Friday, May 13, 2011

Educating Artists

As my blogging nickname, The Prof, suggests, I am a theatre professor. I teach theatre history, play analysis, directing and dramatic literature at a small liberal arts university (University of North Carolina at Asheville). So every semester I wrestle with how best to educate young, creative people in a way that will be most useful for their future. I don't mean "useful" to be understood only as "useful in their career," but rather "useful in their lives as human beings, citizens, and family members." And I also think about how they can be "useful" to their communities -- how can they contribute to the enrichment of their chosen place.

Suggesting change in academia sometimes seems pointless. The old joke seems all too true: "How many professors does it take to change a light bulb?" "CHANGE????!!!!!!" As a result, I look to the quotation from Buckminster Fuller in the right side column of this blog: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." And so I am not going to point to the absurdities of our current educational approach, except to say that its main focus seems to be on training employees, rather than educating artists.

I'm interested in educating artists. And for me, the word "artist" has more to do with an attitude toward life, rather than how you make your living. An artist brings creativity, critical thinking, and a caring heart to whatever they do. How do you educate for that?

Technical skills are, of course, important -- whether you are an actor or a blacksmith, you need to understand how to effectively use the tools of your trade. But I think we give too much weight to skill acquisition, and ignore the values and attitudes that are equally empowering.

So what do I suggest?

1. Philosophy. Several semesters exploring the "why" of theatre, theatre's purpose. One semester should look at how artists of the past defined their "why," and another should help students develop their own beliefs.

2. Entrepreneurial skills. Part of this is very practical: introduce students to grantwriting, fundraising, market analysis, business model development, marketing. But also spend time helping them to think like entrepreneurs -- looking for ways to implement "creative destruction," ways to "disrupt" the current system, ways to control the means of production themselves rather than rely on others to hire them. Don't follow, lead. 

3. Facilitation skills. I believe that artists should not only create their own work, but they should also possess the ability (and the willingness) to facilitate the creativity of others. They should learn the skills of helping people tell their own stories, sing their own songs, explore their own histories, paint their own pictures. 

4. Community organizational skills. Artists should learn how to fully integrate themselves into the communities where they live. They should develop an understanding of how to work together with the community government, local organizations, clubs, charities, and other groups so that their work is deeply embedded in the community, drawing its artistic life from place.

It wouldn't take many theatre departments devoted to this approach to theatre education to start changing the artistic ecosystem. Once young people who are interested in the arts but who have a (reasonable) concern about making a living see that there is an alternate path that would allow them to live a creative life, one that they are in control of (as much as one is ever in control of one's own life), and one that has a certain amount of security and stability, then I think we might quickly reach a tipping point. Not necessarily with those students who now are headed for conservatories or getting BFA's, but rather those who love creating theatre but aren't thrilled by the traditional path. Educated generalists empowered to change the world.

I am looking for an opportunity to create such a curriculum, as it would develop the kind of artists who could lead a CRADLE organization in a small town. But artists trained this way could change the theatre scene everywhere. 


Jerry Pope said...

Damn, Prof,
I am so in-line with what you speaketh.
I remember when the "regional theater movement" was firing up. The idea was- regional theaters> Theaters that would produce playwrights, actors, designers, even techies that spoke to and from their geographic region. Not professional, backwoulds, Broadway clones that hire from New York.

I suggest an article in Art Work , "The UC strike: at last,the shit hits the fan in California" by Brian Holmes. It address the secret corporatization of universities, now being made manifest by the economic power grab.

Kate said...

Man, I would have loved that program. Hell, I might have stayed in theater with that program.

But for what it's worth, I like to think that I ended up "an artist" anyway, even though I'm working in business/government.

Kurt said...

I always enjoy your posts, but this one I particularly like. These are great ideas for building better citizens not just artists, which I feel our country needs very badly. Thanks for your ideas!

Carly said...

I'm not 100 percent sure how I feel about this post. I completely agree with some of it and have a very strong knee-jerk reaction (and you are quite familiar with my knee-jerk reactions) to other bits.

First of all, I love your definition of an artist. I also love the idea of learning entrepeneurial skills, facilitating skills, and philosophy. Believe it or not (and I know you once went on a rage about how this program is obsolete), my experiences in the humanities program are the ones that relate to most experiences in my life. I bring this up to support your push for philosophy - the humanities program is probably the closest I got to that, and has proven extremely useful. I am also a facilitator now, but most of those skills have been learned since graduation.

I think my objection is emotional. I feel that some of these things - the drive, the care, the love, the passion for change - can't be taught. This is perhaps a fault of my own fierce independence, my tendency to be intolerant of those who don't find a way to learn, even if it's on their own. Yes, the classes should be there, but my fear would be to force lazy, unempathetic people to take them.

Scott Walters said...

Carly -- First of all, I now teach HUM 414, and think the whole program is very important. Actually, I always have (although I DO think changes might make it more vibrant).

My idea is not to force this into an existing program, which you are correct would make people who really don't give a damn about this take classes. I am more interested in creating a program specifically for people who WANT to take such a career path, a program separate from the more traditional track.

Carly said...

In that case, as an optional, separate program, I am all for it!! Go on with your bad self!!

By the way, I have really been wishing lately that I'd taken TOTO with you.

And 414 was my absolute favorite. I loved that class.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the green light, Carly!

TOTO is an interesting class. Lise Kloeppel is now teaching it, and much better than I could have. The students seem to enjoy it.