Vital To Discuss: Graduate Preparation

In a confluence of good timing, my Inside the Arts compadre, Jason Heath, touched on a subject yesterday aligned with that of two of my favorite bloggers. In an entry with a self-explanatory title, Music School Enrollment Spikes as Economy Tanks, Jason cites a Chicago Tribune article on that subject. Jason discusses the cons of pursuing a degree in music but seems heartened by the article’s assertion that studying music confers skills applicable to other fields. (Given a recent post, that is good news to me too.) My only concern is that in tough economic times, there are so many people with direct experience with jobs, there is no need for those with skills that carry over.

The article notes that music schools are making sure their graduates have training in addition to performance to make them more capable and prepared for the realities of the industry. Theatre schools are apparently not following suit in the estimation of Theatre Ideas blogger, Scott Walters, and A Poor Player blogger Tom Loughlin who met for the first time this past weekend at the Southeastern Theatre Conference where they presented a session on revamping the way theatre students are prepared.

Both gentlemen reflect on the experience in their respective blogs with some disappointment that the conferences do not really allow serious conversations about the state of the industry and how graduates may be better prepared.

Says Mr. Loughlin:

“At places like SETC, NETC, and ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) the emphasis is 97% on “how to succeed in the theatre business by trying a little harder.” It’s self-perpetuating, narcissistic, and almost cult-like. Anybody interested in having an adult conversation about what might be wrong, what might need reform, etc., is faced with the reality that everyone else there has drunk the kool-aid of pre-professionalism. You might as well be talking to a wall.”

[….]

“As I walked through the halls of the hotel complex during the afternoon I grew more and more sad watching all these young dressed-up kids with their audition numbers pinned to their chests waiting for their turn to show everyone what they could do and begin their climb up the great Broadway ladder. They know nothing else at all about theatre except this professional business model, and they have no sense of independent thought in terms of thinking about how to push back against it. They’re just buying it hook, line and sinker. And we, the educators, are tossing them the baited hook.”

Both felt the keynote speaker, Beth Leavel, was the worst offender when it came to underplaying the difficulty of making it in theatre and overselling NYC as the sole source and standard for success.

Scott Walters’ observations were most pointed in this respect.

“The crack she peddled was pontent: she had only had to work two weeks in her entire career at anything outside the theatre. I could see young girls texting their parents with this fact, proof that their choice of a major in theatre wasn’t foolhardy in the least.”

[…]

“Not surprisingly, nobody ever asked, and clearly Beth Leavel never considered, the utter insanity of such an arrangement. Nope, it was all about New York, and Beth had made the leap from SETC to Broadway, and you can too. You just have to want it badly enough. Because we are so lucky to do what we do. Why, she burbled, I’ve never worked a day in my life, and I mean that.”

[…]

“It seemed so appallingly irresponsible. To look at all these young, hopeful people with numbers pinned to their chests, I kept thinking of Biff Loman’s pathetic plea at the end of Death of a Salesman: “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” I knew that many, many of these kids were very talented, and that for most of them those talents will go unused and unappreciated in the theatrical Oz to which Ms Leavel had pointed them. And they will limp home thereafter and, like Mr Tanner in Harry Chapin’s heart-breaking ballad of the same name, they’ll never sing again, or dance again, or act again.”

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I found it interesting that both men reference the audition numbers pinned to each person’s chest in what is probably not even an attempted veiled allusion to the “hopes pinned” phrase. According to Walters, they did their best to dash what for most will be false hopes in their session citing dismal employment and median income figures of Equity union actors.

We urged teachers to ” take that phony dream and burn it before something happens” and replace it with something important, something rooted, something that would enrich our towns and cities and states. We urged theatre teachers (and had we not presented before she did, Beth Leavel) to get out of the export business, in which our purpose is to ship off “goods” to New York City.

None of the entries are terribly long and bear reading in their entirety. If you aren’t familiar with Loughlin and Walters, they are both professors in performing arts programs who have been reflecting for some time on the education processes with which they are involved–and on the fate of their graduates.

As a person who came out of a theatre background, I have always felt a little superior to the other arts disciplines because theatre tends to be a lot more together in many regards. In graduate preparation theatre seems to be lagging. Not all music training programs offer the type of preparation mentioned in the Tribune piece, but there are enough to serve as examples for theatre training programs.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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