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  • Scaring Them Out of Their Seats: Theatre and Culture Shock
  • Cynthia L. Allan (bio)

Permanently fused to my bulletin board is a torn, yellowed cartoon, sent years ago by some wag, that proclaims three kinds of contemporary drama: “comedy, tragedy, and audience doesn’t get it.” The irony of that cartoon is not lost on me when, every spring, I sit before a student-governed body responsible for administering activity fees that fund campus theatre productions. The committee asks me to clarify what students will “get” for their financial support. It is a logical question, but the answer I provide them is different from the complex and contradictory thoughts going through my head. The truth is, I’m not sure I know what students “get” from a theatre production, and my memory turns to times when students appeared angry and withdrawn after a performance that seemed mildly provocative at best; or times when a postperformance class discussion generated heated and passionate critique from an upper-level dramatic literature class, but distraught confusion from a general-education introductory class. Why do some students seem fearful and anxious instead of challenged and provoked by an unconventional or politically charged production? If a theatre program declares, generally through a mission statement, that what it “gives” the student body are timely, challenging, and thought-provoking productions, is that really what the students “get”? In a time of increased funding pressures, rigorous program assessments, and attempts from legislatures and governing bodies to cut small or “duplicated” programs (as I’ve experienced in two states), these questions relate to issues of pedagogy and program survival.

Part of the difficulty in addressing the relationship of a theatre program to a student body resides in the extreme diversity of theatre in higher education, where productions range from extra-curricular activity to professional repertory. An idea that may seem provocative on one campus may be of little interest or concern on another. What may be perceived as unconventional, even radical staging in one institution may be de rigueur or even outmoded in another. Nevertheless, I would argue that the majority of colleges and universities include socially conscious, intellectually provocative, and experimental work as part of their programs, even as definitions of what constitutes provocative and/or experimental vary from institution to institution. This is borne out by the annual Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, which is replete with sessions on unconventional theatre productions, theatre for social change, and innovative pedagogical methodologies designed to inspire and empower students. The discussions are emotional and vigorous and indicate that, even in the smallest of programs with limited resources or institutional clout, there is the desire to bring provocative and challenging ideas to the stage, to ignite dialogue, and question the status quo. This is the rich stuff of academic theatre.

So are students “getting it”? Why do some students appear to have their feelings hurt instead of their intellects invigorated by a new experience? Audience-reception theory is certainly a rich area to mine in the exploration of audience response and the cultural/social constitution of the theatre event, but reception theory draws from a broad theoretical palette and is predicated on viewing the audience as a collective. Susan Bennett states that “[t]he description of an individual response to a particular production may not be possible or, indeed, even desirable” (211). For those who teach in smaller programs, where institutional support is dependent upon being an integral part of campus life, where individual student attention is especially stressed, or where part of the program’s [End Page 1] mission includes generating awareness of theatre as a dynamic and resonant art form, I believe that investigating student audiences from a more specific perspective may be helpful. In this instance, my pedagogical concerns regarding what students “get” from theatre are better addressed by looking through the lens of intercultural communication.1 I contend that provocative academic theatre may fall short of idealistic expectations because not only do intellectual pursuits not guarantee intellectual responses, but when we create theatre that provokes and disturbs we may exacerbate an emotional state that triggers a “fight or flight” response, thereby bypassing the possibility of...


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