Occasionally when assembling a jigsaw puzzle you stumble onto a key piece, the correct placement of which accelerates the discovery and placement of many other pieces until suddenly, although the picture remains incomplete, you are able to get a sense of what the darn thing is going to look like. I have arrived at that point, and if I may be so bold, it coincides with a unique historical moment.
I know it seems I have taken a long time, but in my defense, I became a college freshman at the age of 43. Four years after that I was engaged as a theatre generalist. After a few false starts, I decided to focus on researching and critiquing current pedagogical practices. I discovered that very little discussion has been given to the pedagogical aspects of theatre education, perhaps because few teachers and scholars of theatre (like me) had been given explicit orientation to theatre pedagogy. Consequently my research has been a slow process of discovering essential questions, gathering data, and analyzing it, all the while teaching four lecture classes per semester.
By common assent, theatre is a form of inquiry. Therefore teaching theatre is an inquiry into inquiry. Its methodologies and modalities must reflect this. The medium is the message. Theatre, like education itself, is both subject and object. It is a range of processes. Due to rapidly changing forms of student and audience engagement, these processes are in a state of flux. This is the unique historical moment. Students of theatre are different, and not just generationally. Alison Gopnik, in a recent article from The Wall Street Journal, cites evidence that young people are entering puberty earlier and adulthood later. They have myriad, unfamiliar needs. According to the editors of Diverse Millennial Students in College (2011), their context for learning is vastly different from when most educators were in school. And so they constitute, for the forward-looking theatre educator, a moving target.
Just two days ago, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School drew an analogy between Harvard and the for-profit world, describing how new businesses often enter the bottom of a market and claim untapped customers whom they reach through some new technological advance. Eventually, they move up-market and overtake the dominant player. Higher education once was immune, he said, until the spread of online learning, which will allow lower-cost providers to extend into the higher reaches of the marketplace. “Higher education,” he said, “is vulnerable to disruption.” We are witnessing irreversible paradigm shifts in theatre and higher education. Radical changes have transformed the cultural landscape. If we, as arts educators, fail to update our mental maps to allow for these radical changes—boulders obstructing what once were highways, crevasses that now cut across our skipping meadows—we will lose our collective way and perish in the wilderness.
Fortunately, our guides are right in front of us. We must look to the new students, the students armed with easily accessed and fantastic tools of self-expression. In this digital age, with its participatory culture, young students are the visionaries and the revolutionaries, and it is about time we acknowledged their multi-disciplinary skills and facilitated their development. According to the findings of the Digital Youth Project, a special MacArthur Foundation report, “Today’s youth may be engaging in negotiations over developing knowledge and identity, coming of age, and struggling for autonomy as did their predecessors, but they are doing this while the contexts for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression are being reconfigured through their engagement with new media’ (Living and Learning with New Media, 2009).
Innovative artist Robert Lepage relates this evolution challenge directly to theatre when he says, “We are confronted with audiences whose narrative vocabulary has evolved. They can read stories backwards now, and jump cut, and can flash forward . . . [N]ew audiences are extremely educated—they have tools to play with—and I’m afraid that often theatre doesn’t trigger that, doesn’t invite that into its realm.” New students are differently educated as well. Both theatre and theatre education are in desperate need of revision.
But institutional change proceeds at a glacial pace. Some critics, like Robert Zemsky, are downright pessimistic: “The nature of the academy sucks the air out of piecemeal reforms. People lose interest, and old ways win out. Individual institutions can—and do—change, but their successes tend to pale with time because of the inertia of the system” (Making Reform Work: The Case for Reforming Higher Education, Rutgers 2010).
But I believe we are at a tipping point. Revisioning instruction in theatre (and all performing arts) to provide for a new student and a new audience is not only desirable, it is imperative.
According to statistics presented by the NEA and the Theatre Communications Group, attendance at theatre in this country is diminishing at an alarming rate. Within our own department, our students seem to have little interest in experiencing theatre beyond that which they are required to see. There can be no avoiding the ramifications. Theatre, and the way that we approach it in higher education, must evolve. It is nothing new to declare that students and audiences have changed, but the ways they have changed must be seriously explored, for they present us with extraordinary challenges. I am dedicated to meeting those challenges in the classroom and as part of the national conversation. If theatre education is to remain vital, if it is to escape its fate as an elitist subject on an esoteric margin, it must candidly review its purpose and methodologies.
In October 2010, I attended an Academic Senate Retreat on my campus entitled “Higher Education: National Trends and Local Impacts.” Pursuant to that theme, a question was posed during the meeting: “Will Higher Education Ever Change as it Should?” I would like to report that imaginative and courageous debate followed, but that was not the case; inertia ruled the day, occasionally interrupted by the same old complaints of too little pay, too much teaching, and not enough time for research. But I had been stimulated by this line of inquiry. With the alarming NEA and TCG data on declining participation in the arts, it seems obvious to me that education, theatre, and theatre in education had better pay attention.
When the glacier at last crumbles, what’s left will be an entirely new landscape. Let’s hope we have the right maps.