Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Theatre Education

Over at Parabasis, Isaac has asked a question about the effects of university involvement in arts training. While I outlined my take on this back at the end of May in a post entitled Risk, I'd like to take this opportunity to quote an article by Sonja Kuftinec, a professor at my alma mater the University of Minnesota (unfortunately, she was not there when I was there). The article, which was published in Theatre Topics, is called "Educating the Creative Theatre Artist." In it, she writes about undergraduate education:

A January 1999 ATHE retreat, which I attended as a representative of the Performance Studies Focus Group, clarified the dilemmas faced by our field in terms of what and how we teach, and toward what ends. Should we be training students more preprofessionally--undergraduates for performance jobs and graduates for teaching jobs? Or should we focus more on interdisciplinary collaborations across fields that would redefine students as inquirers and artistic entrepreneurs? Or should we try to combine training and inquiry, particularly in educating graduate students? Surveys of artists working in alternative theatrical projects suggest a focus on redefining undergraduates as artistic entrepreneurs, while experience with graduate students at the University of Minnesota suggests a model for more explicit "teacher training."

Surveys compiled by Bob Leonard at Virginia Tech, and Jan Cohen-Cruz and Lucy Winner, former cochairs of ATHE's Task Force on Expanding Roles of Theatre in Education, emphasize the need for interdisciplinary undergraduate coursework while offering general avenues for rethinking the skills and values we teach our undergraduates. Leonard's 1995 questionnaire received responses from fifty-five working artists associated with Alternative ROOTS (Regional Organizations of Theatres South). The respondents' replies, when asked what they would teach and what they wish they had been taught, reveal what might be lacking in some of our undergraduate training: collaboration, ensemble-building, idea development, interdisciplinary approaches to creating art, listening, conflict resolution, community engagement, and application of artistic skills in a wide range of settings.

The undergraduate production programs that I know of tend to emphasize individual actor training based in psychological realism often supplemented with movement and voice work. Elective classes in production include audition techniques and acting for the camera. There is little or no emphasis in the classroom placed on collaboration, ensemble-building, or alternative careers in the field of theatre. Conventional production training tends to recycle a system that emphasizes the passivity of the individual actor rather than graduating students who can think critically and creatively about the value of theatre in society and who act upon those thoughts.

I would agree with Kuftinec's assessment -- most undergraduate education creates passivity in a variety of ways, and it is also very conservative in its approach to thinking about the art form. The education is about fitting in to what currently exists, rather than creating what might exist. It is past oriented rather than future oriented, and it is decidedly anti-intellectual.

Note: Anyone who wants to read Kuftinec's article and who doesn't have access to Project Muse, please email me at walt828@gmail.com and I'll send a copy.


Ian Mackenzie said...

Doesn't it depend on the program? Is there a standardized approach to university arts education in the US? Something that informs all programs at all universities?

What's preventing post-secondary arts education from challenging the status quo of its own apparatus? Is it the teachers? The students? The administrators? The economy? . . .


Scott Walters said...

Ian -- As a general rule, there are no general rules. No, there are no standardized approaches to arts education in the US -- which doesn't mean that there isn't a standardized approach to arts education in the US. If you visit the websites of university theatre programs across the US, you will be struck by the depressing similarity of program after program -- no matter whether the department is part of a small liberal arts university or a large pre-professional conservatory. Innovative ideas are few and far between. There is no need for anyone to impose a uniform approach, since everybody does it themselves.

What's the barrier to change? The faculty. Most don't look at a program overall, but rather focus on their own little piece. And when they focus on their own little piece, they usually just do what they were taught to do when THEY were students. Academic cloning. In my opinion, this is mainly because most theatre departments are less interested in training, much less actual education, than they are in doing shows. Most Drama departments are simply pro-am play clubs.

If faculty were interested in changing things, they have all the power they need. For the most part, the administration could care less as long as you teach classes, and the students accept what they are given as long as they get an opportunity to do plays.

Paul Rekk said...


Perhaps it's just me projecting myself onto others, but it seems to me that anyone who is going to fight passivity and take a stance in innovating the form is going to continue to do so regardless of the education they receive.

Which isn't to negate your point -- a system that embraces change is bound to be more effective in fertilizing that change. But I tend to think that the current system is less stunting the growth of innovative students rather than overpopulating the theatre world with students with no desire -- or, more importantly, ability -- to look beyond pleasing (not even furthering, simply pleasing) the status quo.

After all, the education that you speak of, an education that fights passivity, isn't one where students are taught by faculty, it is one where students and faculty jointly explore each other's ideas. And this can be had (if at times less informed or specialized) in limitless places other than universities.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I agree and I disagree. Yes, people with new ideas tend to just appear. For instance, Rich Maxwell and I went to school together at Illinois State University. He played the lead in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and my then wife played in the same production. Rich was always a little bit quirky, and he was a wonderful actor, but there wasn't any indication that I could see that he would go on to be the innovator he has become.

That said, this sort of "spontaneous generation" model of creating innovators seems pretty random. Yes, blueberries grow in the wild, but a little help can lead to a more plentiful harvest. There are techniques for generating new ideas, techniques for getting new ideas funded, techniques for collaboration -- all things that could assist innovators to start growing more quickly. Instead, we prepare them for the production-line hierarchy of Broadway and the "commercial non-profit" regional theatre scene. We do that because ti's what we know.

Computer programming departments don't teach Fortran anymore, but Drama departments continue to teach the same tired approaches year after year as if the world hasn't changed since Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko were meeting in coffee shops. And often when students take a chance and do something different, the faculty squashes them like bugs.

No, ultimately you don't "teach" creativity, but you can teach a commitment to trying to solve today's problems, and ways of evoking and nurturing the conditions for innovation to occur.

Innovation isn't mysterious. The business world knows this, publishes book after book about innovation, rewards innovation, and knows that it must innovate in order to survive. Theatre closes its eyes and prays that a genius will magically appear. As a result, business is ten times more innovative right now than the arts. And that's a pretty sad situation. The theatre scene, for all its talk, doesn't really want innovators. They want more of the same, and they reward people who give it to them. And that's the big reason theatre is moribund.

Anonymous said...

"In my opinion, this is mainly because most theatre departments are less interested in training, much less actual education, than they are in doing shows. Most Drama departments are simply pro-am play clubs."

This is a perfect description of my department. Especially in terms of the undergraduate program. The graduate students we turn out are able to make their way in the theater world as artists because they get class time to do a lot of exploring and collaborating and the main stage productions are viewed as an extension of the classroom training.
The undergraduates we turn out aren't even ready to go on to graduate school because they don't get the same level of training the grad students do. They are viewed as slave labor for the mainstage productions. If they are cast they are the third spear bearer on the left. If they are backstage or on a construction crew they carry things around--they don't actually learn to build anything or hang lights.
We aren't teaching them the big picture of "these are all the things that go into how a production works" and we certainly aren't teaching them "but there are other ways to work"
The department is beginning to realize that something needs to change because we want to keep doing bigger and better and more innovative productions, but we can't because we need good workers and collaborators to support those productions and we aren't providing our undergraduates the training to be good workers and collaborators.

Paul Rekk said...

I very much agree with the blueberry analogy and that innovative idealists could profit from a better education system. But I don't think that the system we have currently is hampering them (except for financially, of course).

If we were able to peek into the alternate universe in which the education system you propose were currently in place, I feel the majority of the theatrical student body wouldn't be there -- the people who want change aren't being taught to play along because they aren't even making it (or choosing to make it) into the education system. They're doing their thing outside the lines, which on a certain level is as things should be.

The true innovators who do make it into the system are expecting, or at least becoming accustomed to being squashed like bugs by people in charge of what makes art. The faculty, if they do the same, simply get thrown on a list of people not to look to for collaboration, which is sad, but not nearly as sad as giving up ideas of change for the Broadway model.

The focus to me seems not to be that we aren't promoting change, because change will always have to promote itself. What we need to worry about is that we ARE promoting the same old, same old by pumping the students through the system who are only interested in the Broadway model, the students who are in school because it's the next step to making it big. We're almost to a point at which no education system at all would be a better option than the one we've got.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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