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No More Theatre PhDs?
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In the 16 January 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education Jody Olson — a pseudonym for a theatre PhD without a tenure-track job — argues for “eliminating the doctorate in theater.” Olson writes:

Recent Ph.D.’s in theater now enter an already saturated academic job market competing directly for positions with candidates who hold an M.F.A. [...]. Sadly current and prospective doctoral students in theater seeking the folly of an academic career should be advised rather to earn an M.F.A. [...] It is time for graduate schools and governing bodies to act to close Ph.D. programs in theater, and for theater departments to openly embrace the notion, already functioning in practice, that the appropriate academic credential for all of its faculty is the three-year M.F.A. (Olson 2013)

Hold on. Is theatre only practice? Is there no room for scholarship? History, critical studies, dramaturgy analyses of drama... Are they all to be eliminated? Are they irrelevant for practitioners? And since when has theatre exited from the humanities — as a “general” subject that everyone should know about? Who would teach theatre, not as practice but as part of a well-rounded education, if not professors-cum-PhDs?

But I am getting ahead of myself. What Olson writes about is a narrow wavelength within the “broad spectrum” I have long advocated. That narrow wavelength is theatre as it was imagined back in the 1980s and before. In 1992, 21 years ago, I challenged members of ATHE to embrace “a new paradigm for theatre in the academy.” Several versions of my talk were published, but here’s the core idea:

The fact is that theatre as we have known and practiced it — the staging of written dramas — will be the string quartet of the 21st century: a beloved but extremely limited genre, a subdivision of performance. [...] The new paradigm is “performance” [...]. Theatre departments should become “performance departments.” [...] Performance engages intellectual, social, cultural, historical, and artistic life in a broad sense. Performance combines theory and practice. [...] Performed acts, whether actual or virtual, more than the written word, connect and negotiate the many cultural, personal, group, regional, and world systems comprising today’s realties. Performance, of course, includes “the arts” but goes beyond them. Performance is a broad spectrum of entertainments, arts, rituals, politics, economics, and person-to-person interactions. [...] To develop new curriculums we need [...] new faculty. (1992:8-9)

Some of what I called for has come to pass. By now “performance” has emerged as both an artistic and theoretical category. Theatre is no longer mostly the production of pre- existing dramas; playwriting is no longer the sine qua non of theatre — that is, “theatre” isn’t theatre anymore. In terms of practice, performance includes devised works, group-created and solo works, site-specific work, installations, and audience participation; works that are intermedial, digital, and dispersed. This expanded scope of practice is deeply linked to what performance studies scholars learn. In terms of theory, performance is an overarching category comprising social, political, medical, economical, military, entertainment, and artistic events.

Most theatre departments still have not met the challenges presented by an increasingly performative culture — social media, digitality politics as information wars, and so on; the departments have altered but not radically enough. A number of theatre departments meet the challenges halfheartedly by maybe adding a performance studies professor and changing the departmental name to “Theatre AND Performance Studies” (or some variation of that rubric). This halfhearted gesture of reform is why theatre departments are facing the crisis “Olson” wants to resolve by eliminating theatre PhDs.

I agree that “theatre” PhDs are outmoded. But a plethora of MFAs won’t save theatre departments from reduction if not extinction. What will save them — and create jobs at various levels — is training graduate students to engage the broad spectrum of performance. The resulting PhDs — as knowledgeable in theory as in a certain kind of practice — will teach undergraduates.

Olson’s proposal to limit graduate programs to the MFA is blind to four kinds of need: first, the need for practitioners to know history and theory; second, the need for scholars to practice; third, the need for performance scholarship to exist in its...

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