Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Teaching Alternatives

In my Theatre of the Oppressed class this  semester, we are reading Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Now at Princeton, Dr. Dolan (who headed the Theatre Department at City University of New York Graduate Center when I was completing my doctorate) wrote her book while at the University of Texas at Austin. I have previously linked to her fantastic blog post "Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students" on her Feminist Spectator blog. I could offer quoatation after quotation of stuff that makes me stand up and shout, but I will confine myself to a paragraph from Chapter 2.

"I teach in the largest theatre department in the country (we enroll 350 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, and employ nearly forty faculty), a program from which most students focused on acting will gravitate toward New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, since many see themselves as would-be stars. In my classes, I encourage them to imagine themselves as citizen-scholar-artists, as people who think about their art practices and their relationship to democracy, not just their fantasies of popularity. I try to encourage in them an attachment to theatre's possibilities as a place of inspiration and vision, as well as a vehicle for leisure and entertainment. I want them to see a connection between their work as actors, designers, or critics and the state of our world, so that they'll feel they have something ethical and social as well as aesthetic to contribute. I want them to be moved by what they do, and in that emotion, to feel the potential of their art to reach people deeply. I want to train my students to use performance as a tool for making better futures, to use performance to incite people to profound responses that shake their consciousness of themselves in the world." (36 - 37)

I would draw your attention to the sense of abundance in this paragraph: she doesn't call for her vision to replace the more mainstream vision, but to supplement it, to be considered as an alternative, an alternative that has just as much excitement and value as the one that has been single-mindedly promoted over the past century. It is a vision that is generous.

And yet I know from experience as a professor that this is a tough idea to sell to young people. The dominant paradigm, which is focused on individualism and materialism rather than communalism and idealism, is so strong that young people see the dismal employment figures of traditional theatre production as something that whets their appetite, as the pre-condition for an inspiring jump from obscurity to fame. Along the way, actors are encouraged to become blank slates for the marketplace to write on, to erase their own sense of ideals, indeed their own sense of identity, in order to be more "employable." And college professors, who themselves often had the same goals and same paradigm, discourage actors from thinking, from developing their own sense of purpose and aesthetics, their own sense of what they have to contribute.

This often surfaces in the enormous hostility I hear expressed towards academia, and rightfully so: it is the place where actors had their individuality erased, where they were beaten down and taunted and diminished as part of a "reshaping" process that is called "training." From the moment they arrive at their first departmental audition, they enter a miniature version of the marketplace where the professors cast not according to how they might best learn, but rather according to how they might best be used to create a product.

And so when they arrive in a class like Dolan's, or in my own, they revolt against the attempt to encourage them to think, to develop their own ideas, their own beliefs, and develop them as part of a rich conversation that has been ongoing for 2500 years -- because they know that it is a lie; that once they leave that particular classroom, they will once again be forced to erase themselves. Why go through the pain of developing as a unique individual when one must rejoin the masses again in order to survive, to be cast? I have sympathy for them, because they have been told that there are no alternatives, and those who have revolted against those limited opportunities by college have self-selected themselves into other departments, other field of endeavor.

As I mentioned above, the internationally-recognized and respected Jill Dolan has recently left UT Austin for Princeton and the Lewis Center for the Arts. A search of the theatre program reveals this description:

"Believing that the best training for a career in the theater is a broad-based liberal arts education, Princeton does not have a concentration in Theater. Instead, we offer a certificate in Theater and encourage students, should they have the inclination, to make connections in their artistic work between their fields of concentration and their love of the theater. The program offers the kinds of courses and co-curricular activities that will allow the student, upon graduation, to move into the best graduate conservatories to pursue advanced training in playwriting, acting, directing, design, stage management, and dramaturgy. But most students who take courses in the program do not elect to enter the certificate program; they simply enroll in the courses that interest them. Students with a particular interest in and commitment to the arts, however, may want to obtain the program certificate."

This represents quite a change from the UT Austin approach, perhaps one more suited to someone with Dolan's performance studies orientation. If I knew a young person who was interested in the theatre, and who I wanted to encourage as an artist, I would be more likely to point him or her to Princeton, where his or her individuality might be enriched rather than erased.
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Director said...

Back at my alma mater, every semester at least two or three students would complain about how math classes were hard or they hated biology, and how they were going to pack up and move to NYC to "make it big".

I've never wanted to "make it big" and I have no illusions about doing so. I do, however, want to make a difference in my community and in the lives of the people who know me. I think that the best way to do that is to, like you said, supplement the mainstream vision of society, to bring my artistic (relative) expertise and knowledge to enhance everything I do. There are a lot of things that popularity will get me, but I don't need to be popular to be successful, nor is fame a pre-requisite for improvement or change in a community.

dennis baker said...

Great post Scott. This reminded me of the article Tony Kushner did for American Theatre back in 1998 titled "A Modest Proposal". It was one of the best articles I read about undergraduate theater programs. In it he stated that BFA programs should be done away with and that students should get a BA degree so that they are introduced to a variety of topics through a liberal arts education.

I also think any students who are looking to go into the arts should at least minor (if not possibly double major) in business, graphic design, or some other field of study that they can work in while pursuing their arts. If they do that as undergraduates then will not have to spend time taking more classes or trying to self teach themselves a skill to survive.

David said...

I am behind in my reading.

For a decade or more I would have agreed that there simply shouldn't be narrow undergraduate theatre programs. My opinion stems mostly from the tech world where for curious reasons the industry has decided you now need an MFA to qualify for many jobs that previously didn't even require a college degree. My thought was there simply aren't 7 years of training for such things - and that you learn as much or more (much more cost effectively) by working.

However, having participated in our floor to ceiling curricular review and following upon that with an advisory board visit and Middlestates accreditation I have come to a conclusion that has changed my mind.

From time to time I come to the thought that *all* undergraduate education *should* be conservatory theatre.

Not just theatre students mind you, all students.

I haven't firmed this up into something I can really sell yet, but I can say I think its about a few very significant things - some ephemeral and some very practical.

Opposed to more general liberal arts programs, conservatory programs excel at context, collaboration, self evaluation, and deadlines.

Even in past students that leave the program early or eventually leave the business I am finding them to be better prepared to function in the world than many of their liberal arts colleagues.

We often speak here about learning as an unending process, and how we don't even try to teach you everything you need to know while you're at school, but rather hope students learn to learn. More and more I am coming to the opinion that the very best model for such growth is a properly implemented theatre conservatory.

Scott Walters said...

David -- I would be interested in having you develop this idea more in the future. My experience is that conservatories' narrow focus on technique, combined with a commitment to preparing students for "The Biz," leads to a worldview that tends to be confined withing the walls of the theatre. The result, to my mind, is a theatre scene that is deeply self-referential, with little understanding or interest in other alternatives for theatre's role in the world, much less enough consideration of non-theatre topics to create theatre that can speak to the audience about their lives.

That said, I'd love to hear a real proponent of the conservatory approach discuss it in terms beyond job prep, which seems like what you are suggesting. Please feel free to continue your thoughts here in the comments, or if you'd like I'd open my blog for a guest post from you.

Lucia said...

interesting post. I stumbled on this tonight and my interest was piqued by the mention of Jill Dolan, who was teaching when I was getting my MFA in Playwriting at UT Austin. I took her class on Performance Art, largely because I was interested in exploring a vein of performance that I found kind of repellent in all I had heard and witnessed. Dolan's class was actually pretty great, as it exposed me to a vast array of performance art and theory. I gained new appreciation for the gamut that the genre of performance art runs, and really loved the final for that class. We had the option of either writing a final paper, or doing a piece of performance art ourselves. I ended up focusing on elements of a few pieces that I really connected with (and there was still plenty I didn't connect with at all) and really challenged myself as a writer and performer. The work generated in the class for that project was sometimes okay, sometimes breath-taking. The department was gigantic, and I found when I taught there as part of my graduate experience I often talked with students who appreciated me so much simply because I remembered their names and cared about their education. That being said, for a graduate program it was just the right size; big enough to have a good community of students, small enough to have the individual attention, opportunity, and attention one needs when doing focused graduate work. Having gone to an incredibly small undergraduate school in which I had to do literally everything in the theatre department simply out of need, I have grown to appreciate that experience because it gave me a generalized and informed base on which to develop my own personal theatre craft, which I continue to develop here in Asheville. Not sure how relevant my post was, but wanted to chime in. Dolan was a great professor. I went in wanting to dislike the class (the PhD students were often quite irritating in their endless theorizing in other courses I had shared with them) but she really was a great professor. I'm sad for UT that they've lost her, happy for Princeton.