- The Theater of Teaching and the Lessons of Theater
Theatre studies, as it is currently practiced and taught, persistently defies simple definition due to its broad scope and interdisciplinary nature. Because of the multiplicity of approaches in the field, practitioners and teachers must often articulate our particular methodologies in order to explain the discipline, justify its significance and value, and accurately position it among related fields and practices. Originating from papers given in October 2001 at the fifth National Symposium on Theater in Academe at Washington and Lee University, The Theater of Teaching and the Lessons of Theater successfully delineates a number of approaches in theatre while it effectively defends the field and its various practices from marginalization.
Co-editor Domnica Radulescu acknowledges that the collection represents “different approaches to theatre as text, as pedagogy, and as performance” (xii) and attempts to integrate many practitioners’ voices in their uniform belief that theatre provides the means to challenge public perceptions. Radulescu indicates that her own understanding of theatre as a force of political and aesthetic subversion developed while living under a communist dictatorship in Romania during the 1980s. Thus, as an actor, teacher, and scholar, she has always conceived of theatre as a tool for resistance. This oppositional posture is present throughout the book, as writers confront preconceived notions of theatre that are often held by colleagues, students, or the general public. The volume as a whole stands as testimony against any totalizing view of theatre scholarship and/or practice.
The variety of methodological approaches presented in the book showcase the interdisciplinary makeup of the field. For example, Laura Vidler utilizes visual analysis when she examines a series of carved wooden blocks, called tacos, used for printing illustrations in novels, as pictorial evidence of the kinds of costumes, props, and gestures used in Spanish commedia. Radulescu provides an account of Isabella Andreini’s performance of a hysterical character at a Medici family wedding and then contextualizes it within social history in order to interpret this sixteenth-century performance as a rebellious gesture against the dictates of marriage. Ralph Alan Cohen describes how the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company applied historical and architectural knowledge to build a reconstructed Blackfriars Playhouse. Less Essif’s historical narrative depicts a practical, step-by-step rehearsal process for a college production of Ubu Roi in French. When presented in total, the reader gets a sense of the broad spectrum of practices that shape the field of theatre studies.
These essays maintain the ideal attributes of conference papers: concise arguments offering germs of ideas that are well-supported with key examples. Essays about teaching comprise half of the collection. Janet Gardner’s useful research documenting current pedagogical trends at universities opens the collection. Based on her survey of 83 syllabi, she discovers that the selection of plays taught is more conservative than the kind of research currently produced. The average syllabus, according to Gardner’s findings, “assigns ten plays, seven by European playwrights and three by Americans,” one of which is usually female and nonwhite (8). Gardner concludes that we must do more to subject our own teaching practices to more honest scrutiny.
Other writers emphasize the indeterminate nature of the scripted text as fundamental to the teaching of drama. David Worster, in “Performance Options and Pedagogy: Titus Andronicus,” shows how the textual ambiguities of Shakespeare—the very elements that editors like to “fix” into determined meaning—can play a large role in stimulating student inquiry and interpretation. Making a similar argument about a staged production of The Libation Bearers, Amy Cohen observes that the choices student actors made regarding the textual lacunae in Aeschylus’s play demonstrated the pursuit of some common objectives for [End Page 249] liberal arts education: research, argument, and invention. By demonstrating that the open-ended nature of the play script lends itself to the broader educational practices of critical thinking, these essays argue for the unique place of theatre study and practice within the academy.
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