Teaching Theater and the Theater Teacher

June 29, 2008 by  

Teaching [theater] is like writing a play. If I write from an idea about writing, or structure; if I write something I am assigned to write that I am not very excited about; if I write with a view of getting it over with, getting the paycheck; and if I do not have blood on every page, I do slovenly work. But if I write from my deepest self, with strength and raw passion, with respect for my characters and the structure they dictate, I have a play, and I have a classroom. Teaching drama is, in fact, writing drama. A class can only succeed if the dramatist, or teacher, makes the right choices. Are the most dramatic choices always the right choices? And is it possible that a dramatist of my sensibility can make dangerous choices as a teacher? choices that, like high diving, can produce either spectacular results or, possibly, tragic accidents? – Judith Thompson, How Theatre Educates

Flashback to undergraduate years. Modern French theatre at New College, University of Toronto, 1986. Professor enters. I glance quickly at my Beckett text before the lecture begins. I probably owe my great affection for French theatre to him. Here was someone who acted in the Shaw and Stratford festival companies, who performed on stages in Canada in both official languages, who had worked with major Canadian film directors. But what was most remarkable to me was his brilliant pedagogy. He was an inspired teacher in addition of (because of?) his extraordinary experience in the theatre. For John Gilbert, the world of teaching and the world of theatre was inseparable creative projects. They required the same capacity to communicate clearly and “let the text speak for itself.” I learned much about theatre from John, but I learned more about good teaching. Education, like theatre, is not meant to induce agreement, but to shake foundations. – Kathleen Gallagher, How Theatre Educates

Letter to the Editor of American Theatre Magazine

June 27, 2008 by  

I believe the title of Teresa Eyring’s article “How Theatre Saved America, Part I” is misleading. “How Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble saved Bloomsburg, PA,” would have been entirely more appropriate. I applaud Eyring for highlighting BTE, but this topic is too massive to be covered in a two-part, two page article. To highlight only one of seven listed theatre ensembles and then tell readers that the American theater is “saving America” is incredibly insufficient. If American Theatre magazine and TCG are truly concerned about this problem they should devote an entire issue to it. Interview both sides talking with everyone involved including board members, artistic directors, actors, playwrights, etc. A good place to start is the blogging community as there are many artists, practitioners and educators sharing their struggles and points of view. Also highlight more theaters outside the major metropolitan hubs showing how they are accomplishing ensemble work and providing a living wage for the artists. As well, if permission is granted, the issue should also include Mike Daisey‘s monologue How Theatre Failed America, which would serve as an additional source for this contentious issue.

Contrary to its title, in Part I of her article, Eyring does not explain how theatre has saved America. Instead, she attempts to hold on to the ill-conceived notion that nothing is wrong and thus believes we should “stay the course”. Conversely, in his monologue, Daisey asserts that the regional theater has sold out. Its focus and cash flow are directed to the creation of buildings instead of using resources to support an ensemble of actors, directors, playwrights and technicians. An even bigger problem is the issue of fundraising and donation. The American public would not give money to a theatre company attempting to raise money for an ensemble of artists, but plenty of wealthy donors are willing to give money if it ensures the placement of their name on a theatre’s toilet. As Daisey states, a more apt title for his show would be: How American theater has become America, signifying a capitalistic model that places the value of things over the value of people.

At the roundtable discussion following Daisey’s final show at the Barrow Street Theatre, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, said that ideology will always trump experience. Current ideology runs counter to the possibility of ensemble artists making a living in regional theatres across America. However, as Eyring points out, experience shows that it is happening. Therefore, we need to work to change the ideology that rules both the American public and the boards of regional theaters who approve the spending. This is an extremely complex issue that can be examined from many different angles. So let’s concentrate on dissecting this topic; lets continue to talk and write articles from more than just one perspective.

As Eustis emphasized at the roundtable, we should applaud the gains of the American theater and give it some respect. Currently we have many more theater buildings than fifty or sixty years ago and so the public undoubtedly has more options to see and experience theater and artists have more spaces to work. We must also concentrate on how we can change the ingrained perception of what is considered important. How can we make the public understand that the people they are most willing to overlook, the theater artists, are the life and soul of the theater. My generation will soon be taking over the leadership of the American theater (and the nation as a whole) and for us to implement effective and meaningful change the ideology shift needs to begin now.

*UPDATE: Nick over at Rat Sass make an additional observation that I missed. Again, another reason that shows that this article did not live up to the title.

Mike Daisey’s Final Roundtable: Ideology vs. Experience

June 26, 2008 by  

I had the great opportunity to take Karen and some friends from the NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre program to see Mike Daisey’s closing performance of How Theater Failed America. They loved it (as I knew they would) and the panel discussion afterwards brought up some interesting ideas.

Th topic of the panel was Theater in 2033. The first question asked was from an actress who claimed she couldn’t get cast in Equity EPAs when actresses like Katie Holmes are making Broadway appearances. It felt awkward as this actress would not let it go of her frustration of not being able to be seen by ADs like Oskar Eustis. Playwright Richard Nelson put the issue to rest by saying something to the regards of “Forget about that! What’s going on there, on Broadway, has nothing to do with the art you want to do!”. The play presented such bigger issues that I was frustrated with this actress being so narrow minded bringing the issue down to why she could not get a job.

Other topics discussed were the future of theater education and the need for “Children’s Theater” to be recognized more as legitimized professional theater and not the thing actors do to get their equity card as well as how long it took actress Jayne Houdyshell to buy a house, basically all of her 35 year career.

Out of all the highly experienced panel members I was drawn most to the ideas of Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater. One idea mentioned was the fact that the American theater should go the way of the American public libraries. Free for all. As talked about all over the theater scene the budget to run the American theaters is a drop in the hat of the national budget. I appreciated that he made sure to say that this was not going to get any artists rich, but that it would be a healthy alternative to the capitalistic view that is running the current non-profit theater system.

Naturally he used the example of the Delacorte theater in Central Park. The current play Hamlet received bad reviews from the New York Times, but is still “selling out” shows because of the very fact the tickets are free and the production value is of quality. He presented to the Public’s board the idea of having free tickets for the shows in the downtown space. The board could not imagine such a thing. Which brought Eustis to the crux of his point. That ideology will always trump experience. Experience says that when tickets are free people will come to the Public’s productions, but the ideology says that theater can not be run on this model as it has to make money and there are no other options but to sell tickets. Eustis said the national ideology surrounding how theater is run in America must change. He has hope because the current administration in the big institutional theaters will soon be gone and the next generation can “take them over” and issue reform. He also wanted to make clear that the current state of American theater needs some respect. The current theaters were not there fifty-sixty years ago and therefore the current situation is better than the options back then. Eustis seems to have his feet in both worlds. He is one that has experience with the current institutional theater model but also realizes that change is needed and that change can only happen from the inside. He is an artist and an administrator in the best sense of each of the words. This balance of both minds is needed if there is hope in ushering a new ideology for the American theater.

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Artists Rep Creates Resident Acting Company

June 14, 2008 by  

The Portland Mercury has reported that local company Artist Repertory Theater announced the creation of an resident acting company. The current company will consist of four actors with the goal of increasing the number of actors to eight. It is a step in the right direction, but there is so much more that needs to happen. The article continues saying:

The outsourcing conversation feels particularly relevant on the heels of the Drammys. Most of the awards given to Portland Center Stage went to people who were brought in from elsewhere, which kind of strikes me as complete bullshit. It’s no commentary on the quality of the work PCS was honored for I sure can’t argue with the Outstanding Production nod to Twelfth Night, for example,but if you’re going to insist that these are local theater awards and not allow any touring productions or non-locally produced shows to compete, where’s the logic in then recognizing what is essentially touring talent, brought in from New York to work on a single project?

The news has come on the heals of the recent National Performing Arts Convention in Denver. There Mike Daisey presented How Theater Failed America. As Rick St. Peter writes in the blog Actors Guild of Lexington the show was attended by some major figures in the regional theatre field in the audience, including Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Marc Masterson, Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan Booth, current TCG executive director Theresa Eyering and former TCG executive director Ben Cameron.

Dr. Scott Walters who is back to blogging also attended the conference at came away with some interesting insight. He goes on to write that actors need to concern themselves with the information and data involving the American theater. The administrators and board members that hold power are concerned with the data and the lack of knowledge diminishes the power of the artist.

Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.

We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.

It will be exciting to see what discussions (and hopefully actions) will come out of the conference in Denver. Most of the time I feel these voices that cry out for change will remain only that and very little action will be taken. Hopefully Portland is the start of something much bigger.

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Students protest Mike Daisey’s Invincible Summer

June 11, 2008 by  

I saw How Theater Failed America last weekend and LOVED it! The one man show was hilarious, thoughtful, critical and touching. There are numerous reviews so I will not repeat what is already out there. It is running two more weeks at the Barrow Street Theater. GO SEE IT!! I will be attending the last two roundtable discussions and will post more about them soon.

In discovering more about Mike and his shows I came across this video. This is old news for most of the theater world as this event happened April of 2007, but since I was in a black hole last year I figured I would share with the people who have not heard. Mick Montgomery does a good job of blogging about similar experiences with Christian audiences. Performing in similar situations I too am not surprised about the reaction because unfortunately there are a lot of people that don’t think outside their own fears, but what I am surprised about is that the audience had prior knowledge.

Reading Daisey’s blog posts about the incident it is revealed that the Christian choir group called ahead and asked if there was adult content. Usually when there is an adult content claim it is because the F-word is used and/or there is usually reference to sex. If the adult chaperone’s were still not sure they should have asked what was the nature of the adult content. Just because you disagree with someone’s work dis not mean you can leave sensitivity behind. I congratulate Daisey on taking the high road and embracing a situation that was completely ridiculous and absurd.

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