Sunday, December 30, 2007
Monday, November 26, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
In response to Isaac's first post, I wrote:
Are you asking why theatre people don't "do something" about the current theatrical malaise? If that's the question (is it?), I guess I'd say that doing something requires a level of courage that is difficult for most people to consider. It means confronting the powers that be, rejecting the status quo and the chance of success that goes with it, and creating a new game with rules and purpose that appeal to you. It means determining what matters to you, and then making the commitment to following those things through. There is a wonderful book I've read of late called "The Answer to How Is Yes" that empowers you to undertake change by questioning yourself about what commitments you need to make, how you contribute to the problem, and what refusals you have postponed (among other things). Me? I'd start with the latter -- what refusals have you postponed? And go from there. I think you have to look inside first, rather than blaming "them." Anyway, get the book. It might start you moving forward.
Joshua James, perhaps not unreasonably given my past, felt that my comments were "confrontational." I replied:
I didn't mean them confrontationally. I am speaking from my own experience. It is very, very hard to go outside the established way of doing things. It is scary, and often isolates you. It requires a level of confidence that far exceeds the norm. Hell, it's hard enough just living within the norm! As you have oft noted, Joshua, I am a tenured professor. If, however, I find myself out of step with my departmental colleagues -- and I do -- and if I have an idea for a different way of approaching theatre education and/or the creation of theatre -- and I do -- doing something about it might require my giving up the security of my teaching position to either go somewhere else or leave academia entirely... I doubt whether I would have the courage to take those steps. To do so would require a level of courage far above the norm. I used to think I had that courage -- now, I don't know. The velvet cage. For professional artists who have far less security than I have, the dangers are even greater. When a part of your success depends not only on your talent, but on your positive acquaintances, it would be difficult, it would seem to me, to risk taking an oppositional stance against anybody or any institution because at some point they may have the power to hire. Better to "play well with others." I think Laura Axelrod, for instance, answered the question "what refusal have you postponed" not long ago -- she said no to blogging about theatre and writing plays. She faced her feelings, and instead of blaming others and asking them to change, she took responsibility for her own actions and made a choice. In essence, she removed herself from a community where she had some level of respect and admiration. On the other hand, I spend and inordinate amount of my personal energy bitching about my colleagues and the "way we do things" instead of doing something to change it within my own life. I have to take responsibility for my own actions instead of expecting my colleagues to change to the way I want them to be. Which doesn't mean shrugging, accepting the way things are, and learning to live with it. It means figuring out what matters to me and acting on that. I'm not trying to accuse anybody of cowardice. Not in the least.
Joshua pointed out that it takes great courage to pursue a dream, and he knows many people who have that courage. So true! I replied:
Yes, Josh, I know those people too. And I admire them a great deal. And it does take great courage to pursue your dreams -- as someone who teaches courses about the hero's journey, I know that anything that is worth pursuing is filled with danger. I would never downplay the kind of courage it takes to doggedly pursue a dream. If I learned anything from "How to Change the World" (another great book, this one about social entrepreneurship, that I recommend to anyone looking for inspiration) is that sheer determination is the first thing necessary to accomplish anything. But one of the things the book I recommended, "The Answer to How is Yes," recommends is to go beyond blaming Them or need Them to change before you can do anything. In fact, expect that they WON'T change, and then figure out how to move forward. Some may look for ways to work within the system (that's what I realize I am trying to do), others try to create a new way outside the system (that's what I would LIKE to do).
I have spent a lot of energy trying to persuade people to change their values. Whether on my blog, or in my department, I have committed myself to trying to get people to change their attitudes, to share my values. And I have started to believe that this is a waste of time. That I should be focused on creating a model, putting my ideas into action, and then embrace anyone who finds themselves inspired by that model to join me. The fact is that my departmental colleagues are not going to change. If I wait for them to do so before I follow my own beliefs and ideas, I will be stuck and frustrated until I retire. So I have to ask myself: how do I do what I want to do within this structure? Do I have to follow my heart IN ADDITION to doing what I have to do for the department? That will require a commitment of time and energy above what already seems, at times, overwhelming -- am I willing to do that? If so, is there anything I could say no to that would help me regain time and energy for what matters most to me? And what am I doing that is making the problem worse?I'm finding this focus on me rather than others as being personally empowering. I don't have to change the world FIRST, I can change it by following my own vision. Which brings me back to Buckminster Fuller -- a quotation I have used before, but which didn't seem as powerful as it does now: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
In some ways, I wonder whether my rather sparse posting has something to do with this new orientation. Perhaps my desire to change the ideas of others, to persuade people to share my viewpoint, has lost some of its steam. I find myself spending my time trying to focus on what I can DO in my situation -- what I can do alone, accompanied by people who already share my orinetation or are at least open to exploring it with me, and enriching my ideas with their own. Over the past 2-1/2 years of writing this blog, I can't really say I have changed many minds. There may be people who read the blog and pass the ideas around to others without my knowledge, and that hope keeps me going. But if I once was hoping that Isaac, Joshua, Don, Matt, James, Paul, George, Laura, and the rest would suddenly be united in a chorus of huzzas for something I've written, I have now come to recognize that such a hope is unrealistic. If I used this failure to totally persuade the blogosphere as a reason to throw up my hands and give up, that would be very sad for me. If the fact that my departmental colleagues never share or even understand my theatre orientation stopped me from doing the types of plays I believe in, or teaching classes the way I see them, that would also be depressing for me personally.
I don't know that any of these musings have anything to do with Isaac's questions -- I suspect it is a middle-aged riff on a young person's struggle. But I would offer that waiting for The System to change, and the people within that system, is a red herring. There will always be a System, and most of the time it won't support what you believe in. Ignore the system; focus on yourself. Determine what you believe in, and then follow that star. Those are my thoughts today.
Friday, October 26, 2007
On November 14th, the Drama Department will open the world premiere production of "Thousand Kites," a drama about the effects of prison on inmates, guards, their families, and the community (a "kite," in prison lingo, is a letter or message). The multi-disciplinary arts and education center Appalshop, who created the play to accompany their award-winning documentary "Up the Ridge" about the Wallens Ridge supermax prison just outside of their Whitesburg KY community in Big Stone Gap Va, have been filming rehearsals to make a documentary about our production, which will be used to help others who might produce the play. This has been a very exciting experience for those involved. Playwright Donna Porterfield and Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby (the co-producers of "Up the Ridge") will be here for Opening Night with an experienced film crew to record the show and the discussion that is part of it. In addition, Reuters journalist Alan Elsner, author of the book "Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons," which was the basis for two reading circles sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, will also be on campus November 14th and 15th and will attend opening night. So "Thousand Kites" is starting to become An Event!As part of the rehearsal process, the students and I will be maintaining an on-going journal about the rehearsals, the issues, and what we are learning and feeling. There are several posts already. You can see what we are up to at http://uncathousandkites
.blogspot.com. In addition, we have been collecting information that is pertinent to the play, as well as posted several short videos about the project, at http://thousandkites.pbwiki.com, where you can find out information about the issues by clicking on "Resources." There is also a link to the journal there.We hope that you will find all this interesting, and that you'll follow us during the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to our opening performance. Tickets are already available electronically on our website at http://unca.edu/drama and clicking on "TheatreUNCA" or "Box Office."Last night, the Appalshop film crew wanted to film about 15 minutes of the students sitting in a circle discussing what they have learned during the first two weeks of rehearsal. An hour later, they were still filming, because the students were totally engaged in an insightful, articulate, and open-minded conversation about all aspects of the criminal justice system. In the course of the discussion, references were made to many other classes students were taking where they had learned things that had helped them to form their own ideas and opinions. It was the most extraordinary hour of rehearsals I have ever experienced, and it made me proud in our UNCA community.Anyway, I hope you'll take a peek at our websites, and that we'll see you at the performances. I'll be sending out other announcements when the box office fully opens a week before opening.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
I have been involved in the arts for more than 40 years. I care deeply about the arts, and think they are crucial to creating a vibrant community.
So I find it painful to find myself in opposition to the proposal for the new $80 million performing arts center (PAC) proposed for downtown Asheville. But I am, and here is why.
Unlike other creatively vibrant local and regional arts organizations like, for instance, Handmade in America, the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and venues like Woolworth Walk, the proposed PAC is not focused on supporting local artists, but relies on touring shows to fill the 2,400-seat auditorium at its center.
Such a monstrosity is suitable primarily for one local arts organization: the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, a group that performs nine concerts a year and “employs” 80-100 musicians and performs music aimed at the gated communities of Asheville.
And the other 350 nights? Cats and Rent.
Grow your own artists
The HUB Project calls for Asheville to be an arts destination.
To do so, it needs to focus first and foremost on its local and regional artists by serving as an “incubator for the arts,” as the HUB puts it.
This implies growing your own artists, not importing them. Visual arts organizations seem to get this, but the performing arts are still stuck in a mindset that looks toward New York City as the height of artistic value.
Yes, North Carolina Stage Company will have a space in the PAC, and that is as it should be — it is an Asheville gem.
But what about other arts organizations? Will NCStage have to share its space with them?
Or will it be relegated to the rehearsal studio, which will also be programmed by the Asheville Symphony? Where do smaller organizations perform?
Is the expectation that all the performing artists in Asheville will be competing for those two spaces while the massive auditorium sits empty?
A better approach
What we need is a PAC that follows the goals of the Asheville HUB Project, fits into the culture and architecture of downtown and is focused on growing and spotlighting local artists that define Asheville as a unique place.
We need a center that includes a wide variety of smaller, less luxurious venues that might include: a small concert hall for quartets and trios; a café for bluegrass, jazz and folk musicians where parents can bring their children to listen to music in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment; a 300-seat theater for North Carolina Stage Company; a smaller black box for more intimate performances and readings; a dance space specially designed to accommodate the needs of that art form; and an open market where visitors could have refreshments and buy the goods of local artists.
We must provide venues for a diversity of performance styles and traditions including African-American, Hispanic, Celtic, traditional mountain, contemporary avant-garde and other performances.
An artistic bazaar
What we don’t need is an artistic McMansion: cheaply opulent and far too large. What we need is an artistic bazaar.
Such a space doesn’t have to be built from the ground up, but rather could be retrofitted into existing buildings. Imagine the Grove Arcade had it been devoted to performance spaces.
I’m not an architect, so I can’t say whether that would be cheaper, but I do know that a massive new building built in the midst of downtown, complete with parking garage and automobile accessibility, will destroy much of what makes downtown interesting and unique.
If you thought the sign in front of Pack Place was a mistake, wait until you see this building.
Our own unique flavor
If Asheville wants to continue to be recognized nationwide as a unique and attractive place to live and visit, we need to design an arts facility that reflect who we are and what makes us different.
We don’t need a generic performing arts mall complete with cut-rate versions of “The Producers,” but rather a center that is designed to highlight our unique identity and support the artists who make their lives here.
The group that is raising money for this PAC, the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, did a presentation recently that I attended. They showed a video with images of other PAC's they had visited that was supposed to leave us slack-jawed with awe -- God-awful arts McMansions that were about as unique and individual as a McDonalds. These are pseudo-palaces for the arts designed to accommodate the wealthy, intimidate the rest, and signal our cultural "superiority" by bringing in a mix of has-been pop artists and cut-back versions of New York entertainment. Meanwhile, our own performing artists -- actors, dancers, musicians -- are desperate for places where they can rehearse and perform.
Asheville gets a lot of retirees who come here from New York, and they bring their belief in NYC as the gold standard of the performing arts with them. They join boards and promote that provincialism while scorning the vibrant artists who dare to make their home in Western North Carolina. Meanwhile, our own artists struggle.
We are outsourcing our artistic life, and it is time for it to stop. There is no reason that local taxes should be used to import culture. If housing touring shows was the way to become an arts destination, Greenville-Spartanburg would be the NYC of the southeast. People come to a town because they can get something there that they can't get elsewhere. Nobody visits a town in order to hit the local multiplex, which is what this PAC resembles. If people want to see a Broadway musical, there are cheap flights from Asheville airport to see the real thing. If they want to come to, or live in, Asheville, they should see the real Asheville thing.
What happens when we rely on touring productions? We get insults like the touring production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which is coming to town in mid-March at another touring venue, the Diana Wortham Theatre. Another NYC insult to the south, and another example of how we allow the wealthy and educated to ridicule and insult the poor and uneducated. And then we wonder why our public policies seem to focus on helping the wealthy and middle-class, and why programs like SCHIP are able to be vetoed without protest. The description of this abomination is:
Direct from Off Broadway [because that means it must be good, natch] comes the first national tour of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. There's a new tenant in town, and she's wreaking havoc all over Florida's most exclusive trailer park. When Pippi the stripper [because, you know, what other kind of woman lives in a trailer partk, right?] comes between the Dr. Phil-loving Jeannie and her tollbooth collector husband, the storms begin to brew - and we ain't talkin' about any old Florida hurricane [no sirree bob].
From spray cheese [because them there trailer park folks all eat spray cheese, yuh know] to Dr. Phil, road kill [har har -- probably cooking up that there road kill, right?], hysterical pregnancy, agoraphobia, and more, colorful characters and lasting friendships are at the heart of this hilarious side-splitting new musical. An infectious score, cheeky script, incredible set, and some of the most roof-raising, girl-group singing since the Pointer Sisters all add up to a fabulous and fun night out.
Kill me. This particular producer -- Off Broadway Booking -- seems to specialize in insulting different groups, with shows like Beehive, Dixie's Tupperware Party, and The Mo' Tenors. (And for those of you who, a few months ago, asked for examples of plays that insult the south and the poor -- spend some time at that website.)
This is the kind of "culture" we get from road tours. Is this what is going to make Asheville an arts destination? Is this so superior to what our own artists produce? And let's be clear: at $23 - $35 a ticket, this is a middle-class entertainment whose main appeal will be to let the elite snicker at the poor.
The proposed PAC is for the elites, not for the majority of Asheville citizens. As Dudley Cocke wrote in "Arts in a Democracy," the audience that will attend these shows will look like no community in America other than a gated one. In this case, a gated community of NY retirees. And in the meantime, it will reinforce the misbegotten notion that anything of value in the performing arts comes from NYC.
We need a PAC that grows the Western North Carolina arts community. We don't need to outsource our cultural life.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
In the meantime, check out Travis Bedard's posts about theatre education. He extends Tom and my own thoughts quite nicely. And while he says he disagrees with his "elders" (thanks for that one, Travis) about production, I actually think I (I won't speak for Tom) would agree that more production would be a good thing -- but that we faculty don't have to be behind it in order to give it legitimacy and prestige. There would be nothing that could make me happier than if I had auditions for my mainstage production and nobody showed up because they were all already committed to their own projects. Then I would know that we've really done something for the students. Then I could compete with them on a level playing field, which would mean I'd have to make sure my work was cool and exciting. So it would push me, too.
Anyway, check out "Hey. Teacher!" and "Hey, Teacher! -- Addendum."
I'm sure I''ll think of something sooner or later. In the meantime, check out the wiki the cast of Thousand Kites and I are starting to create about prison issues. And particularly click on the videos, which are really cool -- provided by Appalshop, who created the Thousand Kites Project.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
An important part of that process involves the critical thinking skill known as self-reflection. It is crucial that every artist, and every citizen, learn to examine their ideas and their underlying assumptions to make sure that they are doing more than universalizing their own values without thought.
Recently, perhaps because, as Don Hall suggests, I have been thinking about it, I have been noticing how very smart people whose opinions I endorse fail to notice that they are reproducing in their actions the very type of behavior they condemn. Was it Nietzsche who advised us to be very careful about looking into the abyss, because when we do the abyss looks into us? Or did he say something about choosing our enemies wisely, because we will become them? Whatever -- the point I'm trying to make was well stated in Matthew 7:5: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
An example. Carol Becker, Dean of the Faculty and VP for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote an excellent book entitled Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art. The introduction, she takes all the political positions I tend to agree with, and when she starts writing about the breakdown of a sense of community especially as evidenced in the rise of the gated community, I wanted to stand up and cheer! Writing about economic abundance, she says :
Abundance, in other words, increases the power to create isolation in communal contacts at the samew time that it opens up "an avenue by which men can easily conceive of their social relatedness in terms of their similarity rather than their need for each other." [ital mine; quote from Richard Sennett's The Uses of Disorder]
I agree wholeheartedly -- one of the problems of American society is that it is becoming way too easy to only have to deal with people with whom you agree. This is happening as far as news, culture, and arts as well as real estate -- we don't want to have to negotiate anything that violates our own values. She goes on:
With the proliferation of gated communities, this type of isoltaion has reached new levels of lietrality. In Sennett's terms, the move to and embrace of suburbia was about escaping the urban and creating a world that could be completely controlled. The illusion of control is equated with the security of sameness. If all houses look alike, if people interact with others only like themselves, if everyone has the same clothes, cars, and aspirations, then life should stay ordered." [first set of italics mine -- "should" is hers]
Now I'm writing "YES!" in the margin of the book. What we need is diversity, the rubbing together to unlike objects to cause friction and change! That's the very basis for democracy!
But on the next page I encounter this:
Aware of and even known to revel in their own otherness, artists desire environments where they do not need to conform to a uniform version of adult behavior, acceptable work, or relationships. They then create around themselves the possibility of living the lifestyle that feels freest and most-encouraging of creativity. These centers of artistic production are in principle the opposite of suburban malls. They are about creative pursuits and fearless originality. [italics, once again, mine]
Really? There's no similarity between the gated community dweller's quest to surround himself with others who share his values and the artist's attempt to do the same? When in the case of the gated community, surrounding oneself with a homogenized environment is a retreat, when artists do the same it is a sign of fearless originality? Just how does that work out, given that the underlying principle is the same: surround yourself with like-minded people.
To me, neither one symbolizes a real sense of community, which involves the necessary encounter with people who do not share your values, and the necessary negotiations and dependence that comes from carving out a life in proximity with such people. As somebody who becomes easily frustrated by people who don't quite get what I am talking about (and this is a daily personal struggle in my work life, for instance), I have great sympathy for the desire to surround oneself only with those whose values one shares. There are days when I want to form my own department so I don't have to explain all my perfectly obvious and obviously brilliant ideas to people who look at me like I'm more than slightly mad. But if I did so, I wouldn't say that I was making a bold strike for a diverse community, I'd say I didn't want to have to deal with different ideas anymore.
And I want artists to be able to avoid failing to recognize when their (most often liberal) values foundationally mimic (most often conservative) values that they condemn. I want them to be self-reflective, in short, and resist the impulse to strike pious poses that are reactionary beneath the surface. Or, on the other hand, be willing to defend the superiority of the value itself as a value. An argument might be made that the liberal values of an artistic community are superior to those of a conservative gated community, but such an argument would have to focus on defending the values themselves based on first principles and definitions of "superior," which in turn would require that artists possess the critical thinking skills to construct such an argument. We must be willing to examine with a cold eye our basic assumptions about the world and build a strong structure of principles and beliefs that rest upon a strong philosophical foundation. And education ought to help people with that process.
From my perspective, community requires constant contact between diverse opinions lest it become an echo chamber, which is another word for mob. The basic principles upon which this is built: 1) democracy is the best form of government; 2) community is an important part of a democratic society -- we survive in groups, not as individuals; 3) a democratic society relies upon the "wisdom of crowds," i.e., the compiling of a variety of diverse opinions to create a rich and deep decision.
Monday, September 24, 2007
I recently reread this book, which I recommend highly not only for its spirited endorsement of the arena theatre form (and she makes an excellent and very practical rationale for it that still stands up today), but also for an indication of the values of the original regional theatre movement in America. I would like to quote extensively from the early part of the book, and ask you to imagine how the American theatre might have been different had we followed Margo Jones instead of Tyrone Guthrie.
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value throughout the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we ( produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.
Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the violent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are discovered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been unearthed.
Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new playwrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American
theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theeatre lies in the new plays.
American resident theatres followed Guthrie, an Irishman who came up through the English repertory theatre tradition, in preferring a repertoire dominated by the classics. University theatres followed suit, abandoning the living playwright -- especially the living playwright of a previously unproduced play who might be able to be in residence for the production -- in favor of a series of classics. Tom Loughlin wrote, "the expectation is that universities will present us with “traditional” art in traditional ways, the “high art” that everyone talks about. There is absolutely no expectation that universities will produce any sort of original art whatsoever, but rather act as a museum of art in every possible way. Shakespeare will be done as “Shakespeare,” classics are expected, and high art will be enjoyed by all...the name of the game is not creation; it’s re-creation." The resident theatre has also moved down the road to museum as well, focusing their creativity on the formal production elements, deconstructing the plays to make their own concoctions, and virtually ignoring the existence of the playwrights who are creating our theatrical legacy.
The commercial non-profits (a term coined by Bob Leonard of Virginia Tech) and the universities go hand in hand on this. If you are looking for evidence that Tom's call for a uniting of the artist and the academic is needed to force change, you need go no further than a comparison of Margo Jones and the latest American Theatre listings. Jones believed in full productions, and as a result she encouraged many, many playwrights including Tennessee Williams (she was co-director of the original Glass Menagerie).
The regional theatre movement got highjacked; it is time we took it back.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Tom calls for us to raise our voices in order to change a room, and from there we can change the world. Most importantly, Tom writes:
"It is imperative for artists to become involved in this issue as well, both by agitating their own places of education, and by continuing to create a theatre that strikes some sort of chord for every layer of society. The entropic nature of all organic things requires that something new be created to replace what has gained maximum entropy, not to continue to waste time trying to bring balance to the old. If artists and educators can join forces to subvert theatre education from without and from within, we may have some hope of bringing in something new and promising. I’m trying to work on my part from within - can you work on yours from without?"
And by doing so, he reaches out to form a bond between the artist and the educator built on a mutual concern for the health of the art form we love. Yes, this series has been a conversation between two educators about their profession, but its ramifications affect everything that happens in the art form. If theatre education is deadly, it reinforces the deadly aspects of the professional theatre by flooding it with deadly actors, directors, designers and playwrights. But, on the other hand, if theatre education is going to innovate, if we comfortable tenured professors are going to make an effort to teach in a way that inspires and empowers young people, then we need to know that there are artists out there who will join hands with us and with our students to change the face of theatre.
Tom is right -- the academy needs artists to raise your voices and demand a change. To express your frustrations over what you did and didn't learn when you were in college, to call out to education's higher angels and demand that we create artists and not mindless drones. To make us theatre professors do our jobs and serve as midwives to a theatrical future that is vibrant and innovative and exciting.
How do we do that? How can we get this moving? Tom suggests that you talk to your theatre alma mater, or to your local theatre departments, and I agree. And then we need to go further, to create a wide demand for a theatre education redefinition and renaissance that will bring new energy into the professional world.
How do we do that? Please fill my comments box and Tom's with suggestions. Write your own blog posts and give us a link. Share your stories. Tell us what you got from your education that has kept you fired up and ready to go, and what baggage you have had to get rid of in order to stay that way. Tell us what would appeal to your artistic higher angels, and what opportunities we should provide for our students during their years in our care. What in education would help make theatre an exciting, vibrant, and innovative art form that would live up to all the talent that fills it?
And then brainstorm with us -- what's the next level? My first thought, and I suppose it is a typically academic one, is a conference attended by artists and educators who are committed to change, who will issue ringing manifestoes and thundering j'accuses demanding the destruction of the status quo. Something -- anything -- to get us fired up and ready to go. But in some ways, that seems kind of unoriginal and not in keeping with the nature of the effort. So what other options are there?
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
I want to start by quoting from a book entitled Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transofrming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development by M. B. Baxter Magolda, a college professor who writes books about education. She writes:
"Educators have multiple expectations for the journey that is called college education. For example, we expect students to acquire knowledge, learn how to analyze it, and learn the process of judging what to believe themselves -- what developmental theorists call complex ways of knowing. We expect students to develop an internal sense of identity -- and understanding of how they view themselves and what they value. We expect them to learn how to construct healthy relationships with others, relationships based on mutuality rather than self-sacrifice, and relationships that affirm diversity. We expect them to integrate these ways of knowing, being and interacting with others into the capacity for self-authorship -- the capacity to internally define their own beliefs, identity, and relationships. This self-authorship, this internal capacity, is the necessary foundation for mutual, collaborative participation with others in adult life."
Most theatre programs are really good at the first part about acquiring knowledge (or skills) and learning to analyze it (or apply it). But we tend to ignore the rest of the paragraph, assuming, instead, that all that stuff just takes care of itself as a person gets older.
We need to ask questions that help students develop a sense of personal identity -- how do they view themselves, their art -- what do they value. Make them put it into words -- on paper, in conversation, whatever. Watch it change and grow. Don't just teach them what the French Neoclassical Rules are, ask them what they might be useful for now, today, in their art. Ask them whether they think there are uses for such rules, or whether they are impediments. Draw analogies to current rules that may be less explicitly acknowledged but are nonetheless as inflexible -- for instance, the way that the 30-minute TV schedule structures the way TV shows are structured. Make them decide what from the past speaks to them, and what doesn't. Help them make their values explicit.
Teach them how to construct healthy relationships. No, I don't mean read Cosmopolitan with them. I mean move beyond the master-apprentice mentality that many professors have in relation to their students. Teach them how to work together, how to value the ideas of others, and to value their own ideas as well. Discourage slaves and toadies. Teach them lots of ways to collaborate. Teach them to form partnerships. Put them in situations where they must get involved in the community and meet and talk to people who have power, and with people who don't. Be an example of someone who actively seeks out diverse opinions and people who don't agree with you.
Make your primary goal a student's self-authorship, "the capacity to internally define their own beliefs, identity, and relationships." That will make them stand out more than any theatre skill they might learn. And it will promote happiness, integrity, and authenticity. Now THAT'S what a real artist is.
A few more bullet points, some slightly redundant:
- Ignore "The Biz" -- don't helicopter students onto a sinking ship. You're not doing them any favors preparing them to excel in a dysfunctional system that is doomed to collapse at any moment. Help them to look for lifeboats.
- Create artists, not cogs. Artists have original thoughts. They are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual anarchists. There is a video on YouTube of Philipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller. Most theatre "training" for "the Biz" isn't much different than that -- training students to work in lockstep. That is killing theatre faster than any anti-NEA ideology in Congress. Give a class in lateral thinking. Encourage eccentricity. Disseminate wild ideas. Hell, change your syllabus! (Gasp!)
- Make students think like social entrepreneurs -- have them think in terms of the system, not just their careers. Look for ways to change the world by creating a new way of doing things. Encourage them to think big, and think outside the box.
- Consciously teach techniques for creative cooperation and consensus building. Most theatre people worship the hierarchical theatrical structure because they think that collaboration takes too long and is too frustrating. Not true, if you know what you're doing. Teach them to know what they're doing. There aren't enough geniuses to justify the pyramid system.
- Don't encourage specialization -- don't teach young people to just be actors or designers or directors, but all of those and more: entrepreneurs, gardeners, community organizers, marketers. Think in terms of Daniel Quinn's "occupational tribes" -- they need to be able to extend the earning power of the tribe. That might be by growing food for the company in addition to being an actor, or figuring out a way to offer workshops to local organizations in collaboration or team-building or creative thinking. These kind of people are worth their weight in gold. If they can act AND build a costume, they are doubly valuable to a company. Specialization = irrelevance.
- Figure out ways for students to use in the theatre what they learn in their non-theatre classes. Don't let theatre students talk about their gen ed courses as "irrelevant," something to be "gotten out of the way." Instead, think about having them create theatre pieces about what they've learned about Cartesian duality, or organic chemistry, or medieval history. Demonstrate how everything they learn can inform the theatre and become theatre. (And as a side benefit, if they can theatricalize academic material, they might be able to write a grant to teach it in the K-12 system somewhere. Extend the earning power of the tribe!)
- Encourage lateral thinking. Make students question the status quo, find a different way to do something, even if the status quo being undermined is what you taught in your class. Which leads to the next point:
- Encourage students to kill Buddha. No, I'm not talking about literal murder. I'm talking about letting students attack you and what you've taught without taking offense. Teach them the old saying: "If you encounter the Buddha walking along the road, kill him."You're Buddha. Prepare to die. Like Oedipus, sometimes you've got to kill Dad in order to take your place in the world. It's a good thing (OK, it wasn't so great for Oedipus). If you create disciples of your students, in actuality you're killing them. Not good. Read Ionesco's The Lesson as a cautionary tale. Resolve NOT to be the teacher. We don't need no stinkin' clones.
- Encourage students to read. The best way to do this: set an example. Read plays a lot and talk about them in class. Make copies of articles and pass them around. Read books, and comment on them. All of this doesn't have to be theatre oriented. In fact, it is good for students to see that you feel knowing things about the world, past and present, is important. Sure, it takes class time -- get over it. There is nothing you're gonna tell them in your lecture or workshop that can't be found somewhere else. It's the information age, and there are probably a thousand websites that have the same stuff you're going to teach them. Give them a gift they can't get on the internet -- an energetic, curious mind to engage with. If you really want to set an example, create a lunchtime reading group -- have a regular table once a week at a campus restaurant where kids can talk to you about books. Eat. Talk. Share, don't teach.
I take theatre education very seriously. Like the environmental crisis, I believe that the theatre crisis will affect my 18 - 22 year olds powerfully, more powerfully than it will affect an old fart like me. I'm tenured -- I'm wedged in for the duration. So that means I have to take responsibility for those who are just starting out. And I will feel like a total fraud if I don't do something to help them face the inevitable changes that are on the way. And dammit, that don't mean "training."
My challenge is to make at least some of this happen here on my campus. My biggest nightmare is a tombstone that says: "Scott Walters -- 1958 - 200?-- He could have done some cool things, but the Provost wouldn't let him." That'[s my challenge -- avoiding that tombstone.
"University spokesman Steve Orlando defended the officers' actions in an interview with the Associated Press, but said an internal investigation would be conducted to make sure they acted appropriately.
"He apparently asked several questions -- he went on for quite awhile -- then he was asked to stop," Orlando said of Meyer. "He had used his allotted time. His microphone was cut off, then he became upset."
That's where we are, folks: you get tasered if you go over your allotted time. I think I'll start tasering students who turn their papers in late or show up late to class while I'm talking. Have we lost our mind????
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Monday, September 17, 2007
I think that theatre departments are generally teaching the how-to's in a solid fashion. Yes, when I attend a college production, the quality will vary from student to student, but often that is more a function of the student's progress within the program more than anything else.
And I agree with Tom -- there is a lot of good mentoring going on. The larger the department, the harder it is for that mentoring to take place, but in medium-to-small departments, or in graduate programs, this is much more likely.
I would also like to link to this post by David Boevers at Carnegie Mellon, whose program, from Prof Boever's description, has benefited from a strong effort to break out of the traditional skill-based training in order to make an intentional attempt to actually educate artists. This is particularly impressive, in my opinion, because as a recognized high-profile program Carnegie-Mellon could have coasted on its reputation without going through the intense reflection necessary for such a curriculum change to occur. I am particularly taken with the OSWALD class, which takes an intentional approach to questioning the generally accepted. It is always nice to be able to point at a department that seems to be making a real effort.
So within a very narrow frame, I think most university programs are turning out competent practitioners.
If that seems damning with faint praise, well...mea culpa.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
"Make a list of five strengths that you possess as a writer/artist. It's not really bragging, it's an honest assessment (forced upon you by this darn meme). Please resist the urge to enumerate your weaknesses, or even mention them in contrast to each strong point you list. Tag four other writers or artists whom you'd like to see share their strengths."
OK, here goes:
1. Willingness to ignore the status quo. There are times when I think my theme song is the Marx Brothers' Whatever It Is, I'm Against It. My tendency is to question almost anything that is accepted as being "correct." Sometimes, that puts me in very strange company, but I think the act of questioning is the reason for my #2 strength.
2. I have lots of ideas. Thanks, Laura, for that one -- me too. There are days when my head feels like a birdcage filled with parrots all chattering at the same time and flying against the bars. At those times, I have to find a way to calm the flock and listen for the most beautiful song. But I value the cacophony.
3. I'm pretty impervious to peer pressure. When I was in 6th grade, I proudly carried to school a briefcase my father brought me from work. When one of the cool kids sidled up and demanded to know why I was carrying a briefcase, I looked at him wide-eyed and asked "Why aren't you?" He wandered away, confused at the question, and I have been following that philosophy ever since. I don't mind being eccentric: why aren't you?
4. I write with energy. I think when you read my blog you get a sense of an "excitable boy" (thanks, Warren Zevon) who really wants to communicate things to the reader. I've never been a fan of "cool" or "objective" writing. I prefer the more personal and slightly combative style of, say, the Partisan Review writers of the 1940s and 1950s.
5. I have very clear, thought-out principles. Almost everything I say or do connects to a basic principle that I have thought through explicitly. This allows me to make fast decisions in the moment, because all I have to do is hold the new situation up against the principles to make a decision about a course of action. These principles make me very consistent and predictable, which can be helpful when I am in a leadership position. I can be trusted.
So four other people. Let's see: Don, Ian, Tom, and Matt.
Friday, September 14, 2007
I, too, have made that argument. In fact, one year I turned my annual directing slot into a "Festival of Student Creativity" in which any student could propose a project and be part of the festival. The students responded with a wide variety of performances, from sound-and-light show to readings to a full production of Death and the Maiden. Afterwards, some students felt very empowered; others complained that it was too much work. From my perspective, students were much more likely in the years that followed to mount their own independent productions. In fact, the students who did Death and the Maiden formed their own production company and performed as part of the second stage at a regional theatre in Asheville.
I also used another of my directing slots to do a student-created show based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that a group of students and I wrote from the ground up in a little over a semester. In it, Dr. Frankenstein, on the last night of his life, had a fever dream in which he was put on trial for "crimes against humanity" by a group of trickster gods from a variety of mythological traditions. We created and rehearsed the script in a little more than a semester, and the result was respectable. We also totally changed the play's ending for the second performance because we didn't like the audience take on what was being said. We could never have done that with a regular script. As a result of seeing that play, the same students who did Death and the Maiden created a play from the ground up based on Dante's Inferno, which was truly extraordinary. It was called Nine Modern Cantos.
All of which is to say I think Tom is on to something. One retired member of the Drama Department opined that it was dangerous to give the students the "keys to the car," but I quoted my own mentor, Cal Pritner, who often said that the best thing about theatre is that it is "bio-degradable." So what if they stink up the place -- the air will clear. The question is what they have learned from the experience.
Most theatre departments justify their production programs as their labs. Like science labs, theatre productions exist for students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom. It is a persuasive argument, but the reality is quite different.
Departmental productions are focused almost exclusively on putting on a "good show," not teaching those involved. If in acting class the actors are taught to score their script, directors never ask them to do so for rehearsals; if everyone is taught to research the play's background, nobody is asked to produce that research during the production process. The casting process is rarely about what the students need to learn, but rather on who can best play the role right now. Oftentimes, actors who play a certain type of role will simply be typecast over the course of their career, and never have the opportunity to stretch their talents. Faculty directors feel that they are being judged on the quality of the final product, not whether those involved furthered their education.
To my mind, if we put on a "good show" but nobody learns anything new from it as a result, the show is a failure. On the other hand, a show that is a failure may have led to great growth in those who were involved.
Let's go back to the "lab" parallel. If I am a biology teacher and in class I teach my students how to dissect a frog, my lab will be designed to have them put those skills into practice. If my students come into lab and dissect the frog with their teeth instead of a scalpel, no matter how effectively the frog was dissected the student will fail. Not so in theatre. In our labs, students are applauded solely for the quality of their product, regardless of whether they are ignoring everything they have been taught to do in classes. This is more common that not -- students arrive from high school having spent years developing a bag of personal tricks, and they often rely on those tricks in production. Faculty directors don't mind, as long as those tricks make their show "better."
In fact, most drama departments are little more than Play Clubs run by the faculty and doing shows that the faculty want to do. There is little educational purpose, which is not to say a whole lot of learning isn't going on. One of the things the students learn is that what they learn in class is largely irrelevant -- that they are going to get cast according to type, not talent; that the focus is going to be on product, not process; and that what counts is whether the audience loves you.
It is the disconnect between curriculum and production that bothers me. I could see the value of an entire curriculum based on hands-on experience that would be designed to research, experiment, and learn what is needed as it is needed (just-in-time learning). I could also see a curriculum that was totally focused on the classroom experience, and that played to only small invited audiences, and that was focused on student self-discovery.
But to have both with little connection between the two strikes me as a waste of time and resources.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
Of course, once junior decides that our department is where he wants to be, and shows up all dewy-eyed on our doorstep on the first day of classes, we quickly forget about this handout and re-promote the Romantic image of the theatre artist as rebel anarchist whose imagination, Outsider Status, and ethical superiority places him above and beyond the normal corporate drudge -- indeed, above and beyond almost everybody in the world. Luisa in The Fantasticks utters the theatre person's creed: "I am special! I am special! Please, God, please -- don't let me be normal!" And over the next four years, we feed this self-image of theatre people as different than other people, better than other people, more creative than other people. People with a mission.
Except it is all a lie.
In reality, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world.
1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director's bidding. And the director does the producer's bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because no only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he's also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn't like your attitude. In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholders, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: "You can't make art by committee." We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tatooed on the psyches of every drama major that is "trained."
2. Efficiency is everything. If you don't believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after "You can't create art by committee,") is that we "don't have time" for that, we have to get the show up. We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question this value. It's too expensive to spend money on rehearsal -- better minimize the investment and hope for the best.
3. Do what you're told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don't take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it -- that'll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die. Remember Larry Tate on Bewitched? That's what you should be. See number 1 above.
4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is "Dance Ten -- Looks Three" from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with "Razzle-Dazzle" from Chicago. What does the market want right now? That's what you should be. Great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well. What's conventional wisdom about getting your second job? Play well with others. Theatre is Dale Carnegie central.
5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I'm currently working on, always say its the best thing you've ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else on the show -- you're dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill -- it's ingrained in theatre people, too.
6. Don't let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opps in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you'll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist's responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it's only theatre -- we don't actually affect anyone's ideas, right? Film filled with violence and misogyny? It's entertainment -- nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women's shelter or something.
And so truly, when junior's Dad looks me in the eye and says, "How can my son make a living with a theatre degree?," I can say, with confidence, that he is being imbued with all the values that will make him successful in the corporate world. Compliance, obedience, and patience is what we teach.
It makes for great corporate careers -- unfortunately, it makes for really boring theatre.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
My focus in this essay will be on the undergraduate, since that has been my occupation for the past nine years at a university that has no graduate programs. I am ambivalent about graduate programs; I learned a great deal at Illinois State University (MA) and City University of New York Graduate Center (PhD). But much of what I learned came from constant practice -- the ability to focus entirely on my art form and the expectation that I would constantly produce (productions at ISU, and essays at CUNY). Trial and error under the watchful eyes of instructors with very high standards was where I learned the most. What I absorbed came more from the values my teacher's lived than anything specific that they taught me. At ISU, every day I was marinated in the doctrine of risk, of making choices that had high stakes; at CUNY, every day I was marinated in the doctrine of critical thinking and rigorous professionalism. Nevertheless, I agree with Tom: I could have learned a whole lot using that $75,000 to produce play after play or article after article -- with the caveat that I would want a very demanding critic to visit each production and respond to each essay.
But on to my topic: undergrads. Let's start with the American Theatre ads Tom mentions in his essay, and the ubiquitous offer of "training." In an interview with Ian MacKenzie at Theatre Is Territory, I snapped "Dogs are trained, not artists." When you train a dog, you train him to obediently respond to orders from his master in a skilled, unquestioning way. You don't want a dog who, when you say "sit," decides for himself whether he wants to sit at that particular moment, or questions whether sitting is really the best option. The same is true when we "train" actors -- we're not creating independent and critical thinkers who bring their own ideas to the table, but rather "performers" who can produce efficiently and effectively whatever effect a director decides he wants. We train for compliance; we should educate for artistry.
Furthermore, we train, for the most part, solely for technique. Students are rarely asked to wrestle with the larger questions of theatre's purpose, theatre's value to a contemporary society, theatre's viability as an art form in an age of mass media domination, theatre's usefulness to those who might buy a ticket, theatre's relationsip to its audience, or alternate purposes theatre might serve. They are rarely asked to develop their own values concerning these questions, much less come to terms with the values of artists past that might provide grist for their own mill. They are trained to accept without question that the status quo is the best of all possible theatrical worlds, and to see their role as being to develop the technique necessary to fit within it. They are also trained to believe that the theatre will always survive because, well, it always has survived before. I call this the Tinkerbell Syndrome: if we believe in theatre hard enough and clap our hands, it will always survive, a faith that supports the passive complacency required to become a theatrical cog. It is the faith of the Cowardly Lion running full speed down the Wizard's corridor frantically repeating "I do believe in spooks! I do I do I do I do!" -- just before he leaps out a window.
This emphasis on compliance and complacency is particularly crippling when it comes to 18 - 22 year olds who have not yet developed enough life experience nor intellectual ballast to offer resistance. They are easily molded by any adult with a strong personality and rhetorical flair.
None of these complaints are new or original with me nor with Tom. In fact, Richard Schechner expressed them all powerfully in his essay in the Summer 1995 issue of TDR entitled "Transforming Theatre Departments." In the dozen years since he published his proposal, few theatre departments have addressed the questions he raised, much less changed their approach to theatre education in light of those questions. Perhaps this lack of response connects to my previous post about how we got where we are -- most college theatre instructors are not scholar-artists, and they probably have never read TDR or any other journal of theatre ideas.
For anyone who has followed this blog over the years, you know that I am very smitten with Tony Kushner's Association for Theatre in Higher Education keynote speech which I heard him deliver, and which was published in American Theatre as "A Modest Proposal." In it, he calls for the abolition of drama majors, and proposes that all undergrads be liberally educated in the great ideas of the past and present rather than narrowly focus on the acquisition of theatre skills and technique. The idea is that, by doing so, we will educate artists who have something worthwhile to say, rather than performers with well-trained vocal chords but not a thought of their own worth vocalizing.
But that is for another post.
Great stuff, if a little unnerving!
Friday, September 07, 2007
Ian, from "Theatre Is Territory," wrote in the comments box: "One theory that keeps coming up is that the U.S. was founded on a particularly individualist note (its what gives you your right to bear arms – i.e., "don't get between me and mine.") that has never really left the public conscious. And why should it have?"
Here is my response:
As an American blogger, I am deeply offended by this sweeping generalization. I demand that you provide specific and broadly based evidence to support your assertion. When you do, I will then discount said evidence as unrepresentative and provide as counter-evidence posts by six American bloggers who are really nice and never get angry at all, and I'll demand that you apologize to all my American homies. When you assert that the counter-examples don't invalidate the general assertion, I will demand to know how many American bloggers you know personally, which of them you like, and how much time you have actually spent in America in the last 12 months. When you question the relevance of this argument, I will accuse you of dodging the question, call you a damned Canadian hoser and post at least six questions about the topic that I will demand you answer pronto. I will also get my blogger posse to do the same, filling your comments box with dozens of questions and insults. When you finally become frustrated, I will point out that obviously it isn't only Americans who get angry, and that you have invalidated your point yourself. I will then accuse you of beating a dead horse, insult you personally, remove you from my blogroll, and refer to you only as "The Canadian Blogger" from then on. And it will be your fault for provoking me.
Congratulations, Ian, you've now experienced your first American blog controversy! ;-)
Thursday, September 06, 2007
"Esteem, if it be real, means preference,
And when bestowed on all makes no sense."
"A man should be a man, and let his speech
At every turn reveal his heart to each;
His own true self should speak; our sentiments
Should never hide beneath vain compliments."
Act One Scene 1 between Alceste and Philinte reminds me of some blog discussions I've had. Perhaps Dan Trujillo should have set his rewrite, which he called Angry Young Man, in the theatrosphere instead of the theatre! Meanwhile, over at Parabasis, Isaac raises the question of how we can have less vitriolic discussions. At the moment, I have a headache and am out of ibuprofin, which makes me cranky and prone to snarkiness. Nevertheless, Tony's proximity rule seems a good one: "would I say it if I were in the same room"? I've had a lot of passionate discussions in my day, and learned a lot from them. But if somebody impugned my honesty to my face... well, I'd call in Don Hall to punch their lights out! Anyway, like Alceste, I get tired of being scolded for speaking my mind. Of course, for Moliere, Alceste was an comic figure whose extremism was cause for ridicule and Philinte was the voice of reason.
Of course, Moliere himself played Alceste and not Philinte -- he knew an interesting role when he saw one...
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
How did we get here? I am tempted to simply create a link to scholar Joseph Roach's essay in Theatre Topics (March 1999) entitled "Reconstructing Theatre/History." Written for a conference celebrating the publication in 1968 of Oscar Brockett's seminal History of the Theatre, the essay examines precisely the question of how theatre education morphed into what we see today. Since this essay is only available through Project Muse or through a library that possesses hard copies of the journal, or from professors like me who clutter up their office with back issues of academic journals, I will fall back on my computer's cut-and-paste function to fill in the backstory.
Let's start with what Roach calls "several myths of our origins":
Brander Matthews's then unprecedented teaching of drama at Columbia University, George Pierce Baker's "47 Workshop" at Harvard, Baker's move to Yale and the founding of the School of Drama, the inauguration of conservatory-technical training within the academy at Carnegie Mellon, or the granting of the first doctorates in theatre by the University of Iowa in 1929 and then Cornell University and Northwestern University in 1940. What is striking at first glance is how very different these pioneers' objects of study were: Matthews's enthusiastic antiquarianism, Baker's how-to-make-a-play dramaturgy, Carnegie Mellon's trade-school pragmatism, the PhD's literary-historical professionalism--all seem to pull in very different directions. Different, yes, but they are all in some way focused on performance.
Note that all of these degrees were PhD's -- the MFA as terminal "performance degree" had not yet been invented. Theatre scholars were expected to have a firm grounding in research and history as well as in performance. Roach indicates the importance of this double-poled knowledge: "Without the study of history...performance surrenders at least half its content. (Without the study of history, in other words, we can't truly entertain new ideas because we can't recognize them as such."
The birth of the regional theatre movement promised to provide the catalyst that would begin the ascendancy of the scholar-artist. Roach writes about the promise of the late 1960s:
Brockett notes that the Guthrie was working closely with the University of Minnesota, the APA (Association of Producing Artists) was working closely with Michigan University, Yale was founding its own repertory company (thanks to Robert Brustein). At the same time, the NEA was founded to "encourage worthwile projects and to stimulate local support for the arts."
We were a blessed generation of theatre students, changing the world. Part of that boundless revolution, of course, which we confidently aspired both to bring about and to build our careers on, would be the total decentralization of the American theatre from New York into the vast network of regional repertory theatres, many of them located on university campuses. Of course, every city of 50,000 or so would want to support at least one--the new kind of professional but non-commercial company for which we were training. Such a company would need artists who could read plays and scholars who could help produce them, and as we saw physicians moving between their practices in the community and their lecterns in the medical school, so we imagined the artists and scholars of the university-resident theatres expanding and sharing their knowledge as they shuttled between the theatre and the classroom. At far less than the cost of big-time athletics, we reasoned, the repertory--fresh interpretations of the classics and new plays by our contemporaries--would entertain the culture-hungry masses while making the stage look like America: Margo Jones meets Robert Edmond Jones meets Ernest Jones meets LeRoi Jones (as Amiri Baraka was then known).
The last chapter of Brockett's History captures the sense of momentum following the Ford Foundation's initial infusion of funds for this purpose in 1959 and the subsequent founding of the Guthrie in Minneapolis in 1963:The example of a major director seeking a home removed from New York theatre gave the movement much-needed prestige. The favorable publicity received by Minneapolis motivated many other cities to build art centers and to establish resident theatre companies. . . . By 1967, there were 35 resident companies outside New York. (666)
But as has so often been the case in the American theatre when the promise of decentralization seemed about to triumph, something happened to derail it. Roach describes, in a series of paragraphs that deeply depress me, the recentralization of the theatre, and its effects on the academy:
We now know that this was not to be the thin end of the wedge, but only the thin edge. Even in 1967, while the first edition of the History was in press, the Tulane theatre department and The Drama Review, which had the largest circulation of any journal in the field (or of any scholarly journal in a specialized field of the arts and humanities, excepting PMLA), left New Orleans, reversing the supposed flow of decentralization by moving the Mohammed of the academic theatre to the Mountain of New York City. This move established what was then called "Graduate Drama" and later Performance Studies as a theatre department without a theatre. Ironically, the immediate cause of the countermarch from the provinces was Tulane's failure to honor a longstanding commitment to build a new theatre. This was unusual at a time when other universities scrambled to keep up with the building boom. Even at relatively poor campuses like Kansas University, we almost always got the toys we asked for: black boxes, double-purchase systems, paint frames, cherry-pickers, leikos, big marble lobbies. Build it and they will come. But who were "they"?
In the mid-sixties, Harold Clurman started calling this huge construction project "the Edifice Complex," by which he was telling us, though we couldn't hear him at the time, that we had very little idea about what to put into these massive shells of pre-stressed concrete, the ones that still architecturally dominate most of our campuses, like mausolea, empty monuments to their still-born purpose.
What happened is easy to describe, painful to remember. Into the vacuum created by the non-appearance of the cultural revolution in regional repertory theatre rushed thousands of would-be teachers whose theory was that their practice was self-justifying. Increasingly, they held the MFA degree, which did turn out to be terminal in more ways than were originally intended, and increasingly they felt compelled to create other MFAs, not for perilous careers in the professional theatre (at least not for the most part) but to teach in even newer, even less distinguished MFA programs [and, I would note, undergraduate departments -- SW].
Not wanting to overgeneralize, I am willing to concede that some MFA programs turned out to be wonderful investments. At a certain point, however, which varied from campus to campus, the MFAs, wonderful or not, got the majority of tenured votes, and at that point programs of theatre research found themselves fighting a rearguard action against dwindling resources and a double marginalization on their own campuses: they did not fit among the community of scholars because they were appointed in theatre; they did not fit among the MFAs because they read books. Now too few in number in any one department, they struggled to cover the subjects of theatre history, literature, and theory and to direct the increasingly specialized research necessary to compete. Too few in number in any one department, they discovered that a single resignation or a death might throw their entire program into turmoil.
And so in place of professional regional repertory companies working side-by-side and even overlapping with scholars who were expanding the literature, history, and theory of the theatre, what we got was a faculty generally isolated from both the professional theatre and scholarship, ultimately justifying their anti-intellectualism as creative expression and their artistic failure as experimentation or "process." In the apparently limitless expansion of American higher education from the 1960s, anything seemed possible. Give academic credit for ushering at shows? Sure--and then only years later wonder why theatre curricula have become national campus jokes. Let stage-struck teenagers borrow against their own futures or their parents' retirements for four years of pseudo-training (seven with the MFA)? Absolutely--and then only later let them find out for themselves what it means that they have invested the better part of their twenties learning how to turn on one foot and where to go to get their teeth bleached. But before the final tenuring in of the acting gurus and arc-welders, it seemed possible to have it all, to do it all, for everyone: departments one-upped each other announcing the BA, BFA, MA, MFA (in acting, directing, design), and PhDs, too--departments that ended up being staffed by a handful of full-time faculty, few of whom could either conduct scholarly research or have professional careers as artists outside of their colleges' gates. It was not possible. It is not possible. It's history.
Because most theatre departments are not staffed by artist-scholars who combine practical knowledge with a commitment to original research, but instead are staffed primarily by artists who, as Roach says above, see their practice as self-justifying, student artists are not to educated to reinterpret the past in order to generate new ideas for the present, but are simply "trained" in the skills necessary to fit into the theatrical status quo. Lacking the reflective abilities fostered by scholarly training, artist-teachers are often unable to explain to their students why they should do a particular thing or how something works. They can do it themselves, but they can't explain it. My grandfather was that way. He would give you something to do, and if you fumbled a bit, he would growl "Gimme the goddamn thing" and do it himself. I once knew a brilliant acting teacher who wanted to write an acting text entitled simply Do What I Tell You. It was never begun because she couldn't put into words what she taught. The result of this inability to explain general concepts is that students become totally reliant on their teacher's guidance and insights. Instead of creating self-reliant artists, they create passive and dependent theatrical functionaries -- cogs that will smoothly fit into the existing theatrical machinery. Or, on the other hand, for those students who are stubborn enough to hold onto their own creative vision and who get fed up with being pushed around, we end up with theatre artists who are hostile to academia and, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, who totally abandon the nourishment that knowledge of history and theory can provide for their work (does anybody believe that, say, Eugene O'Neill would have written anything worth reading without the enormous reading in philosophy and aesthetics he did during his youth?). For such artists, whatever is fashionable today is what is worthwhile. Finally, the best emerge from their theatre education scarred but unbowed, defiantly independent, resolutely questioning -- independent auto-didacts. Many members of the theatrosphere seem to fall into this latter category.
The other side-effect of this anti-scholarly orientation is that the curriculum of most theatre departments is depressingly similar. Like the malls that dot America and that share pretty much the same stores and layouts, theatre departments offer a generic and indifferentiated curriculum that allows a student transferring from one school to another can feel relatively confident that what they have learned at their previous school is pretty much what has been taught at their current school. Nice and comfortable. While Tom, in his discussion of theatrical entropy, says that "currently in theatre we have an absence of conventions, shared perceptions and goals," the opposite is true in departments of theatre. Most are the theatrical equivalent of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, dominated by a single unquestioned dogma. The result predictably, is the similarity of most young theatre people who emerge from four (or seven) years of theatre education ground down to a uniform smoothness. Hardly the stuff from which theatre innovation is made.
Joseph Roach asks a series of questions that we might do well to ponder:
So what is possible? Are we training our graduate students for today, or for tomorrow? Where are we headed? Where do we want to go?
Even more specific, Roach writes:
Why can't every season-selection conference, for instance, be an intellectual as well as a logistical planning event, closely tied to the curriculum and the research mission of the faculty, graduate students, and advanced majors? Why can't every department have the confidence that its collective work in performance is making a contribution to knowledge? Why can't every department share its ideas and discoveries with the whole field? Why can't every journal in the field encourage papers signed by multiple authors, in the manner of scientific publications? Why? Because we would thereby emphasize the distinctive potential of theatre and performance studies for collaborative research on the cusp of the arts and human sciences. We would also give everyone a way of contributing to research and being recognized for that contribution. So why not?
Why not indeed.
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 ...
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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 ...