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.

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.

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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.

  • Scott, this is so beautifully articulated and 100% essential for all artists to understand. No matter how much we’ve been taught that we have a place in the machine of production, that model is 50 years old.

    In my school, which trains professionals who’ve been through undergraduate and graduate programs, I’m constantly focusing on the actor as CREATOR not just in the scene but in his/her career.

    There is even less obstacles when an actor applies this to filmmaking. Technology has actually made it easier to create film (or at least as easy) as putting on a low-budget play. It all comes down to the individual’s willingness to understand that IF you’ve got something to say, you’re the one responsible, first and foremost, for finding a way to get it out there.

    Back in my youth (as you well know) I had a theater company that often times leaped before there was a net. We fell hard and sometimes we soared. However, that process taught me the essential lessons of being an artist AND the skills necessary to understand the life I’ve chosen. If I want a better life, I have a way to go after it within my skill set, desire and choice to create.

    Having just made two full length feature films with 40+ of my acting students, in a total of 10 days of shooting, with a combined budget of $25K, the lesson you’re describing isn’t just theory now for these talented artists, it’s reality.

    Scott, keep fighting the fight. So good to see such an importnat message inside the academic world. When I do master classes in that world, I’m struck by how little self-initiative is taught. That is the core of why we create.

    Paul Kampf

  • Scott Walters

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. Not only is self-initiative taught, my experience has been that it is actively discouraged by professors who prefer to have groupies rather than create independent artists. It isn’t that they have nothing to teach — many do — but they conceive of students as passively receiving their wisdom. And then their are the little dictators…

    Anyway, as you say, the barriers to participation are getting lower every year, and I suspect that it will lead (or at least should lead) to a rethinking of theatre education in this country. In my experience, if you are at a theatre party and people aren’t talking, just ask a question about their education and people get passionate. They are angry about how they were treated, what they learned, and how much it cost them that they still are repaying.

  • A-men! The MFA cohort program at ASU operates in a manner similar to that you describe (although the company is formed right here), which is why we have added, in addition to concentrations in performance, directing, and design, a new concentration in arts entrepreneurship and management. See http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/degrees/ for more info.

  • Scott, agreed wholeheartedly again. The barriers to participation are coming down – and like the premise for a good revolution – the artist can and should challenge anyone in authority that endeavors to limit thought, action and creative risk.

    My greatest educational moments came when in challenging the norm of what was being taught, I learned more about my fortitude and unique world view and also what I was flat out wrong about. I didn’t realize the latter at the time, but no less an important part of my education.

    My hope for any creative artist is that she leave her training program, not convinced that she has control of a finished craft, but that she possess the essential tools of self-education/exploration.

    The world she encounters will hurt a bit less and will benefit much from her talents.

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  • Corey Johnston

    VERY interesting post! At my university, we have a student-produced component to the educational experience where the entire endeavor is completely in their hands–including mission statements, show selection, company structure, direction, design, auditions, rehearsals, execution… Everything.

    What we have discovered is that the students often don’t know how much they don’t know, and become frustrated by their inability to achieve their aspirations with the limited amount of theatrical knowledge they have developed at that point in their careers. They are bludgeoned with the dawning self-awareness of their inexperience that they can only learn by making attempts at their art. They become hesitant to do anything for fear of not doing it “right”, and frustrated that they can’t actualize what’s in their heads because their inexperience hasn’t allowed them to envision possibilities outside of their limited knowledge base.

    Suddenly, they don’t want to do their own work, because they feel it is doomed to failure. It lacks the efficacy of other theatrical experiences they have had, and so they seek experiences under the auspices of more experienced artists from whom they feel they can add to their knowledge before making more attempts at their own expressions.

    I’ve observed that a good number of successful fledgling companies have members that can wear many hats. The more generalist they are, the more self-reliant they are, and the more effective their expressions because they actually know HOW to do multiple things. Being actor/tech suddenly becomes very important, because they want to be able to make the costume they have in their head, or build the set they envision. Educational depth, in a way, becomes antithetical to the ability to actually create work.

    Because so many of us were educated in a system where depth of skill was valued over variety of skills (BFA & MFA), it is hard for any of us to conceptualize alternative modes of educational experiences. I wonder if, perhaps, in order to educate future theatrical practitioners, we must first accept that we have to educate ourselves…

  • Kelly

    I’m so thankful for this post. After working in a medium sized city with a small professional community within a large theatrical one, I learned that it does not pay (literally) to specialize in one aspect of the theater. I learned that if I wanted to make the art that excited me, I needed to learn how to write and produce. I want to teach young actors the same philosophy that the more you know and do, the more successful you can become – and I don’t just mean monetarily.

    To that end, I chose to go back to school. The program I chose is at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. After two years and a thesis, you get a masters of letters in Shakespeare and Performance. If you are accepted to stay for a third year, you earn a MFA in Shakespeare and Performance. They recently changed to the company model, meaning that the group of 12-15 graduate students that are accepted create and run a theater company for a year. We students do everything from picking the season, creating a mission statement, directing and acting, design, advertising, fundraising, dramaturgy, stage management, and everything else that a bare-bones company could need. The second year of this model is about to start. Keep an eye on it!

  • Sarah

    Thank you for this post. As an FYI, a school not too far away from you, in Staunton, VA, is trying something like what you suggest with their MFA. I work with them and would be happy to show you around if you came for a visit.

  • Students from San Francisco State University’s Theatre Department HAVE taken the means of production into their own hands! That’s what we teach them. Our students are out there creating and working in their own companies and across the board in acting, directing, designing, all areas of tech. There are currently at least two new theatre companies in San Francisco composed of and by our students: 99 stock Productions and Do It Live Productions. There is still much more to learn and to teach by all of us, but this is very true: don’t wait around for a chance —– make the chance! Take the chance!

  • Tony Gatto

    Bravo. Really well articulated and vital to those seeking only work created “for” them. I’ve been in LA for over 10 years, and have worked with various companies who “hire” me. But the most rewarding experiences, both artistically AND personally, were thastrical projects and productions I have mounted myself. What I learned about my capabilities, as well as my art, would never have been realized had I not seized the bull-horn. And because of this, I’ve also learned that I have a particular voice/point of view when producing and performing theater that excites me. (PS, if you’re referring to Tom Loughlin at SUNY Fredonia, I’ve heard he’s done some amazing things at my alma mater)

  • What struck me in the lyric is the use of “me” 19 times. Watching the greats of 20th century acting – Richardson, Gielgud, and Olivier bow at curtain was a thrilling moment – they reminded us that actors are not the center of the universe, but rather, humble servants. Even Prospero understood that.

    • I should add, “humble servants” of not the theater professor, but of their audience.
      I am most happy about my theater students who have gone on to found their own theaters, create their own shows, be their own people, but who nevertheless are no self-centered.

  • KT

    As a professional actor and having taught full-time as a tenured professor for 20 years, I recently resigned my teaching position due to the problems with academic theater and the entrenched laziness of (certainly my and) too many programs.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that while every school should have a theatre program, few should confer undergraduate degrees (and graduate degrees should only be aligned with professional acting companies, preferably union). I find the BFA degree to be especially egregious. Undergrad students need to be getting a full and rounded education across the board. They should have business classes, literature classes, art classes, economics classes, history classes… Too many are so immersed in only theatre classes that they end up rather uneducated. Worse, so much focus is put on technical abilities in these programs. Actors and designers have to be thinkers as much as creators. Most of what is learned in undergrad school can be picked up in summer stock.

    I have been a union-affiliated professional actor for 30 years. The overwhelming majority of working actors I’ve met did not have theatre undergrad degrees but DID have theatre grad degrees. There have been some exceptions, but they’ve been very few in comparison.

    I would prefer to see professional companies take on the responsibility of a strong internship program – not simple observing and coffee fetching, but true apprentice training for undergrads. This way the truly serious theatre students would get the best of both worlds – strong training in truly creative atmospheres, a fair amount of theatre classes in the non-degree granting programs at their institutions, and a powerful undergraduate education that focuses on the thinking, problem-solving, searching and creative/artistic student rather than the assembly-line graduates we too often get now. (Grad schools can and should continue with their conservatory-style approach. )

    I know there are many strong programs out there. Mine was not one of them. Unfortunately, the overwhelming number of programs mirrored mine. I fought and fought for my department to study and mimic the great programs. I was a lonely voice. There were a lot of reasons for that but the premiere reason was that the rest of the faculty now saw themselves as ‘academics’ rather than a program training potential theatre professionals. In fact, of a faculty of 12, I was the only one who worked professionally (an odd bone of contention in that department). Sadly, I see too much of this around the country as well. Faculty will find community theaters or start their own departmental summer theater program and consider that ‘professional’ when it is anything but.

  • Richard Kooyman

    So how then will artists survive? It’s easy to project a new myth( actually a very old one) that artists “should be for hire”. Oh that sounds so pure doesn’t it? But being for hire is another way of saying we should get paid for the important work we do?
    And is the issue that artists in general don’t share their skills, their talents, their ideas enough? Really?
    Let’s reassess our criticism of artists when it comes to the business models of art. Who and what is really at fault in our society when it comes to cultural production?

  • Scott, while I welcome (and agree with) everything you said, I think KT more directly validates my current philosophy.

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  • Craig — I think both are complementary. I particularly agree with the anti-BFA sentiment — I think young people shojld be educated, not trained.

    Richard — Artists don’t survive now — the bar is pretty low for success of a “new myth,” it seems to me. I’m not certain I see it as “work for hire” — that’s what we have now. Theatre artists sell their labor, seeking jobs that may or may not reflect their own values and interests. So being taught the skills needed to control the means of production actually frees them to do the work they care about.

    You’re a visual artist, aren’t you, Richard? It seems to me that visual artists more than most already have this approach to their work. They maintain their own studios, often sell from their own galleries, and don’t have to ask anyone else to be allowed to practice their art. Actors aren’t taught this — they are encouraged to think of themselves as employees: “I need this job, oh God, I need this show” (to quote “A Chorus Line” again).

  • Richard Kooyman

    Scott, I think the strength of your point is suggesting that all artists take control of their careers as much as possible. I’ll wave that flag also.
    But I believe part of taking control is a stronger belief in that they are for hire, or that what they do needs to be paid for, or what I make needs to be sold. Whether one is a visual artist dealing with the gallery system or an actor dealing with the professional performance arena,that is the way artists survive, by being paid for what they do.

  • Richard — I think we have reached agreement! Alert the media!

    At the risk of undermining that agreement, let me elaborate a bit. As we have seen with the most dynamic part of our economy — that connected to the internet — there are many ways to get paid. Google provides free search and email — how does it get paid? Pandora and Spotify provide free music — how do they get paid? Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress provide free platforms — how do they get paid? All have business models that generate great wealth, but are not solely reliant on selling individual commodities. Is there anything we can adapt from that?

    The fremium business model, for instance (Spotify, Pandora) provides a cut-down version of a service or product for free, and then sells a more full version to those who try the free version, really like it, and want more. How might that work with a classical music concerts? Netflix requires a monthly fee for access to its movies — the customer doesn’t own the movie, but simply watches it — how might this be adapted to the visual arts? (I believe, for instance, there are services where you can rent a work of art for a month, and then return it.) Agricultural CSA’s ask for payment up front, and then provide boxes of vegetables each week or month during the growing season — how might that be adapted to theatre?

    As far as facilitation is concerned, let me give another example. My wife knits, spins, and weaves. In September, she is paying quite a bit to go to a weekend workshop at a resort in Maine focused with prominent knitting teachers from around the country. These knitters don’t make their living by selling sweaters, but by facilitating the creativity and craft of others.

    All of these are ways of getting paid that are different than selling tickets to a performance or an work of art to a single customer. And I think young artists should be taught to think in terms of how they get paid for what they do.

  • Yes…..but!…..in that drive to innovate income streams for artists let’s not lose sight of the fact that Google, Pandora, Twitter and Facebook and NEtflix are not Art. Art is not a commodity like what they all sell. In a sense they exist on a level of Kitsch, that is the taking of an artistic idea or an aesthetic experience and capitalizing on that idea for momentary gain. Netflix doesn’t really give a crap if you rent a good movie or a piece of crap movie.
    I just don’t want to put one more log on the neo-liberal fire that says that the difference between commodities and Art doesn’t matter. It does.

  • LOL — Richard, I knew it was too good to last. When you sell a painting, the process of selling is the same as someone selling a car or a six pack of beer: money changes hands — no difference. Nobody cares if it is good beer or bad beer, good cars or bad, good art or bad. Business models are business models.We live in a capitalist society where art is bought and sold, and artists must sell in order to live. I want artists to make as much money from their art as they can, which means getting the middle men out of the picture and reducing the number of people taking a cut.

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  • I really enjoyed reading your article – I share many of your beliefs and am happy to see them so clearly and coherently articulated! I received my BM and MM from Juilliard in musical performance and could have definitely used more of an education in self-production and business! I ended up teaching myself these skills, which gave me a lot of confidence along the way, but believe that colleges and conservatories can/should do a lot more to prepare each and every student!

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  • In my 43-odd years of producing 5,000+ performances of 400+ productions, I have often had actors and directors expressing frustration that nobody is ‘giving them a job’. To that I have replied “Make your OWN dream come true”. This is as true now as it was when I founded my own Theatre organization. The question is not money, it is coming up with a well-thought-out concept and ‘selling it’, then doing the hard work necessary to succeed. The reason that Actors sometimes resent Producers is their perception that the Producers control their lives. The solution is, of course, for the Actor or Director to self-produce a show that they believe in. In the 60s, I thought that I was not being accorded the Artistic Freedom that I felt that I (perhaps mistakenly) deserved, so I started my own 501(c)3 organization in 1970, the Los Angeles Designers’ Theatre, so I could choose the Designers that I wanted to collaborate with and shows that I wanted to design. My business plan worked, even though certain Directors did not enjoy their limited input as to the design of Sets, Lights, Sound, Props, Costumes, Graphics, etc. I discovered that it was much easier to approach potential investors if I had a Doctorate in Law rather than in Directing; as I could explain the tax consequences of their investment and talk business goals rather than artistic dreams. A realistic Return-of-Investment and Return-on-Investment projection is Key. For those of us not in Academia, it is wise the remember that we are in Show BUSINESS, not Show TALENT. I also take pleasure in Commissioning scripts to be written for my organization.

  • This article succinctly summed up, not only what I would like to do (build a theatre from the ground up, run it, produce the shows, act in the shows and anything else I can manage to do) but what I begged for in college!!! Far too many of the “artists” I know are either people who want to be spoonfed everything or they want to control every aspect of a students life to live vicariously through them. I am fortunate to know ONE theatre performer a couple of years younger than me who is actually doing this right now, fairly successfully. I got spoiled in creating my own Bellydance company and being a member of that world where if a dancer wants to dance- they make it happen, if they want to stage a show-they make it happen, if they want a company-they make it happen. Through being a member of that world and seeing all these great artists and companies popping up because they didn’t want to wait for someone else to give them something- the bellydance community is flourishing! So if that can happen, why couldn’t theatre? Wow, this is the second article I have read today that has inspired me immensely and I am just so shocked to have just read something that laid out EXACTLY what I and my partner have been talking about doing for almost two years. Maybe it’s a sign to stop talking and start doing! Where do you go for financial resources though? Because let’s be honest, we do still have to pay for stuff. Any further thoughts on this would be great! I’m fired up now. :)

  • Margaret Glackin

    As a professional actress/singer I always disliked having to go to NY and try and ‘sell’ my talents to the casting people. Never liked it so didn’t do it very often. I got jobs on my own (leads) and started a drama program in a HS where I direct three shows a year. In the meantime, offered my talents to direct children camps (was quite profitable) and then started my own production company where I can produce the shows I want to do and give myself the roles I know I can play well. So I get do use my talents and have ‘on the job’ training without having to spend money and waste time going to auditions that more than likely the director already has people he/she knows in mind for the role I am trying for. ‘Start Your Own Parade’!

  • Thank you so much for writing this. I live what you have said to do – every piece of it – and I have long wanted to share this knowing with other people, so I appreciate you doing it for me! :-)

    Here in Vancouver, BC, I quickly saw that the actors who survived started their own companies. My partner and I started what is now a small successful theatre company, in which we play multiple roles, from producers, to set designers, to directors, writers, to performers. We create art that is deeply needed by the community, which gives us a good business model and regular revenues that aren’t dependent upon grants. We make art we love and have no one telling us how to make our art. We now employ others year-round.

    Every young actor should read this. I’ll be passing it on. Thank you.

  • Anya

    While I agree that artists must learn how to self initiate and how to exercise their agency, your model leaves little room for the theatre artists who actually *want* to specialize. Many of those who attend the MFA programs you criticize have spent years making their own work (outside of the bubble of academia) before they pursue their masters; they have come to a crossroads in their career or their artistic exploration where they feel they would benefit from the strengthening of a particular skill set – voice training, stage combat, restoration drama, etc.

    Conservatory environments are not right for everyone, but they *are* right for some. Of course, no one can actually create or sustain art in a vacuum, but those programs are intended for personal and artistic growth as separate from the business model. After all, you can’t *really* learn the “business” of the craft without being in the thick of it, anyways; changing the academic model to emulate the world outside does not make your students veterans of it; it may in fact deprive them of the artistic skills they need to pave their way in the “real world.”

    (For the record, I am not – and never have been – a conservatory student.)

    I would also dispute your claim that the portrait of Cassie in A CHORUS LINE is unique to performing artists. You concede that “Yes, those artists need others to publish their work, or to display it in a gallery” and yet you immediately assert that those artists “have complete power over the creation of the work.” Sure, those kinds of artists have complete power of the creation of their work…but on what scale? Any artist can create in isolation, but I would like to think that most of us practice our passions so that, ultimately, we can share it and make an impact.

    A writer can write day in and day out, but she writes so that others can read — so that she can share. A painter can paint day in and day out, but he paints so that others can see — so that he can share. The same is true of our field, we actors can perform monologues alone all day if we wish, we directors can direct one or two friends on a scene in our basement, but we hope to perform for — and affect — a real, live audience.

    In his preface to Love! Valour! Compassion!, Terrence McNally thanks the Manhattan Theatre Club for – yes – “giving him a home.” This playwright thanks his lucky stars for being “given” the opportunity to collaborate with the best actors, the best directors, the best scenic designers in the field, for being “given” a venue that attracts wide audiences, for being “given,” ultimately, the opportunity to witness the astounding impact of his words. If Terrence McNally had not been “given” a nesting ground at MTC, and had simply continued to write on his own because he could, we would not necessarily be the beneficiaries of his magnificent contribution to this field.

    Now, of course, I think it is admirable if someone wants to assume multiple roles, actor-producer, writer-director, designer-entrepreneuer, the list goes on. Do I think people who have interest in pursuing and controlling the business of theatre *and* honing an artistic craft should have the opportunity to do both? Of course. More power to them.

    But do I think we should assume that every artist has these interests and overhaul the educational model in support of this assumption? Absolutely not. Those who want to specialize should do so; those who want to create under the patronage of another, more managerially-inclined, should do so, as well.

    I do not believe we should all be specialists, but I don’t think we all have to be generalists, either.

  • Elena — I have another blog, Creative Insubordination (http://www.creativeinsubordination.org) that is starting to lay out different approaches to independent artistry. I am planning to teach an on-line course soon as well.

    Margaret and Vanessa — Kudos to you! The more independent artists I discover, the happier I am! Perhaps down the road you could share some of your discoveries with me?

  • Rachel Boggia

    Thanks for your article. Very thought provoking. Experimental programs like Inter-University Centre for Dance Berlin (HZT)
    http://www.hzt-berlin.de/?z=15&lan=en are actually trying this model.

  • Amen. I love what the commentors have to say. Here’s my story. My blessing (and curse) during college was that I was not cast in any major productions until my very final year. Thank you Tom Loughlin! And it was a minor role, at that. I involved myself, instead, with learning the backstage work, and getting involved in as many student run productions as possible. Our final “test” if you will was a 45 minute production with a zillion elements – duets, dancing, monologues, classical & modern songs, etc. We had to produce it ourselves. I learned MORE from this method of training, than had I been handed more roles. Of course, that experience would have been great too– and I often said that I was there to learn, not to compete with my classmates, and I longed for more equitable casting where the college didn’t rely on the income from incredible performances, and students were cast regardless of whether they were 100% right for the role, or perfectly experienced. Hey, I was paying for education, right? But– I went to NY, and within three months had co-founded a non-profit with other actors, and we began producing our own works. This has been my model ever since. Becoming an entrepreneur. I am grateful to my education, because it gave me the ability to do years of costumes, set design, make-up, and all of the other elements that make up theater…and when I left, the world was truly open.

  • Anya — Indeed, there are some people who want to specialize, and I would not condemn them. However, I would say that programs should be very, very honest with such students: the likelihood of making a living in the theatre is virtually non-existent; 58% of the members of Actors Equity didn’t make a dime in the theatre last year, and 87% would have made more flipping burgers for minimum wage. That said, I am not suggesting that ALL theatre programs be converted, simply that a LOT more be. The fact is (and I speak as someone who has taught in higher education for over 20 years) that the vast majority of theatre programs are built the same: specialism combined with a strong dose of what I call the Tinkerbell/Cinderella Myth: if you just believe hard enough, and do the scut work long enough, eventually you will be plucked from obscurity by some producer version of Prince Charming and flung into the stratosphere where you, too, will be able to make high-minded comments at the Tony Award show. It’s dishonest, it’s exploitative, and most importantly is wastes the talents of thousands and thousands of artists who COULD be creating theatre somewhere other than NYC that really NEEDS theatre. I am tired of the lie that masquerades as theatre “training” in this country, and it is time that some of us speak out so that this conversation starts to happen.

  • Melissa — Tom Loughlin is a good friend of mine, and he and I have given conference presentations together about this very issue. He has serious questions about the way theatre education is designed in America as well. I suspect that, at the time, you were not thrilled by not getting cast, but it sounds to me as if you got a much better education than if you had. Good luck with your career, and thanks for commenting!

  • TB

    In 38yrs of producing and creating theatre, being “of service to the community” took the longest to sink in- yet it is the most essential element. 24 yrs teaching undergrads brings me to the exact same conclusions.

  • ATW

    One minor correction. Most of the homes Auburn University’s Rural Studio has built are in Alabama, not Georgia.

  • This is a revolutionary article, I believe after reading it. But we have to remember that education has caused theatre to retreat into it’s own corner when it should be the collective of all education. Theatre, at it’s heart, is the combination of all of the arts to tell a story. The more of a combination of these arts, the better the story (where musicals come from) but more importantly, where our theatre comes from, which is the Greeks. Theatre used to be a craft that was taught with a mentorship, and while this happens in educational theatre, the ball is dropped in theatre of the world because we rely on the giving of others in order to sustain our non-profits rather than making a profit with our non-profit. We blame it on a lot of things, but there are theatres that make it happen. While my goal here is not to write a book, I believe the key comes in the diversification of revenue streams. Theatre’s have one. Tickets and the donation of ticket holders. This is not good business. Sell tickets to rehearsals of original content online in your rehearsal process. Let people buy tickets to the rehearsals and see how it’s done. Expose process and sell that. Make merchandising something that is more than just a box. Rent out your lobby as a business and share rent with others.

    I believe the future of this dramapreneurial world is that individuals will infuse the theatrical arts with everyday businesses. But it will take a group of people who are willing to think outside the black box to accomplish this. Our roll as theatre artisans and craftsman is to reflect the human experience, and to do that, we have to make our theatre more relevant to the world around us. Brilliant idea he’s had. Those are my thoughts.

  • Sorry, reposted this from another source, hence the third person.

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  • Hello,
    I wanted to write and say how the article “A New Education for a New Theatre” really made me proud of what my friends and I have accomplished.
    I studied musical theatre in NYC and left a year and a half into college. From there I decided to take a different path in life and to study Clowning at l’Ecole Nationale de Cirque (The National Circus School) in Montreal, Quebec. After a year at school a group of friends and myself got together and created a new American contemporary circus company called “Frequently Asked Questions: A Circus Collective” (F.A.Q.)

    In the past year we have begun a process, very much like the one you have written about in your article, where we researched, rehearsed, and created a circus company. We have run everything from fundraising to booking hotels for our first tour for our debut creation “Now You Know”. We were able to book performances in Troy, N.Y., St. Louis, Missouri, Philadelphia, Penn., Arlington, M.A., and NYC, NY.

    We constantly get asked why we chose to create a company when we go to a school that is so well connected to the circus world, that getting jobs after school is not so difficult. I believe we did it for the very reasons you state. We wanted to be in charge of our careers. We all do still want to have jobs in other companies at some point however, we also wanted the freedom to do what we want to do in our artistic medium. We want to have an effect on the contemporary circus scene in the U.S. It is rare to find groups of friends doing what we are doing, as you already know, but even more so with circus. The art form of circus has grown so much in Europe, Canada, and all around the world but has stayed rather much the same in the U.S., of course admitting the foreign productions that perform in major American cities. We want to change this with the very model you discuss. We train year round at school but also at the same time run a business, a real business.

    Reading your article made me proud of what we have accomplished thus far. I am excited for what the future holds and I hope people like you continue to speak your mind. I think it would benefit any type of performer/ artist to have such an in-depth education.
    Thank you so much. Please check out F.A.Q. at http://www.FAQCircus.com
    – Aaron M.

  • Yikes, ATW! What was I thinking? Yes, Alabama.

  • Aaron — You deserve to be proud. Good luck with your endeavors, and if you think of it, keep me informed of your progress!

  • Dear Mr. Walters, your article rang so true in my mind. I just graduated from a theater program in California and received my B.A. this year. I completely agree with you on the power of making mistakes and picking yourself up from them. This in my beliefs leads to true learning, creative independence, and growth as an adult. I learned the most from making my own mistakes in my development of directing. Where would we be today if it wasn’t for the tinkering of minds, the mistakes that fostered new ideas and better ways to achieve goals? We are meant to be inquisitive, and to always ask questions in this profession (of what I’ve encountered so far in my short amount of time as a theater artist). Never close the mind to expansion is another tool and gift for those in this career pursuit.

    I chose a theater education for the person building experiences it permitted — to explore creative passions that had lain in slumber when I once pursued a medical education. There will never be a day when I don’t appreciate the theater for the education it has encouraged. I’m in awe of its culture and abilities of touching humanity in ways other professions cannot.

    If schools can implement the changes you have talked about in this article, I think it would generate the abilities of young artists to go out and produce more work. Without the fear that comes from a lack of knowledge. It would also gear up theater grads to to delve into the business of theater — not just performing. Thank you for this eye opening read. I will be sure to pass it along to my friends and share it with other people in the field.