19 July 2010

Disappearing Theater

I recently got some very disturbing news about my undergraduate alma mater, Washington and Lee University. In an e-mail from Bob Youngblood, a former professor of mine who’s retired now but still living in Lexington, he reported that over the past five years, little or no theater has been presented on campus. Of course, he was talking about student productions, not traveling professional or semi-professional shows, and he wasn’t referring to other kinds of performance. I haven’t been in close contact with my old college, though there are some former teachers with whom I keep in touch and, as ROT readers know, I just took a trip to Istanbul with a W&L-organized group. So when Bob wrote me that since his retirement, there hadn’t been many plays at the university theaters, I was shocked. I sent the news to my friend Kirk, who’s also a classmate, and he hadn’t heard this appalling news, either.

When Kirk and I were students in Lexington, W&L theater was a kind of orphan. There was no theater department (there as a Fine Arts Department) and the entire theater staff consisted of one man, Lee Kahn, the university theater director, who ran the small theater, directed the shows, scheduled the season, oversaw the set designs, maintained the rudimentary shop (where both Kirk and I worked briefly between graduation and military service), taught the classes, managed the box office and subscriptions, and everything else that was required to make live theater a presence on the W&L campus.

And he succeeded magnificently. Before Lee arrived in 1965, the same year Kirk and I did, W&L theater was mostly uninteresting and attracted little attention among the students (who got free seats as part of their Student Activities Fee). The fare in the ‘50s and the first half of the ‘60s had been mostly old chestnuts, almost nothing current, and the audiences were almost exclusively the little old ladies of Lexington. (From what Kirk tells me, the ‘30s was more interesting from many perspectives. His father, like mine, was an alumnus of W&L—in fact, our fathers were also classmates—and Kirk’s dad told him anecdotes of his own theater experiences at the Troubadour Theatre in the years before World War II.) Then Lee arrived, a young man (he was only 30) with a taste for challenging theater. He staged Waiting for Godot, his very first Troub production as I recall, and Richard II; Exit the King and The Homecoming; an adaptation of The Bacchants by a chemistry prof and the first student-written play seen on the Troubadour Theatre stage. And he produced the Marat/Sade while it was still running in New York. (W&L had been the first non-professional application for the rights to Peter Weiss’s play. Later Lee presented Equus before it was even released for amateur productions. He just couldn’t wait.) After the first or second of these challenging plays, the townie audience began to stay away—they were frankly scared—but students began coming around. (I’ll never forget one reported remark from a townie spectator after Marat/Sade, at the end of which the inmates of the asylum riot and scramble out into the auditorium: “If I want to see this kind of thing, I’ll stay home!”) Soon, it was hard to get reservations (admission was free, but no one was guaranteed a seat during the two-weekend runs), and proportionally there were nearly as many students who wanted to bring their dates to a Troub play in the evening as took them to the football games on weekend afternoons. Some students and their dates were turned away. The word got around—things were happening down on Red Square (so called because of the four big, red-brick frat houses that dominated the block) where the old Civil War shoe factory that housed the university theater stood.

That little building, which rumor always had it had been a brothel once upon a time as well, was barely adequate. It had no fly space to speak of, no right wing at all (beyond the stage-right wall was Henry Street), and the left wing was the stairway to the upstairs plus the shop. The backstage area, behind the set, was barely wide enough for an actor or techie to pass through without jiggling the rear wall of the set. (Right outside the theater’s back wall was Main Street. In fact, there was a disused door in that wall which from the exterior looked like the main entrance to the building—which it probably was in an earlier incarnation.) The dressing room—there was only one—was upstairs and served as the green room as well. But in this totally inadequate and inflexible space, Lee and the Troubs put on some marvelous productions. I spent some of the best hours I had in Lexington in the darkened house of the Troubs or on its stage. It wasn’t just interesting and informative—I learned a lot of what I still believe about theater in those days—but exciting. Godot was eye-opening—and Marat/Sade was mind-blowing. And one man made all this happen back then: Lee Kahn. Not only was he all there was, but he was the kind of personality that made such things happen—on stage and in the heads and hearts of students.

There was no theater department, as I said—Lee would help launch one in the years after I graduated—so all of the participants were from other disciplines. I was a German-French major, for instance, and Kirk was an English major. (There were also no women in W&L’s undergrad student body; it was an all-male college until the ‘80s. There were a handful of students’ wives and the occasional faculty wife with theatrical aspirations, but most of the women in our shows were recruited from the women’s schools in nearby central Virginia.) Lee offered one single-semester class in acting and one in directing; there was a theater history course and, if there was demand, a technical theater class. (In the years after Kirk and I graduated, Lee hired a TD who ran the shop when the two of us worked there in the fall of 1969.) None of us had much practical experience—a little amateur acting maybe and some high school theater, but there was no depth in Lee’s bench and he always drew a credible, and often superb, performance out of his raw talent—even if it was minimal or limited.

In the years after I left W&L, the school launched a theater department, expanding the course offerings and the activities in which students could participate, such as student-directed plays and student-written scripts. The university went co-ed in 1985; it was still a small school (about 1500 undergraduates, more or less) but the population eventually became about half women and half men. (Women had been law students since 1972.) In 1991, the Lenfest Center, a large, state-of-the-art performing arts center, was opened, a project on which my father, a committed W&L alum, was very active—in great part because of my special interest in theater and our friendship with Lee and Betty Kahn. The active theater department and the performing arts center were in great part tributes to Lee, who died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 46. If it weren’t for him, there would never have been a theater department or a Lenfest Center. He made them both necessary because he made campus theater a cultural and educational force that demanded attention and support.

Lee was succeeded by Al Gordon, the first chairman of the new department (whom Lee in effect hired as his own boss). Gordon was a music-theater specialist, but the emphasis on new and striking theater continued. (The Lenfest Center opened with a production of Evita, which had only closed on Broadway in 1983. In more recent years, Gordon, who’s now emeritus, staged Goethe’s Faust and other theatrically interesting projects, such as Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses just before he retired.) But somewhere between the end of Gordon’s tenure and the current chairmanship of Joe Martinez, something began to slip. Students stopped coming to the plays. I’m of the opinion that the plays or productions were no longer exciting to the student audiences and that that was the fault of the theater faculty, who selected and staged the plays. Bob Youngblood offers a supplemental reason for the drop-off in attendance and attention: the students themselves. First, he points out, “They’re the DVD generation.” He was one of my German profs and later taught Italian (which wasn’t offered in my day) and he took students on trips to Europe during the spring semesters. On a trip to Italy, he reports, he couldn’t get the students to take in the Umbrian countryside through which they were traveling because they were all watching videos on their laptops. Second, Bob says, “It's not their fault that they haven't been prepared for aesthetic experiences of any sort—artistic, musical, theatrical. . . . Drinking parties are attraction #1 . . . .”

A former Lexingtonian who had connections to the theater program when Kirk and I were there—and is now a professional stage manager in St. Louis—affirms that “it’s not the same as in our day for sure,” but she also asserts that “there is a lot more student participation in directing and playwriting” now than there was before the theater department was established. According to Bob, the dance and music programs continue because they charge admission so that the university doesn’t bear the whole cost of presenting concerts and dance series. Booked-in shows are also still offered; they also charge admission and aren’t subsidized by the school—but they don’t use student artists, either. There just aren’t anywhere near as many departmental productions with student participation as there was even just a few years ago. “The Golden Age is over, I agree,” concludes the Lexington native (who still has family there and stays in contact with the Lexington scene), and Bob characterizes the present state of W&L theater with the lament: “These are indeed hard times for theater at your alma mater.” Lee Kahn managed to engage the students 45 years ago—and we had our distractions at the end of the ‘60s, too—and he was only one man. But, Bob admonishes, “we can't apply our past to the present, alas.” “You're talking about your and my generation,” he adds; today’s students are interested in two things from college: “a social life” and “a high-5-figure job (a 6-figure one, if they luck out).” Intellectual and cultural growth isn’t on the agenda, it seems. He may be right; he’s taught these young people and he’s probably got a bead on their mindset. But I say that, given the recalcitrance of 21st-century college students, it’s still the faculty’s responsibility to find ways to engage them, overcome the electronic pastimes that distract the attentions of the students they’re supposed to be educating. If what you’re offering doesn’t engage them, doesn’t compete with DVD’s and the ‘Net, then change what you’re offering. Giving up the struggle altogether, throwing in the towel is the worst possible tactic. No one wins then—neither the students nor the university nor society at large. You can’t just throw up your hands and quit, with the excuse that it’s not cost-effective to offer plays to a student body who doesn’t come to the theater.

Bob writes sadly of the few students he had during the last years he taught—around the turn of the millennium—who weren’t taking the course “to satisfy the general ed. requirement.” This made me remember my undergrad curriculum. I’d gotten lucky: I got two years advanced placement in both French and German so that I was taking junior-level courses in my first semester. It was an obvious choice that I’d major in either French or German since I was already accumulating credits, but which of the two was my best choice? One of my German professors explained that I could major in both languages and not take additional courses for either program. The French classes counted as “cognate” credits for the German major and vice versa. I needed only to take one course in each language each term—which I would have done anyway. Because I would fulfill all the requirements for both majors and the distribution creds without taking a full load each semester, I could take courses purely out of interest and curiosity. So that’s what I did. I took courses in psych, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, several comp lit classes (Russian Lit in Translation, Modern Theater in Translation—known as Play-A-Day), as well as the one-semester classes in acting and directing and the two years then offered in Russian. (Okay, yes. I’m a geek. I took French, German, and Russian in college. And I loved every damned minute of it!) My point: Far from taking courses I didn’t want to just to satisfy a requirement, I took classes for no reason other than that I was curious about the subject. Because I could. I was in college to find out about stuff I didn’t know! I was monumentally curious, and college was an intellectual toy store. I couldn’t have had it better. Now, no one told me to do that—my German prof helped me see a way to do it—but that’s what the university ought to be doing now: figuring out how to encourage W&L students to partake in the vast array of intellectual and cultural pursuits available, including theater. (Ask me and I’ll tell ya, ‘above all theater,’ but that’s just me.) As Bob says, if they don’t see theater at home, as many students report, where else are they going to get that exposure but at college?

(It’s probably not relevant to my point here, but some of those extraneous courses paid off for me in spades later. When I went in the army, that linguistics course was the reason I aced the language aptitude test. That gave me the opportunity to write my own ticket for training at the army language school. Because I’d already started studying Russian, I chose the one slot available in that program and I got to spend a year in Monterey, California, learning Russian for the army. Because I already had German and French on my record, the Russian got me assigned to West Berlin, the best duty station in the U.S. Army, where I spent two-and-a-half of the most interesting years I ever had before or since. If any of that hadn’t happened the way it did, I’d have ended up in Vietnam where the life expectancy of a Second Lieutenant in Military Intelligence was estimated at fifteen minutes after we hit the tarmac at Ton Son Nhut Air Base. Intellectual curiosity can pay off—but only if you indulge it. Which you can’t do if the school doesn’t offer a broad-based program of courses and activities. Isn’t that what liberal arts means?)

As for what’s going on now, I don’t get it. Children aren’t born anti-intellectual—that’s something they have to learn. In fact, they’re born curious; exploration is their natural bent. (Play-acting is also a natural impulse, as it happens.) If the students aren’t still that way when they get to college, then they’ve been maleducated before they got there. Now, perhaps the problem starts in junior high and high school, or even before, but the colleges and universities that get hold of those students when they’re 17, 18, and 19 are responsible for what they make of those new charges. If they’re going to call them educated men and women when they leave campus, they have an obligation to . . . well, educate them. College isn’t job-training school. And liberal arts colleges are especially obligated to produce well-rounded, cultivated young people. The graduates are supposed to know more about heaven and earth than were dreamt of in their philosophies when they arrived. Colleges are supposed to open up new worlds for their students, not just reinforce the knowledge—and ideas—they already had. My roommate, who wanted to be a doctor (and made it, by the way), was frustrated because he didn’t think he should have been required to take all those non-science distribution courses. I was frustrated for the opposite reason: I didn’t want to pick a major because I didn’t want to be pinned down. I wanted to find out about things I didn’t know anything about before I got to Lexington. I was lucky because someone showed me how I could do that while following the program at the same time. (My roommate wasn’t so lucky: he had to take those liberal arts courses he wanted to skip. I don’t know how he feels about that now.)

I don’t know how different one generation of students is from another. I doubt they’re different from birth. My experience in front of a college classroom suggests that if there’s a difference with respect to intellectual curiosity and the desire to go to new places between some students and others when they arrive, the main influence was probably their secondary educations. Some high schools, I observed, opened students up to new ideas and others kept them on a short tether. Already at a developmental crossroads intellectually, some students arrived at college ready to explore new ideas, others wanted only to enhance the ideas they already held, and still others were just timid about anything new or challenging. In any case, however, they were all dependent on the university—the teachers, other students, the administration, the academic and extra-curricular programs—to lead them, like a collective intellectual sherpa, on an educational mountain climb. It’s a rare student who can do that on her own. But no student, no matter how ready to take off or how self-motivating, can go anywhere if the school takes away the mountain altogether. George Orwell posited that people can’t think dangerous thoughts if they don’t have the words, so his dystopic police state regularly issued new dictionaries with fewer words than their predecessors. Fewer words, fewer thoughts. Well, in the university, the same truth holds: fewer offerings, fewer intellectual challenges. If Bob Youngblood is right and the 21st-century student comes to W&L with no exposure to live theater or any cultural experience, little intellectual curiosity, and a focus on partying and prepping for a high-wage Wall Street cocoon, then reducing the courses and activities that might challenge that attitude by offering some unlooked-for outlets for exploration and self-enhancement is the wrong way to respond. It’s the educational counterpart to Newspeak.

Now, I don’t think the university is deliberately trying to constrict students’ intellectual horizons by reducing their opportunities the way Orwell’s Big Brother deliberately reduces the possibilities of individual thought. The school’s administration sees its actions as fiscally responsible and mandated by budgetary constraints. They’re responding to student interest, they’ll say. There’s no point in offering activities and pursuits, paid for with money that can be used elsewhere, of which few students partake. That may be true, but is it right? Not from my perspective.

Ten years ago, the university published a brochure called A Future Worthy of Our Past. I was heartened to see that the arts continued to be a prominent focus of the university's goals, "an essential part of every student's experience" as President John W. Elrod (1995-2001) wrote. This statement echoes what W&L's most celebrated benefactor, George Washington, wrote to the trustees of Washington Academy in 1798: "[T]o encourage the Arts [has] ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart." Is the present university administration living up to the spirit of the W&L of President Elrod—much less Washington’s. When he dedicated the Lenfest Center, Elrod’s predecessor, John D. Wilson (1983-1995), evoked not just any arts figure but the greatest theater artist of the English-speaking world, William Shakespeare, declaring that artists "hold the mirror up to nature" even when they show man as a "poor, bare forked animal." Wilson, an avid theatergoer himself, knew that the performing arts, whose new temple he was launching, could "show us the truth about ourselves," even as they thrust us into "that uncomfortable terrain" of the unknown and the challenging. Not much of that can happen, however, if there’s no theater to hold up that mirror and show us those truths.

I deplore that everything has become a matter of business. I agree wholeheartedly with Bob Youngblood, who writes: "I consider theater an indispensable part of a university's offerings and think, the price tag be damned, plays should be put on." Under President Wilson, there was a sense that campus culture, especially theater, was an integral part of the life of the university. Wilson (whom my parents and I once met unexpectedly at a performance of Rent on Broadway) supported W&L theater out of conviction, not cost-consciousness or bean-counting. Some things just shouldn't be dependent on the bottom line.

Perhaps what’s needed right now is an educational counterpart to the program Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser launched 15 months ago, Arts in Crisis. Kaiser travels the country and works the phones to help struggling non-profit arts organizations like theaters, orchestras, and dance companies keep their audiences, find new donors, and engage in more effective planning instead of cutting productions and programs. Kaiser, whose assistance costs the beneficiaries nothing, sees cutting back as a disastrous tactic. “I feel like the creativity has been beaten out of us,” Kaiser has said. Cultural organizations are “so scared about money that we’re afraid to do really interesting, innovative work.” Well, that’s what the theater departments of Washington and Lee and similar schools seem to be suffering, too. Ironically, one of the organization administrators Kaiser’s program helped sums up the Arts in Crisis message as: “You don’t have to be just cold and numbers driven.” If that works in the non-profit field, why can’t it apply to the educational arts as well? Why not an Educational Arts in Crisis to advise administrations like W&L’s in devising ways to keep their programs operating at full blast instead of curtailing them?

Well, aside from a personal disappointment, what’s the loss? At W&L and most liberal arts colleges, few students are theater majors or even arts majors. So how are we diminished if all those business majors, history majors, language majors, chem majors, poly sci majors, English majors, and so on, don’t get much (or any) exposure to theater or other arts? I’ve said this before (see, for instance, “Degrading the Arts,” ROT, 13 August 2009), and I believe it firmly enough to say it again: The arts are an important part of our society. Artists are society’s whistleblowers and night watchmen. Art tells us where we’re going off track and when we need to make a course correction. Given that we need these voices, we also need to guard against the elements in our culture who would suppress and censor them. The list of even the most recent attempts to keep artists from speaking to us is a long one. The way to prevent the forces of suppression from prevailing is to be sure there are citizens who understand the value of art and artists. The only way to assure that presence in society is to be sure that all graduates of colleges and secondary schools in this country have a fundamental grounding in the arts, to understand art and appreciate it as part of their lives, not an extravagance or a luxury that merely decorates our culture. It’s schools like W&L that are the training grounds for the citizens of influence and perspicacity, the women and men who will soon be making the decisions for the country at large. If there’s a hole in their education where theater and art should be, there will be a dangerous gap in society. Universities like Washington and Lee must insure that arts facilities like the Lenfest Center are no less anchors of our freedom than the journalism and law centers like Reid and Lewis Halls, two legacies of President Robert E. Lee. They can’t be if they’re dark.

I’ll end with a statement I’ve quoted before. It’s from artist and writer William Blake: "Degrade first the arts if you'd mankind degrade." Excising theater from the campus life at W&L is a perilous step toward degrading the arts. Is that a step a school that honors George Washington and Robert E. Lee should be taking?

[Aside from “Degrading the Arts,” mentioned above in passing, I’d like to direct readers to another column I’ve written that bears tangentially on this topic. I make brief reference to my concept of a liberal arts education here, and in 1986, I wrote an essay for the W&L alumni magazine describing the uses I’d made of my liberal education in the real world. I’ve revised that essay as “Liberal Arts in the Real World” and I’ve scheduled it to appear on ROT on 24 July. In a way, I see “Liberal Arts” as a companion to “Disappearing Theater.” I hope you will return to ROT and see if you agree with my vision.]


  1. On Thurs, 21 Nov., the New York Times reported:

    "Michael M. Kaiser’s arts management institute is moving from the Kennedy Center in Washington to the University of Maryland and Mr. Kaiser is moving with it—four months earlier than his originally announced departure.

    "The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, an organization for training and supporting arts leadership, will relocate as of Sept. 1, the university announced on Wednesday. Mr. Kaiser was originally due to step down on Dec. 31, 2014; he will now leave on Aug. 31."


  2. Hi, Rick/ Who are you? Serendipity just led me 9/14/17 to read your 19 July 2010 blog on Lee Kahn and the Troubadour Theater at W&L:, and brought back found memories. Thanks! I attended there and was directed by him 1968-72 ( I think!), and so we probably crossed paths. From WV, in L.A. still doing theater some and planning to create a WV Shakespeare Festival back home even today. If you get this and want to, please say hi at beachtex@msn.com. Thanks and Break Legs! Beach Vickers

    1. Mr. Vickers--

      I can't say I remember you by name, I'm sorry to report. Good luck with the WV Shakespeare project; I'll be waiting to hear about it in the coming years.

      As for who I am, all you really need to know, aside from what's in my profile on the blog (and what I revealed above), is that I graduated from W&L in 1969.

      Thanks for writing.