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  • Theatre Is Action: Teaching a Task-Oriented Intro Class
  • David Carlyon (bio)

When we teach Introduction to Theatre, what are we introducing? Do we convey our excitement in theatre by sharing with students the ways we find it exciting? We ourselves revel in the action of theatre—designing, directing and building, analyzing a scene and wrestling with theory, digging into history, acting. But instead of offering our Intro students the opportunity to explore those verbs, how often do we teach nouns instead, presenting the results of other people’s work—Intro textbooks, design sketches, historical anecdotes, department productions? How many have even despaired of transmitting theatre’s thrill to students who grew up on movies and TV, satisfied if they remain quietly attentive? While there is much value in theatre appreciation, compare what is usually understood by that term to how energetically we in theatre “appreciate” a play. Inspired or agitated by a show, we argue the staging, alter the design in our imagination, or turn with renewed energy to our own projects. We enjoy plays not because everything we see is great but because we actively invest ourselves in them. So why not introduce theatre by giving Intro students the kick of doing it?

This article will outline a task-oriented approach to Intro that I developed at the University of Michigan-Flint. My course includes traditional reading and writing assignments, but the focus is on the tasks discussed below. The theatre department’s Introduction to Theatre course is aimed at nonmajors on a commuter campus with many returning students who arrange their classes around parenting, jobs, and—in a city suffering hard times—job-seeking. Though many of these students have never been to a play, and most would deny either expertise or interest in theatre, enrollment is large, since Intro is one of a few courses that satisfies the University’s Fine Arts core requirement. My classes ranged between fifty and seventy students, but even larger class size might be accommodated in this task-oriented approach. The class could also serve as a solid foundation for theatre majors.

To advocate student participation for an Intro course is, of course, not novel. As the class most theatre teachers have in common, Intro has undoubtedly benefited from a wide range of teaching experience, interests, and styles, including student participation. I offer this approach not for the originality of [End Page 1] the specific tasks assigned—no doubt plundered from many sources—but because its focus on doing the work of theatre differs from the occasional use of tasks typical in other classes. In a 1991 Theatre Topics article, for example, Ronald A. Willis identified four predominant methods for teaching Intro: literary, historical, study of functions in theatre, and play attendance. While each approach can, and some surely do, include participation, Willis’s discussion lay no stress on it. Alicia Kae Koger’s 1994 Theatre Topics survey of syllabi made the same point. Though “nearly half [of the courses surveyed] require some sort of projects by students,” Koger made it clear that such participation remains a small part of Intro courses.

What do we want from students ten and twenty and thirty years after they have taken Introduction to Theatre? Willis writes that the “non-theatre major’s needs should determine course design and approach” but he decides that their needs are met in becoming audience members (145). The assumption is not unreasonable. Few enough of our majors, much less the nonmajors, will become full-time participants in theatre. But I would argue that restricting the focus of Intro to audience-building constricts our vision, both of theatre and of the classroom. We would better serve our students by giving them a sense of the excitement that attracted us, their teachers, in the first place. This lays the groundwork for them to engage theatre actively, on either side of the footlights. Furthermore, such a course supports the liberal arts mission by providing the means and the encouragement for students to form their own judgments. Shaping my course with the future in mind, I ask the people in my Introduction class to engage theatre and its ideas actively in the expectation...

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