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Nathan Thomas

Academic Welcome           


March 2014

"Well, it's academic theatre. . ." 

We've heard it before.  In fact we might have been the one saying it.  It's usually said with a sigh.  Or, possibly said with that slight edge of superiority that suppresses disagreement simply through tone – a person would be foolish to disagree with this clear-minded assessment of reality.  Often it seems that academic theatre lives to dismay some folks.

This month I reply to three men who I count as friends with whom I've had different conversations over the past several weeks.  Each friend is in a different part of their careers and in different parts of the country.  One is a student.  Another an Artistic Director of a thriving regional theatre.  The last a college president.  Respectively, Jim, Jon, and Joe (not real names).

Jim tends toward non-conformity and asks about the politics of a room full of theatre people who seem (to him) reflexively knee-jerk liberal. Jon, in an admittedly incendiary blog entry, writes about the faults of theatres to be welcoming – particularly to the college-aged audience.  Joe wonders aloud about seeing a natural end to his college's theatre program, realizing that not all colleges need to have theatre as an option in the course catalogue.

I have a great deal of affection and respect for my friends.  I may have different perspectives on the questions they raise, though.

From the time I was in early elementary school, I knew at that early age I wanted to teach theatre in a college.  (That's another story for another time.)  The path to realize this goal has been a long and winding one with curious dead-ends and switchbacks and obstacles.  I've been a student in three college theatre programs, taught regularly in four, and guest-taught in others.  And, I've acted with folks trained in programs from both coasts as well as North and South.  I probably don't know about your program, though.  So, I don't presume to talk about all of them.  Possibly not even a majority of programs.  Just my experience.

Jim's question about the supposed liberality of college theatre people is the easiest to deal with, I think.  I've met people of all political stripes in the business we call "show." I've known some deep-"Red" conservatives and true-"Blue" liberals. 

As a rule, the higher up the power and/or money ladder tends to lead some folks to a more conservative outlook.  There are many exceptions.  There are some folks I've met in the business who just don't like the idea of government intervention in the lives of folks.  And they've mucked in with Republicans rather than strike out as Independents in our two-party system.

That being said, I'm not surprised that many young theatre folks tend more to the liberal (as we now categorize such things) rather than the conservative side of the aisle.  Theatre is a humane and humanizing art.  The center of this art-form is understanding a story from someone else's point of view. The director and designers work to understand the playwright's perspective on the story.  The actors work to walk in the shoes of the character. As a rule, that's not where the conservative movement seems to be going these days.  There's a populist streak in conservatism – but it's populism with a curious shade of exclusivity.

So, Jim, just a few thoughts about the politics of show people.

Next, my friend Jon writes about a social media discussion generated by some theatre folks about a college-age audience. 

To summarize as briefly as possible – a complaint showed up in social media about some late-teen/early 20s audience members who were rude while present and left the show early.  The complaintant's friends commiserated.  If "college credit" was to be awarded for play attendance, the actors hoped the audience members in question would be denied full credit. 

This happenstance provides Jon the opportunity to write harshly about the actor's complaint.  Jon notes theatre is a two-way street.  Did the theatre in question provide a welcoming environment?  Was the show involving to the audience?  Jon goes on to compare the experience to seeing Schindler's List.  So, seriousness of material isn't the issue.  He asks a series of rhetorical questions about how material gets chosen. And -- if material is chosen because it fulfills some director's whim, or "just because" – the audience is justified in acting in the manner they did.

I agree with Jon, and I also have quite a bit of sympathy for the actors who had the rude audience.  I don't think Jon's ideas and the actor's complaints are mutually exclusive.

I don't know if the instigating complaint was by a college actor/director or a professional actor/director who was doing a show for a college audience.  It could very well have been a college actor.  For all I know, it could have been one of my students.  I hope not.  But it's hard to say.

This is where the role of academic theatre and professional theatre seem to both converge and separate.  Sometimes coming together and dividing simultaneously.

On the one hand, I think most teachers would agree that students will derive the most benefit from the best work.  In my experience, most college productions seek to emulate the best possible practice of mounting a play – in whatever way those best practices are understood.

And here we have our first divergence from professional theatre.  I worked for one program that had relatively short rehearsal periods, because, "That's how it is in the professional theatre." Yes.  But in the professional theatre, they're paying the actors for rehearsing and not making any income while they're doing it.  And the rehearsal period may serve as the actors' full-time job.  So full-working days for just a couple or few weeks may be sufficient to mount the professional play.  In any case, the professional actor doesn't have to be concerned with a mid-term in Biology or Econ 101.

The student actor and the professional actor have different distractions.

The student actor and the professional actor have different proficiencies. 

Jon brings up Schindler's List as an example of Hollywood selling a lot of tickets for a serious show.  Yes. But if I had Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsely, and Ralph Feinnes in a play, I know they'd be able to hold an audience's attention.  They're seasoned pros.  Indeed, they're some of the best actors in the English-speaking world.

Where does the actor learn how to hold an audience's attention?  Some (a very small some) actors have that ability without training or practice.  Most actors need the experience of performing to gain those skills.  Where are they to get those skills?  In our system today, many actors get that training in a college setting.

I repeat, holding an audience's attention is not given to everyone. So the student actor gets up in front of an audience and gives it a shot.  Sometimes the student actor wins.  Sometimes they lose the audience's attention.  And so they learn.

My experience is that the college producer puts together the best possible cast from the available pool of actors.  That being said, there's also a consideration that every student is paying a considerable amount of money to be in school to try to learn the discipline of their chosen area of study. Are student actors sometimes given opportunities that would not occur in the "professional" world?  Probably.  Are there times in the "professional" world when the producer's girlfriend gets screen time when she can't act her way out of a paper bag?  Or a son?  Or a lover? 

As to the selection of performance material, programs are different. When I was an undergrad, I was in a program that fought shy of Shakespeare, so we didn't do Shakespeare. And I've known of programs that didn't have relationships with the Music Department – so, no musicals.  Some programs are heavily reliant on box office income for sustained existence.  Other programs are subsidized via student fees, etc and are not reliant on box office.

Nevertheless, all college theatres have some connection to an institutional mission of some kind.  So programs often work through choice of material to conform to the institutional mission in some way. 

A professional theatre's mission tends to always be influenced by the primary need to maximize income.  For some (many?) college theatres, maximization of income may be further down the list.  That allows for some additional freedom in the exploration of material than many professional theatres feel they are allowed.

And, in the selection of material for the college actor, the producer has some limitations not shared by a professional theatre.

I've been witness to this. If a student actor is asked to perform a role beyond their capacity, it can be injurious.  I've seen it injure voices.  I've seen it injure mental health.

If a professional theatre wants to do Long Day's Journey Into Night, hire an appropriate Mama and Papa Tyrone, and god bless.  Ask even a 24 year old MFA candidate to step off that gangplank without some serious preparation, you could seriously damage those young folks.

And what of the college-aged audience?

Well, I agree with Jon.  A wise theatre is welcoming to all.  The college theatre has a special responsibility to make the college audience feel at ease.  And the theatre-going experience shouldn't be a sterile experience.

I'm a Spartan – a proud graduate of Michigan State University. And I've seen undergraduate students riot.  One riot ostensibly was about the university's concern over some rowdy students who made other tail-gaters uncomfortable when they got drunk before football games.  So the university wanted to restrict some of these folks from the main tail-gating lot. They'd just have to drink somewhere else prior to a game.  And there was a riot.

I tell that story, not because it necessarily describes every college student.  But it illustrates that college is a time when some young folks have an opportunity to learn more about how to behave appropriately in public spaces.

If an audience member gets up in the middle of a scene and leaves – it is rude.  If an audience member sits down and immediately starts playing "Angry Birds" and doesn't even try to meet the actors half-way – it is rude.  The problem is that some college audiences have never been told about appropriate etiquette.  And so, college provides another learning opportunity for them.

And as every movie-goer knows, while the movie has cartoons selling snacks and drinks, there are also several admonitions to turn off phones and to not speak loudly during the film.  Not much different than many theatres these days.

Finally, why should we have theatre training in college at all?

My friend Joe is the president of a college.  He started out in theatre and has done very well.  And he's precisely his own answer as to why he should continue to have theatre in his school.

In one sense, Joe is correct to think that every school does not need a theatre program.  If you think about college as direct vocational training, then we should have far fewer programs in many areas of study.  How many historians do we have jobs for?  With shrinking news rooms, let's close up some of those college newspapers.  You see what I mean  — if a theatre program is only about training people for theatre jobs, we know that's useless.

I here digress for a moment to talk about the weirdness that is graduate theatre training in the U.S.A.  During my grad school search, I started out by being truthful and saying that ultimately I wanted to teach in a college. 

That was a mistake.

Every single program – and it mattered not the quality or location of the program – every single program asserted they did NOT train teachers (the very idea!), they trained only professionals.  And yet, who teaches in your voice area?  Someone with an MFA?  Oh, OK. Who teaches directing?  Someone with an MFA.  Oh, OK.  Your theatre historian is a Ph.D.?  Oh, OK. The rest of y'all?  MFA, MFA, MFA, MFA.  Oh. But the MFA is only for professionals. Hmmmmmm . . . . . .

Probably on the graduate level, there does need to be some clarity about appropriate goals upon the conclusion of the degree program.

On the Associate's and Bachelor's level theatre may not be (and I'd argue, should not be) about vocational training.    I get that America is all about the job.  I also get the fact that the investment of the expense of education should not leave one destitute.

That being said, education by and large is not about specific vocational training.  There are some jobs for which you need specific training – bridge design, hernia surgery, tuba playing.  Most jobs, however, need no specific training.  The vast majority of jobs can be done with anyone who has critical thinking skills, strong communication skills, creativity, the ability to work in a team, and strong deadline orientation.

Sound familiar to you?  The theatre student has sound preparation for a host of careers in multiple places in a modern economy.  And most folks who've been around a theatre even a little get infected with the "can do" spirit of putting up a show.  Making it work with some spit and a piece of duct tape.  Pretty good training for many a job.

Including college president.

So keep a theatre program in the school.  Not to train people to be professional actors.  But to give a group of people the opportunity to find out something about the world and its people.  A chance to tell the great stories of our times and from every times and for all times.

No, the academic theatre has its problems. It's good, and it's bad. It can also be a pretty good place to start building the future. 

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and
Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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©2014 Nathan Thomas
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Scene4 - International Magazine of Arts and Culture

March 2014

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