Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Theatre Education and Critical Thinking

In my previous posts on theatre education, I have focused a great deal on helping young artists develop their own unique voice and way of looking at things rather than homogenizing into another cog for the theatrical machine. This is important not only for artists, but for all human beings. Self-authorship is the first step to making a contribution to the world in which we live (although sometimes the process of making the contribution is the path toward understanding that underlies self-authorship.)

An important part of that process involves the critical thinking skill known as self-reflection. It is crucial that every artist, and every citizen, learn to examine their ideas and their underlying assumptions to make sure that they are doing more than universalizing their own values without thought.

Recently, perhaps because, as Don Hall suggests, I have been thinking about it, I have been noticing how very smart people whose opinions I endorse fail to notice that they are reproducing in their actions the very type of behavior they condemn. Was it Nietzsche who advised us to be very careful about looking into the abyss, because when we do the abyss looks into us? Or did he say something about choosing our enemies wisely, because we will become them? Whatever -- the point I'm trying to make was well stated in Matthew 7:5: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

An example. Carol Becker, Dean of the Faculty and VP for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote an excellent book entitled Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art. The introduction, she takes all the political positions I tend to agree with, and when she starts writing about the breakdown of a sense of community especially as evidenced in the rise of the gated community, I wanted to stand up and cheer! Writing about economic abundance, she says :

Abundance, in other words, increases the power to create isolation in communal contacts at the samew time that it opens up "an avenue by which men can easily conceive of their social relatedness in terms of their similarity rather than their need for each other." [ital mine; quote from Richard Sennett's The Uses of Disorder]


I agree wholeheartedly -- one of the problems of American society is that it is becoming way too easy to only have to deal with people with whom you agree. This is happening as far as news, culture, and arts as well as real estate -- we don't want to have to negotiate anything that violates our own values. She goes on:

With the proliferation of gated communities, this type of isoltaion has reached new levels of lietrality. In Sennett's terms, the move to and embrace of suburbia was about escaping the urban and creating a world that could be completely controlled. The illusion of control is equated with the security of sameness. If all houses look alike, if people interact with others only like themselves, if everyone has the same clothes, cars, and aspirations, then life should stay ordered." [first set of italics mine -- "should" is hers]

Now I'm writing "YES!" in the margin of the book. What we need is diversity, the rubbing together to unlike objects to cause friction and change! That's the very basis for democracy!

But on the next page I encounter this:

Aware of and even known to revel in their own otherness, artists desire environments where they do not need to conform to a uniform version of adult behavior, acceptable work, or relationships. They then create around themselves the possibility of living the lifestyle that feels freest and most-encouraging of creativity. These centers of artistic production are in principle the opposite of suburban malls. They are about creative pursuits and fearless originality. [italics, once again, mine]


Really? There's no similarity between the gated community dweller's quest to surround himself with others who share his values and the artist's attempt to do the same? When in the case of the gated community, surrounding oneself with a homogenized environment is a retreat, when artists do the same it is a sign of fearless originality? Just how does that work out, given that the underlying principle is the same: surround yourself with like-minded people.

To me, neither one symbolizes a real sense of community, which involves the necessary encounter with people who do not share your values, and the necessary negotiations and dependence that comes from carving out a life in proximity with such people. As somebody who becomes easily frustrated by people who don't quite get what I am talking about (and this is a daily personal struggle in my work life, for instance), I have great sympathy for the desire to surround oneself only with those whose values one shares. There are days when I want to form my own department so I don't have to explain all my perfectly obvious and obviously brilliant ideas to people who look at me like I'm more than slightly mad. But if I did so, I wouldn't say that I was making a bold strike for a diverse community, I'd say I didn't want to have to deal with different ideas anymore.

And I want artists to be able to avoid failing to recognize when their (most often liberal) values foundationally mimic (most often conservative) values that they condemn. I want them to be self-reflective, in short, and resist the impulse to strike pious poses that are reactionary beneath the surface. Or, on the other hand, be willing to defend the superiority of the value itself as a value. An argument might be made that the liberal values of an artistic community are superior to those of a conservative gated community, but such an argument would have to focus on defending the values themselves based on first principles and definitions of "superior," which in turn would require that artists possess the critical thinking skills to construct such an argument. We must be willing to examine with a cold eye our basic assumptions about the world and build a strong structure of principles and beliefs that rest upon a strong philosophical foundation. And education ought to help people with that process.

From my perspective, community requires constant contact between diverse opinions lest it become an echo chamber, which is another word for mob. The basic principles upon which this is built: 1) democracy is the best form of government; 2) community is an important part of a democratic society -- we survive in groups, not as individuals; 3) a democratic society relies upon the "wisdom of crowds," i.e., the compiling of a variety of diverse opinions to create a rich and deep decision.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What Might Have Been

Back when I was in my late teens, I stumbled on American resident theatre pioneer Margo Jones' inspiring book Theatre-in-the-Round (1951). In the late 40s and 50s, Jones brought into existence a resident theatre in Dallas called Theatre followed by the year: Theatre 47, Theatre 48, etc. It was a brilliant idea that created an annual New Year's Eve ritual of gathering patrons together to ring in the theatre's new name each year.

I recently reread this book, which I recommend highly not only for its spirited endorsement of the arena theatre form (and she makes an excellent and very practical rationale for it that still stands up today), but also for an indication of the values of the original regional theatre movement in America. I would like to quote extensively from the early part of the book, and ask you to imagine how the American theatre might have been different had we followed Margo Jones instead of Tyrone Guthrie.

I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we ( produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.

Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.

The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American
theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theeatre lies in the new plays.


American resident theatres followed Guthrie, an Irishman who came up through the English repertory theatre tradition, in preferring a repertoire dominated by the classics. University theatres followed suit, abandoning the living playwright -- especially the living playwright of a previously unproduced play who might be able to be in residence for the production -- in favor of a series of classics. Tom Loughlin wrote, "
the expectation is that universities will present us with “traditional” art in traditional ways, the “high art” that everyone talks about. There is absolutely no expectation that universities will produce any sort of original art whatsoever, but rather act as a museum of art in every possible way. Shakespeare will be done as “Shakespeare,” classics are expected, and high art will be enjoyed by all...the name of the game is not creation; it’s re-creation." The resident theatre has also moved down the road to museum as well, focusing their creativity on the formal production elements, deconstructing the plays to make their own concoctions, and virtually ignoring the existence of the playwrights who are creating our theatrical legacy.

The commercial non-profits (a term coined by Bob Leonard of Virginia Tech) and the universities go hand in hand on this. If you are looking for evidence that Tom's call for a uniting of the artist and the academic is needed to force change, you need go no further than a comparison of Margo Jones and the latest American Theatre listings. Jones believed in full productions, and as a result she encouraged many, many playwrights including Tennessee Williams (she was co-director of the original Glass Menagerie).

The regional theatre movement got highjacked; it is time we took it back.