Puzzles, maps, and breaking the ice

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.

“Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”

by Neil Postman

(Delivered at the National Convention for the Teachers of English [NCTE], November 28, 1969, Washington, D.C.)


With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good.

There are so many varieties of bullshit I couldn’t hope to mention but a few, and elaborate on even fewer. I will, therefore, select those varieties that have some transcendent significance.

Now, that last sentence is a perfectly good example of bullshit, since I have no idea what the words “transcendent significance” might mean and neither do you. I needed something to end that sentence with and since I did not have any clear criteria by which to select my examples, I figured this was the place for some big-time words.

Pomposity is not an especially venal form of bullshit, although it is by no means harmless. There are plenty of people who are daily victimized by pomposity in that they are made to feel less worthy than they have a right to feel by people who use fancy titles, words, phrases, and sentences to obscure their own insufficiencies.

A much more malignant form of bullshit than pomposity is what some people call fanaticism. Now, there is one type of fanaticism of which I will say very little, because it is so vulgar and obvious — bigotry. But there are other forms of fanaticism that are not so obvious, and therefore perhaps more dangerous than bigotry

Eichmannism is a relatively new form of fanaticism, and perhaps it should be given its own special place among the great and near-great varieties of bullshit. The essence of fanaticism is that it has almost no tolerance for any data that do not confirm its own point of view.

Eichmannism is especially dangerous because it is so utterly banal. Some of the nicest people turn out to be mini-Eichmanns. When Eichmann was in the dock in Jerusalem, he actually said that some of his best friends were Jews. And the horror of it is that he was probably telling the truth, for there is nothing personal about Eichmannism. It is the language of regulations, and includes such logical sentences as, “If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.” Can you imagine some wretched Jew pleading to have his children spared from the gas chamber? What could be more fair, more neutral, than for some administrator to reply, “If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.”

This is a form of talk which pays a large but, I would think, relatively harmless role in our personal lives. But with the development of the mass media, inanity has suddenly emerged as a major form of language in public matters. The invention of new and various kinds of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues. Many of these people are entertainers. The press and air waves are filled with the featured and prime-time statements from people who are in no position to render informed judgments on what they are talking about and yet render them with elan and, above all, sincerity. Inanity, then, is ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity.

Superstition is ignorance presented in the cloak of authority. A superstition is a belief, usually expressed in authoritative terms for which there is no factual or scientific basis. Like, for instance, that the country in which you live is a finer place, all things considered, than other countries. Or that the religion into which you were born confers upon you some special standing with the cosmos that is denied other people. I will refrain from commenting further on that, except to say that when I hear such talk my own crap-detector achieves unparalleled spasms of activity.

If teachers were to take an enthusiastic interest in what language is about, each teacher would have fairly serious problems to resolve. For instance, you can’t identify bullshit the way you identify phonemes. That is why I have called crap-detecting an art. Although subjects like semantics, rhetoric, or logic seem to provide techniques for crap-detecting, we are not dealing here, for the most part, with a technical problem.

Each person’s crap-detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values. After all, Vice President, Spiro Agnew, or his writers, know as much about semantics as anyone in this room. What he is lacking has very little to do with technique, and almost everything to do with values.

Now, I realize that what I just said sounds fairly pompous in itself, if not arrogant, but there is no escaping from saying what attitudes you value if you want to talk about crap-detecting.

In other words, bullshit is what you call language that treats people in ways you do not approve of.

So any teacher who is interested in crap-detecting must acknowledge that one man’s bullshit is another man’s catechism. Students should be taught to learn how to recognize bullshit, including their own.

It seems to me one needs, first and foremost, to have a keen sense of the ridiculous. Maybe I mean to say, a sense of our impending death. About the only advantage that comes from our knowledge of the inevitability of death is that we know that whatever is happening is going to go away. Most of us try to put this thought out of our minds, but I am saying that it ought to be kept firmly there, so that we can fully appreciate how ridiculous most of our enthusiasms and even depressions are.

Reflections on one’s mortality curiously makes one come alive to the incredible amounts of inanity and fanaticism that surround us, much of which is inflicted on us by ourselves. Which brings me to the next point, best stated as Postman’s Third Law:

“At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.”

The reason for this is explained in Postman’s Fourth Law, which is;

“Almost nothing is about what you think it is about–including you.”

With the possible exception of those human encounters that Fritz Peris calls “intimacy,” all human communications have deeply embedded and profound hidden agendas. Most of the conversation at the top can be assumed to be bullshit of one variety or another.

An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his “ism” that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an “ism”–Fascism, Communism, Capital-ism–probably has a seriously defective crap-detector. This is especially true of those devoted to “patriotism.” Santha Rama Rau has called patriotism a squalid emotion. I agree. Mainly because I find it hard to escape the conclusion that those most enmeshed in it hear no bullshit whatever in its rhetoric, and as a consequence are extremely dangerous to other people. If you doubt this, I want to remind you that murder for murder, General Westmoreland makes Vito Genovese look like a Flower Child.

Another way of saying this is that all ideologies are saturated with bullshit, and a wise man will observe Herbert Read’s advice: “Never trust any group larger than a squad.”

So you see, when it comes right down to it, crap-detection is something one does when he starts to become a certain type of person. Sensitivity to the phony uses of language requires, to some extent, knowledge of how to ask questions, how to validate answers, and certainly, how to assess meanings.

I said at the beginning that I thought there is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication. You, therefore, probably assume that I know something about now to achieve this. Well, I don’t. At least not very much. I know that our present curricula do not even touch on the matter. Neither do our present methods of training teachers. I am not even sure that classrooms and schools can be reformed enough so that critical and lively people can be nurtured there.

Nonetheless, I persist in believing that it is not beyond your profession to invent ways to educate youth along these lines. (Because) there is no more precious environment than our language environment. And even if you know you will be dead soon, that’s worth protecting.



I       ______________

stand at my wit’s end and

it is strangely familiar,

which inclines me

to think that




the way you point your toes.

The Crack of a Bat

When I lived in Paris, I spent nearly every morning with the International Herald Tribune. Each spring they published the following poem, which always brought tears to my eyes.

The Crack of a Bat
By Dick Roraback

Away on this side of the ocean
When the chestnuts are hinting of green
And the first of the café commandos
Are moving outside for a fine
And the sound of spring beats a bolero
As Paree sheds her coat and her hat
The sound that is missed more than any
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.
There’s an animal kind of a feeling
There’s a stirring down at Vincennes Zoo
And the kid down the hall’s getting restless
Taking stairs like a young kangaroo
Now the dandy is walking his poodle
And the concierge sunning her cat
But the heart’s with the Cubs and the Tigers
And the sound of the crack of a bat.
In the park on the corner run schoolboys
With a couple of cartons for props
Kicking goals à la Fontaine or Kopa
While a little guy chickies for cops
“Goal for us,” “No it’s not,” “You’re a liar,”
Then the classical shrieks of a spat
But it’s not like a rhubarb at home plate
Or the sound of the crack of a bat.
Here the stadia thrill to the scrumdowns
And the soccer fans flock to the games
And the chic punt the nags out at Longchamp
Where the women are dames and not dames
But it’s different at Forbes and at Griffith
The homes of the Buc and the Nat
Where the hotdog and peanut share laurels
With the sound of the crack of a bat.
No, a Yank can’t describe to a Frenchman
The rasp of an umpire’s call
The continuing charms of statistics
Changing hist’ry with each strike and ball
Nor the self-conscious jog of the slugger
Rounding third with the tip of his hat
Nor the half-smothered grace of a hook slide
Nor the sound of the crack of a bat.
Now the golfer is buffing his niblick
And the tennis buff’s tightening his strings
And the fisherman’s flexing his flyrod
Like a thousand and one other springs
Oh, the sports on both sides of the ocean
Have a great deal in common, at that
But the thing that’s not here
At this time of the year
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.
Dick Roraback is a former sports editor of the Herald Tribune


Number thirteen.

Originally posted on CALLAM RODYA actor, etc.:

Callam Rodya in the Encore Theatre Company's production of "Down Dangerous Passes Road".

Callam Rodya in the Encore Theatre Company’s production of “Down Dangerous Passes Road”.

Theatre school was great. It is great. But it can omit some of the more fundamental and important career lessons. School is, after all, a bubble. It’s not a natural professional environment.

So, with what little wisdom I have regarding a career as an actor, here’s a list of some things I wish somebody had told me in theatre school. Some of these lessons, I had to learn the hard way. Others simply would have saved me a bit of time.

  1. “Stealing the show” is not a compliment. The ensemble is more important than your “moments”.
  2. You’d be surprised how few people are willing to pay for theatre tickets when they aren’t your friends and family and have no personal connection to you whatsoever.
  3. No, you can’t actually play forty and fifty-year-olds in your twenties. At least, no one will…

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Deliver instruction or produce learning?

“In many schools, teaching is expected to follow syllabi that lay out what students will learn, as well as when and how they will learn it. But in a real classroom, whether kindergarten, graduate school, or the school of life, there are live people with personal needs and knowledge. A particular tap in this direction will shift this person’s perspective; after today’s discussion you will know that this reading will be good to assign, based on what seems like the natural flow to the next step. You cannot plan these things. You have to teach each person, each class group, and each moment as a particular case that calls out for particular handling. Planning an agenda of learning without knowing who is going to be there, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how they interact, prevents surprises and prevents learning. The teacher’s art is to connect, in real time, the living bodies of the students with the living body of the knowledge.” (from Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovitch.)

The problem with much of higher education today is that it is designed to DELIVER INSTRUCTION rather than to PRODUCE LEARNING. As long as instruction is delivered by the knowledgeable professor, the system is working and it is incumbent on the student to learn (or not.) But if the system favors the production of learning, then professors must be sensitive and responsive to their students, paying close attention to the vagaries of knowledge acquisition. This takes an extravagant effort that few professors seem willing to expend. Perhaps we might consider the ethics of teaching to be analogous to the ethics of medicine, where we seek to cure ALL of our patients of the disease of their ignorance, feeling it a personal loss if any should perish for lack of our healing touch.