21 November 2011

The Theater Problem in Education

by Robert B. Youngblood

[Bob Youngblood, an emeritus professor at my undergrad alma mater, was one of my German profs and, as he says below, was an avid supporter and participant in the university theater program. Both Bob and our university theater director were new the same semester I started my freshman year, not much older than I was, so we all became friendly even as students and faculty. After I graduated, Bob and Lee Kahn, the director, became more like social acquaintances with common interests than teachers and a former student and we kept in touch all these years. (Lee died at 46 in 1981 but I’m still in touch with his widow.) In one e-mail message Bob sent me, he broached the topic of the disappearance of theater at my alma mater and I published “Disappearing Theater” on ROT on 19 July 2010. “The Theater Problem” is Bob’s view of this same disheartening phenomenon from the inside. ~Rick]

For three decades of my teaching career at Washington and Lee University as a professor of German and Italian, I taught two large literature classes of modern foreign literature in English translation, a component course in those required for graduation. The fall semester course was on modern German literature (from Rainer Maria Rilke to Thomas Bernhard and Ingo Schulze) and the winter semester course was on modern Italian literature (from Giovanni Verga to Antonio Tabucchi and Erri De Luca). The prose portions of the course could usually proceed with surmountable problems. Poetry and drama in both courses, on the other hand, were very bumpy roads indeed. This essay addresses "the theater problem."

It was, of course, my job to teach plays by dramatists that were aesthetically complex and by authors too contemporary for the students even to know their names (plays like Offending the Public by Peter Handke and Ten Rooms by Botho Strauss in German, Emma B. Widow Jocasta by Alberto Savinio and The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo in Italian, for example). Theater-lover that I am, I relished the task of presenting plays by these and other playwrights. Because I could automatically and rightly assume that every student was a tabula rasa about the plays, performance techniques, and the contemporary theater scenes in Germany and Italy, these modernist/postmodernist playwrights were less of an obstacle to teach . So ultra-modernism wasn't the problem.

What depressed me (and up to retirement brought me close to despondency) was that students, over the years, gradually came to have virtually no background in post-Elizabethan play-reading and had only attended either very few or no plays at all in a theater proper.

Naturally, I didn't expect students, even at our ultra-selective private liberal arts college, to be familiar with the playwrights generally considered the European forerunners of modern drama: B├╝chner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Chekhov, Wedekind, Pirandello, Shaw, and Brecht. Given, however, the notorious U.S.-centered cultural isolation our students are taught in, I expected most of them to have read or seen Thornton Wilder's Our Town or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, or failing that, to have heard of at least one play by Eugene O'Neill. In my last teaching years, the only playwright that most students could name or profess familiarity with one or the other of his major plays was (as one might expect) Tennessee Williams. In his case, students were able to name, said they knew about, or had seen (the movie version of) A Streetcar Named Desire.

In response to this distressing situation, I would ask students why they hadn't read or seen canonical plays. Surely their high school put on at least a play a year and they took part in or saw it? Oh yes, they replied, and named musicals that were performed or they took part in! To that, I would ask if they had acted in or seen any of the outstanding musicals like Cabaret, Into the Woods, or Sweeney Todd that consider serious themes and offers intellectual challenges rather than just issue-free entertainment. That question would net me a blank look, but they assured me they knew musicals by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, some of the classics up to the 1950s.

My follow-up question would then be: Why they didn't go to plays. The answers would run along these lines: We live in the suburbs. The theaters are downtown. Plays are at night when downtown is dangerous. We don't go down there. To my follow-up question, what about matinees on the weekend, again no answer. Weekends, as we in the teaching profession know, are for sleeping late and partying. And, given the "stuff" they see on DVDs and TV, to expect them to sit through a play of two or three hours, which has few scene changes and which requires a cerebral commitment, is asking a lot of today's young people. It's all students can do to sit through a lecture of an hour between their cell phone calls and text messages.

But there's film, I would counter. There are lots of plays on film. There are, for example, at least three different film versions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, that quintessential American play. In response to the word "film," they would tell me how many plays by Shakespeare they had seen in English class. Ah, I thought, here's where they experienced the translation of text into image and sound. It would often turn out, however, that they had only read one complete play by Shakespeare (usually Romeo and Juliet; if a second one, usually Richard III). Frequently they just read extrapolated scenes in class and later watched a film of the play (alas, I can't remember hearing Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear mentioned).

Given their lack of at least theater attendance, I shouldn't have been disappointed at the following, but invariably was: At least one oral report was required per course; I would suggest the setting of a scene in a play read for a class. Although I would give a verbal example of a scene-setting or diagram one on the blackboard, students would either tell me, to my disappointment, that they were unable or found it very difficult to set or diagram a scene. I expected them to know, but most also didn't, what a sound stage was in movie-making.

Despite the dispiriting, near absence, of theater background that students all too often came to W&L with from high school, this idealistic and theater-passionate instructor threw himself willingly into the breach. His abiding hope was that the plays treated in his courses would at least awaken an interest in theater and prod students to attend performances at W&L. Alas, this was not the case. A colleague who conducted an exiting-senior survey for years found, in the last year he did, that only one third of the senior class had attended a single play at W&L.

I personally had some of my most significant experiences at W&L with colleague-directors in our university theater. I contributed to a contemporary version of Six Characters in Search of an Author, to characterization and Brechtian elements in Saint Joan of the Stockyards, and to a major production of Goethe's Faust (both parts!) which played to virtually full houses. The programming of plays at W&L tried to present at least one representative play from the principle periods in the canon over a student's four years at W&L. Unfortunately, this college has eliminated virtually all play production. The two stages of our impressive and still fairly new performing arts complex were virtually barren of plays. This is not only due to the economic downturn but also because of low student participation in this art form. Up to the last year of performances, W&L wound up playing to primarily non-student audiences.

It comes as no surprise to me that theater in the U.S. has been experiencing a "hard go of it" in the years I've been a witness to the drop-off of live theater experiences and play-reading in our high schools. If, to boot, our colleges aren't educating and producing a new generation of play-going audiences, the future of theater in these altogether troubled United States looks even bleaker still!

[Bob was, as he describes himself, “theater-passionate,” but he doesn’t make his living in the theater, either as an artist or as a teacher, so his lament is perhaps a more unbiased cri than was my own. I could be seen to have had a conflict of interest, an axe to grind—but Bob’s loss is purely from the perspective of someone who loves (and misses) theater and a teacher in a liberal arts college who sees the loss to the students’ fundamental education. His final statement, that “the future of theater in these altogether troubled United States looks even bleaker still” if colleges like W&L stop teaching and presenting theater because we would no longer be “educating and producing a new generation of play-going audiences,” is something that I’ve said myself numerous times. In “Degrading the Arts” (13 August 2009), I make the same point Bob does in “The Theater Problem,” for instance, but the issue comes up often. It’s shameful, in my view, that arts education at any academic level in this country should become a question of finances or head-count. It’s even worse when the school or the board of ed takes the tack of eliminating theater or other art program in the face of low student turn-out rather than doing everything they can to raise that student interest, promote the arts on campus, and boost the benefits and pleasures of the arts.

[In “Disappearing Theater,” I quoted from a letter George Washington, the principal benefactor of the young Washington Academy (which grew into Washington and Lee University), wrote to the school’s trustees in 1798. The former president of the United States insisted: "[T]o encourage the Arts [has] ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart." I’ll also quote another great American, Chester A. Riley (as portrayed on TV by William Bendix): "What a revoltin' development this is!" I say, shame on everyone involved. Discretion may be considered valorous, but cowardice and burying your head in the sand are no virtues. Shame!]

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