Tuesday, May 29, 2007


This is the second part of my expansion of my interview on "Theatre is Territory," and as with the first part, I will use responses from others as a way to extend the conversation.

In response to the question, "What do American theatre educators need to do better, generally?," I wrote "Teach students to value, above all things, innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure...Let students fail! Give higher grades for risk takers who really make a huge flop!" In the question that preceded this one, which concerned any unifying theories of the role of formal education for theatre artists, I made what I think was an important differentiation between what I believed was the priority of education and those who are "trying to create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine."

Ian, the Praxis Theatre interviewer, wrote that he felt this statement "seems like an argument in favour of the avant-garde," whereas David Cote felt that I had a more conservative agenda that involved theatre artists "eschewing esoterica and avant-gardism, thinking positively and bending over backward to accommodate the common man." He also offered that " Taking a big risk and daring to fail can also mean moving to NYC to try and 'make it,' whatever that means to you."

So what just did I mean? Was in endorsing the avant-garde or a conservative approach to theatre? And does my idea of risk taking include going to New York to "make it"?

Let's start with the last question first. While on a personal level, moving to New York to "make it" may, indeed, be a risk -- a huge risk -- for a young person, I would not include it in my definition of "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." Let me hasten to add that if a student came to me and confessed that this was their dream, I would do everything in my power to support and encourage them -- I think following one's "Personal Legend" (ala Paulo Coelho's wonderful novel The Alchemist) is first and foremost the most important thing anyone can do. But if they came to me with this dream early enough in their academic career, I would gently encourage them to transfer to another college. Because what I have to teach them will not give them the skills they need to fit into the status quo. I cannot, in good conscience, "create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine." I just can't do it. The skills that I will teach will lead to frustration, disappointment, and failure if used within the current theatre climate. This would be especially true of actors, who more than other theatre artists are expected to trim their sails to whatever winds the director blows their way. I want to help create innovators more than I want to create mainstream successes.

So what about the other question: do I support the avant-garde, or a conservative agenda? The answer is yes to both. Or no to both. Let me explain by reiterating the main statement: "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." If what you mean by avant-garde is the genre that Matt Freeman, in his perceptive post on that subject, describes as a form of theatre that "has become, for the most part, divorced from its roots, which is to experiment with the form. It's become a genre term, much like Alternative Music was in the 1990s. Foreman, for example, isn't experimenting, one could argue, but is presenting the sort of theatre that he has established as his style for a very long time," then no. Why? Because what we call the avant-garde is no longer innovative -- the experimental has become the traditional. And that isn't "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." It doesn't make what Foreman does any less vital, but it isn't experimental - he is reaping the fruits of his earlier experiments, which is what mature artists should be doing.

So does that mean I support a more conservative agenda? No, if you mean doing what is currently mainstream. But if you mean by conservative the looking back to previous forms for ideas that have fallen by the wayside, then yes. Older techniques like storytelling, verse and rhythm, community involvement and movable productions (ala medieval mystery plays), choruses and narrators (the Greeks, for instance), popular music (like 18th century ballad opera), direct audience address (ala morality plays), or any other techniques you can unearth and adapt from the past -- these are all rich veins to be mined for contemporary experiment.

So yes: conservative appropriation and recontextualization of past forms; and yes avant-garde: creating something entirely new and newly conceived. And no to just recycling the old plays, and no to recreating the 1960s.

In addition, I would insist that, when students experiment, that they truly experiment -- by which I mean design a particular experiment to test a hypothesis, evaluate the results, and generalize from those results ideas that might be successfully applied in the future in another context. Experimenting doesn't just mean "doing weird shit." You have to do it for a purpose, and pay attention to the results. And if your purpose is simply, solely something like "to confuse the audience" or "to offend the audience," then I am going to say "That's too easy. Raise the bar." Because in order for an experiment to take place, there must be a serious chance of failure. Creating confusion or giving offense, as a goal, is too easy -- there is no chance of failure, anybody can do it. Which is not to say that an audience may not be confused or offended by a performance -- on the contrary, it may be the result of a particular experiment. But it must not be the goal.

All of this is very, very difficult to do in an educational setting. Teachers find it much easier to teach "what works for them," or "what their teachers taught them," or (perhaps worst) "what will make you employable." It is much more difficult to inspire creativity and innovation. I can't say I succeed, but every semester I try to wrestle with the problem and try to achieve that goal. And I look for some small glimmer that a student wants to be an artist, and not just working union member.


Anonymous said...

Great post.

Personally, I think the single greatest problem with theatre "education" and expermentation is the way so many faculty try to use their students to develop work that can then be put into the regional theatre pipeline. Professors using student productions as guinea pigs for their own careers, instead of teaching/giving students the tools to allow them to become their own artistic selves.

This is the system at many major programs it seems. The university gets the students by having the great faculty, and they get the faculty by allowing the department to become the faculty's playground, so they can further their own careers. Granted not all professors feel this way, but too many do.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Hi Scott,

The term "avant-garde" suffers the same misfortune as the term "Modern" – in its various permutations: Where some people use "modern" interchangeably with "contemporary", others use it as a clear reference to a movement in visual arts that began in the late 1880s and ended with Jackson Pollack and his ilk in the 1960s. These are two very different things.

So, I like to start with the dictionary definition of avant-garde: pioneers or innovators esp. in art and literature . . . experimental, progressive.

To me, avant-garde will always involve a questioning of the status quo. And since the status quo is always moving, so is the avant-garde. (That's why, for example, Duchamp's R. Mutt urinal piece "Fountain" caused such a stir in 1917, but would be nearly irrelevant if presented as new today.)

I can see how we've arrived at a genre definition of the term – it's the rough set of indices that arose to characterize a particular approach or approaches to making art – but it doesn't have a lot to do with how I use the term.

My avant-garde has to respond to my situation and the status quo of my environment. So I'm not sure I follow the division Scott introduces in this statement:

"So yes, conservative appropriation and recontextualization of past forms; and yes avant-garde: creating something entirely new and newly conceived."

If "conservative appropriation and recontextualization of past forms" is outside of the status quo, then doing that very thing would be an act in the avant-garde. Do you agree?

I think there's an assumption that avant-garde is somehow fundamentally aligned with far out, leftist radicalism.

I'm arguing that putting on pro-Bush play at a left-leaning indie theatre in a liberal arts community is avant-garde because it questions the status quo of that community.


Scott Walters said...

Jay -- I agree with you: that sort of behavior is unconscionable. In some respects (generalization warning!), I think this is one of the main problems of employing as teachers people whose identity is wrapped up in their professional work. The best teaching is student-oriented: the teacher is there to benefit the students; the worst teaching (and many artist-teachers fall into this) sees students as being there for the teacher's benefit.

Ian: yes, the whole terminology thing is a mess. I was using conservative in the sense of "conservation" -- in this case, of the past theatrical forms. One might call it innovation through graverobbing. So I was trying (awkwardly) to make the distinction between something created, Frankenstein-like, from parts of the past, and something that is created totally from scratch (if such a thing is possible -- and it is, isn't it?). Anyway, I agree with you that avant-garde is a moving target, and one that is affected by context. It isn't politically aligned -- Ezra Pound was a fascist avant-garde artist, for instance -- but is artistically defined.

Thanks to both of you for the perceptive comments.

Claire Downs said...

What about if you take a big risk and go to college in new york city for theatre? And many college training programs don't just let you screw around for 4 years. At my school, we have to learn other skill sets besides acting, ie costume design and stage management, and take academic classes. And maybe I'm just being a young idealist, but "making" it seems so old fashioned. There are so many outlets for theatre, and so many genres, success can only be determined by the person in question. Yeah, I'm not a 5 foot tall blonde girl, so I won't ever play Glinda. But if I write my own show and it appears in a small theatre (NYC or otherwise) I'll be satisfied. And I can say many of my peers have similar manifestos...And besides. People who still think about "making" it are probably on their way to LA.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, Claire, I think a broad, liberal arts undergrad education is best. And I am glad to hear you're not focused on "making it," and that that concept seems old-fashioned. Would that all young people held that same idea. You are exactly right: set your own sense of success, preferably one that doesn't rely on someone else's evaluation of your work. And keep setting the bar ever higher. You seem like someone who has herself together.

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