The True Heart of a Theatre Curriculum

Two recent and separate articles have appeared on the theatre commons Howlround lately. You can read them here and here. The basic premise of both of these articles is that university theatre training is not teaching today’s students enough entrepreneurial or business skills, which they believe are critical to today’s young theatre professionals. The usual self-congratulating round of comments and tweets inevitably followed. 

This concept – that entrepreneurial skills and business skills should be at the heart of a new theatre training curriculum – is part of a larger movement in the US that is trying to turn college education away from a traditional liberal arts focus towards a more corporate, businesslike model. The focus today is on gaining the requisite skills for jobs and careers, not the deepening of knowledge, insight and wisdom. It is a natural outgrowth of the model followed by the developers of the 20th century US public school model of education: preparing and indoctrinating students to take their place as factory and assembly-line workers by teaching them to sit still, be passive, churn out products, and obey authority throughout the learning day. As the 21st century now requires different skills, those who see education as the means by which we train people for the working world have now turned their sights on colleges and universities, as the 21st century economy now requires a college degree. The corporate oligarchs that control the US economy are too cheap – and too smart – to spend their own money building their own training infrastructures, so they are offloading the job to higher education on the public’s dime. They are also aware that letting colleges and universities continue to try to education intelligent and free-thinking individuals presents a danger to their position. The more corporate and business/career-oriented universities become, the better it is for corporate America to maintain its control over the US economy and, by extension, people’s lives.

I offer this essay as a defense against these ideas. The issue, in my view, does not revolve around whether or not the ideas discussed are right or wrong, practical or needed. In fact, there are points in both these articles with which I completely agree. I simply do not agree with the premise that colleges and their curricula are the places where these problems should be solved, and I take issue with the notion that somehow it is colleges and universities that are being stubborn, resisting change, and standing in the way of progress.

My disagreement with the points of view expressed by these authors stems from the questionable assumptions they seem to make. Their thinking is simply too shallow, and in some ways are just knee-jerk reactions to rapidly changing circumstances. They demonstrate a very surface understanding of what educating a theatre student entails. It does not appear to me that the writers display any in-depth knowledge of what working in academic theatre is, or should be about, at least to some of us.

It is with this idea in mind that I present my point of view. It comes from 41 years of experience as a classroom teacher, 34 of them in a higher-education setting, 27 of them teaching in a NAST-accredited public institution theatre department with an enrollment of over 300 undergraduates that offers 5 degrees (BFA Acting, Musical Theatre, Theatrical Production and Design, Dance, BA Theatre). Concurrently, it comes from being an Equity actor with 27 years as a working actor in the city of Buffalo NY, as well as 9 seasons with the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival and one year touring with the American Shakespeare Center’s touring company. Finally, it comes from someone who has been working with digital technology since 1986, and created and established degree programs in broadcasting and digital media. Since I primarily teach acting and directing, I will use that frame of reference, leaving the reader to extrapolate to other circumstances within theatre education.

NB – I will use generalizations in this essay to make points within my arguments. There are always exceptions. Your experience, as well as your mileage, may vary. But I do believe the generalizations hold true given the research data done by the National Endowment for the Arts. Most of the generalizations made have their source in that research.

1. Students come to us with little theatrical technique or background

The first misassumption seems to be that we teach nothing but already highly-talented students who know what they are doing acting-wise. And, of course, you “can’t teach talent,” so clearly all we must really be doing is teaching skills (”tool kits”). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of all the art forms one can pursue, students seeking to learn acting come to college with the least amount of exposure and technique. They may be talented, but talent only goes so far. Unlike the situations in music or art (which are bad in and of themselves), theatre exposure and training within K-12 public education is practically non-existent. When they arrive on campus, most of our students have no understanding of text analysis, they have minimal voice and movement training, they have little background in either theatre history or dramatic literature, and none at all in theory. They come with bad habits, stage tricks and quirks, and weak working discipline. Often the initial process is not about learning, but about “un-learning.” In most ways, teaching young students any skills in theatre means starting from scratch. We take raw talent and do whatever we can to turn it into talent combined with knowledge and technique.

Additionally, most of them have only a vague desire to be actors, a vague understanding of what it means to be an actor, and cannot clearly articulate any reason why they want be one, other than for the sake of fame and “making people happy.” Musical theatre is by far their greatest interest largely because it’s the primary experience of their high school years. They were stars in their high school musical, they got a large amount of uncritical praise from teachers, family and friends, they’ve watched every episode of Glee and Smash, and they are bombarded with the images they see of Broadway all over the media. This leads a lot of them to have a very, very narrow perspective on the wider world of what theatre is beyond the world of Broadway.

Finally, their time spent in American K-12 education has pretty much squelched their sense of creativity and spontaneity. They come into beginning acting class looking only to find out what’s the “right answer” or the “right way” to act. They want answers only because they have no process to provide answers for themselves. These are the major issues that a teacher of acting has to face to begin with. The raw material is very raw indeed. Even by the end of their four years they are little more than rank beginners. There’s a lot to deal with over that time beyond entrepreneurial skills. We need to see our students first as young people who need nurturing and support, and not as people who need a collection of various skills.

2. Four years is not that much time

The second misassumption seems to be that we have ample room in our curricula, and adding these skills should be no problem. In fact, the curriculum is already overloaded to the point where many theatre teachers fear students are not getting enough of things like a solid background in dramatic literature (they don’t read plays), devising theatre, or alternative theories of theatre creation.

Given the veritable “blank slate” we start with, four years (which in actuality boils down to about 28 weeks per academic year, which comes to a little over two years of effective time) is precious little time to work with students to give them the fundamentals and foundation of good acting technique. There is a lot to cover; just mastering the fundamentals of Stanislavskian realism takes quite a bit of time. From the point of view of acting alone, a year of exposure to improvisation, a year devoted to scene study, and two years devoted to other styles such as Shakespeare, Greek, Restoration, and other 20th-century non-realistic techniques takes quite a bit of time. This is on top of voice and movement classes, as well as vocal lessons and dance classes for musical theatre majors. If you haven’t been in a situation where you have to measure this kind of progress each day, every day, it’s hard to fathom how much time and effort it takes to produce a student with at least adequate technique as an actor/singer/dancer.

And we do not have them all day. In a liberal arts context, they also take general education classes in which we push them to succeed. Some take a minor or in some cases a second major so as to have additional skills to take out into the working world and help forge a career.

The greatest false assumption being perpetrated on higher education today is the assumption that EVERYTHING has to be taught within this four-year time frame. The reality is that this is untrue. Learning is a life-long process, and there are some things that perhaps are best left to pursue after one completes their formal education. Critics of theatre education are succumbing to the “rear-view mirror” fallacy, in that they look back from where they are now and the skill set they currently possess, to what they learned in the past, and come to the conclusion that since they did not learn skill set X when they were a student, that skill set X must now be taught to those currently in the system, because they have come to realize how valuable skill set X is to them now. They could, of course, come to the more valid conclusion that, since they now possess skill set X even to the point where they can run workshops on it, they have successfully moved forward in the process of their own personal learning, moving beyond their undergraduate days, because they learned how to identify and obtain skills they now need for themselves. Learning is ongoing process, so rather than insist that we cram something else into the curriculum, perhaps we might suggest that students continue their education beyond the four years they have in undergraduate school, and pick up those skills at a later time from other sources, or maybe even learn them on their own right as they begin their careers (see #4).

3. We are teachers, mentors, and educators

The third misassumption appears to be about the nature of our jobs as professors of theatre. There seems to be an assumption that all we do all day is walk into the classroom and teach skills to talented and well-adjusted young adults, or that we watch scene work or monologues, make some critical comments about the work, and walk away. Somehow, because we are college professors, we are therefore not “teachers” in the sense that one thinks about teachers at the K-12 level. There is much more to what I and my colleagues do than that.

I consider myself a teacher first and foremost. I think that’s important to state clearly and up front. Of all the professions one can pursue in this society, teaching, at every level in this country, is the most maligned. Teaching is the only profession I am aware of where people who are not teachers get to tell professional teachers what to teach and how to teach. No one goes into their doctor’s office and tells them how to practice medicine, nor goes into their lawyer’s office and tells them how to practice law. But many people have no difficulty saying to teachers “teach this subject matter or these skills, and teach them in this way.” They do not present the issue as a matter for dialogue or discussion; rather, it is often presented as a matter of policy or even law, and if you don’t follow their dicta, you are labeled as stubborn, recalcitrant, and resistant to change. Despite any evidence presented to the contrary or rebuttals from classroom teachers nationwide, “teaching to the test” as a result of No Child Left Behind has become the rally cry of educational reformers, almost none of whom are teachers. 

When people tell me that I should introduce some new skill or other to my curriculum, it is very clear to me that they have no concept of the holistic nature of the work I do, day to day, every day I am in the classroom. I am not in the business of teaching perfectly well-adjusted adults how to act. I am in the business of helping sensitive, nervous, scared, insecure, bright, talented 18-22-year-old adolescents who think they want to be actors how to find themselves, know themselves, develop a sustainable creative process that will get them started as actors, accept their strengths and limitations, and ultimately become well-adjusted adults. My objective as an acting teacher is to develop an individual who is creative, able to express themselves, and has developed a personal sense of discipline and character. The teaching of acting is merely the conduit, the method I use to help my students grow up and become young adults with at least some grasp of the meaning of their lives and their relationship to the lives of others and the world around them. I strive to help my students become keenly self-aware, accepting of themselves and others, empathetic, and people of strong character. I truly don’t have time to teach them the skill set you think they should have. As their teacher, role model and mentor, I think they need much, much more first. That’s my professional judgement.

Apart from simply the teaching of acting in a classroom setting, I also attempt to help my students work through various life issues and problems. I find money to help a student who hasn’t been eating afford food. I support students who are missing classes because they are fighting cancer. I listen attentively when students talk to me about problems ranging from suicide to gender identity to sexual assault to addiction to body image issues to broken homes and beyond. Helping them stay whole, sane, positive, and alive takes up a good portion of some days. I’m of the opinion that every theatre department should have a staff counselor as much as they should have a technical director.

And frankly, this is far more important to me than whether or not they can create an effective résumé, know how to handle digital audio/video software, or even audition well. The data clearly indicates that the vast majority of my students will never become people who make their living as actors or performers. Many will have careers such as mine, that mix a full-time job with part-time acting. Many others will drop out completely (I have one former students who calls himself a “recovering actor”). When looked at from this perspective, I really question how anyone can say with a straight face that “entrepreneurial skills” should be at the center of a theatre curriculum. I am dealing with the nurturing of young artistic minds, hearts and souls – that is what should be at the center of a theatre curriculum.

I am a teacher, and you don’t get to tell me what to teach, because you don’t teach on an everyday basis. You don’t handle on a daily basis what I’ve been handling over my career as a teacher. It’s not your career nor your field of expertise. The most hateful cliché I hear is “Those who can’t, teach.” The response to that is, “Those who CAN, teach. Those who can’t go into some less significant line of work.” Like teaching entrepreneurial skills. 

If you believe that you did not get this kind of experience from your undergraduate education in theatre, then all I can tell you is that you probably did not have good teachers. It is a sad fact of higher education today that research and creative work is valued more highly in the academy than good teaching. Often people are hired who have little skill in teaching, but who bring prestige or money to the university. To be sure, we need better teachers, especially better teachers of acting, in the academy. That’s a complex issue worthy of its own essay.

4. College is about more than obtaining skills.

The fourth misassumption is that learning entrepreneurial skills is something that rises to the level of being necessary for a good college education. But the truth about obtaining entrepreneurial skills is that, as far as I can see, they are surface skills that are not that hard to obtain. While they may be necessary to acquire, a point I am willing to concede, I remain unconvinced that college is where they should be learned. As noted above, we are busy with other, more difficult human concerns.

I’ll use myself as an example in terms of learning new technologies. You’ve no doubt deduced by now that I am a member of the baby boom generation. I am not a digital native by any means. But every skill I have seen listed in these sorts of articles are ones I taught to myself. I’ve never taken a single class in computer technology at any level, yet I managed to learn a great deal about all kinds of technology, because I was motivated to learn these skills so as to adapt to a changing world.

My first computer was a Kaypro 2. I also had access to Tandy computers (i.e. Radio Shack)  such as the TRS-80 (”Trash 80″) models 4 and 100. I learned how to run these computers from command-line operating systems (one regret I have is that I never learned how to code). I learned Wordstar and Viscalc, precursors for Word and Excel. I bought a 1200-baud modem, got on Compu-Serv, and when I built my first cablecast radio station, I used Compu-Serv to provide the station with a “rip-and-read” news service. I started using email in 1991, and in 1992 I made students in my Shakespeare acting class learn to use email to collaborate with a Shakespearian scholar (whom I recruited from the Shaksper Listserv) from another university to write a 5-page research paper. I was one of the first (if not the first) professors on campus to lecture using Powerpoint slides, including the use of captured video. I began incorporating technology into shows I directed in 1996. I taught myself HTML, Dreamweaver, Final Cut Express, Macromedia Director, Photoshop, and other programs.

I could continue, but the point of listing all this is not to demonstrate my skills, but rather to point out in no uncertain terms that skills such as these, and those the authors mention, can be learned at any time by anyone who knows how and is willing to teach themselves these skills. This applies to business and marketing skills as much as it does technology skills. And it’s much easier today, as the web is full of webinars, DVD courses, on-line courses, and the like, and the software available today is much more user-friendly than in the past. To suggest that skills as simple as these should be at the “heart” of a theatre curriculum is, at best, a misunderstanding between the nature of true education, and the acquisition of skills. A university should be much more about coming to grips with your relationship to the rest of humanity and its various ideas, not about learning a set of easy-to-acquire skills.

5. It’s still about “becoming a professional.”

The fifth misassumption seems to be that university education programs are primarily for preparing students to be professional actors. This in fact is likely true, but that does not mean that the corrective that needs to be applied is to continue to make students even more professional by giving them these entrepreneurial skills. The corrective, as I see it, is to re-think why we believe theatre is necessary, who we believe theatre is for (i.e. who is our audience), and what it truly means to be a “professional” by widening the definition of that word.

I will be the first to admit that there are many things wrong with theatre education today. If you asked me to give you a concise statement as to what is wrong with theatre education today, I would say that it has forsook its role to train scholar/artists whose mission is to express the universal humanity of us all in particular times and places with particular stories, and instead sold its soul to the marketing power of Broadway and “professionalism.” The holy grail now is the pursuit of a professional career, where one earns one’s living completely from the income one makes as an actor in any medium. Given that this is now the be-all and end-all of many theatre education programs, it of course stands to reason that they would want to incorporate any new shiny theory that mesmerizes us with the belief that if we only procure this one additional skill set, we will then be able to successfully achieve that Broadway dream.

That’s too bad, because the available data clearly demonstrate not only that the vast majority of would-be actors will be unsuccessful in achieving that dream, but that theatre at that level is an elite art form catering almost exclusively to an upper-middle-class, white, 55+, well-educated demographic. When you pursue a career such as this, essentially you are saying you pretty much want to be a member of the cultural 1%. You want to participate in a system which is deepening the already wide cultural (and, by extension, economic) divide, where only a certain collection of elite and well-off individuals who can pay the price of a ticket can have access to theatre.

It is a sad fact of my own career as a theatre teacher that, as a young 36-year-old gung-ho acting professor, I was caught up in this thinking myself. I had hopes that one day many of my students would rise to theatrical stardom, and perhaps make a difference in how theatre was conceived. My only saving grace is that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have helped students make their way through serious problems in their lives, if not their careers. But I regret I did not have the foresight, insight or wisdom to see what kind of damage pre-professional thinking is doing and has done over the past 30 years of theatre education.

We are wasting an entire generation of theatre artists by misdirecting them towards the empty promise of Broadway and away from enhancing the lives of people and communities across the country. We are telling them that corporate theatre is superior to community-based theatre. We are telling them it is more valuable to have a professional career than to work with the overlooked, underserved, and underrepresented members of our human family. We are encouraging them to move to cities where hundreds of thousands of others just like them are competing for unbelievably scarce opportunities, and away from cities, towns and villages where opportunities abound and are there for the taking. We are saying to them that participating in an economic model of art where the community consists of art consumers who will pay big dollars to watch, is better than working with art makers who will join you in creating art that expresses their sense of heritage and community. 

This is what should be at the heart of a university theatre education: the vision to re-think and re-invent a sense of doing theatre that works for everyone, from people living in rural pockets of Appalachia to those struggling in low SES communities to those whose personal identity, race, or ethnic heritage is being crushed under the weight of the artistic blandness of pop culture and mega-entertainment. 

Only a very, very few universities should be in the business of training professional actors. The rest ought to look around their own communities, see what opportunities there are for theatre in their immediate area, and get to work teaching their students how to devise theatre for that community. And by the way – if you want to teach these kinds of theatre students entrepreneurial skills so they can make that become a reality in a quicker and more effective way, then I am right on board with you on that!

Conclusion: The Law of Unintended Consequences

Often, whenever change of any kind is proposed, there are always unintended consequences that accompany that change. Take, for example, the effort to create more family-friendly workplaces. The unintended consequences of such policies have led to a situation where, in many instances, women are worse off than they were before, not better. Are we prepared for the unintended consequences that such curricular changes will bring? Are we prepared to have students who are experts at preparing websites, video reels, and high-quality voiceovers, but who have nothing substantial to contribute to the content of theatre and art? Are we prepared for theatrical automatons who have high-quality headshots, great-looking résumés, great audition skills, but haven’t read the plays from which their monologues came, and couldn’t tell you the difference between Michael Chekov and Anton Chekov? I’m seeing this phenomenon already in many of my students, and am looking for strategies, not to eliminate the need for these skills, but to mesh them with a solid foundation of basic knowledge and skill, something today’s theatre curricula is designed to do.

As someone who has spent his whole life in academia, either as a teacher or as a student, I resent strongly the implication that the problems which beset theatre education are the result of narcissism, as one of the writers stated. Nor is it “my fault” if my students do not have the skills that the authors wish they had. If anything, it is the result of inertia – on that I would wholeheartedly concur. The university as an institution dates back to at least the 12th century, and up until perhaps 30 years ago there was little reason to change; the system worked reasonably well on the whole. But the last 30-50 years have brought about such an incredible amount of change in such a mind-staggeringly short period of time that it is unrealistic to expect that such an institution can turn on a dime. I’ve read somewhere that it takes about 4.5 miles of full reverse propellors to stop completely an aircraft carrier. Imagine what it must take to turn it around. Universities are, intellectually speaking, not much different from an aircraft carrier in that regard.

Change is sorely needed in theatre curricula, but we should never forget what should rightfully sit at its heart. The theatre is an intense artistic synergy between the observer, participant and creator in an exploration of the human psyche so that we can better understand our relationships with each others as human beings. That is the heart of any theatre curriculum. We forget that to our peril and the peril of the art form we so dearly cherish. -twl

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