Theatre school in the age of compliance

If its broke – fix it
By Scott Walters

Hello, Fellow North Americans! Ian Mackenzie has asked me to write a guest post for Theatre is Territory, which I am happy to do. Ian inflated my ego far beyond manageable bounds last spring when he interviewed me here, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to continue to provide abrasive American crankiness for my northern compatriots.

One of the things Ian gave me an opportunity to discuss in that long-ago interview was theatre education. As a college teacher, you can imagine I have a few things to say about it. I mean, beyond that most of it sucks.

As a teacher, I have always harbored the secret belief that we all have to kill Daddy. Education is Oedipal – when you come to a crossroads (also known as graduation), you have to free yourself from the past. If you find, as a teacher, that you have created acolytes who bow to your chariot at the crossroads and ask to follow in your train, you should have your tenure stripped in a ritual ceremony involving honey and ants. That’s not education, that’s evisceration. So when I have students who learn what I have to offer, and then noisily go in a different direction flipping me the bird as they depart, I inwardly celebrate. They’re ready for the world.

I had a group of students who formed a weekly lunch group with me called the Dead Dramatists Society, and by the time they graduated they were widely regarded by their peers and the rest of the faculty as loud, opinionated artists who questioned everything, including just about every word I said in class. I loved it. They became independent thinkers who could look at the status quo, decide what worked for them and what didn’t, and take their own paths. To me, that’s what education ought to do.

Instead, most education is about compliance. Teachers try to mold compliant students who do what they’re told the way they’re told to do it. And that, my friends, is how the theatre became what it is today: boring, unimaginative, cautious, and conservative. Everybody is still trying to please Daddy! Even the rebels are that way – their idea of rebellion is to simply reverse whatever the status quo is, which is as mechanical and boring as just following the mold.

Ian asked me: “Why do so many artists graduate from post-secondary education and then flounder for 10 years in the wilderness? Shouldn’t art/drama school be teaching us how to actually making a living at this?”

Hell no. The reason they flounder in the wilderness for 10 years is because it takes that long to get over their addiction to having every idea provided for them by teachers who have made them co-dependent. They keep waiting for somebody to give them a syllabus for their life. Until they take control of their continuing growth, which includes doing a lot of independent reading (theatre people don’t read nearly enough, either within the field or outside of it) and independent thinking (is what Michael Shurtleff says about auditioning really the extent of what I need to know to get a part?), they are stuck.

And let me ask this: how in the heck are we supposed to teach you how to make a living at this when the current system is set up to make sure that there is 80% unemployment so that directors have a “choice” when they cast? You can’t make a living like that, and anybody who says they are “training” you to do so is lying through their teeth while they drain your checking account. It’s like training people how to win at playing the slot machine.

The best thing we could do for young people is to spend the first week of their education showing them the sheer dysfunctionality of the system, and then let them spend the rest of their education trying to figure out a better way to do it.

And that means empowerment. Teach independent thinking (no, that isn’t an oxymoron). For instance, instead of providing a bunch of “mainstage productions” where young people passively do the bidding of the faculty, get the hell out of the way and turn the stage over to the students. Let them follow their passions, let them experiment, let them stink up the place if necessary – the air clears in no time, and none of it is carcinogenic.

And teach collaboration. There are actual techniques that can make collaboration work effectively and powerfully, but nobody teaches them. Instead, we pretend that a hierarchical system where the director allows everybody to share a few ideas before telling them how it’s really going to be done is collaboration. It’s not; it’s just more compliance training. This is especially true in college, where the director is likely to be a faculty member, and everyone else are students. Can you say power differential?

In my opinion, our theatre is floundering because our theatre teachers prefer adoration and obedience to challenge and independence. Until that changes, other changes will rely on a few outliers who somehow emerged with their minds intact. And those people need to speak out, to write blogs, to undertake noisy experiments and show that new ideas are not only possible, but successful.

Maybe that’s you?

3 thoughts on “Theatre school in the age of compliance

  1. yeah, i agree. this is pretty darn good. you can make your own work or hope against hope that your # comes up. so many training programs hide that fact and it’s really reprehensible.

    1 thing scott- and this is really just me picking up on the 1% of what you wrote that i don’t agree with – i’m not sure the 80% rate of actor unemployment is a result of directors wanting choice.

    is it not simply there are way more artists (directors included) than funding, venues and audience to keep them working? every night in moscow there are 100 plays going on and those guys are still super picky over who they cast.

  2. umm, taking back 1/2 of my last comment, the russia part. i was thinking about it, and they work on a rep model that circulates different company members in big and small parts depending on the production. once a show is up and running, they may only do it once or twice a month. anyhow the whole thing is so apples and oranges from what’s going on in north america that it really doesn’t apply here.

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