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?

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.)