Thoughts on teaching.
My goal is to get students to think theatrically. To read plays as instigations for productions—live events that will affect audiences emotionally and intellectually and will generate a host of meanings. To think first about how a play looks and sounds and how it can be experienced in space. To appreciate that suspense, mystery, the clash of opposites, shouting, whispers, the unexpected, the fantastical and jokes are ways that theatre artists communicate great truths while keeping audiences engaged. To remember that time is a crucial element in live performance—no skipping ahead or pausing—and so the structure of a piece determines an audience’s experience and what they take away from it. To know that audience and performers are the only necessary and sufficient elements in the theatre.
“What is seen and heard?” “What is to be enacted or staged?” “How does the play work” “How does the dramaturgy of the text affect the audience?” “What sensations do you feel or images do you see when you first encounter the play?” These are the questions I first ask if we are reading theatrically. Students are used to reading plays the same way they read other literature. They look first for plot and then themes and then discuss the characters as if they actually existed. But answering these other kinds of questions first allows us to form rich and justifiable conclusions about theme and character later. Thinking theatrically means embracing ambiguity and multiple possibilities before narrowing down our focus.
Theatrical history is the record of artistry, of illusion, of real people doing imaginary things. Students are used to studying theatrical history the same way they would study the domestic industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages. But they need to ask different questions. Why would people spend time and money for a few hours spent in an imaginary world? What were the artistic choices made and why? This approach is valuable to all students because it asks them to question thought processes and meaning. It asks them to think differently about aesthetic choices, realizing that movement, color, the pitch of a voice and the shape of a sleeve reflect a mode of thinking that is neither literary nor linear.
A production tells us how artists respond to their society and vice versa. Texts in my classes are studied in relationship to the productions they have and can engender. Acting, scenographic and costuming techniques of a particular period point us to what was important to those artists and audiences. In American Theater, for instance, we discuss Method acting, first how it gives us insight into plays written for its adherents and then, given its dominance in theater and film, what it says about American self-perception since the 1930s. We also study techniques developed in reaction to the Method, noting how they affect dramaturgy and reflect shifts in perception and representation.
"How does your view of the world manifest itself in your work?" I ask at the beginning of one of my graduate seminars. Before we discuss the world views of artists in other times and places, I urge them to take stock of their own relationships to the art. Why produce a particular play now? For students being prepared for the profession, questioning in this way should become habitual.
My professional experience shapes my courses. If thinking theatrically is the major goal of my classes, then the best way I can do that is to use my own experience. I rarely teach plays that I have not seen on stage at least once, and many of the plays I teach are ones that I have worked on in production. The latter make good case studies, comparing the analyses and conceptual choices the students develop with the ones made on the production. A benefit of using a case study approach is that students see how analysis, critical thinking, the ability to research many disparate subjects, a knowledge of theatrical history and practice, and the development and communication of concepts is important in the theatre. Theatrical thinking is transdisciplinary, a good model for all students. In my graduate Text Analysis course students use a range of analytical approaches that I use or are used by other artists. Like art students copying master paintings in the museum in order to experience the techniques and methods of the original artists, the MFA students immerse themselves in analytical techniques that expand their repertoire of approaches to making productions from texts.
What is the starting point for each student? Each class has a different make-up and each of its members bring unique knowledge, preconceptions and experiences to the room. The more I teach, the more I find that acknowledging these enlivens the class and can take discussions in unexpected directions. It is essential to find ways a work can be relevant and so it is important that each student find personal connections to the plays. Conversely, each student has knowledge and experiences that are relevant to our investigations. Each student also has a particular way of engaging, and so I try to approach new ideas or information in multiple ways. Lecture, performance, group projects, presentations and videos might all be used to explore a single topic. At the heart of my classes are discussions, which require students to contribute and listen, evaluate their own positions and those of others, synthesize information, generate new ideas, and then communicate new conclusions and goals. Discussions help me keep the pulse of the class, gauging how individuals are learning and what kinds of instruction might be best to follow the discussion.
Theatre is an on-your-feet subject. To think theatrically students need to see plays in production. All students should also be able to investigate the texts on their feet as actors or directors, and so I incorporate scene work and performance into the literature courses. This has been effective in working on classical texts, where students get beyond unfamiliar forms and references to experience how characters clash and extreme human emotions are expressed. So that students can see how initial analyses lead to artistic choices and actual scenery, costumes and movement, I assign concept projects in which the students develop and present detailed plans for a production.
My students are the best guides. I used to cling to my syllabi and lecture notes, confident that the structure I had planned was the best. I have had, now, so many different kinds of students, of many different backgrounds and experiences, with a wide range of goals and outlooks. How can what they bring to a class help shape what we do? Some care deeply about theatre, but others care more deeply about social change or teaching children or being entrepreneurs. So many of them have a gutsy can-do attitude that I would be foolish not to harness their energy. I have begun to trust the room. My MFA students, for instance, are highly creative, intelligent, determined artists. I have to let our work and our discussions be determined by their strengths and challenges, and not my own.
I used to think the lightbulbs had to go off in my classroom. I wanted realizations, epiphanies, connections, synthesis, integration and application all to happen for all the students in the few hours a week we had for class time. If it didn’t, I thought I was doing something wrong, or the students just didn’t care. This was narcissism on my part and it ignores how people really learn and integrate new ideas and methods. The lightbulbs might be going off in someone else’s class or over dinner or in the middle of rehearsals. Once students began telling me how something we studied connected to a discussion in a German literature class or helped with the understanding of a text in a Classics course, and once I realized that they were taking analysis techniques from class right into design meetings and rehearsals, I accepted that my time with them is only one small part of their journeys.
I can learn from Millennials. They are non-judgmental, supportive, optimistic, pragmatic, respectful of older generations yet skeptical of those generations’ models of success, and not always worried about details. According to the Pew Research Center, the Millennial generation is also the most educated, the most diverse and the most likely to expect government to fix social inequalities. Different and opposing things existing side by side neither startles nor confuses them. They neither worship technology nor fear it, and understand that there are many, many modes of communication, all of which have value and each of which have an appropriate time and place. Some of these qualities drive their Baby Boomer and Gen X teachers crazy, but they are qualities to be embraced and harnessed in creative enterprises, theatrical explorations and saving the world. While I try to get my students to think theatrically, I hope they can teach me to think Millennially.