Theatre education series

U.S. theatre professors Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin recently put their heads together to produce a great five-part blog post series on the state of theatre education in America.

One of the arguments that emerges from these posts is the idea that theatre education has lost the ability to critically evaluate its own process – that it has become a system not for making artists, but for creating “replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine . . . ” Radical change, they argue, is essential for the long-term vitality of the form. And it likely needs to come from outside the system.

Here’s how the posts break down:

Scott Walters on theatre education

“Most theatre departments justify their production programs as their labs. Like science labs, theatre productions exist for students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom. It is a persuasive argument, but the reality is quite different.

“Departmental productions are focused almost exclusively on putting on a ‘good show,’ not teaching those involved. If in acting class the actors are taught to score their script, directors never ask them to do so for rehearsals; if everyone is taught to research the play’s background, nobody is asked to produce that research during the production process. The casting process is rarely about what the students need to learn, but rather on who can best play the role right now. Oftentimes, actors who play a certain type of role will simply be typecast over the course of their career, and never have the opportunity to stretch their talents. Faculty directors feel that they are being judged on the quality of the final product, not whether those involved furthered their education.”

– Scott Walters
On theatre education, Production

Tom Loughlin on theatre education

Part 1 – How we got here
Part 2 – The big lies
Part 3 – But is it art?
Part 4 – Are we doing any good at all?
Part 5 – A subversive activity

“What can you do? I would offer a relatively simple beginning; become an agitator with your own alma mater. And don’t be passive about it; be pro-active. I often get requests from alumni of Fredonia to be invited as guest artists to talk to our students. This is all well and good, but it’s sort of passive. A more active approach would be to dig out a few Hamiltons, pay a visit to the campus, sit down in the place where theatre students gather, and engage them in conversation. Talk to them about what they’re doing, what you’re doing, find out what’s happening, and then let their professors know about what you heard and what your point of view is. You can even do this at colleges in your area. It doesn’t have to be your own university. Find a way to get involved. Offer students some opportunity to become engaged with what you do. They won’t come to you; they’re not trained to. You have to go to them.”

– Tom Loughlin
On theatre education, A subversive activity

Lots to read here. And well worth your time should you have a few minutes to think about the future of theatre education. (For further discussion, Walters is hosting a brainstorming session here.)

5 thoughts on “Theatre education series

  1. Thanks for the shout out. We’d love to hear any comments, or interest in helping us take the topic further.

  2. I keep on throwing down these “where i went to school” posts, but so it goes. When I was training with Scott Zigler (co-author of The Pracitcal Handbook) at the ART he had an awesome point that distills where a lot of where these programs go wrong:

    “Technique is what you rely on when your talent fails you.”

    I don’t believe the majority of theatre training programs recognize this to be true and it ends up skewing everything. Students get thrown up mish mash and judged to be talented or not. Some programs then cut students, others relegate them to soldier/maid #3.

    A truly effective program would work to establish where students were getting things “for free” so to speak and then work to shore up the loose ends with technique and skills. Graduates of such a program would then enter the marketplace with a comprehensive arsenal.

    Sadly many programs don’t seem to feel a responsibility to act in this manner.

    Comments? I’m pretty in to this topic now that I’m also working on the eductaion side of things these days.

  3. Mike — Since I don’t see “the market” as a particularly interesting or viable goal for my students, I’d rather give them an arsenal that would prepare them to change the market.

    The programs you mention — those that cut students after a year or whatever — are setting themselves up as the arbiters of talent. What they are really doing is making their job as easily as possible by eliminating anyone they might actually have to make an effort to teach. When they select, what they are really selecting are people’s backgrounds — whether they were lucky enough to be in a high school with an active theatre program and a talented teacher, or whether their parents were rich enough to send them to high priced summer conservatory programs or arts-oriented schools. In other words, under the guide of choosing talent what they are really doing is eliminating classes and regions. And this doesn’t seem ethical to me, and morally questionable as well.

    Elaborate on what you mean by “getting things for free” — I’m not certain what you are referring to.

  4. Hey Scott,

    We might be talking about the same thing when referring to “the market”. I completely agree that a new generation of graduates should do their damndest to change the market and create their own work, etc. But, it doesn’t change the fact that as a graduate you enter a marketplace. If you can’t find/create work for yourself you end up waiting tables, temping, and engaging in generally soul destroying activities.

    I completely agree with you about the morality of progarms that cut students thety judge to be untalented. Is this American Idol or an eductaional institution with a responsibility to teach, mentor and pass on skills? Again, I think it comes down to economics. Many of these programs are cash strapped and go for the extra tuition that a class of 40 students bing in in the 1st year before being cut down to 20.

    What I mean by “for free” is that ever actor has some things that they do well naturally. For some it’s emotional availability, others voice work, someone else highly physicalized movement. These are their natural talents. They get it “for free” so to speak. The job of a training program should be to help shore up the skills they don’t come by naturally. Is this a craft or a talent show?

  5. Hey Mike — I agree completely. We need to broaden the idea of what constitutes the market, and the approach to the market. I have recently become really fascinated by the “social entrepreneurship” movement and its possibilities for the arts. That means artists must take charge of their environment rather than simply learning how to “fit in.”

    I think teachers should commit to people, not to marketable talents. And develop the particular talents and voice that each person has.

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