Sunday, November 08, 2009

Standards of Education

I just returned from a quick trip to Illinois to see my stepson, Jake Olbert, perform in Illinois State University's production of Into the Woods. It was a very strong production, marred only by a small amount of directorial tinkering. After the performance Friday night, the show, which was an Associate entry in the American College Theatre Festival, received a "response" from an ACTF rep from a school down the road.

I, myself, have been an ACTF Respondent many times over the course of my career, and had many of my shows adjudicated as well. It isn't an easy job. You see the show, take some quick notes in the dark as the show goes on, and ten minutes after the curtain comes down you face the assembled cast, crew, designers, and director to share your thoughts about the production.

No time for thought of reflection. It is made even more difficult by the attitude ACTF takes toward the response.

The attitude exhibited by ACTF is based on a deep fear of actual criticism, a fear that is endemic to the field as a whole. When you are a respondent, you are sent a document that
gives you guidelines for respondents. It includes a suggested "disclaimer" that might be shared with the assembled college students. It reads as follows:

I’m here representing the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and I’m charged to respond to the performance I just experienced. I was not a part of the process that helped bring the play life, and I cannot comment on your growth in the work during that process but I can respond to what I just experienced as an informed member of the audience with a certain amount of training and experience as an artist and a teacher. I am not the art police, the oracle of theatre or the supreme authority on how this play works best in performance. Hopefully some of the things I’m about to say will resonate with the very fine training you are already receiving, and if so, please take my words to heart as the gifted and insightful comments of a remarkably astute theatre professional. On the other hand, if I say something you don’t agree with or you hear something that doesn’t resonate with what you’ve been hearing all through rehearsals, for heaven’s sake dismiss my remarks as the lunatic ravings of a sadly misguided schmuck with no discernable taste whatsoever. No matter what we say here in this session, you should in no way alter the choices that you and your director have so carefully built.

You can imagine the kind of mealy-mouthed responses that result from this approach to critique. It is the adult version of the undergraduate belief, trotted out whenever the issue of quality arises, that "what is good and bad is subjective." But if that is the case, then why do college departments pay $250 plus travel, lodging, and food to bring in someone from another university to provide feedback? After all, if he or she is "just one person," just an "informed member of the audience" and not, God forbid, an expert, then why not simply choose an audience member at random to stay after the show and give their impressions. I guarantee that they would at least be forthright, which is more than can be said about ACTF respondents.

What is ironic is that students, who know they are supposedly being prepared to go out, like lambs to the slaughter, into a profession with 87% unemployment, are hungry to hear an honest appraisal of their work. They want to hear what they did well, yes, but they also want to hear what they could have done better, because they want to have a chance when they graduate. Instead, what they get are airy generalities and gentle ego massages. It is a terrible disservice.

The response to Into the Woods followed this pattern to the letter. Everything and everybody, one at a time, was "wonderful," and the highest point of praise was that nothing happened that "took me out of the play." Consider the altitude of that particular bar: "you didn't do anything that took me out of the play." That this is worthy of notice, indeed that it serves as high praise, is an indication of the general level of college productions; that it is considered a critical insight is an indication of the general level of critical thinking by college theatre professors. I wish I could say that the level of discourse when the faculty talk amongst themselves is considerably higher -- informed by broad knowledge, deep experience, and careful reflection. But I can't.

We lack a common vocabulary, much less a common set of critical values. Most college professors, especially if they have been "trained" in an MFA program as most have, have spent their graduate education focused on the development of their own creative abilities -- period. They have spent 90% of their time doing plays, doing scenes, designing sets or costumes, cranking out production after production. They are never required to read broadly, develop critical thinking skills, clearly describe what they do, analyze their own work (both before and after it is done), develop a vocabulary and the skills that would allow them to learn from the work of others, see productions by masters, expose themselves to other art forms, or gain a knowledge of the world that would be deep enough to interpret a play by Kushner, Goethe, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, or whoever. What they are required to plays. And then, when they do, they don't receive high level feedback.

Compare this to, say, college sports. A college football player or basketball player spends a lot of time doing, just like a theatre major, but the feedback they get is specific, demanding, and highly critical. Their performances are put under a microscope in the newspaper or on television after every game by experts, and fans don't hesitate to express their feelings about their work at the stadium, on the newspaper blogs, and in restaurants. If a coach comes in from another school to watch practice, that coach is likely to be brutally honest, because that's why he was brought in -- to improve the team. Most importantly, the coaches will share a common vocabulary and set of values that allow real communication to take place.

Compared to sports, the level of discourse in theatre departments across the country, even the most so-called prestigious, is woefully backward. It isn't only, as Tom Loughlin writes in his brutally frank discussion of "The Artist / Educator Gap," that theatre education provides students with "a skill set that is rapidly becoming outmoded and does not give young artists the tools they need to continue being artists," although that is bad enough, but that even these outmoded skills are being poorly taught by people who haven't taken the time to really understand what they are doing. All they've done is put on plays. That many of these professors have the temerity to include these productions on their annual reports as "scholarship or creative activity" shows a total lack of understanding of what scholarship really is.

Scholarship involves joining an ongoing conversation, making a new and original contribution, having that contribution reviewed by qualified peers, and making those findings public. If theatre teachers at the college level held themselves to the same standards as other disciplines, and felt they were responsible for making each production a contribution to the field, and felt responsible to communicate their findings to the field -- well, maybe American theatre programs wouldn't be so amateurish, and as a result maybe the American theatre scene wouldn't be so relentless superficial and inept. And maybe artists wouldn't be so resentful of their college professors. (All one needs to do is play the song "Nothing" from A Chorus Line in front of a group of actors to understand the full extent of the residual anger.) The fact is that the students know instinctively that they have been ripped off, that their professors are more concerned with their own egos than with helping them grow as artists and human beings (yes, those things are equally important), and that they have been either coddled through four years of college (and three years of grad school), or arbitrarily abused by unreflective egotists who haven't the faintest idea what they are doing but nevertheless do it loudly and with bone-jarring force.

The theatre is probably second only to opera in the complexity of the demands it makes on its artists. It deserves a professoriat worthy of those demands.


Melissa said...

Thanks for this post. There is much I agree with here - the issue of non-critical criticism is an important one to address, as is the state of university theatre programs across the country. I have one quibble, though. I think it's disingenuous (and a little tired) to compare theatre to football. While I think that it's important to note that sports teams are rigorous and disciplined and we could certainly look to them for influence and inspiration it would be a more worthwhile endeavor to look at other arts to see how they foster scholarship, criticism and critique. What about architecture? What do those programs do with their students? Peers? Or dance or literature or....etc.

Might we find something there?

Jacob said...

Scott -

Funny you should write this. I've been thinking about valid criticism a lot lately. One of my part-time gigs is a reviewer for the local Weekly here. Lately, though, I've found I've been volunteering for less reviews, b/c of this exact problem: How can I give honest, "highly critical" advice of a piece when sometimes I'm not even sure what the problem is?

And at an amateur production, there are lots of problems. I have seen enough to know what quality is. I'm sure everyone in the audience has seen enough to know what quality is -- and whether or not they just saw it. But how do you tease it out? If the actor doesn't make a character come alive, is that b/c the actor doesn't know how to make choices? Or is it b/c the director was dragging him down different paths?

I found myself not wanting to be vague in my own reviews -- especially if all I'm given is 400 words. In that space you have to be surgical if you plan on saying anything at all.

Furthermore -- and this relates, trust me -- I've also been thinking about failure a lot lately.

Mainly -- how to risk failure, and, more importantly, how to learn from it.

You can't really create anything worth making unless you risk. And most of those risks will fail. But those risks are USELESS unless you know how to evaluate failure. WHY didn't this work? How can I change in the future to make this better? If you don't honestly examine failure, then it's just a black spot, a horrible feeling, and you learn to avoid it, which leads to less risk, which leads to worse work. And it takes real skills and real honesty to examine failure. I'm trying to learn those skills myself.

Criticism doesn't need to be mean-spirited -- but it does need to be honest. B/c if it's not, you can't learn -- and if you don't actually learn, you'll never advance your craft.

And for every value of "you" in the preceeding paragraph, please submit "I."

So yeah, I've got no answers, but I was getting impatient with my own inability to articulate and examine what the shortcomings were -- in others' work, and my own.

Thanks for the read!

Tony Adams said...

Do you think the professoriat should also have real word experience before gaining tenure?

I go back and forth on which is worse: lack of scholarship or no idea how the real world works. So a lot of young artists I meet don't really have a grounding in anything other than "academic" theatre.

And even if your goal is to change how things work, that's tough to do without understanding what you want to change.

Also the football analogy is very interesting to me. (not just because I played for a little while in college.) At that level players watch film every day. Some coaches might watch 6 hours of film a day. Every practice is filmed. So for ex a quarterback has continual feedback on his release. He can see what is working and what is not and usually why.

I think that's a big thing that theatre can learn from.

Sarah Jane said...

ccematson at The Unicorn Triumphant recommended your writing to me, and I'm glad for that.

I'm a college educator in the visual arts, and I share your concerns about the ideal balance of nurture and challenge in a higher-education setting. One thing I often consider in critique is how I can frame something so that a particular student will be best able to hear and receive it. Sometimes that means being bluntly and aggressively honest; other times it means framing criticism more gently: "Your ideas here are important, and they deserve a higher level of craft to best communicate them."

Genuine encouragement and challenging criticism are a strong statement of confidence in a developing artist -- an honest critique tells the student that you take her work seriously, that you believe she has both the desire and the ability to continue learning and progressing, and that you believe she is worth an investment of your time and trouble. It's true that hard criticisms can be difficult to hear, but students won't get better at receiving and benefiting from them if we protect them from ever being critiqued at all.

But it seems I'm preaching to the choir here, so I'll say thanks for your thoughts and sign off for now.

Sarah Jane

David said...

A bunch of student comments here:


A Good Husband said...

There is a lot of money tied to college athletics, and perhaps that's why they receive so much immediate and useful feedback. I was blessed to have attended a very good acting program, where we developed the critical thinking and specific skill sets that you call for, but I know that most of the actors I know did not.

I don't know that you can treat theatre the same way you can treat athletics, but every actor could use more, direct, and specific feedback.

Thanks for this, and I'll be looking forward to more.

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