After a coupole weeks to collect my thoughts and restore a sense of emotional balance, I am ready to start posting here again.
I am currently at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver, which has been a real eye-opener on many levels. The level of thought here is high, and the longer I am here the more convinced I become that theatre education needs to raise expectations for students' engagement with the ideas and data about theatre. The focus of most theatre departments is so relentless on skills almost to the exclusion of engagement with the big questions and the big discoveries that inform our art. When we talk about challenging young people, we tend to focus on having them read more challenging plays, for instance, which is important but also, like the skills-based training, insular.
Young people need to engage the challenges and ideas of their time, and of times gone by that can be mined. Theory is not irrelevant, nor are the studies of the Wallace Foundation or the NEA, for instance. The latter present data and ideas that can literally help young artists to survive and thrive. The WolfBrown study dismissed by Jason Grote on the ArtsJournal.com blog preceding the NPAC is an example of how creative artists diminish their ability to survive by ignoring information that can make them more successful, not in the creation of their art, but in the presenting of their art. The studies by the Wallace Foundation make only the faintest impact on practioners, and yet they are filled with empowering ideas and data.
But what I have learned here at NPAC is that those who wield power in the theatre -- the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff -- do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action -- and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think. Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.
We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.
The only way that things change is if artist become empowered, and they only become empowered if their are educated. Paulo Friere's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed should become required reading for all theatre people so that they can understand what is at stake in developing their critical consciousness.
I have many other things to write about what I have learned at NPAC, but I must head in to the conference. Please pass the word that Theatre Ideas is back in business.