I’ve touched lightly upon the problems with the training of theatre professionals a couple times in entries. I never really got into it in the depth that Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas did in a recent entry.
It is an interesting read just for the simple fact that how artists are trained should be a periennial topic of discussion. I agree with Walters that offering BAs and BFAs in the arts is a disservice to students because the programs have too narrow a focus at a point in a student’s career when they need to have a wide variety of experiences with which to inform their art later.
Walters quotes at some length Tony Kushner’s keynote address to the 1997 Association of Theatre in Higher Education conference (reprinted in Jan 1998 American Theatre) which borrowed Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” title.
Among the sentiments Kushner stated were
“we should abolish all undergraduate art majors…any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition….[and instead] must prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts.”
There are a few bits of knowledge Kushner feels students should know with which I don’t quite agree. I don’t know that people come across alexandrines enough in their careers that they would remember what it was much less need to memorize the definition in the first place. And I don’t know that my hormone laden brain could have really absorbed the Poetics when I was in college. I came to a greater understanding when I looked back upon it later in life.
I do think that if you are going to get into the arts as a career you are probably better served by someone telling you to get familiar with history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, political science and literature and then come back and you’ll talk.
Even BA programs that theoretically don’t have the conservatory focus and are supposed to provide a well-rounded education tends to have an organizational culture, if not an overt policy, that the Art and all related activites are to receive first priority. Certainly the discipline to rehearse, be prepare for performances, sculpt, paint, photograph, etc are important habits for artists to cultivate. But if the degree calls for a well rounded education, the program focus should be equally distributed.
Just as a disclaimer, I will say I think this is more possible to realize for visual arts, dance and theatre. I don’t know as much about music but I get the sense that you pretty much have to be focussed on your instrument all day, every day or you are doomed. I am not saying this is the way it should be. It just seems to be the way it is. Even dance where a woman’s career is over by the time she is 30 seems to allow a little more leeway when it comes to exploring the forces that might influence the formation and expression of dance.
In fact, Walters quotes an article by a Juillard faculty member saying something quite similar.
The longer students stay in a conservatory the narrower their definition of life in the arts becomes. Julliard’s president, Joseph William Polisi, noticed, as he traveled around, that many graduates were not leading full, juicy lives. He began to feel responsible for too many graduates who were thinking that a life in the arts is only about technique and gigs. Faculty members weren’t be encouraged to send graduates out there to explore other art forms or ask big questions. We weren’t modeling the very life we wanted them to lead.”
“…Ninety percent will be piecing it together in some different way: working in other fields, originating work, collaborating with artists of other fields, starting theatre companies and launching business endeavors. We need to model the way for students and young artists to think and be joyful and make meaning of this hodgepodge that is a contemporary career. [emphasis mine.-Joe]We’re good at rehearsing Shakespeare scenes and improvising the hell out of awkward situations. But we’re not so sensitive to training inner skills that will make a sustainable creative life in the theatre.”
The obstacles to creating a program where a student is prepared to be an artist in all these ways isn’t just in the difficulties related to changing the teaching methods and prevailing culture of a training program. There is also the expectations of the students that need to be surmounted.
There seems to be a real focus on only learning what is necessary these days. In part it is a function of the internet society where you can learn all you want to know about something whenever the need may arise. Students are looking for the minimum training they will need to get a job. With the cost of college these days, it is hard to blame them. My theory about the disparity between male and female enrollment in college these days is not that fewer men are able to get into college, it is that the requisite training/experience for the careers the men want can be found in other places.
If you tell a student that if they want to be an actor, they need to spend four years pondering philosophy, history, literature and all the rest and then they can go on to get a masters in acting and then go get a job, the student is going to take their tuition money to your competitors, independent acting classes, or use it to move to NYC to try their luck.