Friday, September 21, 2007

Fired Up? Ready to Go?

Folks -- I just watched this video of Barack Obama telling a story about a SC alderwoman who inspired Obama and a roomful of people with her repeated cry "Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" I read it right before reading Tom Loughlin's inspirational final post in the theatre education series we've been doing, and it fit so well. Tom's call to action is powerful and inspiring, and echoed Obama's ringing conclusion: "And it goes to show you how one voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, then it can change a city. And if it can change a city, then it can change a state. And if it can change a state, then it can change a country. And if it can change a country, then it can change the world. Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? Let's go change the world!"

Tom calls for us to raise our voices in order to change a room, and from there we can change the world. Most importantly, Tom writes:

"It is imperative for artists to become involved in this issue as well, both by agitating their own places of education, and by continuing to create a theatre that strikes some sort of chord for every layer of society. The entropic nature of all organic things requires that something new be created to replace what has gained maximum entropy, not to continue to waste time trying to bring balance to the old. If artists and educators can join forces to subvert theatre education from without and from within, we may have some hope of bringing in something new and promising. I’m trying to work on my part from within - can you work on yours from without?"

And by doing so, he reaches out to form a bond between the artist and the educator built on a mutual concern for the health of the art form we love. Yes, this series has been a conversation between two educators about their profession, but its ramifications affect everything that happens in the art form. If theatre education is deadly, it reinforces the deadly aspects of the professional theatre by flooding it with deadly actors, directors, designers and playwrights. But, on the other hand, if theatre education is going to innovate, if we comfortable tenured professors are going to make an effort to teach in a way that inspires and empowers young people, then we need to know that there are artists out there who will join hands with us and with our students to change the face of theatre.

Tom is right -- the academy needs artists to raise your voices and demand a change. To express your frustrations over what you did and didn't learn when you were in college, to call out to education's higher angels and demand that we create artists and not mindless drones. To make us theatre professors do our jobs and serve as midwives to a theatrical future that is vibrant and innovative and exciting.

How do we do that? How can we get this moving? Tom suggests that you talk to your theatre alma mater, or to your local theatre departments, and I agree. And then we need to go further, to create a wide demand for a theatre education redefinition and renaissance that will bring new energy into the professional world.

How do we do that? Please fill my comments box and Tom's with suggestions. Write your own blog posts and give us a link. Share your stories. Tell us what you got from your education that has kept you fired up and ready to go, and what baggage you have had to get rid of in order to stay that way. Tell us what would appeal to your artistic higher angels, and what opportunities we should provide for our students during their years in our care. What in education would help make theatre an exciting, vibrant, and innovative art form that would live up to all the talent that fills it?

And then brainstorm with us -- what's the next level? My first thought, and I suppose it is a typically academic one, is a conference attended by artists and educators who are committed to change, who will issue ringing manifestoes and thundering j'accuses demanding the destruction of the status quo. Something -- anything -- to get us fired up and ready to go. But in some ways, that seems kind of unoriginal and not in keeping with the nature of the effort. So what other options are there?

What's next?

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.

Nonsense.

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.

More on Tasering

"University spokesman Steve Orlando defended the officers' actions in an interview with the Associated Press, but said an internal investigation would be conducted to make sure they acted appropriately.

"He apparently asked several questions -- he went on for quite awhile -- then he was asked to stop," Orlando said of Meyer. "He had used his allotted time. His microphone was cut off, then he became upset."

That's where we are, folks: you get tasered if you go over your allotted time. I think I'll start tasering students who turn their papers in late or show up late to class while I'm talking. Have we lost our mind????

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Is This Justified in America?

I would really like to know why this is acceptable in America? It is outrageous. It should be condemned as police brutality bordering on fascism. Those officers should be fired, and prosecuted for assault. Period. What is this country coming too????

Monday, September 17, 2007

Theatre Education Part 4.1 -- Things We Do Well

Adding on to Tom's post, I think there is something that is being taught very well: skills. Very rarely do I go to professional productions where the direction isn't solid, the scenery isn't interesting, the lighting isn't efficient, the costumes aren't accurate, and the acting isn't believable. (For some reason, that latter comment about acting doesn't apply to Broadway, where I have seen some absolutely awful acting. For some reason, once actors make it to Broadway, they have acquired the habit of mistaking speed, line pickup, and loudness for actual acting. I am regularly astonished at how totally unbelievable as human beings so many Broadway actors are.) Most of the artists responsible for these productions have received their training at university, and their competence reflects well on their alma maters.

I think that theatre departments are generally teaching the how-to's in a solid fashion. Yes, when I attend a college production, the quality will vary from student to student, but often that is more a function of the student's progress within the program more than anything else.

And I agree with Tom -- there is a lot of good mentoring going on. The larger the department, the harder it is for that mentoring to take place, but in medium-to-small departments, or in graduate programs, this is much more likely.

I would also like to link to this post by David Boevers at Carnegie Mellon, whose program, from Prof Boever's description, has benefited from a strong effort to break out of the traditional skill-based training in order to make an intentional attempt to actually educate artists. This is particularly impressive, in my opinion, because as a recognized high-profile program Carnegie-Mellon could have coasted on its reputation without going through the intense reflection necessary for such a curriculum change to occur. I am particularly taken with the OSWALD class, which takes an intentional approach to questioning the generally accepted. It is always nice to be able to point at a department that seems to be making a real effort.

So within a very narrow frame, I think most university programs are turning out competent practitioners.

If that seems damning with faint praise, well...mea culpa.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Theatre Education Part 4 -- Strengths (Tom Loughlin)

Part 4 of 5 on Theatre Education that Tom (A Poor Player) Loughlin and I have been writing. This time, we will be discussing what we think theatre education is doing right. I'll chime in soon.

Five Strengths

Thanks to Laura Axelrod, who tagged me with a meme called "Five Strengths." Instructions read:

"Make a list of five strengths that you possess as a writer/artist. It's not really bragging, it's an honest assessment (forced upon you by this darn meme). Please resist the urge to enumerate your weaknesses, or even mention them in contrast to each strong point you list. Tag four other writers or artists whom you'd like to see share their strengths."

OK, here goes:

1. Willingness to ignore the status quo. There are times when I think my theme song is the Marx Brothers' Whatever It Is, I'm Against It. My tendency is to question almost anything that is accepted as being "correct." Sometimes, that puts me in very strange company, but I think the act of questioning is the reason for my #2 strength.

2. I have lots of ideas. Thanks, Laura, for that one -- me too. There are days when my head feels like a birdcage filled with parrots all chattering at the same time and flying against the bars. At those times, I have to find a way to calm the flock and listen for the most beautiful song. But I value the cacophony.

3. I'm pretty impervious to peer pressure. When I was in 6th grade, I proudly carried to school a briefcase my father brought me from work. When one of the cool kids sidled up and demanded to know why I was carrying a briefcase, I looked at him wide-eyed and asked "Why aren't you?" He wandered away, confused at the question, and I have been following that philosophy ever since. I don't mind being eccentric: why aren't you?

4. I write with energy. I think when you read my blog you get a sense of an "excitable boy" (thanks, Warren Zevon) who really wants to communicate things to the reader. I've never been a fan of "cool" or "objective" writing. I prefer the more personal and slightly combative style of, say, the Partisan Review writers of the 1940s and 1950s.

5. I have very clear, thought-out principles. Almost everything I say or do connects to a basic principle that I have thought through explicitly. This allows me to make fast decisions in the moment, because all I have to do is hold the new situation up against the principles to make a decision about a course of action. These principles make me very consistent and predictable, which can be helpful when I am in a leadership position. I can be trusted.

So four other people. Let's see: Don, Ian, Tom, and Matt.