Sunday, November 08, 2009

Standards of Education

I just returned from a quick trip to Illinois to see my stepson, Jake Olbert, perform in Illinois State University's production of Into the Woods. It was a very strong production, marred only by a small amount of directorial tinkering. After the performance Friday night, the show, which was an Associate entry in the American College Theatre Festival, received a "response" from an ACTF rep from a school down the road.

I, myself, have been an ACTF Respondent many times over the course of my career, and had many of my shows adjudicated as well. It isn't an easy job. You see the show, take some quick notes in the dark as the show goes on, and ten minutes after the curtain comes down you face the assembled cast, crew, designers, and director to share your thoughts about the production.

No time for thought of reflection. It is made even more difficult by the attitude ACTF takes toward the response.

The attitude exhibited by ACTF is based on a deep fear of actual criticism, a fear that is endemic to the field as a whole. When you are a respondent, you are sent a document that
gives you guidelines for respondents. It includes a suggested "disclaimer" that might be shared with the assembled college students. It reads as follows:

I’m here representing the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and I’m charged to respond to the performance I just experienced. I was not a part of the process that helped bring the play life, and I cannot comment on your growth in the work during that process but I can respond to what I just experienced as an informed member of the audience with a certain amount of training and experience as an artist and a teacher. I am not the art police, the oracle of theatre or the supreme authority on how this play works best in performance. Hopefully some of the things I’m about to say will resonate with the very fine training you are already receiving, and if so, please take my words to heart as the gifted and insightful comments of a remarkably astute theatre professional. On the other hand, if I say something you don’t agree with or you hear something that doesn’t resonate with what you’ve been hearing all through rehearsals, for heaven’s sake dismiss my remarks as the lunatic ravings of a sadly misguided schmuck with no discernable taste whatsoever. No matter what we say here in this session, you should in no way alter the choices that you and your director have so carefully built.

You can imagine the kind of mealy-mouthed responses that result from this approach to critique. It is the adult version of the undergraduate belief, trotted out whenever the issue of quality arises, that "what is good and bad is subjective." But if that is the case, then why do college departments pay $250 plus travel, lodging, and food to bring in someone from another university to provide feedback? After all, if he or she is "just one person," just an "informed member of the audience" and not, God forbid, an expert, then why not simply choose an audience member at random to stay after the show and give their impressions. I guarantee that they would at least be forthright, which is more than can be said about ACTF respondents.

What is ironic is that students, who know they are supposedly being prepared to go out, like lambs to the slaughter, into a profession with 87% unemployment, are hungry to hear an honest appraisal of their work. They want to hear what they did well, yes, but they also want to hear what they could have done better, because they want to have a chance when they graduate. Instead, what they get are airy generalities and gentle ego massages. It is a terrible disservice.

The response to Into the Woods followed this pattern to the letter. Everything and everybody, one at a time, was "wonderful," and the highest point of praise was that nothing happened that "took me out of the play." Consider the altitude of that particular bar: "you didn't do anything that took me out of the play." That this is worthy of notice, indeed that it serves as high praise, is an indication of the general level of college productions; that it is considered a critical insight is an indication of the general level of critical thinking by college theatre professors. I wish I could say that the level of discourse when the faculty talk amongst themselves is considerably higher -- informed by broad knowledge, deep experience, and careful reflection. But I can't.

We lack a common vocabulary, much less a common set of critical values. Most college professors, especially if they have been "trained" in an MFA program as most have, have spent their graduate education focused on the development of their own creative abilities -- period. They have spent 90% of their time doing plays, doing scenes, designing sets or costumes, cranking out production after production. They are never required to read broadly, develop critical thinking skills, clearly describe what they do, analyze their own work (both before and after it is done), develop a vocabulary and the skills that would allow them to learn from the work of others, see productions by masters, expose themselves to other art forms, or gain a knowledge of the world that would be deep enough to interpret a play by Kushner, Goethe, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, or whoever. What they are required to do...is plays. And then, when they do, they don't receive high level feedback.

Compare this to, say, college sports. A college football player or basketball player spends a lot of time doing, just like a theatre major, but the feedback they get is specific, demanding, and highly critical. Their performances are put under a microscope in the newspaper or on television after every game by experts, and fans don't hesitate to express their feelings about their work at the stadium, on the newspaper blogs, and in restaurants. If a coach comes in from another school to watch practice, that coach is likely to be brutally honest, because that's why he was brought in -- to improve the team. Most importantly, the coaches will share a common vocabulary and set of values that allow real communication to take place.

Compared to sports, the level of discourse in theatre departments across the country, even the most so-called prestigious, is woefully backward. It isn't only, as Tom Loughlin writes in his brutally frank discussion of "The Artist / Educator Gap," that theatre education provides students with "a skill set that is rapidly becoming outmoded and does not give young artists the tools they need to continue being artists," although that is bad enough, but that even these outmoded skills are being poorly taught by people who haven't taken the time to really understand what they are doing. All they've done is put on plays. That many of these professors have the temerity to include these productions on their annual reports as "scholarship or creative activity" shows a total lack of understanding of what scholarship really is.

Scholarship involves joining an ongoing conversation, making a new and original contribution, having that contribution reviewed by qualified peers, and making those findings public. If theatre teachers at the college level held themselves to the same standards as other disciplines, and felt they were responsible for making each production a contribution to the field, and felt responsible to communicate their findings to the field -- well, maybe American theatre programs wouldn't be so amateurish, and as a result maybe the American theatre scene wouldn't be so relentless superficial and inept. And maybe artists wouldn't be so resentful of their college professors. (All one needs to do is play the song "Nothing" from A Chorus Line in front of a group of actors to understand the full extent of the residual anger.) The fact is that the students know instinctively that they have been ripped off, that their professors are more concerned with their own egos than with helping them grow as artists and human beings (yes, those things are equally important), and that they have been either coddled through four years of college (and three years of grad school), or arbitrarily abused by unreflective egotists who haven't the faintest idea what they are doing but nevertheless do it loudly and with bone-jarring force.

The theatre is probably second only to opera in the complexity of the demands it makes on its artists. It deserves a professoriat worthy of those demands.