Thursday, February 09, 2006

Education of the Artist

Isaac over at Parabasis (see blogroll) responded to my post entitled "Baffled" with the following questions, which I didn't want to address too quickly or glibly. He wrote:

"This little post has actually provoked me to ask you several questions... and I don't mean the rhetorically, I honestly want to know what you think:
1) Do you think you can teach someone to be a playwright?
2) Do you think academicizing theater has been, on the whole, good?"

I'm afraid I don't know much about the teaching of playwriting specifically -- in an early division of labor, that course ended up in the Lit Department rather than in Drama, and no other program I've been in had playwriting, either. Nevertheless, I think my general attitudes about theatre education are at least somewhat applicable. I have only taught in an undergraduate program, but I have been educated in an MFA program (at Illinois State University) as well as a doctoral program (City University of New York Graduate Center).

First, let me say this: I have serious qualms about undergraduate BFAs and conservatory program. I think the intense focus on theatre, and on the acquisition of technique, prior to receiving a broader education of the mind and heart is a disservice to the young artist. I think all artists, even "interpretive" artists, need to have a wide knowledge of the world and of themselves before their focus narrows. In addition, I think BFA programs and conservatories, even more than other undergrad theatre programs, are focused too much on the status quo. They tend to "train" student to fit in as smoothly as possible to the way things are done today, and anyone who has read this blog knows that I don't believe that our current way of producing and creating theatre is sustainable. In short, I think these young artists are being trained for a vanishing theatre -- like students being trained in card punch computer technology...

That said, when I look around at most non-BFA/conservatory undergraduate theatre curricula, I don't see much difference from BFA/conservatory programs -- and I include my own department in this assessment. They are, for the most part, BFA-Lite. The focus is on "training," not education, and they are equally focused on preparing students to fit into the current theatre, not creating the next. In every department, the courses and approaches are almost identical: Stanislavski-based techniques that build from personal exploration to improv to scene study to "styles;" a couple theatre history courses; intro to technical theatre; maybe a play analysis course, although not consistently -- we tend to train students to rely on the director's analysis skills, rather than develop their own ideas that might lead them to have an idea of their own and so not be malleable. Most undergraduate drama departments are little more than play clubs, where the emphasis is placed on production, and education comes a distant second -- or third or fourth. Of course, general education and non-major courses are things to be gotten "out of the way."

To a large degree, I tend to agree with Tony Kushner who, in his 1997 keynote speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published in the January 1998 American Theatre as "A Modest Proposal": "we should abolish all undergraduate art majors." He goes on: "any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition....[and instead] must prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts."

This speech (which is a good example of an artist provoking the audience, since the audience was comprised of college teachers most of whom teach in undergraduate arts departments) deserves to be quoted more extensively, and to receive a wider circulation. I was in the audience when he delievered it, and aside from a few chortles ("Oh, that crazy Tony" kind of stuff), it caused nary a ripple. I guess drama professors are simultaneously unable to be shocked or consider an alternative -- which, now that I think about it, goes together. Anyway, more Kushner: "Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be." To me, this is his most inspiring idea, and one which gets little attention in academe. Taechers conceive of themselves as purveyors of "content" and "skills," and we leave the exploration of self to happen on its own in late-night, beer-soaked musings known popularly as "bull sessions." But aren't these questions, questions of self and self-in-the-world, truly what a young artist should be considering? So that when they arrive in the world ready to create theatre, they might have a sense of what is important in their art and the art they are interpreting.

He goes on: "The vocationalization of the liberal arts undergraduate education echoes the loss in the world at large of interest in the grand dialectic of life, in all dialectics, in breadth, in depth, in thinking as a necessary luxury, in the Utopian. The vocationalization of undergraduate education is, I think, akin to all sorts of social malaises, all of which commenced or burgeoned simultaneously with the death of Utopia as a place about which serious adults devote serious thought; and its replacement by corporate-sponsored Never-Never Land, a place in the name of which Peter Pans and Inner Children, instead of reading, devote serious shopping time....

ENTIRELY TOO MUCH TIME HAS passed without sounding my keynote: We should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I travel around the country doing lectures--after tonight I expect the invitations to dry up--and I am generally tremendously impressed with the students I meet and talk with, and generally unimpressed with what they know, and among these impressive and impressively undereducated students the worst, I am sorry to say, are the arts majors. And it isn't simply that they seem remarkably non-conversant with the pillars of Western thought, with the political struggles of the day, with what has been written up in the morning's paper--these arts majors know shockingly little about the arts. Forget literature. How many theater majors do you know who could tell you, at the drop of a hat, which plays are by Aeschylus, which by Sophocles and which by Euripides? Or the dates of any of those writers? How many undergraduate playwriting majors, for instance, know even a single sentence of ancient Greek, just to have the sound of it in their ears and the feel of it in their mouths? How many really know what iambic pentameter is? How about alexandrines? How about who wrote what in alexandrines? How many know the names of a single Chinese playwright, or play? Or of more than one or two African playwrights? How many have read Heiner Miller? Suzan-Lori Parks? How many have read more than one play by either of these writers? How many have never heard of them? How many know who Lessing was, or why we should care? How many have read, I mean really read and absorbed, The Poetics? The Short Organum?

And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.

WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together."

I know that quoting Kushner so extensively is rather a cheat, since Isaac asked what I think, and I am, in essence, saying "What he said." Nevertheless, I think Kushner is on to something important. If arts departments were focused on the developing of artists, as opposed to the development of craftsmen or interchangeable cogs for the theatrical mill, I think they would make a real contribution to an American theatrical renaissance. As it is, I think we contribute to its diminishment. O'Neill, following the model of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, had an epiphany and decided to become a playwright while in a sanitarium reading philosophy and the plays of modern European experiment. When he began writing, he had something to say.

In the January 06 American Theatre, Eric Booth, founding editor of the quarterly Teaching Artist Journal and author of The Everyday Work of Art, and head of the Julliard School’s Faculty and Professional Mentoring program is quoted as saying:

“The longer students stay in a conservatory the narrower their definition of life in the arts becomes. Julliard’s president, Joseph William Polisi, noticed, as he traveled around, that many graduates were not leading full, juicy lives. He began to feel responsible for too many graduates who were thinking that a life in the arts is only about technique and gigs. Faculty members weren’t be encouraged to send graduates out there to explore other art forms or ask big questions. We weren’t modeling the very life we wanted them to lead.”

He goes on: “The old assumption is that you follow a path of training – and when you graduate, you are an entry-level artist whose career will build to larger roles that create a good life, which leads to an advanced and more financially rewarding place in that field. The fact is that fewer than 10 percent of graduates of conservatories have careers that look like that. Ninety percent will be piecing it together in some different way: working in other fields, originating work, collaborating with artists of other fields, starting theatre companies and launching business endeavors. We need to model the way for students and young artists to think and be joyful and make meaning of this hodgepodge that is a contemporary career. We’re good at rehearsing Shakespeare scenes and improvising the hell out of awkward situations. But we’re not so sensitive to training inner skills that will make a sustainable creative life in the theatre.”

And again, I say: ditto, except I think it extends to all arts majors, not just those in conservatories. If we, as teachers in drama programs, focused on creating artists, and I mean artists prepared to confront the type of career that Booth describes for the "other 90%," I think we would be doing the theatre a favor. The development of virtuosity is something that should occur after the development of a soul, a mind, a heart, and an imagination.

Isaac, I hope that at least partly answers your questions. It pertains as much to playwrights as it does to actors, directors, designers, and secondary school teachers. These are opinions that, as the non-response of the ATHE crowd exemplifies, will probably not be heard much less accepted. Most teachers have come up through the ranks of MFA programs, which focus totally on "training," and understandably they think that is how they should teach. The demands on a theatre teacher are heavyt enough that, once hired, there is rarely time to reflect on what you do and why -- you hit the ground running, and keep on running until you retire.

But if we could conceive differently what educating an artist should be, I think wonders would happen.

"Can't Touch This"

Don Hall, over at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" (see blogroll), in a section of a post entitled "Critique the Critique," chides Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedi Weiss for her review of "A Child's History of Bombing" because she takes issue with what the play says. "In other words," Hall writes, "she criticizes the play, not for the acting, the set design, the quality of the written text, but because she disagrees with the point Allen and Sherman are making. She turns her review into an OpEd on those who would criticize war in general rather than just the wars she dislikes. This type of critique goes to heart of Scott's treatise on An Ethics of Theatre but focuses upon the role of the arts journalist in the equation of In-Yer-Face type topics. When the critic of a major newspaper turns a theater review into a political OpEd it no longer serves the art but blurs the line between responsible arts journalism and punditry."

I respectfully (and perhaps predictably) disagree that the content of a play should be ignored. What if there was a well-acted, beautifully-designed, stunningly-directed production of a brilliantly-written play that was a racist diatribe -- would it be OK to simply ignore the fact that the play was about something, to not condemn the content of the play? So many theatre people seem to expect critics to remain mired in the formalist New Criticism of the 1950s, which examined poems and novels as if they existed in a vacuum with no social, political, or psychological context. It is as if, when I was grading a student essay, I only graded on the font choice, paragraph layout, ink color, and quality of paper, but not what the essay was about.

A play is not simply a form on a stage -- a work of art in the theatre says something, and that is as much a part of the production as the interpretation. In my labyrinthan mind, this connects to the current expressions of opinion concerning the Muslim protests of the Danish cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed. Isaac over at Parbasis (see blogroll) states an opinion that it is difficult to argue with: "I am staunchly for the freedom of expression, and that comics are art and art should be protected." Hear! Hear! Me too! Me too! By all means artists should be free to say what they think, but that is not the same as saying that people who view the art should not be allowed to react to it, to protest it with vigor.

For some reason, artists think that they should be given a free pass -- they can confront people, provoke people, make people "uncomfortable," invade their space, grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake them, but they expect that people should just shut up and accept the assault quietly and passively. Artists can hand out the assaults, but scream like babies when they are assaulted themselves. Yes, the Danish cartoonist should be allowed self-expression, and so should Muslims. To expect them to simply look the other way when their prophet is attacked is unreasonable. The same is true of the Christian reaction to Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi . That said, the form these protests have taken should be strongly condemned -- violence, or the threat of violence, is never an acceptable reaction to a work of art. However, non-violent protests should be seen as acceptable, and perhaps even welcome -- they might be seen as proof that the artist has succeeded in his goal of provocation. What's the point of provoking if everybody remains unprovoked? But to be surprised that there should be a negative reaction at all is naive.

If your slogan as an artist is "Sacred cows make the best burgers," then you should expect to get gored by a bull now and then. It is part of the game you've chosen to play. If you see your role as an artist being to provoke, then don't be surprised when people are outraged and let you know it. And don't whine when they take actions that provoke you. Goose, gander.


A couple days ago, a student in my Modern Drama class stopped me in the hall:

STUDENT: Do you teach a play analysis class?
ME: Yes.
STUDENT: Do you teach a playwriting class?
ME: No, that is taught in the Literature Dept.
STUDENT: I write plays -- which do you think it would be better for me to take: a play analysis class, or a playwriting class?
ME: Well, I would say a playwriting class would be better, since a play analysis class sometimes can feel constraining to somebody who is trying to create, as opposed to analyze.
STUDENT: Hmmm. I've already written a play, so I already know how to write plays, but maybe that is what I should do. I saw a production of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," and I was very influenced. I want to grow up to be David Mamet. I try to make my plays as offensive as possible. I take people I know and alter their personalities so that they are as ugly as possible. I HATE my characters!

I excused myself: I was late for a meeting, and couldn't stay to talk. But as I walked away, I was mortified: she's written a play, so she "knows how to do that." And she is trying to make her plays "as offensive as possible," filled with characters she hates. And the question that keeps going through my mind: how does this happen? How do these attitudes develop in kids so young?

Monday, February 06, 2006

An Ethics of Theatre

Yesterday, I was one of 18 people reading from the works of African-American authors as part of the 17th National African-American Read-In Chain. As I sat there listening to each person, it occurred to me that here was an example of the kind of artist-audience relationship I have been speaking about. We were in a meeting space that was comfortable, with a fire burning in the fireplace behind the speakers. There was a small spread of food provided that we all snacked from, and before the reading we talked together in small groups. The readings were inspiring, because each person chose a piece that meant something to them, and explained that connection. There were some harsh and ugly things read, things that made me, as a white person, feel uncomfortable in my skin. That was good. (Contrary to popular interpretation, I am not against feeling uncomfortable.) And there were some things that made my heart want to sing. That was good, too.

The thing that struck me, though, was that no matter how harsh the words were, the overall attitude was open, giving. The people had come to share something important to them, and those who were listening were open to hearing it. I could fully open my heart and listen to what was being said, because I didn't have to worry about being ambushed, objectified, and attacked. Those in the hall knew me, and respected my humanity. They weren't going to grab me by the scruff of the neck and yell in my face. Because it was a safe space, and I trusted those who were there, I could experience more powerfully the pain and the joys that were presented to me. I didn't have to be guarded, my defenses up. I knew the spirit in which the readings were offered. I could try to understand, rather than just react. Or duck.

Several of you have taken me to task for not talking about specific plays that are considered In-Yer-Face Theatre. I was not reacting to the plays themselves, but rather Sierz's theorizing of a new "style," in the same way that many, many critics responded to Martin Esslin's "creation" of the Theatre of the Absurd. When I read his website, I perceived a certain glee about the prospect of grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck, forcing them to see things they didn't want to see, and invading their space. It is the nasty attitude that Sierz displays toward the audience that disturbs me, and that I have called adolescent.

I am not suggesting, when I condemn such an attitude, that artists and audiences come together to make cookies. I appreciate, for instance, the plays of Franz Xaver Kroetz. In his plays, "onstage, characters take showers, use the toilet, eat meals, wash dishes, shop, picnic, make love, work, and tell dirty jokes. Of this early work, his most successful play is probably Farmyard which tells the story of a love affair between a retarded teenage girl and a farm worker four times her age." But Kroetz, it seems to me, empathizes with his characters, and doesn't use them as projectiles to be hurled into the audience's face. The audience may be uncomfortable and disturbed, but I think it isn't the purpose of his writing but a side-effect. I might react to the work of Sarah Kane in the same way, I don't know -- I need to get a copy of her plays.

Sierz, unlike Kroetz (and perhaps Kane), seems to get off on transgression as an end in itself. His writing on the website, it seems to me, has the excited quality of someone who has just set a bag oif shit on fire on his hated teacher's doorstep. Your mileage may differ, but that's what I felt when I read the website.

Rousseau, in Emile (I think), wrote when talking about educating a young person: "Let him see, let him feel the human calamities. Unsettle and frighten his imagination with the perils by which every human being is constantly surrounded. Let him see around him all these abysses, and hearing you describe the, hold on to you for fear of falling into them." [ital mine.] My sense was that Siertz would not only show the audience the abysses, but throw them into it to boot!

Matha Nussbaum, in her marvelous book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, writes with approval about Wayne Booth's book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. She writes: "Booth proposes a valuable metaphor for the interaction of reader with a literary work. A literary work, he writes, is, during the time one reads it, a friend with whom one has chosen to spend one's time. The question now is, what does this friendship do to my mind? What does this new friend ask me to notice, to desire, to care about? How does he or she invite me to view my fellow human beings? Some novels, he argues, promote a cheap cynicism about human beings and lead us to see our fellow citizens with disdain. Some lead us to cultivate cheap sensationalistic forms of pleasure and excitement that debase human dignity. Others, by contrast, show what might be called respect before a soul -- in the way the text itself depicts the variety of human goals and motives, and also, it may be, in the interaction among the characters it displays."

What I call for is the artist to respect the soul of his friend, the theatre spectator, and to avoid creating art that debases human dignity and promotes a cheap cynicism, both on and off the stage. My anger toward Siertz, admittedly a bit extreme, was based in a sense that he didn't respect the soul of the spectator, only the soul of the artist.

Quote of the Day

I love a good epigram:

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is African-American, was asked on public TV what he thought about the president. "Well," he said, "I really think that he shatters the myth of white supremacy once and for all."

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...