Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Theatre Education

Over at Parabasis, Isaac has asked a question about the effects of university involvement in arts training. While I outlined my take on this back at the end of May in a post entitled Risk, I'd like to take this opportunity to quote an article by Sonja Kuftinec, a professor at my alma mater the University of Minnesota (unfortunately, she was not there when I was there). The article, which was published in Theatre Topics, is called "Educating the Creative Theatre Artist." In it, she writes about undergraduate education:

A January 1999 ATHE retreat, which I attended as a representative of the Performance Studies Focus Group, clarified the dilemmas faced by our field in terms of what and how we teach, and toward what ends. Should we be training students more preprofessionally--undergraduates for performance jobs and graduates for teaching jobs? Or should we focus more on interdisciplinary collaborations across fields that would redefine students as inquirers and artistic entrepreneurs? Or should we try to combine training and inquiry, particularly in educating graduate students? Surveys of artists working in alternative theatrical projects suggest a focus on redefining undergraduates as artistic entrepreneurs, while experience with graduate students at the University of Minnesota suggests a model for more explicit "teacher training."

Surveys compiled by Bob Leonard at Virginia Tech, and Jan Cohen-Cruz and Lucy Winner, former cochairs of ATHE's Task Force on Expanding Roles of Theatre in Education, emphasize the need for interdisciplinary undergraduate coursework while offering general avenues for rethinking the skills and values we teach our undergraduates. Leonard's 1995 questionnaire received responses from fifty-five working artists associated with Alternative ROOTS (Regional Organizations of Theatres South). The respondents' replies, when asked what they would teach and what they wish they had been taught, reveal what might be lacking in some of our undergraduate training: collaboration, ensemble-building, idea development, interdisciplinary approaches to creating art, listening, conflict resolution, community engagement, and application of artistic skills in a wide range of settings.

The undergraduate production programs that I know of tend to emphasize individual actor training based in psychological realism often supplemented with movement and voice work. Elective classes in production include audition techniques and acting for the camera. There is little or no emphasis in the classroom placed on collaboration, ensemble-building, or alternative careers in the field of theatre. Conventional production training tends to recycle a system that emphasizes the passivity of the individual actor rather than graduating students who can think critically and creatively about the value of theatre in society and who act upon those thoughts.


I would agree with Kuftinec's assessment -- most undergraduate education creates passivity in a variety of ways, and it is also very conservative in its approach to thinking about the art form. The education is about fitting in to what currently exists, rather than creating what might exist. It is past oriented rather than future oriented, and it is decidedly anti-intellectual.

Note: Anyone who wants to read Kuftinec's article and who doesn't have access to Project Muse, please email me at walt828@gmail.com and I'll send a copy.