Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Lecture on Tony Kushner

[Cross-posted at the TACT blog.]
This is a lecture I will be delivering in one of my classes today
I’ve gotten to thinking lately about this class.
   To me, our discussions seem sort of superficial -- l ike we’re not really engaged in any decent way with the material.   And I think it’s my fault:   Somehow, the questions I am asking, or the attitude I am bringing to class, is not asking you to dig in and find the really interesting stuff.

This bothers me because I have a very strong sense of what plays are for:  that we, as human beings, create stories not simply to “kill time,” but as a way of making our ideas about life more easily remembered.   So while we can laugh and joke about, say, Phaedra’s mother having sex with the bull, the underlying message is about uncontrolled passion.   It is trying to explain how people seem to “lose their mind” when they are suddenly obsessed with a person or an idea.   

Playwrights only write plays about things that are on the minds of the audience.  If nobody was struggling with passion versus social duty, then the story wouldn’t be compelling.  So this tells us about the French society. It is the same issue being wrestled with in The Cid.      And, in a different way, it is the same issue being wrestled with in The Misanthrope.  It is Aristotle’s question “how are we to live?”

 If you are a Jansenist, as Racine once was;  if you are a Jansenist who abandoned your religion for the theatre; if you are a Jansenist who has many affairs, especially with women in the theatre;  If you are a Jansenist who gives the same play to Moliere and his competition; if you are a Jansenist who, in order to get back to a respectable life, may have poisoned your mistress...  Then suddenly Pahedra isn’t just an academic exercise, it is the story of your life!    .The desire for an inappropriate partner.  How do you DEAL with that?   You WANT to do the right thing. but you don’t seem to be able to control yourself.

There’s a book by Jonathan Haidt, a U of VA psychologist, called The Happiness Hypothesis.  In it, Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.  Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.    But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant.  Any time the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.   He’s completely overmatched. 

 The fact that this theme – the struggle between the Rider and the Elephant – is happening in a society completely committed to the dominance of the Rider, to the dominance of Reason, is no accident.  These are serious questions: how can I control this Elephant???

·         As I got to thinking about this, I was reminded of a lecture I gave a couple of times when I was angry at my students. Now, I’m not in the least bit angry with this class, so I haven’t been tempted to deliver this tirade to you. But as I read my notes, I thought: this is good stuff – this is stuff that you guys ought to hear! And truth be told, when I delivered these lectures in the past when I was angry at the students, it was hard for them to hear what I was saying because it sounded like I was just yelling at them. Sort of like that Far Side cartoon of a pet owner yelling at his dog in one box, and what the dog hears in the other: "blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger." So I decided that you should hear this lecture, and hear it at a time when you aren’t in trouble!  hope you’ll be able to hear the message, because it is something I am passionate about. And I hope you will have questions or comments for me afterwards. Ready?
I was angry with you Monday.Partly that was the onset of a migraine, but mainly it was frustration at your lack of interest: how will you keep other people interested in your work if you are so little interested in it yourself? And also your lack of respect – not of me, but of the art form that you want to be a part of. And I was angry at my own inability to communicate the reason why that respect, and why enormous effort and knowledge and wisdom, is necessary.

Monday before class I was reading playwright Tony Kushner’s impassioned speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published under the title “A Modest Proposal” in the January 1998 American Theatre. How many of you have ever read American Theatre?  How many of you have ever read an issue cover to cover, not just an article or two? Well, in “A Modest Proposal,” Kushner stands in front of thousands of college theatre teachers from across the United States in 1997 – I was there to hear it -- and says that he thinks that all undergraduate arts majors should be eliminated, and instead students should receive a liberal arts education. I want to read a large chunk of this speech to you, because Tony Kushner is one of the most interesting artists we have today, and because what he wrote connects to why I was angry – in fact, may have caused why I was angry.

Kushner says:

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

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

WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together.
Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be. In your early years the processes of education and of training go hand in hand and are mostly indistinguishable. Practical, useful knowledge and the burgeoning of the imagination and the sowing of the seedbeds of moral integrity, communal responsibility and individual courage and daring all transpire more or less simultaneously in the very young, all can be learned by the stacking of blocks and the tying of shoelaces and the learning of multiplication tables and the successful manipulation of art supplies--and I'd better stop before I turn into Robert Fulghum. I think you know what I'm saying. After kindergarten, with the commencement of one's formal education, following grade school and up until one has reached young adulthood (which in my book starts at 21 years of age, or thereabouts): In the grand dialectic of life, in the dialectic between thought and action, one's formal education ought to speak more to the thesis, thought, than to its antithesis, action.
I THINK THIS IS SO BECAUSE I have so many women friends who have just given birth and they tell me it really, really hurts to have to squeeze that huge head with its tremendous brain through the birth canal, and I believe them, and it seems to me all that suffering shouldn't be for naught. If my friends are going to go through such misery to introduce new homo sapienses into the world, someone ought to see to it that these newcomers earn their fancy binomial nomenclature and become as sapient as possible. Someone ought to make sure their massive craniums are crammed as full as possible, otherwise I suggest the purchasing of household pets as a more pleasant alternative to seven hours of labor or a c-section. I think we should make sure these big-headed hominids become, as a result of being brilliantly educated, as deeply confused, conflicted, complicated, contrary, contemplative and circumspect as only years and years of sustained thought can make them.

I was reading this essay before class, and I was beating myself up over the simple-minded vocationalism of this class, where I teach you a few measly techniques for taking apart plays. And I got here and started asking questions, and it became instantly clear that many of you hadn’t even bothered to read the damn chapter. To hell with Aristotle, Brecht, Hegel, Marx, and Kristeva – you didn’t even want to read seven lousy pages of Walters and Pritner.

And then when I took you over to the library, most of you wandered around aimlessly because – oh my God! -- there were other people on the computers. Standing there amidst almost a million books, most of you sat around waiting for a turn to use the computers. Why didn’t you browse? Why didn’t you know, through repeated use, exactly where you could find books about August Wilson or theatre criticism? And then some of you told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and pride, that you hadn’t been in the library for a long time, or that you didn’t like to come to the library, or you grumpily told me that you already knew how to use the library. Then why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you cramming your head full of knowledge – all kinds of knowledge: history, philosophy, art, music, political science, feminist criticism. Do you think that what you know right now is enough to justify allowing you to use, even for one second, one of the most powerful tools known to humanity: a theatre? What makes you think that you have anything worth saying to anybody else

In one of my gen ed classes, I asked the students if I offered them a diploma for which they wouldn’t have to come to class, would they take it?  Half of the students said yes. Explain that to me. Explain why anybody is so damned anxious to become an unthinking cog in the capitalist machinery that they would willingly give up their one chance to actually learn something that might make the world a more interesting place in which to live. Why are they so proud of their ignorance?

I can’t answer these questions.  All I can do is say, loudly and with all the passion I can muster, that if you want to be an artist, if you want to be allowed to play with the powerful tool of the theatre, then you damn well better have something interesting to say. I don’t care how many good performances or effective designs your create while you are here, as long as you can’t think in any but the most superficial way, I have failed. As long as you don’t regularly go to the library and check out books just because you are curious, I have failed. As long as you would rather play video games than learn something that might illuminate a little corner of the world to you, I have failed. And I hate failing, because when I fail, it means YOU have failed, and the theatre will continue to be a wasteland of musicals made from movies and TV shows, and plays that are the equivalent of a post-meal belch.

I agree with Kushner: all undergraduate arts majors should be abolished, if by undergraduate arts majors we mean vocational training. On Friday, we will have a departmental post-mortem to discuss our most recent production, and what is the question that is most on everybody’s mind? Was it a good show? Did we do a good job? Did we think the set “worked”? Did we believe the acting? But nobody is going to talk about what the play said, and whether we actually believe what it said. Nobody is going to talk about how that message applies to us, and whether it is something we should take seriously. Nobody is going to talk about whether our community needed to see this play.

Because we don’t care. All we care about is how many butts are in the seats, and whether they applaud at the end. The arts, including literature, including the teaching of the arts in elementary and secondary school, are suffering because the artists and teachers don’t think anymore, and they don’t ask their students to think anymore.

If you want evidence of the vapidity of the world of theatre and film, watch Inside the Actors Studio any week it is on. The actors are charming, they are well meaning, and they can sometimes talk about their own work a little bit, but most of them have no ability to place their work within a context, to explain why their work is important to the society in which we live, to refer to other important works of art. And just what the hell do Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck, and Jude Law have to say about acting that we need to hear, much less about the arts? And if you need more evidence of the vacuousness of this show, think about the resounding idiocy of the portentous host’s, James Lipton’s, final questions
      • What is your favorite word?
      • What is your least favorite word?
      • What turns you on?
      • What turns you off?
      • What sound do you love?
      • What sound do you hate?
      • What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
      • What profession would you like not to participate in?
      • If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
These are narcissistic parlor games that any idiot can play. How can we go in front of a Congress that is filled with philistine idiots who want to cut arts funding and make a case for our importance when what we do is so insipid and shallow that we can’t defend it?

Now is the time for you to engage with ideas, to learn to think, and to actually DO some thinking and some talking and some arguing.  You can’t say, after seeing a play by Samuel Beckett, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, “Well, wasn’t THAT uplifting.” You should be struck down by a bolt of artistic lightning from the sky for saying that. You can’t sit there like a petulant teenager pouting about having to be in by midnight. This is your education – do you really think you have nothing left to learn? You can’t sit there without making an attempt to think, to feel.

Because if you want to be a major in drama or in literature, you need to care. It isn’t that you have to like Beckett or Pirandello or O’Neill or Ibsen. It is that you have to open up your mind, open up your heart, open up your gut. You have to OPEN UP. And THINK about it – what it means, why it is in this anthology, what it is saying and how it applies to your life. And you have to do that not just in this class, but in all your other classes: in Humanities, in Political Science, in Biology, in Sociology. So that when you do a play, write a novel, teach a student, raise a child – you have something profound to contribute, something that gives you the right to read that book, do that play, teach that student, raise that child.

W. H Auden once said that “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us." You must become worthy of reading a great play. You must bring something to the table.

In the play Look Back in Anger – the play that started the revolution in the English theatre in 1956 – the playwright John Osborne has his angry young protagonist cry “Oh heavens how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm.  Just enthusiasm – that’s all.  I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! I’m alive!  I’ve an idea.” Me too.Yes, you are tired – we are all tired. But I have news for you: this is as rested as you will ever get. Once you get out of here and are working a job to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head, and you’re trying to create art in your spare time, you will be much more tired than this. And that is what it is to be an adult. How will you keep your imagination alive? How will you keep yourself inspired? How will you keep yourself creative? And how will you justify the effort that it takes to do that unless you have a reason for being an artist, a purpose for doing a play or writing a novel, a reason for being???

And so I ask you to start now, to start today. Show a little ordinary enthusiasm. Open up. THINK. ARGUE. QUESTION. If you feel angry about what I have said, ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. If you agree with what I’ve said ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. Form your own ideas, but form them within some context and with some rigor. Tony Kushner is right: you are a big-headed hominid that caused your mother a lot of pain trying to pass that huge cranium out – you owe it to her to use that brain thoroughly and completely.

With what time is left, I want to do two things: I want you to question me, argue with me, think with me about some of the things I said, and Kushner said; and then I want you to question each other, argue with each other, think with each other – in this class, or outside of class when we run out of time.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Cocke + Shirky + NEA = ...

[Cross-posted at CRADLE blog.]

I hope to right about this in the near future, after we talk about it today in my "Creating Arts Orgainzation in Small Communities" class, but this is a game you don't need me to to play, you can figure it out yourself.

What is the connection between Dudley Cocke's 2000 "theory of cyber compensation," Clay Shirky's idea of "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" (video below, transcript here), and the March 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Report Come As You Are: Informal Arts Participation in Urban and Rural Communities?

Robert Gard Conference in Madsion WI

[Cross-posted at Rocking the Cradle, my blog for the Center for Rural Arts development and leadership Education]

"I knew that there must be plays of the people filled with the spirit of places... I felt the convistion then that I have maintained since -- that the knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy in people's lives. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason."
Robert Gard, Grassroots Theatre
I received an email over the weekend from Robert Gard's daughter, Maryo Gard Ewell, a prominant community arts promoter in her own right, who told me:
I'm working on a conference to take place later this month in Wisconsin, the Gard Symposium.  We are trying to look at community arts by looking across disciplines - we always say that the "arts build healthy communities" but often we mean "I think that more arts build healthy communities, I help create more arts, therefore I help build healthy communities" which is kind of circular.  Lew Feldstein, co-author of "Better Together," is the conference keynote speaker, and then we'll hear from a political leader, a technology specialist, a religious leader, an economist, and a medical social worker, and finding out what THEY think a "healthy community" is; then artists will respond.  We hope that we can help elicit thoughts on what the "local arts agency" of the next decade could believe, look like, and do. 
To this end, we have a conference blog site, and each of the "healthy community specialists" mentioned above has written a very short essay on what they think a "healthy community" is.  We'd love for you to respond.  That's http://gardfoundation.blogspot.com

Please forward the address to people you think will be interested.  We don't want just artists to be involved.  Perhaps your students?  You?  Your colleagues?
An artists' "zine" picked up information on the conference/conference  papers, so you may want to see what they think - really cool! - here's the link - before you go to the blog. 

Let's get into a good discussion!
If you are able to attend this conference in Madison WI, I think your time will be well-spent. I would like to go myself, but it is difficult in the midst of the semester, and I doubt I'll be able to manage. But if you go, please send me a report, and I will post it here on the blog.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Posted Without Comment (Because No Comment Necessary)

"Because this is the Internet, every argument was spun in a centrifuge instantly and reduced down into two wholly enraged, radically incompatible contingents, as opposed to the natural gradient which human beings actually occupy."

[Yes, I know this is about me.]

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Defining Bad Writing and Good

I don't know whether Shivanic's article is insightful or just cranky, but these three sentences struck me as true:

"If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite." -- Anis Shivanic, "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers" (Huffington Post).

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Happy 100th Birthday, Robert Gard

Today is grassroots theatre pioneer Robert Gard's 100th birthday, which I would like to commemorate by reprinting this post from Theatre Ideas two years ago:
As the book description explains, "Robert Gard’s timeless book is a moving account of one man’s struggle to bring his dream of community-building through creative theater to citizens around the country. He traveled across America—from New York’s Finger Lakes to the prairies of Alberta, Canada, to the backwoods of northern Wisconsin—discovering and nurturing the folklore, legends, history, and drama of the region. He talked to ballad singers, painters, the tellers of tall tales, and farm women, whose poetry and painting reflected the elemental violence of nature and quiet joys of neighborliness. Grassroots Theater reminds us that an individual’s creative vision transcends technology, current events, and changing demographics." Originally published in 1955 and re-released by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999, this book still has the power to inspire and refresh. Gard's vision of a theater rooted in a community and committed to works created by citizens who live within that community was realized through the Wisconsin Idea Theater housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and the Wisconsin Rural Writers' Association. This very personal and engaging book gives insights into the trials and victories, and the people and ideas that Gard encountered as he brought his ideas into existence.

A quotation that I found inspiring:

"It seems to me that a stream of fine new community arts leaders should be issuing from the University of Wisconsin and, indeed, from all universities and colleges of the nation. The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theater departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater. The young person graduating from the university has little concept of the scope of te theater to be developed, of the delicate social problems of fitting himself and his talents successfully into community life. He is too frequently a failure when he attempts it."

The Wisconsin Arts Board has acknowledged the Gard Centenary with the following:
Wisconsin community arts pioneer Robert Gard was born 100 years ago, on July 3, 2010. To learn more about Robert Gard and his work, visit the Robert E. Gard Wisconsin Idea Foundation’s web site.

We would like to celebrate Gard through two of his famous quotes. The first is well known to Wisconsin’s arts community as the Wisconsin Arts Board adopted it as its vision statement:
"If we are seeking in America, let it be for the reality of democracy in the arts. Let art begin at home and let it spread through the children and the parents, and through the schools and the institutions, and through government. And let us start by acceptance, not negation-acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as large, with money or without it, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside the cliché that the arts are a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

The second quote is the closing poem from The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan. We have used part of this poem as the title for the Gard Symposium to be held September 24 and 25, 2010 in Madison. The Symposium will address the question “Where is community arts headed?” and it will be one of many events over the next year to mark the Gard Centenary.

If you try, what may you expect?
First a community
Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance…
A people proud
Of achievements which lift them through the creative
Above the ordinary…
A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art
And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives…
A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Through art; a new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man…not degradation.
New values for individual and community
Life, and a sense
That here, in our place,
We are contributing to the maturity
Of a great nation.
If you try, you can indeed
Alter the face and the heart
Of America.

Celebrate the arts in community this July 4th weekend, remember Robert Gard, and all who work to develop communities through the arts.
Change the story, change the future. Gard wrote, presciently:

America is coming of age. Note the many changing aspects of America.

A maturing America means a nation conscious of its arts among all its people. Communities east, west, north, and south are searching for ways to make community life more attractive.

The arts are at the very center of community development in this time of change...change for the better.

The frontier and all that it once meant in economic development and in the sheer necessity of building a nation is being replaced by the frontier of the arts. In no other way can Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life.

In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone.They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional theatre. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live.

The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.

The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.

If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the schools, the institutions, and through government.

And let us start by acceptance, not negation--acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large; with money, or without, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside as a cliché of an expired moment in time that art is a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

Robert Gard, Arts in the Small Community (1969)
When I read this ringing endorsement of the power of the arts in the lives of ordinary people, and the power of ordinary people in the arts, and then I think of so many of the conversations we have here in the theatrosphere and face-to-face, I am reminded of the minister's funeral oration over the body of Alex, a young man who has committed suicide, in the movie The Big Chill. The minister looks out into the assembled mourners, mostly baby boomers who have lost their idealism, and he asks, "Where did Alex's hope go?" When did we become so convinced that what we do is so little desired, so little respected? When did we lose sight of our importance to a community's understanding of who it is and what it believes?

But those are the wrong questions. Those are questions based in blame and retribution, questions that points us to the past: how did we get here? It is what Carolynn Myss calls "woundology," a focusing on one's injuries and wrongs, a dwelling in the past instead of the future. How we got here is unimportant; where we are going is crucial. As artists, we need to commit to a conversation about possibility.

Peter Block, in his excellent book Community: The Structure of Belonging, describes what such a conversation is like:
The possibility conversation frees us to be pulled by a new future. The distinction is between possibility, which lives into the future, and problem solving, which makes improvements on the past. This distinction takes its value from an understanding that living systems are propelled by the force of the future, and possibility as we use it here...is one way of speaking of the future.

Possibility occurs as a declaration, and declaring a possibility wholeheartedly can, in fact, be the transformation. The leadership task is to postpone problem solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion. The good news is that once we have fully declared a possibility, it works on us -- we do not have to work on it.

The challenge with possibility is it gets confused with goals, predictions, and optimism. Possibility is not about what we plan to happen, or what we think will happen, or whether things will get better. Goals, prediction, and optimism don't create anything; they just might make things a little better and cheer us up in the process. Nor is possibility simply a dream. Dreaming leaves us bystanders or observers of our lives. Possibility creates something new. It is a declaration of a future that has thye quality of being and aliveness that we choose to live into. It is framed as a declaration of the world that I want to inhabit. It is a statement of who I am that transcends our history, our story, our usual demographics. The power is in the act of declaring...The future is created through a declaration of what is the possibility we stand for.
What possibility do you stand for? Block asks, "What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or in the project around which we are assembled?" Or more directly, and to my mind even more powerfully: "What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?" And the two "overarching questions" that point to the future: "What do we want to create together that would make the difference?" And "What can we create together than we cannot create alone?"

For me, I find myself at a crossroads in this project of expanding the reach of theatre throughout America where the artist and the community meets; where virtuosity and specialization meets human creativity and common wisdom; where fear meets trust.

In a chapter near the end of Patrick Overton's outstanding book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America called "The Deep Voice: The Relationship Between Art, Spirituality, and Healing," Overton, who testified in front of Congress during the hearings about the NEA's support of controversial art in 1990, makes a declaration of possibility:
The arts aren't the cause of the crisis facing our culture, they are a cure. The arts aren't the source of the hurting in our society, they are a way of healing the pain. The arts are not in and of themselves, evil; they are an authentic expression of self that manifest in an individual's courage to face life as it really is. Art that is not an authentic expression of self is not art -- it is propaganda, or a product -- but it is not art. Art is the voice of the soul struggling to express what it means to be human.
He discusses participating in a think tank meeting for the Theatre Program of the NEA where there were two members who had a history together, and what seemed opposite visions of the arts.
One, from a very prestigious private foundation, kept talking about the beauty and magnificence of art because it lifted her spirit. To her, art makes meaning and beauty and this is the kind of art her foundation was interested in funding, This is art that inspires transcendence. The other person was from a theatre company from the south and he talked about art as that which must challenge the status quo. To him, art is not something created to be beautiful, or to make people pleasant or happy or comfortable. Art is something that confronts what is wrong and unjust in our society and is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. To him art reveals what is wrong with out world and, in so doing. demands something be done to change it. This is art that inspires transformation.

As I listened to them, it seemed to me they weren't really disagreeing. In essence, they were both saying the same thing, but in a different weay. To understand the nature of art, we have to understand it in both its "ascendant" and "descendant" purpose. Art can, through ascendance, through the elevation of the human spirit, help us transcend what we know, what we see, what we understand. When art does this it is "awful" (that is, full of awe). This is when art lifts the spirit. It is the exhale -- art that empties us and sucks the air out of our lungs because of its power and the truth of the simple/complexity it protrays in such a profound way. This is when art reveals mystery and truth and grasps us with such intensity that it transcends the human condition, and leaves us changed, forever. Art is one of the few things left in our world that can create this much-needed sense of "awe-fullness" in us.

But there is another function in art, art as descendence. Art can be an invitation (sometimes compelling) to descend from the surface of our lives -- beyond the facade and the masks, to the depths of our existence -- the deep place where truth exists. When art does this, it is the inhale -- driving us into ourselves, forcing us to gasp for air, taking in the force and intensity of the experience inside of us because of the power and the truth of the simple/compelcity it portrays in such a powerful way.

The one, the descendent function, reveals what is and shouldn't be. The other, the ascendent function, reveals what isn't but could be. Art can be beautiful and lift our spirits -- but art can also force us to face the truth -- to descend to the deep place and see the world as it is and shouldn't be. They both do the same thing -- they are a way we can transcend the condition of our lives -- a way we are transformed. These two functions cannot be separated -- they are converse images of the same creative force -- the same truth.
He then, in one of the most powerful descriptions of what art can do to heal, describes when he was invited to speak at the dedication of the Huntsville Vietnam Memorial in 1994. A Vietnam veteran himself, Overton had not spoken about his experience in Vietnam since his return to the US in 1968. Reluctantly, he agreed. He stood up in front of a crowd of older and younger people, mostly veterans of various wars, and he talked about his experiences on a flagship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and later in a naval hospital in Japan. He closed his speech by reading a poem that he wrote specifically for the dedication ceremony about his experiences with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The poem, entitled The Healing Wall, is stunning and deeply felt, and while I would like to share it with you, it is much too long for this already-long post. But in it, he describes his unwillingness to experience the wall, and then his eventual visit in which he looked for a name that he did not find -- his own, and he felt the pain of having survived. He ended the poem with this line: "No more walls, please, no more walls."

He writes:
I will never forget that afternoon in Huntsville. It was an emotional experience for all of us. Following my speech, people were very quiet, still. It reminded me of my visit to the Wall in DC. Slowly, people began to move, looking through the crowd for someone to hold, to hug. There was a need to touch. There was not a lot of talking. I saw men of my father's generation with tears running down their faces, something that is all too rare for them. I saw sons and fathers embrace -- with a kind of knowing and understanding that may not have existed before. That afternoon in May invited a small community, deeply wounded by the war, to heal. My speech and poetry did not do the healing. The people did. What I did was extend the invitation. What writing the poem did was invite me to name my own healing and celebrate it. And, by sharing the poem with that community, I invited others to name their own healing and celebrate it with each other as well.
After I read his poem, and imagined his reading of it, and after I finished the essay, I wondered whether it was ascendant or descendent art, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was both, like a descent into hell and a resurrection. In Ireland, Frank Delaney tells a story of an Ulster king who always had his cart pulled by two horses, a black horse and a white horse, because they represented both sides of himself that he must always ride yoked together. Perhaps that is when art is truly transcendent and inspired.

Overton describes a possibility for theatre and for the arts -- a possibility of healing. Sometimes healing requires surgery -- the cutting of flesh and the inflicting of pain in order to remove that which is diseased. Other times, what is required is nursing, care-full tending and attention. But the motivation is the same: to heal. That is an attitude of goodwill, of caring.

And so I declare here the possibility of caring as a relationship between artist and community, a mutual healing to be shared through descendence and ascendance, inhaling and exhaling, together. I declare the possibility that our fellow citizens hunger for what we can create together, by bringing our imaginations together in one place, and that like Jesus with the loaves and fishes, we can feed everyone through an attitude of abundance. I declare the possibility that all people everywhere share this hunger, and deserve to be fed what will most nourish them.

What is your possibility? What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work in the project around which we are assembled? What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Choosing an Undergraduate College and Theatre Department

Over at Parabasis, 99 Seats has reconnected with Cortney Munna, whose issues with student loans was used by the NY Times to illustrate the problems with the college tuition and financial aid process across the nation. I weighed in during the discussion of the original post at a time when I was taking a break from blogging, but now I want to go on record more formally with a full post.

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I teach at a public liberal arts college in North Carolina -- the University of North Carolina at Asheville. I have been here since 1998, and prior to that I was Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University, a largish (17,000 students or so when I was there) comprehensive state university. My educational background has all been public: the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, a HUGE (50,000 + when I was there, bigger since) Research 1 university; masters degree from Illinois State; and a doctorate from City University of New York Graduate Center. I also attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when I was 20. So my educational background encompasses direct experience of just about every form of university except private ones, and my indirect experience through friends and colleagues encompasses those as well. In my spare time, I read books about the education system and teaching (if you really want to know what a college ought to look like, read John Tagg's and Peter Ewell's The Learning Paradigm College). In short, I am pretty well-informed about the education system in this country.

So when I read the original article, and now this interview with Ms. Munna, I feel the need to speak out in order to warn other young people and their families before they make the same mistake as Ms. Munna and her mother made. No, I'm not talking about the financial aid process, which is problematic, but rather about the more insidious issue that serves as its foundation, and that is illustrated by the following quotation in 99 Seats' interview:
"I probably could have gotten a pretty good package at a SUNY school, but for me, I believed a top school would be worth the debt..."
There, in twenty-six words, is the Minotaur at the center of the educational labyrinth: branding.

Ms. Munna and her mother fell victim to the biggest scam iin education, one that is propogated by "rankings" published in U. S. News and World Report, Princeton Review, Kiplinger, Forbes. Ranking colleges and universities is big business, one that the colleges themselves support by advertising their rankings on their websites. But what do the rankings really tell us? Mostly, they tell us about brand awareness.
If you do any research into the college rankings, you quickly find that 25% of the data used in the rankings are based on hearsay:  "peer assessment surveys" in which college presidents (or their designees) are asked to rank hundreds of universities on a scale of 1 to 5. I don't care how active and connected a university president is, nobody has enough firsthand, substantive knowledge to accurately and fairly rank 250 universities. So if they don't have firsthand knowledge, what are they ranking? The college's "reputation," in other words whether they have heard of the college, and heard of it positively. In other words: mostly branding. The effect of branding is noted by education researcher Alexander Astin, for instance, who expresses "concern regarding the stability of rankings suggests that myth and institutional perceptions may have as much to do with the rankings as the methods used to determine them. In fact, the methods for assessing quality reflect a bias toward institutional size, student test scores, and the number of "star" faculty. Astin and others question this definition of quality, because it has nothing to do with the student's college experience or learning." (http://bit.ly/awVyJ8) 

But exactly what are the rankings based on, aside from "peer assessment." Check out the methodology used by U. S. News and World Report:

1. Peer review (25%)
2. Student selectivity: acceptance rate, top 10% of HS class, SAT scores (15%)
3. Faculty resources (faculty salary, % faculty with terminal degree, student/faculty ratio, class size (<19 students, and >50+) (20%)
4. Graduation and retention rates (20%)
5. Financial resources: i.e., annual budget divided by number of students (10%)
6. Alumni giving (5%)
7. Graduation rate performance (5%)

Take a look at those criteria closely: how many of them give any indication of what your experience is likely to be in the classroom?  faculty member gets paid a lot, will you know it -- especially if he is teaching only a couple grad classes a year, and you, as a lowly undergrad, are being taught mostly by grad students? If the alums are giving a bunch of money, will you see any of it, or is it being funneled into faculty travel and research costs? Is the number of students a college rejects really an indication of quality, or just branding? And what about "legacy admits," people who are accepted because Daddy or Mommy graduated from the school in the past -- what effect do they have on "student selectivity"? For every legacy admit, another qualified student had to be rejected.

None of this is what Ms. Munna considered when she and her mother chose a "top college." What they bought was the NYU brand, plain and simple. They bought the educational equivalent of a Hummer -- prestige based on a combination of name recognition and high price. And they were reassured in their selection by ranking services whose criteria are irrelevant to her experience in the classroom. She didn't buy a "top education," she bought a "well-known brand." There is a big difference.

Furthermore, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A TOP COLLEGE. It is a stupid idea, one that assumes a even wash of quality over all aspects of the university. There might be "top departments" where there are great professors who pay close attention to their students, and right across the hall there might be an equally dismal department filled with dead wood faculty members who haven't had a new thought for a decade but who have tenure and a high salary. There might be a great professor teaching the subjects that really interest you, but who is surrounded by departmental colleagues who are total losers. None of this is accounted for by rankings and so-called "reputation."


So if rankings are useless, how do you choose a college? There are lots of websites that will give you advice, but I am going to speak from my personal experience, and I'm going to tailor my advice to people who want to go into theatre.

The first thing I'd recommend is that you start with a list of all the public schools in your state. These are the Best Buys for your area (no, not the big box electronics stores, the bargains). Your parents have been paying taxes for years so that you can get a reduced tuition rate -- don't throw that out the window out of a mistaken assumption that "state schools" are inferior to private schools -- they aren't. Then do your research using the questions below. If none of the public schools meet your needs, then add in the private schools and the out-of-state schools. Warning: once you do that, the number of schools increases astronomically, so you need to have some personal criteria to help narrow it down -- e.g., school size, school type, demographic context (big city, small town, etc), cost of living (in case you move off campus), tuition cost and financial aid options, etc. Using your list, go on-line and research the following:

1. How big is the department? A big department provides a lot of competition, and often (but not always) a lot of opportunities. It is very easy to get lost in a big department, especially if you don't get cast right away (this is particularly true for actresses, for whom there are usually fewer roles in the season and more competition for those limited roles). But the variety and activity can be stimulating and inspiring. Small departments can allow you to become involved and known very quickly, and garner a lot of experience and personal attention. Remember: the most important connections you make during your education are not with the professors, but your fellow students. They will be who you will (or will not) work with in the future. They are the future, your profs are the past.
2. Is there a graduate program? If not, that means you will receive the full attention of the faculty. If there is, then you need to look at several other things:
      a. Who teaches the lower level classes? Go on the website and get a list of the department faculty, and then compare those names to those who are teaching the 100- and 200-level courses (you can usually find the current schedule on the university website -- check the "current students" link). If the names don't match, cross this school off your list -- you're only there to generate tuition income.
      b. Who is cast in the shows? Ask for programs from the last season of plays. Usually, grad students and faculty members are identified in the program -- often, all candidates for grad degrees have an asterisk, and the faculty names you already know. If the major roles and positions are taken up by grads and faculty, cross this school off your list -- you will spend your undergrad career playing little roles or serving on running crews.

3. What does the curriculum look like? Are the types of classes being offered of interest to you? This question is much harder to answer as a high school student, because you may not really know enough to evaluate accurately. But if the department devotes a lot of resources to, say, musical theatre and you can't carry a tune in a bucket, this might not be your place. If you have a teacher at school with a theatre background, or somebody else who is knowledgeable you can ask, have him or her look over the course list. A program that is based on Meisner is very different than one based on Bogart or Boal.

4. What plays are being done? Generally speaking, the plays being done, and the way they are being done, should reflect the orientation of the department. Look at production photos, read any reviews you can find, check out the years the plays were written. A department doing a lot of classics is very different than one doing Sarah Ruhl and Neil Labute. If the production photos look like the acting is broad and stupid or the staging is goofy (you know what I mean), cross it off your list. Practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes permanent, and you don't want to acquire any bad habits.

5. Don't be swayed by a list of "working" alums. The likelihood is that any alums who are working, or even "famous," were trained by different faculty members than you'll be trained by. The reputation of a department is usually at least a decade older than its current status. If the same profs who taught these folks are still around, then give the alum list a little weight, but not much. 
6. What is the faculty doing? Conventional wisdom is that faculty members who are doing Big, Important gigs all over the country are better than those who aren't. My wisdom: don't believe it. Faculty who are doing gigs elsewhere are not around and focused on you. They are using the university as a steady income source while they have their theatre career. If you're hoping that knowing them will open doors, then you aren't looking for a good education, you're just buying access, and this guide isn't for you. I want you to develop as an artist, not a prostitute. Now, a little outside activity is important -- after all, you want profs who are alive. Find out if they have written any articles or done any presentations. Do they have a blog? Read it. Are the shows they're doing going up in the summer -- that's good. During the school year -- not so good. As far as the quality of the faculty, finding info about teaching is hard to do. I'm going to wince a little and suggest that you peek at some of the online "rate your teachers" sites. Don't pay attention to individual comments, but look for patterns. Most of this kind of research you will have to do when you visit.

7. What does the general education program look like? Wha??? Who cares -- you just wanna do theatre, right? Wrong. General education is your first major, and it needs to add value to your education, not just be a series of hoops to jump through. And you need to take this part of your education seriously. Yes, even Math. Again, if you want to become a theatre prostitute, then you don't need any education at all -- just head to NY or LA and start pounding the pavement and taking scene study classes. But if you want to become an artist, then you need to have a brain that is filled with as much learning as possible. So look at the gen ed requirements: do they seem coherent? Are they just a cafeteria menu of stuff -- one from Column A, two from Column B -- or do the classes seem to make some sort of sense as a whole? Make sure that you are required to learn about other times and other cultures -- as an artist, this is absolutely crucial.

8. Visit. You wouldn't marry someone you've never met, and an undergraduate program lasts longer than many marriages these days. This is why you need to do a bunch of research on-line in advance, because you don't have the time or the money to visit a dozen schools. If you don't believe me, ask your parents. If you've done your research, and reflected on what you are looking for, you should have your list narrowed down. Once you're there, do the following:
     a. Sit in on a lower-level and an upper-level class. Choose these classes yourself according to your research, don't let the faculty choose for you. If you've discovered that grad students teach the lower-level class and are considering this school anyway (fool), make sure you sit in on one. And then ask to observe a class in an area of interest for you. Again, you choose. What you're looking for is a number of things: is the teacher engaged with the students, or just lecturing or doing things by rote? Are the faculty honest and caring? By honest, I mean do they push for excellence and level with students who don't make it? By caring, I mean do they do it in a way that is sensitive? More importantly, are students being taught the underlying concepts of what they are doing, or are they just being coached? Some acting teachers, for instance, think an acting class is directing students to do a scene better, but when the scene is over the students have no idea how to apply what they did to the next scene. Unless you want to spend your career being dependent on directors to tell you what to do (and believe me, most directors haven't the faintest), you need to be empowered to take control of your artistic choices, and that means understanding why, not just how.
    b. Hang out in the place where theatre kids hang out. You will likely be shepherded around the department by a student currently in the program. That's nice, and you can get some insights from them, but know that they have been chosen because they are going to put a positive spin on everything. Find the place where the students hang out, and eavesdrop. Who is bitching about whom? Which faculty member just finished brutalizing someone in class? What kinds of things are being discussed -- ideas from class and rehearsals, gossip, brainstorming? Who do students think is an idiot? Don't believe everything you hear, but add it to your database.
    c. See a show. Always visit when there is some sort of show going on, even a lab show. How is the acting? The design? The direction? Is there a noticeable difference between the abilities of grads and undergrads? Are there a lot of bells an whistles, but the production is mostly empty? Would you have been proud to be involved with such a production? Does it reflect your values? During intermission, do more eavesdropping. Try to find theatre students and hear what they're saying about the show. 
     d. Have a one-on-one meeting with a faculty member. If nobody is "available," head for home -- this is an absentee faculty. Ask them hard questions. If they look offended by having to answer, head for home -- these are arrogant bastards who think they are God's gift to theatre education. Hint: they're not; nobody is. Ask them to put the show you saw into context: is it in the top 10% they've seen here over the past five years? Top 25%? This can  help you understand how to look at the show. Sometimes things don't work out the way we'd hoped, but it was a good experiment. Ask about departmental scholarships or workstudy jobs. Ask about internships or student projects. 
    e. Go to a gen ed class. Are they huge lecture classes? Smaller? Is there an attempt to make things interesting? Who is teaching -- grad students, adjuncts, or profs? Are the students passive or engaged?
    f. Visit the town. What's within walking distance of campus? Is there public transportation, or do you need a car? Is there an arts scene? Is there a coffee shop where students seem to hang out? If there isn't much happening in town, that isn't a reason to reject the college. It just means that you need to find out whether the college makes up for it with their own on-campus options, which can make up for a less-than-vibrant place.
    g. Don't get overawed by facilities. Yeah, the theatre may be state-of-the-art, but do undergrads get to work in it, or is it locked up except when the faculty are around? A crappy hole in the wall that is available for student creativity may be more important -- in fact, probably IS more important -- than a shiny new building. And the rest of campus -- well, pretty buildings are nice, but it won't take long before you won't really see them anymore. It is more important what is going on in them.

Now that you have done all this, follow your gut. You've done your research, and that's all in the back of your mind, but listen to what your heart is saying. If there are two schools that seem equally good, choose the cheaper one. Carrying a huge debt as you start a career in theatre is a really, really bad idea. But I suspect that, when all is said an done, your choice will be clear.

And when you get there, work your butt off. Believe me, this is the good stuff.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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