The State of American Theatre Education
Seth Lepore, you’re right—I am culpable. We in higher education theatre programs are academically narcissistic. We are complacent behind the walls of our institutions. Our curricula are woefully irrelevant, our rubrics for student achievement are mal-calibrated and worst of all, we have spent the last decade of rapid economic change trying to argue for the protection of our state of affairs.
But the situation isn’t hopeless.
Ten years ago when I was approached by an American university to interview for a tenure track position in a BFA program (in fact, they declared it to be a “conservatory program”), I thought I was prepared. I had come from the UK where I was freelancing in conservatory-style “Drama Schools” (think The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Bristol Old Vic, Guildhall, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), etc.). I was already working in literal conservatories in the UK, so an American BFA program was similar, right? Five years into my first run on a tenure line completely reversed that confidence in myself. Largely due to a frightening disconnect between the curriculum and the industry demands.
I’m aware Seth’s article was targeted mainly at masters programs. Although I may be speaking to BFA programs, make no mistake—the faculty teaching in BFA programs (and the marketing teams promoting them to parents and students) firmly believe that a BFA is a terminal degree for a performer. The implication being, if a student graduates from a BFA program then pursues an MA or MFA, it was for one of only two reasons: 1) The student wants to teach, 2) the student can’t “hack it” as an actor.
Our Business is Not a Meritocracy
University curricula for performance majors rely heavily on one way to prepare students for the industry: have them act in great plays. The assumption is, by “wrestling” with great works of dramatic art, a student develops the requisite skills to build a career within the industry.
By this reasoning, the actor who best wrestles with this material (and/or most wrestles with it) is best prepared for the industry. But that only works if the business is a) a meritocracy, and b) has objectivity enough to notice and reward meritorious performance ability. What constitutes the “best” acting in an industry as diverse as ours? We can’t ignore that in theatre, television, and film, “most marketable to a target audience demographic” is often the decider. Which is filthy for university professors to entertain, as our entire curriculum is built on the promise that great acting a) can be taught, and b) more acting classes will prepare you to be a “leader” in the industry.
We Don’t Teach “How,” We Only Teach “What”
Now I want to start using the word “entrepreneurial.” I realize it has been overused. When the new economy’s tech billionaires began to offer their working methodology to universities, the expression “entrepreneurial” was whispered around every campus in the country. As universities looked to raise their rankings, their board of trustees became populated with these high-achieving, new economy CEOs. They spent many expensive dinners telling the president and provost how millennials need to be taught how to be entrepreneurs (and—spoiler alert—they’re right). Within a semester, colleges were overhauling their curricula and websites to reflect this new focus on “entrepreneurial” skills. But there were no metrics in place to assess that entrepreneurialism, or identify what that meant for each discipline within a college. So the word has been left overused and under-identified, particularly in arts’ colleges.
Despite this vagueness, however, is that in order to successfully enter an oversaturated industry like ours, performers need more diverse “tools” than an acting process. I have had students, about to graduate, ask for meetings with me to teach them how to use digital audio software to make voice-over samples. And they had actually taken a class in voice-overs. But, because the emphasis of that course was on the “acting,” the students weren’t taught “tech stuff,” like how to record themselves, edit themselves, duplicate their work, package it, distribute it, or post it on their website—basically any of the core skill sets needed to actually gain value from a voice-over. They were taught how to make funny voices. And that class was held up as an example of entrepreneurialism because it taught “diverse approaches to the industry.”
Similarly, I am inundated with former students already working in the business asking me how to make websites, how to break into motion capture work for video games, what grants and/or internships are offered, reputable theatre companies that are not in New York City, Chicago, or Boston, how to make apps because they’ve got an idea, what they should pay for a headshot, how to edit a video for a Kickstarter. One person called me to ask what Kickstarter was. I get these calls because I have a reputation and interest in “technology.” The truth is, I’m not really interested in technology, but in how you use your training to get work. Theatre departments seem only to embrace technology if it is onstage, or in the booth. It certainly gets mention on departmental websites. But not the kind of technology that involves funding, marketing, developing, or sharing your work. Let alone diversifying your education into other disciplines.
This returns to Seth’s point of “academic narcissism.” We in higher education promise students in our syllabi and curricula that we give them a “tool kit,” (oh, how overused that phrase is—and I’m as guilty as anyone else). Truthfully, the only “tools” we give students cannot be used until after they’ve landed a job. Audition workshops are not enough, because they assume we all can get auditions, or that auditions are the principal way actors today land jobs. Assumptions like this push us behind the eight ball.
We Wait Until It’s Too Late
The response from my colleagues to these claims is predictable: “We offer arts administration classes!” “We require that students take a business of the business class!” “We have a showcase performance for industry leaders!” “We have casting directors come and talk to our students!” Helpful, without a doubt. But they are too little, too late. Because these “industry interventions” are not placed at the center of the curriculum. Which means, the skills taught in these classes aren’t considered core skills for a performer. What university program offers a business of the business class in the first year? Who offers audition classes to freshmen? Which university requires all performance students take a grant writing class?
The current curricula share another problem: they are all focused towards a narrow element of the business, namely the part that involves agents, managers, and casting directors. How about crowdfunding? What about career development grants? Or starting your own company? Or building your own website? Or marketing yourself? Or brand recognition and development? Or accounting as a self-employed artist? Or how about simply how to professionally put yourself on film, edit it, and post it online?
The first semester of a freshman’s training should be the start of the entrepreneurial tool kit. While priority can be placed on acting technique, a young actor needs to be taught the complex requirements demanded of them by the industry. The earlier we alert an acting student to entrepreneurial demands, the sooner they can plan their class schedules to cover the areas they need, rather than waiting until two weeks before graduation to ask “what cities have fringe festivals in the summer?”
Program or Be Programmed
Doug Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed has a surprising and yet immediate resonance for acting students today. Rushkoff rightly points out that as digital tools become more and more the means of our economy’s production, failure to be fluent with them means we will find ourselves at the mercy of the technology designed to serve us. Rushkoff is also quick to point out that we are being forced into the image of our technological tools and not the other way round. Like Rushkoff, I think we must engage with these new tools if we are to subvert or personalize them. As I associate technological tools with entrepreneurial tools, this means requiring our performance students to engage with technology as part of their training.
Rushkoff’s argument is actually like a classical conservatory’s mantra of education— learn the tool, become fluent with the tool, reinvent the tool. The overworn comparison to a jazz musician holds: learn your musical scales, become fluent in them, and then break their structure to more fully express yourself. We in the university system have so fully discounted the entrepreneurial demands on our students that we have failed to include teaching those “scales” to them. What hope do they have of becoming fluent in them, let alone molding them to fit their needs?
Walk Your Talk
Some responses to Seth’s article included comments from current university professors who explain that an ongoing contribution to the industry is a necessary part of their being a professor. While this is true in theory, the reality works out very differently. Tenured professors in theatre programs are required to offer extensive administrative service to their institutions, and their teaching load is frequently heavy (especially in BFA programs). Not to mention that the university’s upper administration frequently struggles to notice any faculty activity as “contribution to the field” unless it is funded research or a peer-reviewed book. In theatre’s case, that means review by other research-heavy tenured professors speculating over micro-topics within our business as a whole. Where are the tenured professor books on industry demands, networking within the industry, effective self-marketing, running a small company, or developing original work?
It would seem, then, that within theatre departments, the faculty who are most engaged in the industry are either nontenure track or untenured. As tenure is the decision-making engine within higher education, that means those who work most within the industry seem to be making the fewest decisions about the structure of the curriculum. Therefore, industry contribution is the least valued quality when constructing a theatre department’s curriculum. That is not to say it is not valued at all. Guest speakers/lecturers are usually left to be responsible for “industry relevance.” Because guests are the only one with the necessity to engage with the industry on a regular basis, and can offer more insight than the faculty.
Brief coda: What I write holds true more for performance faculty. Design faculty tend to be extremely involved in the industry. Their timelines of production are very different than a performer’s. A designer can hire assistants and drop in and out of the production process until tech week, whereas a performer cannot. Unless a university is located within a bustling theatrical community, or active filming community, consistent engagement with the industry while maintaining a teaching and research load proves almost impossible for performance faculty.
Change the Curriculum
Where are the guest artists who have started their own theatre companies? Where are the alumni who built a personal training company when the acting work dried up? Where are actors who work exclusively in motion capture and/or voice-over? Where are the working actors from regional communities?
Our metrics for assessing student success in our industry are ill-informed, because we are not involved thoroughly enough. When is the last time we wrestled with choosing a play for a season that would ensure a minimum of 60 percent audience capacity? When was the last time we had to structure an audience development strategy? When was the last time we made a video to fund a personal project we wanted to do? When did we last update our own website? When did we last check web traffic analytics on our site to chart viewership or subscription levels? Can any of us name the projects slated to be filmed in your area over the next year?
The more we avoid these very real entrepreneurial demands of our industry and outsource them to the business school or worse, just being “life skills,” the more irrelevant our experience becomes. And, to return to an idea posited earlier, our industry is not an objective meritocracy. It is built on experience and opinion. So let’s make sure we’re responsible with those experiences and building our opinions on evolving data from the industry around us. Let’s put entrepreneurship at the center of the curriculum, and not an addendum before graduation.
- Matthew Grey
Matt Gray is a director, educator, and designer for the theatre. He received a BFA in acting at the University of British Columbia in Canada, then went to LAMDA in the UK to get his grad degree in directing. He has acted, designed, and directed for productions across Canada, the UK, Europe, and the States. He currently teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, as well as being Artistic Director for Salem Theatre.
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