- First Contact-Introductory Courses
When a publisher approached me a number of years ago about writing an introductory textbook on theatre, I was at first reluctant due to the plethora of texts available. A number of books are disappointing and fail to get beyond their first editions; some, however, have found an audience and keep on going and going like the Energizer bunny. Approaches to theatre history in introductory texts are varied; mistakes—well beyond differences of opinion over arguable historical interpretations—sometimes abound. Some texts have avoided any obvious history altogether; others, which have handled this history with accuracy and responsibility, tend to compartmentalize (one could say "ghettoize") the material as if it is an entirely different category of inquiry and academic discipline. This is neither the fault of authors nor of publishers. Given my own reservations about so many of the texts and my own approach to an introductory course, which I find to be different from the many good texts in print, I decided to forge ahead with my own text in an effort to create a more historically oriented one that would stress the collaborative nature of theatrical practice at all levels. What I wish to emphasize in this essay is not just my approach to an introductory text, however, but my classroom approach to this most important first contact with students of the theatre—a first lesson in theatre practice as an ongoing, ever-changing, collaborative discipline.
The academy's overall approach to the theatre arts curriculum is responsible for curricular separation and specialization, which in turn is compounded by publishers' reasonable desire to market textbooks to specific courses that are widespread in academic theatre. Our discipline's increasing shift toward specialization since the appearance and proliferation of MFA programs has also complicated the issue.
In the so-called old days (when I was first entering the profession), nearly every theatre professor had a PhD or occasionally an MA and was supposedly qualified to teach history, dramatic literature, performance, directing—sometimes even design and "tech" (although academic specialization in technical theatre came rather early). With the movement toward specialization in every area, the "generalist" is now rare and in some spheres no longer even exists, or the generalist develops by default in many smaller programs that cannot afford or wish to have specialists in every area. Nonetheless, introduction to theatre is by definition a generalist course.
Regarding teaching of the introduction to theatre and / or theatre appreciation course, the duty is often relegated to a junior faculty member who consequently is ripe for exploitation and burnout. This assigned instructor in many cases is not a historian and may have only a cursory exposure to theatre history; similarly, the assigned instructor may be expert in theatre history, literature, or theory, but have only a cursory knowledge of performance, design, and production activity. What to do? These brief remarks are not aimed at solving the personnel issue, but are suggestions rather toward a meaningful integration of theatre history with performance, staging, design, playwriting, and criticism at an introductory level. What can be done? How? And why?
One of the paramount issues of this problem can be illustrated by the development of my own introductory text, Theatre: Collaborative Acts, published by Allyn & Bacon, which I wrote with my collaborator, Kathy Fletcher. After we agreed to write a new introductory text, the primary changes we sought to make in the usual pattern of introductions and concomitant courses such as [End Page 29] "theatre appreciation" were to stress the vital nature of collaboration, and to integrate history fully throughout the text and to avoid compartmentalizing this history in a unit or section easily separated from text-reading or teaching of the course. The goal was to teach theatre history without students resisting it by thinking, "Oh, this is just a history course (it must therefore be boring)." For example, when discussing the various practitioners of theatre, we also provided a history of the development of the actor, playwright, director, or designer, and the history of the processes of those practitioners. We discussed, for example, the historical development of masks and various scenic devices and the history...