Friday, September 14, 2007

Theatre Education Part 3 -- Production

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.

Laura Axelrod

In a few clear, reflective, and ultimately painful paragraphs, Laura Axelrod looks back over her time as a blogger, paying particular attention to her time as a theatre blogger. As one of the earliest members of the theatrosphere, and as of a month ago one of those who has given up writing about the theatre, she offers some trenchant remarks about her experiences. The one that particularly lodged like a burr on a sweater was this: "I noticed how my very best entries got little response from [the theatre] community." I have noticed this as well. As someone who often checks my hit counter and tries to figure out what the readers seem to be responding to, the answer too often seems to be "dustups" -- my hit count soars the minute someone finds something I've written offensive. Nevertheless, posts that the recent ones Tom and I have been doing about theatre education have seen a consistent growth in readership. So I find it puzzling how few comments there have been both on my site and on Tom's. While I am frequently enjoined to provide thoughtful posts rather than jeremiads, the fact is that many members of the theatrosphere only seem to respond to the jeremiads. As a result, I am beginning to lose faith that blogging actually leads to dialogue. Increasingly, I see myself as providing "content," as if this were an academic journal and one never knew who was reading the material or what they thought about it. It is disappointing, because I feel that the exchange of ideas is what is most lacking in the theatre scene overall, especially for those who are not centered in NYC but rather scattered across the country and the world. My best and most responsive readers ar often Canadian, and I truly appreciate their interest and willingness to share. Perhaps the best way to encourage comments is to follow Isaac's model of short questions that open up a topic for discussions without the blogger initially taking a position himself or herself. This would be the Socratic approach to blogging. But blogging as, essentially, an exchange of letters seems to not be taking off. At the same time, I value the series Tom and I have been doing. We have begun a friendship that, I hope will continue once the final "publish post" button is hit. But it puzzles me why the theatrosphere is so different from the way theatre people interact in real life, which often is lively. I have no answers, and I include myself within the observations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Theatre Education -- Part 3.0 (Loughlin)

Tom Loughlin at "A Poor Player" continues our series on theatre education with a great discussion of the purpose and expectations of Theatre Department productions. As usual, it'll get you thinking. I'll chime in soon -- probably later tonight or tomorrow.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Theatre Education 2.2 -- Corporate Training

As a drama professor, I represent our department at many university Open Houses where potential students and their parents come to see what we offer. We have our brochures and production photos on display boards to dazzle the students, and of course we don't have a stack of handouts showing the latest Actors Equity employment figures -- no sense scaring people away, right? But we do have a plastic file for the parents that is filled with a hand-out called "What Can You "Do" With a Theatre Major?" This hand-out lists 25 "special advantages" that a theatre major has over other majors as far as employment in the corporate world. These run the gamut from "oral communication skills" to "self-discipline," and are designed to mollify fearful parents who worry about junior's employment fate. Junior now will have a repost when someone makes the inevitable "you want fries with that" crack. The central argument is that business leaders are looking for exactly the types of skills that drama majors develop. I have seen parental worry lines fade as they read the hand-out, because it makes a lot of sense.

Of course, once junior decides that our department is where he wants to be, and shows up all dewy-eyed on our doorstep on the first day of classes, we quickly forget about this handout and re-promote the Romantic image of the theatre artist as rebel anarchist whose imagination, Outsider Status, and ethical superiority places him above and beyond the normal corporate drudge -- indeed, above and beyond almost everybody in the world. Luisa in The Fantasticks utters the theatre person's creed: "I am special! I am special! Please, God, please -- don't let me be normal!" And over the next four years, we feed this self-image of theatre people as different than other people, better than other people, more creative than other people. People with a mission.

Except it is all a lie.

In reality, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world.

1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director's bidding. And the director does the producer's bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because no only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he's also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn't like your attitude. In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholders, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: "You can't make art by committee." We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tatooed on the psyches of every drama major that is "trained."

2. Efficiency is everything. If you don't believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after "You can't create art by committee,") is that we "don't have time" for that, we have to get the show up. We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question this value. It's too expensive to spend money on rehearsal -- better minimize the investment and hope for the best.

3. Do what you're told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don't take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it -- that'll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die. Remember Larry Tate on Bewitched? That's what you should be. See number 1 above.

4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is "Dance Ten -- Looks Three" from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with "Razzle-Dazzle" from Chicago. What does the market want right now? That's what you should be. Great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well. What's conventional wisdom about getting your second job? Play well with others. Theatre is Dale Carnegie central.

5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I'm currently working on, always say its the best thing you've ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else on the show -- you're dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill -- it's ingrained in theatre people, too.

6. Don't let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opps in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you'll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist's responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it's only theatre -- we don't actually affect anyone's ideas, right? Film filled with violence and misogyny? It's entertainment -- nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women's shelter or something.

And so truly, when junior's Dad looks me in the eye and says, "How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?," I can say, with confidence, that he is being imbued with all the values that will make him successful in the corporate world. Compliance, obedience, and patience is what we teach.

It makes for great corporate careers -- unfortunately, it makes for really boring theatre.