Thursday, September 27, 2007


Once again, if you haven't read Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin's excellent five-part series on the state of theatre education (nicely organized by the folks at Praxis Theatre here), do it now. This post was originally going to be a reaction, with my thoughts on their thoughts, and it still will to some extent, but I don't really have a wide knowledge of the theatre education system, at least not in the sort of programs that Walters and Loughlin are speaking of/working in. Instead, this will be a reflection on my experiences in hopes that I will discover something or two in the process. Coincidentally, I just directed the chair of my old theatre department to my blog a few days ago. Let's see how I juggle that knowledge with this post.

Basic info on my education: I graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. The current incarnation of the theatre department is extremely young, now sneaking up on just under a decade or so. (If I remember correctly, there was a program at one point in time that was dropped long ago and needed to be restarted from scratch.) I was one of the first few graduating classes to come out of the program with a major, which is actually a Communication Studies major with a Theatre emphasis. I was one of three majors who graduated in 2005. Small school + new program = tiny numbers.

Basic info on my specific experience: I didn't have an inch of a clue what I wanted to do coming into school, but theatre wasn't on the list of interests despite a lot of involvement in high school. I ended up focusing on Radio and Television Production, but got bored after mastering the basics. I took an acting class spring of my sophomore year and ended up coming back that fall as a theatre major. I hit the ground running and did quite well for myself in the last two years, but the fact remains that I didn't even set an eye on the theatre department for almost half of my education.

There was a decent period of time not long after I moved to Chicago that I felt very unsatisfied with the education I had received. I was discovering all of these other techniques and movements and styles and endless possibilites that hadn't even crossed my ears in college and I was frustrated, because it seemed as though my education had been on a much more elementary level than that of the people I was encountering. And to a certain degree, it was. But I no longer blame the program for that nearly as much, for a number of reasons.

First of all, it was a relatively elementary program. Not only was the curriculum in its infancy when I arrived, it was also a BA (without the 'F') program at a small Midwestern Lutheran liberal arts-oriented school. The basics are exactly what we should have been learning. Plus, it certainly didn't help matters that I tore through the program in two years. What I got was the basics of the basics, taking in 100% of the information in 50% of the time, never a good learning environment. The discoveries I have made my first two years in Chicago are discoveries I should have been making my junior and senior years of college. And probably would have been, with a little foresight and/or patience.

Preparing to graduate, I was in a total lurch in the 'what next?' department. I did the whole grad school search, paid out for the URTAs, went completely unnoticed, and got really down on myself. I knew a few people who were in grad school, a few who were on their way to, and a few who were doing intern stints in places like Milwaukee and Louisville, but I didn't really know that many who had gone out and done their own damn thing. Not only was it frightening, it felt like the leftovers, the island of misfit theatre practitioners.

First pause for topical enlightenment: this is exactly the sort of status quo mentality that Scott and Tom are talking about: "Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, Now I'm a real artist!" It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but not going for my MFA seemed to be a very real concern at the time. This was not something I was taught, either. I should be clear that my education did not actively instill these steps in me. It just seemed to be the way things work. And someone like myself, who very rarely buys into the "way things work" excuse and often fought it even at that point, still felt utterly inadequate for falling outside of the system. This says to me that it's not enough to passively skim over the Goliath effect of the system; educators must actively encourage students to take the David role and find unique ways around the big problems.

Regularly scheduled blog: I do lament the lack of, shall we say, variety presented to us. But this comes with a program whose chair is also the department's only dedicated faculty member. (Hi, William! Welcome to my blog!) When the same man who is teaching Acting is also teaching Stagecraft, Directing, Survey of Drama, etc., his opinions are bound to seem a little universal. He wasn't tyrannical in his views at all and I'm certain that he would have encouraged a little dissonance every now and again. But theses are 18-22 year olds we're talking about, an age with a great capacity to get uppity countered with an intense need to not be seen as foolish. We could've provided the dissonance, but some poking and prodding would have been necessary. And as a result of me not questioning as much as I otherwise would have, I had to come to certain realizations long after I should have. A specific example: I didn't gain an appreciation of Beckett until way late in the game. While Beckett wasn't ignored, nor was an anti-Beckett regime taught, it was obvious that our chair was not a fan. Which isn't a bad thing in itself -- in fact, in a traditional theatrical department, that would be the dissonance -- but without any other views to take into account, we generally paid little mind to Beckett, which is a shame.

Second pause for enlightenment: Students, especially in undergrad, are bound to adopt the views of their professors. Countering this must come from more than one direction. Yes, our chair could, and probably should, have more actively encouraged us to challenge him (or read more Beckett). However, I think that more essential (through leading by example) is a theatre department whose members hold a variety of opposing artistic beliefs and who are visibly productive both as individuals and as a community despite (and hopefully because of) that variety. Having professors who enjoyed Beckett as well as those who didn't would have been far more helpful than one who didn't or many who did (as I'm sure is the case in many departments). It's much in line with the anti-gated community that Scott talks about in his most recent post. More important than students being told to think for themselves is being able to closely observe experienced artists thinking for themselves and using that to further each other's (and their collaborative) work. Leading by example and all that.

Regulary scheduled summation: So this ended up being closer to a love letter to my education that I would have ever guessed. While I am coming to appreciate my earlier formative years (because they're still happening, of course) more by the day, there were definitely some problems, both major and minor, with Wartburg's program. But I'll save those, and maybe suggestions for possible solutions, for the next post.


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