Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ranting on Teaching, Backstage, and the Level of Discourse

Nick at Rat Sass apparently thinks my rants have lost their zip of late, dwindling into disjointed grumbling that teeters on the edge of whining (heaven forbid!), so I will try to zero in on a few targets.

Wait For It
Let's start with this little story from our anonymous student at the Director Sector (I apologize in advance for pasting the entire post her -- please check out the original so his hit count rises -- but this story is too much):

“Okay, class,” Professor McPsycho chimes. She puts her fingers to her temples and rubs them, as if she has a migraine. Her eyes are closed. “On Monday, I want you to come in here, and…” She flings her right hand out, pointing towards the back of the room. Her eyes are still closed. She finishes, “…and wait.” She turns around and strolls out of the room.

I look at my neighbor. He looks back at me with the most puzzled expression I’ve ever seen. I glance at the rest of my classmates, and they’re equally dumbfounded. After several moments of silence, the class finally begins to start the process of leaving the studio theatre and moving on to our next class or whatever it is that we have to do. In my case, lunch.

The weekend flies by, as weekends tend to do in my town. Monday morning quickly arrives, and I stroll off to class. I sit down off to the side, so I can watch my classmates’ reactions to the lesson. I like to watch people, to see if they understand as well (or as poorly) as I do what is being taught. McPsycho strolls into the room, her presence dominating everyone’s mind. She spins around, looks at the class, and smiles.

“Good morning, everyone,” she chimes. She looks around. “Who would like to perform their homework assignment first?”

I had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling. Nobody moves. Nobody knows what the homework assignment actually is. A very bad feeling.

“How about you?” McPsycho is staring at me.


I shake my head and shrug as if to say, “Sorry, didn’t do it.” She shakes her head at me and makes a mark in her book.

“Should’ve been prepared. Tsk tsk.” She looks around.

“Fluffy!” McPsycho calls out to a short guy with curly red hair. He awkwardly walks up to the front of the room. He clearly has no clue what he’s supposed to be doing. McPsycho smiles broadly and sits down and watches. Fluffy just sits there, doing nothing.

“Bravo!” McPsycho exclaims.

The entire class looks bewildered, Fluffy included.

“Now, class,” she says in her sing-song voice. “Who wants to wait next?”

I nearly fall out of my chair. She had wanted us to act like we were waiting for something. The rest of the class went up there, one by one, and pretended to wait for a bus or for a friend or for whatever. I sat off to the side, frustrated and flustered. I got a zero for the assignment.

Go figure.

My recommendation for our all-too-patient young blogger is to tell Professor McPsycho that he was, in fact, waiting all along -- he was waiting for her to actually teach him something worthwhile, and that he's still waiting. It won't help his grade, but it might make him feel better. It wo9uld make me feel better.

This is what comes of so-called teachers who once read portions of An Actor Prepares (not the whole thing -- I mean, who actually reads the whole thing, right? That would take, like, hours! And then there are all the sequels -- Building a Character and Creating a Role -- I mean, jeez Louise, there must be a show to rehearse) and who came away thinking that being an acting teacher means keeping students baffled and humiliated. It prepares them for the Real World.

In fact, it is abuse, and deserves to be called what it is: bullshit. There is absolutely no value in making your "homework assignment" so obscure that the students don't even know it is an assignment. In addition, this teacher better have had a damn good reason to have asked students to learn how to "wait," because if that was the sole purpose of the "exercise" it is empty nonsense, which is what all too much acting "training" amounts to.

Dear readers, I suspect that you, too, have suffered such idiotic pedagogy during your undergraduate (and graduate?) education. Please, please feel free to use my comments box to share those experiences. It is only when such idiocy is exposed, and the charlatans who pass it off as teaching are unmasked, that things might actually get better. (I almost feel as if I owe it to the profession to create a new blog devoted wholly to the topic of horrible theatre teachers, but I don't think I could stand the daily frustration.) If you wish to remain anonymous, email me at walt828 at gmail dot com.

Mike Daisey and the Case of the Backstage Blogger

This teacher's idiocy is dwarfed by the "Backstage Editorial Department" at Backstage's "BlogStage" (blogstage? blogstage??? WTF?), which wrote a post entitled "The Sweet and Sour Smell of Regional Theatre Success" (a title that has all the wit and grace of a bowling ball rolling down the stairs) that addresses Mike Daisey's essay and performance "How Theatre Failed America." Before we deal with the heart of this post, let's start with the backstage editorial department's (BED for short) reference to President Bush's increase of $20.1M to the NEA budget, which restores the NEA budget to $144.7M, the "highest level since 1995" as the BED trumpets, as "fiscal nirvana." Let's just think about that for a moment -- "fiscal nirvana." Funding levels of 1995.

A quick Google search for an inflation calculator reveals that $144.7M in 1995 would have to be $200M today to be equivalent. So in fact, far from fiscal nirvana, this budget represents a 27.6% DECREASE over 1995 levels of funding.

But the reality comes into even great focus when you realize that the NEA budget in 1981 was $159M. 1981 was the first year of the Ronald Reagan presidency. Had the NEA budget simply kep up with inflation, its 2007 budget would be $395M.

In fact, $144.7M today is the equivalent of less than $58.5M in 1981! If we celebrate this budget, we are the biggest idiots in history.

Is there no historical sensibility at BlogStage? No critical thinking skills? No ability to use Google? You don't even have to do math -- just plug in the numbers.

The BEDs then take the "mainstream media and the blogosphere" to task for having a sour mood. Apparently, we should all be skipping about this insult.

The essay gets worse, and Mike Daisey has responded effectively to it here. But let me quote a few particularly boneheaded arguments:

  • In response to Daisey's statement that "the original intention of the regional theatre movement" was to "to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance,"the BED responds trenchantly: "There's no founding document stipulating that all nonprofit theatres must be repertory companies..."
Well, duh. There's no "founding document" period. That there isn't a founding document doesn't mean there wasn't an overall sense of what the movement was supposed to do. If you read Zeigler's Regionla Theatre, the original intention of the Founding Mothers of the regional theatre movement becomes very clear, and it runs pretty close to what Daisey says. There was a belief in the value of a permanent company and a rejection of seeing the regional theatres as touring venues for a group of guest artists. Even Tyrone Guthrie, who is responsible for bringing the first stars into the regional theatres, did so with the understanding that they would stay for at least a season.

  • In response to the question "Is it right for regional theatres to rely on cheap labor when top administrators (i.e., artistic and managing directors) often earn six-figure salaries? Indeed, was the nonprofit business model meant to make people rich?," the BEDs off-handedly reply, "Yes, this is an old squall: No artist or staffer ever feels adequately compensated for his or her work."
This is the theatrical equivalent of Bush's appalling response to the dovorced woman with three kids who worked three jobs: "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.) " Essentially, the BEDs have said the same thing to theatre artists: hey, everybody always feels underpaid. Uniquely American, isn't it? Get any health insurance?
  • In the next paragraph, they gasp that "Daisey's solution is a wholesale re-evaluation of the regional theatre system." Imagine that! Assessment! Why, it's shocking! But then they relent: "We ask industry leadership organizations, such as Theatre Communications Group, to consider Daisey's criticism seriously; perhaps they could convene a special conference to address whether administrators receive outsized shares of the funding pie, thus denying theatre artists appropriate compensation. Daisey also notes that regional theatres too often import actors from New York. That too should be a prominent part of the agenda."
Now, there's an idea: have the TCG ask the industry leaders whether they are making too much money. That should get to the bottom of it. Because you know, these theatre bloggers and performers can't be taken seriously. I mean, that whole thing about actors being imported to the regional theatres could be just a rumor, right?

And then the post concludes with this non sequitir:
  • "Yet we also call on everyone to sell the public on giving generously to your local regional theatre. The American theatre community is depending on it."
I spit Coke all over the screen when I read that. How does that follow? If the money I contribute is going to line the pockets of AD's and MD's, why should I keep on giving? When is there going to be some assessment, some critical thinking, some accountability? And when is every critical statement not going to be greeted with a plea for forbearance and a whine that they're doing the best that they can and they desperately need our support?

What these two instances, one in academe and one in the theatre press, symbolize to me is a much larger problem with the theatre: the dismal level of theatrical discourse. When our teachers and our journalists show such a lack of depth, such a dearth of critical thinking, such a superficial understanding of theatre history -- well, is it any wonder that our art form itself is about as deep as a child's plastic swimming pool. Back on September 19th, 2005, I wrote my first post on this blog entitled "Where Are Our Ideas?" The theatrosphere, in my opinion, has raised the level of discussion over the years, and we are now dealing with substantive issues rather than gossip. Perhaps the Rachel Corrie controversy helped make that transition. But overall, the discussion continues to be woefully inadequate, and should be much more critical and much more radical. Yes, BEDs, yes, we need a re-evaluation of the regional theatre system, and every other theatre system in America. We need to look at the whole thing with hard, critical eyes that aren't glazed over with sentiment and fear. Not in order to demonize those who are struggling within these systems, but rather to make the systems better, more equitable, more just, more effective. We need to create a theatre system that deserves to receive more government funding, and funding from everyone else, not that has to beg for it. And we have to do this ourselves, not bring in some TCG panel of so-called "experts."

That is what we are doing in the theatrosphere, and it is a very important function that we must take seriously. To us, it may seem as if we are just typing opinions onto a screen, but the fact is that we are advancing the conversation. The issues we raise are suddenly appearing in the MSM, and so it is important that we argue those issues with both our passion and our reason.

Oh, and while I'm ranting, I'd like to respond to those who think that this discussion was prompted by Mike Daisey, and is the issue du jour. I think Daisey is great, and his essay and his performance makes the subject matter entertaining and enjoyable, and as a result it is getting the attention it deserves. But my second post on this blog, on September 19, 2005, was called "Decentering the Arts," and the next day I wrote "Regionalitis,"and two days later "Regionalitis II." This conversation has been going on for at least three years. And it needs to continue with vigor.


"sally" said...

i, also, took a class with mcpsycho. not a mcpsycho, but the same professor. now, i'm no actor, and have no desire to act nor do i have any acting talent. i did, however, want to do well in the class, so i tried. mcpsycho assigned me a monologue from seagull. downer. so i memorized, i prepared, i got up, and i presented... the best i knew how. let me mention now that this was our first assignment. when i finish, mcpsycho tears into me with " 'sally' you have a diamond in your hand, and you take a hammer and you beat it and you beat it and you beat it, but it's still a diamond. we're talking about language, do you see?" of course i didnt see! what?!? alas, when i talked to her and it came down to it, she didnt like it because she felt i should have cried. go figure.

Director said...

Thanks for the reaction, Scott. It really makes me and Sally, a good friend of mine and a brilliant stage manager) feel like at least someone out there understands the frustration and ridiculousness of what we went through. I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. McPsycho shouldn't be allowed to teach at all.

She directed me in a play, and spent the entire six weeks giving us one note "Think.. a passionate time bomb." This is for a play about a black kid being invited to a white church in the 60s. A passionate time bomb. What exactly is that?

She was equally ambiguous when asked to clarify: "You need to.. you need to see what I'm saying here... You need to be passionate.. like a time bomb. And when it explodes, there's... passion! See?"

...No, Prof. McPsycho, I don't see.

I did the exact same thing in rehearsal the next night, and she thought it was brilliant, a thousand-fold improvement on the night before.

I didn't call her McPsycho for kicks, obviously.

"sally" said...

cowboy and indians. go.

nick@ said...

He’s back! Nice rant, Scott. Keep preaching the truth, brother.

And the “Back Stage Editorial Department” suggesting that Bush would pander to the arts is an appalling piece of journalism for the reasons you cite and more. Then again, perhaps the BS blog is just another blog without any real need or expectation for journalistic credibility.

This better reflects Bush’s real position toward the arts and the NEA.

“President Bush has proposed a $16 million cut to the arts endowment budget for the 2009 fiscal year. His budget includes $128 million — the same as his request last year — down from about $145 million allocated by Congress in 2008.”


GreyZelda Land said...

Bad experiences in school ... I went to West Virginia University for grad school (a warning to those of you out there) and ended up leaving the program after a year and two weeks ...

One of my favorite ridiculous moments was when the head of the acting program decided to take class time to analyze just what made acting good. He would write on the chalkboard and draw diagrams trying to figure out the specific formula ... a few weeks later, he invited all of the undergrad and grad acting students to come watch him manipulate another grad student ... he led her through a series of exercises, primarily memory and recall based, trying to explore his chalkboarded ideas on her while we all sat there and watched.

Not a whole bunch of "action". Just "talk". And, essentially, masturbation on his part.

Drove me crazy.

That's just one of many stories that made me wonder if we were all just circus poodles that the faculty was looking forward to experimenting with. I probably didn't explain it as well as I remember, but ... the whole thing gave me the heebiejeebies.

Blech. Acting grad school equals bullshit, in my personal opinion. Go for something else, future students. If you want to act, go act. Don't do it in grad school. Get thee to the real world and just start doing. You learn by doing and experience. And there are classes that can be taken if you must have a teacher's critique.

And, if you want to teach ... give it a few years, get some experience ... then go back. You'll be able to pick a better program and you'll have some life experience under your belt.

Good post, Scott.


Dennis Baker said...

How about a department of McPsychos?

At Rutgers the head of acting flat out lied to a class about the dismissal policy. She told the class at the beginning of their first year that no student would be ambushed in a meeting in regards to being dismissed. A student would be given clear communication if they were going to be kicked out. Then they tried to kick out a student the end of their first year without any communication that she was in trouble or on probation.

Their point of view is to have students come to Rutgers to "see if they are actors". Anytime during the three years they deem that you are not an actor, they have the power and desire to kick you out. But wasn't the student a good enough actor to be selected out of a thousand people to audition?

Note that Rutgers' audition process is seeing your monologues in New York, Chicago or California and if they ask you to visit Rutgers, there is a five minute meeting to tell you if you are accepted. (From what I hear this year they had "callback" auditions which meant performing your monologues again for a different professor. What more does that tell you about the student? This creates their dismissal rate to be very high. Each year they select fourteen students, and the last two years they have only graduated eight people per class. If they had a more detailed audition process (like Yale or Denver who invite prospective students for a weekend of classes to observe how students connect to the work) they might select less students and the dismissal rate would decrease. I think most people would rather not be selected into a program then being kicked out half way through.

Therefore the question to ask yourself in a program like this is are you willing to pay $12,000 a year with about a 50% chance of not getting your degree and being stuck with the debt.

ecotheater said...

What can I say? I'm with you, Scott -- and I'm not talking about the McPsycho bullshit, because that sort of nonsense will never stop.