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Theatre Topics 11.1 (2001) 43-53
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Educating the Creative Theatre Artist
A few months ago, I had a revelatory experience about theatre education. I invited Michael Rohd to conduct a late afternoon workshop employing Image Theatre techniques and storytelling to explore community and conflict. As always I was worried about attendance, given the setting of the University of Minnesota: a large state university with an overabundance of programming and a student population with many live-at-home commuters.
So, I resorted to bribery.
I offered extra credit points to my Introduction to Theatre students in exchange for their participation in the workshop, which focused on cultural assumptions of gender. I also assured these students they could leave the four-hour workshop at the dinner break to attend their evening classes and activities. Four of these Theatre 1101 students, all nonmajors, attended the workshop. To my astonishment, all four remained to its conclusion at eight-thirty.
"I was supposed to leave the workshop at 5:30," explained one student, Debbi Hoehn, in written commentary following the workshop, "but when it got to that time, I realized that the last thing I wanted to do was leave. . . . I did not feel like anyone was watching me, but was watching out for me." Another student, Erik Adolphson, expressed delight in how the workshop opened up his understanding of theatre as a tool to investigate cultural assumptions of gender: "For me, this workshop was less about theatre, and more about communication and awareness of how we judge and label. . . . What is considered masculine and feminine in society is something we don't think about or normally address. . . . Before this, I had seen theatre as pure entertainment. Now I see it as a tool of expression to teach something." A third student, Erik Herbst, seemed to summarize the experiences of the group: "I was planning to leave at 5:30, but I skipped the rest of my appointments because I became wrapped up in the amazing way theatre captivates the body and mind."
I found the experience and the student responses exhilarating and frustrating. I was thrilled to be reminded that students actually yearn for the opportunity to be captivated in "body and mind," to critically engage in issues, and to examine their own social and economic contexts through theatre. At the same time, I found myself depressed by how seldom this kind of attention, questioning, and examination occurs in the classroom. "After about twenty courses [End Page 43] here at the U," wrote Herbst, "I finally found one that I enjoyed, that I took something away from." What happened, I wonder, in the other nineteen? Why do students in general seem so disaffected by their education? And why does this disaffection extend to many of our theatre students?
Pedagogue and social theorist bell hooks suggests a possible answer. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks identifies the classroom as "the most radical space of possibility in the academy" (12). Yet she also draws a distinction between education as the practice of freedom and education that "merely strives to reinforce domination" (4). As an embodied tool of learning, theatre offers one of the most radical possibilities for the practice of freedom in education. As my students discovered in Rohd's workshop, thinking with the body can make visible the stereotypes that inform our social interactions, while offering practical options for change. Yet, instead of employing the liberatory possibilities of embodied education, theatre teaching in higher education often conforms to what hooks terms "education as domination," unquestioningly replicating systemic acting theory, literary canons, or a positivist application of theatre history. By beginning with an unquestioned system or knowledge paradigm, we may deny students the opportunity to "take something away" from the classroom. Instead of unreflexively propagating these systems, we should work together with students to practice critical thinking about these systems. We should educate creative thinkers rather than simply training actors, directors, or historians.
My purpose here is to advocate a variety of ways we can revision theatre studies and theatre pedagogy to engage students in such critical and creative...