Educating our Artists

I’ve spent a few posts dedicated to the skills that general arts education equips artists and non artists with in confronting our world. Today, I’m turning to the challenge of educating our theater artists–actors in particular–for a life in the theater.

An interesting post by Professor Scott Walters on the Clyde Fitch Report outlines his recommendations for shifting the model of theater education at the graduate, undergraduate level, and earlier.

Certainly one of the most difficult things about being an actor is the seeming lack of control one has over one’s career. Waiting for people to allow you to audition, to audition again if you passed muster the first time, to then participate in a piece that may or may not reflect your own artistic values in a community you may or may not feel a part of. It’s a rather psychologically destructive set up. How do we combat this? Well, we’re told to create our own work, but that can feel daunting with day jobs and a lack of funding to get them off their feet and a general lack of know-how in the fund raising and management departments. Rather than rendering this take control and create your own work attitude as a bit of advice, Walters suggests it be part of the fundamental curriculum in theater departments.  He recommends shifting the curriculum in these departments to allow the students control of the means of production, give them more room for failure, and train them in administrative and fundraising skills.

Here are a few selections pulled from his post, but do take a look at the whole thing if you have time:

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.

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?

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 think a lot of these ideas are right on the nose. But I do feel there is something to be said for a truly specialized mastery of a particular aspect of the craft— and that takes years of dedicated training. His recommendations to seem to favor the generalist and could run the risk of short changing that kind of focus. So I wonder if a truly complete training in the theater would have to represent some kind of marriage between these broader, agency building skills and a rigorous dedication to craft. Perhaps that is the difference between a BA, and those who go on to get an MFA? That certainly was my experience going from theater studies at Yale—in which most production work was extracurricular and controlled by students, not guided by the department—and NYU’s Acting MFA (where, to be fair, we were given several opportunities and much encouragement to create our own work).  But at that point you are dumping a lot of money into an education that is likely to have very little financial pay off. And I’m not sure we should be building a model of theater training in which an MFA is considered a prerequisite. It’s a tough balance— one we should certainly continue to evaluate as we consider the strength, relevance and vibrancy of our field and its artists generally.

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4 Responses to Educating our Artists

  1. Scott Walters says:

    Hi! Thanks for giving such kind attention to my post. I can understand your concern about mastery. I would likely argue that mastery comes as a result of practice, so being able to have as much production experience in front of an audience as possible would accomplish the goal. However, I am no longer convinced that virtuosity is the goal; I believe in achieving competence through education, virtuosity through ongoing practice. Does that make sense?

    • Hello! Thank you for your post, I very much enjoyed it, and am glad you didn’t mind my mentioning it. It does make sense, and certainly at the undergraduate level and earlier. I do feel there are skills I learned while working on my MFA that I would not have been able to gain through practice. But in terms of the values you wish to instill and the change you wish to see in the theatrical landscape I am in accord! And I think you are right that it has to start with how we are educating our artists.

  2. Hannah Smith Manziano says:

    Hello! The whole of this exchange/rumination on where we are in the realm of training artist and non artists for a LIFE in the theater is lovely. Moreover, it’s necessary. So thank you, @jenniferjoanthompson, for giving the subject more light. It is one that I consider often, but don’t try to flesh out often ENOUGH.

    Have you (or you, @Scott) looked at the rebuttal from NYU’s (a professor in Performance Studies) Richard Schechner on the notion of the dissolution of the PhD in Theater? An appropriate and fascinating read. Would love to have further discourse on the whole of this subject and where it fits into this blog post. You can read it here:

    • Thanks Hannah! I read the (rather hysterical) article on the Chronicle about eliminating the PhD, but havent read Schechner’s rebuttal, excited to give it a look, thanks for passing it along!

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