
  • Create artists, not cogs. Artists have original thoughts. They are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual anarchists. There is a video on YouTube of Philipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller. Most theatre "training" for "the Biz" isn't much different than that -- training students to work in lockstep. That is killing theatre faster than any anti-NEA ideology in Congress. Give a class in lateral thinking. Encourage eccentricity. Disseminate wild ideas. Hell, change your syllabus! (Gasp!)
  • Make students think like social entrepreneurs -- have them think in terms of the system, not just their careers. Look for ways to change the world by creating a new way of doing things. Encourage them to think big, and think outside the box.
  • Consciously teach techniques for creative cooperation and consensus building. Most theatre people worship the hierarchical theatrical structure because they think that collaboration takes too long and is too frustrating. Not true, if you know what you're doing. Teach them to know what they're doing. There aren't enough geniuses to justify the pyramid system.
  • Don't encourage specialization -- don't teach young people to just be actors or designers or directors, but all of those and more: entrepreneurs, gardeners, community organizers, marketers. Think in terms of Daniel Quinn's "occupational tribes" -- they need to be able to extend the earning power of the tribe. That might be by growing food for the company in addition to being an actor, or figuring out a way to offer workshops to local organizations in collaboration or team-building or creative thinking. These kind of people are worth their weight in gold. If they can act AND build a costume, they are doubly valuable to a company. Specialization = irrelevance.
  • Figure out ways for students to use in the theatre what they learn in their non-theatre classes. Don't let theatre students talk about their gen ed courses as "irrelevant," something to be "gotten out of the way." Instead, think about having them create theatre pieces about what they've learned about Cartesian duality, or organic chemistry, or medieval history. Demonstrate how everything they learn can inform the theatre and become theatre. (And as a side benefit, if they can theatricalize academic material, they might be able to write a grant to teach it in the K-12 system somewhere. Extend the earning power of the tribe!)
  • Encourage lateral thinking. Make students question the status quo, find a different way to do something, even if the status quo being undermined is what you taught in your class. Which leads to the next point:
  • Encourage students to kill Buddha. No, I'm not talking about literal murder. I'm talking about letting students attack you and what you've taught without taking offense. Teach them the old saying: "If you encounter the Buddha walking along the road, kill him."You're Buddha. Prepare to die. Like Oedipus, sometimes you've got to kill Dad in order to take your place in the world. It's a good thing (OK, it wasn't so great for Oedipus). If you create disciples of your students, in actuality you're killing them. Not good. Read Ionesco's The Lesson as a cautionary tale. Resolve NOT to be the teacher. We don't need no stinkin' clones.
  • Encourage students to read. The best way to do this: set an example. Read plays a lot and talk about them in class. Make copies of articles and pass them around. Read books, and comment on them. All of this doesn't have to be theatre oriented. In fact, it is good for students to see that you feel knowing things about the world, past and present, is important. Sure, it takes class time -- get over it. There is nothing you're gonna tell them in your lecture or workshop that can't be found somewhere else. It's the information age, and there are probably a thousand websites that have the same stuff you're going to teach them. Give them a gift they can't get on the internet -- an energetic, curious mind to engage with. If you really want to set an example, create a lunchtime reading group -- have a regular table once a week at a campus restaurant where kids can talk to you about books. Eat. Talk. Share, don't teach.
I could go on and on, I suppose, but I want to leave Tom some room. I've enjoyed working on this series with Tom -- it has been nice to share with someone whose life experiences are similar to my own. I hope my readers have enjoyed it as well, and that they will chime in with their own insights, condemnations, suggestions, and brainstorms.

I take theatre education very seriously. Like the environmental crisis, I believe that the theatre crisis will affect my 18 - 22 year olds powerfully, more powerfully than it will affect an old fart like me. I'm tenured -- I'm wedged in for the duration. So that means I have to take responsibility for those who are just starting out. And I will feel like a total fraud if I don't do something to help them face the inevitable changes that are on the way. And dammit, that don't mean "training."

My challenge is to make at least some of this happen here on my campus. My biggest nightmare is a tombstone that says: "Scott Walters -- 1958 - 200?-- He could have done some cool things, but the Provost wouldn't let him." That'[s my challenge -- avoiding that tombstone.


Praxis Theatre said...

Re: "Specialization = irrelevance."

On one hand, I agree. Too many theatre artists are "trained" to do only one thing, acting or directing, for example. And that seems like a bad idea because they won't have the tools to interact with the system on any other terms, and therefor won't likely be able to change it for the better.

But what about the specialists required in other departments of theatre? The marketing and PR people, the lawyers and general managers? I feel like too often these tasks are left to "theatre artists" who have no formal training in these fields and thusly tend to do a bad job of it.

So doesn't theatre need specialists? Where do we draw the line between the need for a generalist's saftey net and a specialist's expertise?


Scott Walters said...

We don't. You may primarily be an actor, which means you have been trained (or educated) in that area. But not ONLY that area. Same for marketing and PR people -- they should pitch in somewhere else. It may or may not be in production, but they should have another skill. Otherwise, theatres should hire consultants. But if you are on the payroll, or part of the tribe, you need to contribute more than a good press release, I think. Also, remember I am speaking in terms of a theatre for the future -- see bullet point #1. There needs to be greater integration in the theatre than there currently is. All this goes together.

Praxis Theatre said...

I'd agree with that – especially as something to strive for.


Anonymous said...

I agree heartily with the last bullet point in particular. I met an online friend for the first time last night because he was in Chicago for a reading at a bookstore. He credited his first and last writing teacher (in playwriting, though Nick doesn't write plays) with giving him the only advice that really made a difference to him as a writer: "Read everything, classics and crap. Start with Aeschylus and end with Zola."


Praxis Theatre said...

One time, while travelling abroad, I got talking with a American man who was travelling with his family. It turned out that he had met Kerouac and Ginsberg, he'd met – and didn't like – Burroughs, etc. These figures, along with Salman Rushdie, neared the top of my lengthy list of heroes.

I was reading non-stop. Travelling alone afforded me such liberties. And I was excited to talk to this guy who'd been so close to "the greats". Through the course of our conversation, I asked him what he was reading currently.

"Nothing," he said. "At this point in my life, I'd rather write a book than read one."

I don't have a great memory for quotes, but this one has stuck with me. I love reading – but it's so friggin' time consuming! (Not to mention hard on the eyes!)

Scott's talking about encouraging students to read. Which I totally agree with. But I wonder if there's a point for artists when the rabbit hole of reading starts to get in the way of them actually writing their own book.

What do you think?


Scott Walters said...

Absolutely, Ian. I totally agree. In gardening, you have to amend the soil with nutrients like manure and compost, but at some point you have to plant a seed for something of your own to grow. Same here -- reading provides a rich soil which serves as nutrient for your own creativity. Sure,t here are only so many hours in a day, and so many days in a life, but you have to feed the soil or you will deplete its power to grow healthy plants.

Wanda & Kaizen Works Team said...

I really love what you are saying. I think North America does not take enough time with developing people in general into individuals who can live their lives well. We don't teach money skills. We very rarely get an education in relationships. We don't learn much about spirituality...It's all left to us and to our parents.

I think as theatre artists that we are more than just directors or actors or the like. We are people with relationships, with finances, with spiritual needs. If we could learn how to be an artist who has numerous of other skills that we are free to use openly, I think the classroom, theatre world and world in general would be a better place.

So what do we do? Those of us who are out here being artists and are not in the classroom anymore - where do we begin?