- History in the Directing Curriculum:Major Directors, Theory and Practice
The prevalence of theatre history in theatre curricula suggests a disciplinary consensus that studying the history of the theatre is an important aspect of a theatre education. However, in spite of this seeming consensus, students often encounter theatre history as a scholarly supplement to their real object of study—art-making. The teaching of history happens in one context, typically a room with desks, a blackboard, and powerPoint capability; and the teaching of art-making—in my case, directing—in another context, typically the studio: a room with maybe a sprung floor, a few folding chairs, and some rehearsal furniture. This spatial bifurcation of knowledge suggests that historical inquiry, while perhaps an interesting background to art-making, is ancillary to the actual process. I want to challenge this intellectual division of labor by asking, "What might be gained from integrating some historicist perspectives into the directing curriculum?"
I teach at Muhlenberg College, which is a small undergraduate liberal arts college with a large theatre program. I teach directing, theatre history, and performance studies. Every spring I teach a course called "Major Directors: Theory and Practice." In this course, the students and I examine the work of a number of historically significant theatre directors. We read and discuss writing by and about these artists, and the students themselves write about them. Primarily, however, the students appropriate the directors' artistic practices. Working in groups, they create a number of theatre pieces inspired by the directors we are studying, in the form of both small-scale studies and larger scenes. The course is an effort in part to diminish the boundary between scholarship and art-making: to work at the intersection of theory and practice, body and mind, thought and feeling. To convey a sense of the course content and structure, cited below is the course description from the syllabus I offered in 2004:
This course explores the ideas, productions, and techniques of three major 20th-century theatre directors, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht, and Arianne Mnouchkine. To some degree we will consider the chronological development and historical contexts of this work; these people all lived through tumultuous times, and their theatre bears traces of and testifies to the sociopolitical events they experienced. More commonly, however, the course engages the theoretical and practical bases of their theatremaking. Each of these artists created a unique working vocabulary in response to their historical moment, and key terms orient our investigation. Guiding concepts are likely to include the grotesque, montage, and biomechanics (Meyerhold), defamiliarization, gestus, and not-but (Brecht), collective creation, state of being, and interculturalism (Mnouchkine). We will certainly endeavor to understand these ideas and see how these artists used them, but more fundamentally we will engage them as methods—as provocations to the creation of stage imagery. How can a deep encounter with three major artists inspirit our own work in the theatre?
In addition to treading the border between theory and practice, the course is a sustained pedagogic attempt to infuse artistic training with a sense of history. I hope the students garner multiple forms of historical knowledge from the course. Most insistently, I try to connect the [End Page 33] artistic techniques that frame students' explorations to the broader historical circumstances that rendered them meaningful. The course description announces that we will study and implement the techniques of three major artists, a broadly formalist agenda anchored in a "great ones" model of theatre history. However, as the semester unfolds, I also complicate this promised narrative by relating the theatrical techniques we are studying to historical developments outside the theatre. For example, in a 2004 class session on Meyerhold, the students learned to perform a biomechanical étude, "The Slap to the Face," and discussed Mel Gordon's article connecting biomechanical training to Jamesian psychology and Taylorist theories of production. For Brecht, one day we looked at a production photograph of Arturo Ui addressing a compliant crowd and speculated on the extent to which Brecht's rejection of empathy might be a reaction to Goebbels's and Speer's manipulation of mass emotion via theatrical spectacle. For Mnouchkine, we frequently returned...