A New Education for a New Theatre

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Give me, give me, give me: Selina Verastigui as Diana, colleague of Cassie, in the Broadway Across America revival of A Chorus Line.

In my first post for the Clyde Fitch Report about a month ago, Business Model: The Next Frontier, I wrote about the need for the development of a new approach to producing theatre, one separate from both the for-profit model illustrated by Broadway, and the non-profit model represented by the major regional theatres. My second post, On Saying It To Their Faces, prompted by Tracy Letts’ Tony Award acceptance speech, was about the necessity to develop a different relationship between artist and audience, one in which the artist stands at the center of his or her community rather than apart from it. Today’s post will focus on the foundation that must necessarily be built in order to support this transformation.

Today’s post is about the education of theatre artists.

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As a college professor for almost a quarter century, I am tempted the say that this change in educational approach must begin earlier than college, because many young theatre enthusiasts arrive on my doorstep fully committed to the Yellow Brick Road that they believe will lead them to the Wonderful Land of Broadway. They’ve attended performing arts high schools where they are trained to become so-called “triple threats;” taught the ins and outs of auditions, headshots and resumes; and been polished until they “sparkle.” Or they’ve come from wealthy suburban schools where they have worked in large, well-furnished theatres doing everything from Guys and Dolls to Rent. They’ve drunk the “Theatrical Kool-Aid,” as my colleague Tom Loughlin, another long-time theatre educator, once put it.

a chorus lineAnd what does it get them? A life that reflects the desperation of “The Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line, a musical often seen as a valentine to the theatre but which is, for all its sentimentality, a portrait of the theatre’s dysfunction. For those of you who don’t have the lyrics to “The Music and the Mirror” memorized, you’ll remember that it is sung by Cassie, a veteran Broadway trouper whose failed fling in Hollywood has brought her back to auditioning for the chorus line of an unnamed Broadway musical.

She pleads:

Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.

To have something that I can believe in.
To have something to be.
Use me… Choose me.

God, I’m a dancer,
A dancer dances!

Give me somebody to dance with.
Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living
By showing me how to begin.

Play the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance for you.

Give me a job and you instantly get me involved.
If you give me a job,
Then the rest of the crap will get solved.
Put me to work,
You would think that by now I’m allowed.
I’ll do you proud.

Throw me a rope to grab on to.
Help me to prove that I’m strong.
Give me the chance to look forward to sayin’:
“Hey. listen, they’re playing my song.”

Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance…

Play me the music,
Play me the music,
Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance…

Let’s give these lyrics a closer look. First of all, the phrase “give me” appears ten times during the course of the song. Ten times. Give me a chance, give me a job, give me an audience, give me a place to fit in. Setting aside the artistic use of repetition, the whole song is about begging and pleading for somebody else to let her be an artist.

Give me, give me, give me: Selina Verastigui as Diana, colleague of Cassie, in the Broadway Across America revival of A Chorus Line.
Give me, give me, give me: Selina Verastigui as Diana, colleague of Cassie, in the Broadway Across America revival of A Chorus Line

The dysfunction on display in this song becomes more obvious if you switch the art form. Imagine, say, a novelist pleading for paper and a pencil, or an artist begging for paint and canvas. Yes, those artists need others to publish their work, or to display it in a gallery, but they have complete power over the creation of the work. Not Cassie. While all she ever needed was the music and the mirror, she needs somebody else to let her create. She needs permission.

It gets worse. Not only does she need permission, she needs somebody else to give her something she can believe in. Think about that for a second. Can you get any more passive than that? Having somebody else provide you with purpose and direction? Then she asks to have a rope thrown to her so she can prove she is “strong.” What? You throw a rope to someone who is drowning, right? Isn’t that the image? So how can you prove your strength when somebody else is saving you? If you’re strong, what do you need a rope for at all — start swimming! Ultimately, she gives the whole game away when, in perhaps the saddest lines in the whole musical, she begs, “Use me, choose me.” Use me.

If this were just an example of individual pathology, we could let it pass. But it is the way most theatre people are taught to think as undergraduates. We are taught that other people control the means of production (because hey, the faculty does, in fact, control the means of production), and we are so desperate to be “used” that we think they do us a “favor” by letting us work. We pay our tuition money and then we cross our fingers and hope we get to do what we came to college to do! The main purpose of theatre training is not improving skills, but rather getting young people in the right mindset.

And this kind of thinking permeates the whole damn business. What is one of the major topics of conversation among artists? The small amount of government subsidy. As Cassie would say, “Give me give me give me.” We spend half of our time with our hands out begging for other people to give us money. The government, foundations, businesses. And then we wonder why Average Joe thinks we are all a bunch of slackers who oughta suck it up and earn a living. Well, this is how we’ve been taught to earn a living! It’s like we have all worked an apprenticeship in begging.

Being an artist, I believe, means first and foremost taking control of your development. The only way to do that is to control the means of production and give up this pathetic passivity, this reliance on Big Daddy to throw you a rope. Part of being an adult is agency — making our own independent choices. And that’s what theatre education ought to be focused on, first and foremost: empowerment.

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So what needs to change? First, we need to stop teaching young people to conceive of themselves as specialists for hire — as an actor (or even worse, a certain “type” of actor), a dancer, a scene designer, lighting designer, costume designer, a stage manager, a playwright, an arts administrator. When people conceive of themselves as a product to be sold, they are no longer artists. Artists have agency.

david garrick
David Garrick

We need to thoroughly acquaint young theatre people with the long history of artists like Shakespeare, Moliere, David Garrick, Clyde Fitch and most others from the past who performed several roles in the theatre simultaneously, and who controlled the means of production. Moliere wrote his troupe’s plays, was its featured actor, served as director, and managed the company as a whole. Shakespeare did the same. So did Garrick. The tradition of the artist-manager of which Fitch, as playwright-director, was an example, involves a multitalented leader serving in some combination of playwright, actor, director, designer, and manager. It isn’t until quite recently that artists began to be encouraged to specialize. Education has carved that idea in marble.

The historical figures mentioned above also shared another common characteristic: they were entrepreneurs. They didn’t need to ask permission to perform, they didn’t need to audition, or to be hired by someone else. They ran companies and created an audience for themselves. Some may have had support from a patron, a king or a queen perhaps, but that always came later, and was rarely enough to support the troupe. So they were self-reliant, multitalented entrepreneurs whose fortunes rose and fell according to their ability to create new work that found favor with their audience. Isn’t that what we want to create? Aren’t those the people who change the course of theatre history?

Our theatre education needs to reclaim this past and place it front and center. We need to teach young people to be self-reliant, independent, capable and responsible. Instead of having the faculty choose a season, direct the shows, design most of them, handle the budget and bring in an audience, students need to be given total control of the means of production. One way to do this would be to devote the final two years of an undergraduate degree to running every aspect of an independent production company. The junior year would be spent planning — finding a space to perform (a storefront, a rental — not some fancy campus performing arts center); pulling together the equipment needed within a tight budget; forging an artistic identity; choosing, devising or writing plays; creating a business plan; devising an approach to publicity and advertising. The senior year would be spent implementing the plan, being responsible for every detail, producing each play, making mistakes, experiencing triumphs, finding an audience and generally being theatre entrepreneurs.

But in this scenario, what would the faculty do? Two things: hover and respond. “Hover” meaning serving as consultants for the students as they experiment, and giving advice as requested by the students. “Respond” meaning being a trained audience. Students everywhere seem to learn most seeing their work in front of an audience. This is how most theatre people in the past learned their craft. Moliere was a major failure when he was a young actor in Paris, so he went on the road for over a decade where he learned his craft, wrote some successful plays and figured out how theatre worked. Vaudevillians performed multiple shows a day, getting advice from older performers and from each audience reaction. Faculty can serve a similar function: watch student productions and rehearsals and provide suggestions for improvement, give advice and generally be an expert eye.

And also keep out of the way. All too often, theatre faculty behave like helicopter parents, swooping in to make sure the students don’t experience failure or make any mistakes. I once had an acting teacher who was planning to write an acting textbook called Do What I Say, which frankly could be the title of just about every faculty-led theatre production done at a university. The students are told what to do and are viewed as successful if they are able to do it. But most people learn as much or more from their mistakes as they do from their successes. When I was a high school student, I talked the head of the Parks and Recreation Department for the city to give me some start-up money for a summer theatre I wanted to start. He did, and for four summers I directed Miller, Gilroy, Odets. I’m sure the productions were not great, but boy did I learn quickly how to direct. As teachers, we should be setting up opportunity after opportunity for students to learn, not for us to show off our own talents.

It’s not just undergraduate education that could be done this way. How many times have I heard people who are considering getting an MFA justify the time and cost by saying that it gives them a chance to focus full time on their art for three years? But the reality is that their experiences are limited by number of shows done each semester that they can appear in. Instead, why not create an independent production laboratory?

As with undergraduates, I would suggest that MFA programs teach students to create and run their own theatres, giving them the means of production needed to really learn. After one year in the classroom during which they receive a crash course in all aspects of theatre operation, they develop and present to the faculty a proposal to create a theatre anywhere in the US. For two years, the school would provide them with a budget to get the theatre off the ground, as well as faculty consultants to lend a hand if needed. At the end of their third year, a percentage of their tuition will have been held in trust to provide full-time salaries and expenses for another year of producing. By then, after three years of full time creativity, the students need to have developed an audience and a sustainable business model or the theatre is closed. (Auburn University’s School of Architecture provides a useful model with its Rural Studio, which has undergrads designing and building actual homes and structures in several small communities in rural Alabama.)

Yancy Tire Chapel: Rural Studio
Yancy Tire Chapel: Rural Studio

Both of these models, undergraduate and graduate alike, require that students receive a thorough grounding in entrepreneurial skills. It can’t just be about artistic creation, it must also be about business creation. They need a deep understanding of the business model canvas, the lean start-up approach to the creation of new businesses, as well as basic grantwriting, bookkeeping and social marketing.

And one more thing that they need — and this is probably the most radical idea I have to offer — is skills in facilitating creativity in others. So much of our education in the arts is focused on artistry as a product to be sold in the marketplace. I think we also need to teach young artists that part of their responsibility is to share the process with others. Instead of seeing themselves as “special” and separate from their community, instead of seeing their role as “saying it to their faces,” young artists need to commit to using their talents in service of others.

I know these are radical changes I propose, and academia is deeply resistant to even the smallest change. And I suspect there are other models that would be equally radical and equally effective. Let a thousand flowers grow in place of the plastic bouquets clogging the landscape. But something has to change. We’re stuck. Each generation of theatre teachers, decade after decade, reproduces they way that they were taught, in spite of the major changes that have occurred in our society, our economy, our communities, our technology and our expectations. It takes innovation, a quality all too often in short supply in academia.

However, I think the long-term viability and vitality of the theatre requires such radical change, and it needs to start with youth.

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Scott Walters is a Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, as well as the founder of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE). He is the long-time author of several blogs including Theatre Ideas and Creative Insubordination. He also writes for The Huffington Post, American Theatre magazine, and is the co-author of Introduction to Play Analysis. He lives in Bakersville, NC.