- Toward “Critical Generosity”:Cultivating Student Audiences
"It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience," muses Victor Fyodorov, a character in Bel Canto , Ann Patchett's 2001 novel. Observing that not everyone can be an artist, he gestures toward his own indispensability in the artistic equation: "There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see" (218–19). While much of the teaching I do is geared toward developing my students' talents for and knowledge of theatre as participants in the production process, "The Art of Theater," an introductory undergraduate course I regularly teach, has afforded me a different opportunity: the chance to consider how best to encourage students' aptitude as audience members. Taking advantage of the four regional theatres that exist within an hour's drive from Connecticut College, the small liberal-arts college where I work, the class sees four professional productions over the course of the semester in addition to two productions staged by the college's theatre department. It is generally composed of about sixteen freshmen and sophomores, most of whom go on to major or minor in theatre. While I have been delighted to teach a course in which attending the theatre plays such a prominent role, often I have been frustrated in my efforts to generate thoughtful and productive discussion of performances my class has seen. Even fairly sophisticated students evaluate productions through criteria developed without much variety of theatre-going experience. At this early stage of their theatre studies, students tend to focus on certain aspects of what happens in a performance at the expense of others that are just as germane, and, often, they judge the unfamiliar harshly. This essay recounts some of the difficulties I've encountered as I've worked with students as audience members, and details teaching strategies aimed at broadening their engagement with a range of performance events that I have developed in response to these challenges.
My experiences discussing numerous productions with students over the years I have been teaching the Art of Theater have prompted me to reconsider what I think students can and should learn by participating in the theatrical event as members of an audience. My primary desideratum has become to inculcate a sense of "critical generosity," a term proposed by theatre scholar David Román to suggest a receptive orientation toward performance that exercises rigorous analysis and at the same time demands consideration of a performance's aspirations and goals. "Critical generosity understands that criticism can be much more than simply a procedure of critique or a means for qualitative analysis," Román asserts. "Criticism can also be a cooperative and collaborative engagement with a larger social mission" (xxvi–xxvii). Jill Dolan reads Román's critical generosity as an argument that "performance should be taken on its own terms, and read through the exigencies of a social moment, offering cultural critique equally important as more straightforward aesthetic ones" (33).
Applied to my work with students as developing audience members, I would suggest that critical generosity emphasizes thoughtful evaluation of a production's elements while it simultaneously implies a willingness to be altered by its performance. Critical generosity requires an audience that is prepared to analyze the meanings that a performance produces and that is, at the same time, receptive to the vision of the world that it puts forth. The term suggests an active audience that brings to a performance an awareness of itself—of its own spectatorial conventions and critical biases—as well as a commitment to evaluate the performance thoughtfully. In the end, such an orientation toward [End Page 141] performance both sharpens students' critical skills and recognizes the affective and transformative potential of theatre as an art form.
Teaching critical generosity is an overarching pedagogical goal that encompasses smaller ones. Most obviously, on the "critical" side, I want students to develop analytical skills to evaluate the efficacy of artistic choices made by a production's creative team. More closely connected to "generosity," I want students to see how their thoughts about a particular text might be challenged as well as confirmed by its...