Information Age Education
   Issue Number 166
July, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

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This is the 13th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information Part 13

Determining Credibility in the Selection of University Theatre Productions: What’s a Grave Digger Supposed to Do?

Mira Wiegmann
Emeritus Professor of Theatre Arts
Concordia University, Nebraska

How do people who read scripts decide which film, T.V. show, or play should be produced? More specifically, how do directors who plan a season of productions know which of the excellent and available possibilities to include? How do they establish their professional credibility in determining their selections for productions?

I directed a university theatre program for 24 years. This IAE Newsletter presents some factors that influenced my selections. You will see that many factors enter into my decisions.

The study and enactment of dramatic literature has been part of liberal arts higher education since the Renaissance. Students not only read and discuss plays, they also perform them. Just as children master frightening, mystifying, or thrilling experiences by acting them out in free dramatic play, young adult learners gain understanding of human experience by seeing, hearing, and enacting dramatic literature.

Drama in higher education currently has disparate, but inter-relating goals that influence the selection of plays for class syllabi as well as for campus performance. These goals include increasing knowledge of many cultures and eras, which encourages collaboration and cross-discipline study. More specifically, reading and performing plays develops empathy for others as well as critical and associative thinking.

Educational theatre artists play the roles of “historians, archaeologists, and time travelers, …grave-diggers working on the edge of the two extremes of destruction and preservation, throwing up the skulls of history and transforming them” (Birringer, 1991). Theatre educator/artists accomplish this not only in classrooms but also through theatrical production. Producing theatre entails in-depth interaction with colleagues, actors, designers, technicians, and audiences. This process shapes not only the performance, but also all engaged in it. The process begins with the selection of plays to be performed in an academic year, and possibly the consideration of a four- to six-year cycle of plays, with the goal of exposing students to a broad range of dramatic genres, periods, and styles.

Literature classes frequently include plays by classic and contemporary playwrights. In this article the term classic is broadly applied to plays that have been repeatedly performed for at least one hundred years, and the term contemporary denotes plays written and performed within the last 100 years. If one argues that classic plays performed today are those with meaning that has relevance for contemporary audiences, these performances represent a culture’s present as well as past concerns.

University theatre programs may also focus on the concerns of their mostly young adult audience, an audience that continually evolves as students mature and graduate. Classic plays that address moral decision-making in complex social settings range from Antigone (BCE 441) and A Doll’s House (1879), to such 20th and 21st century plays as All My Sons (1947) and Water by the Spoonful (2012). (See Reference section below for Internet access to cited plays).

Theatre in higher education has sought to develop new plays as well as to conserve classic plays. College curricula have contained playwriting courses since the early 1900s. Eugene O’Neill, who studied playwriting at Harvard, gained worldwide recognition as an innovative playwright. Theatre artists in higher education today continue to experiment with new forms of performance that may combine multimedia with live actors.

Many universities with professional theatre training programs have a professional theatre in residence on campus. These theatres frequently stage new works. Six plays about 20th century African-American experience by August Wilson were first produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Wilson’s plays subsequently had successful Broadway productions that won multiple awards including two Pulitzer Prizes. The annual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival encourages excellence in the performance of plays by students as well as by established playwrights. It also seeks to support revitalized or newly conceived classic play production as well as experimental works (http://www.kcactf.org/).

Campus administrators set theatre program budgets, making theatre production less financially dependent on ticket sales. However, theatre studies still must attract participants and audiences to justify their existence. The popularity of comedy and musical theatre influences their inclusion in university theatre production. Yet social critique occurs not only in “serious” drama but also in comedies that range from Lysistrata (BCE 411) to It’s Only a Play (1986, revised 2014) (Als, 10/20/2014). Comedies and musicals have regularly won the Pulizer Prize, an affirmation of their merit as dramatic literature. The musical Man of La Mancha, based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), may awaken interest in Cervantes as well as in the culture of chivalry and the Spanish Inquisition. Production of this musical invites collaboration among departments of music, theatre, history, and literature—thus enhancing interdisciplinary study. Performance of this musical can also present an alternative to cynicism through one of its themes: people can become better than they are when they are treated as people of worth.

In addition, theatre educators seek to introduce students to non-Western theatre and cultures. While it is possible to read Sanskrit plays in a literature class, dramatic performance in many Asian and African countries frequently has minimal or no scripting. A dramatic enactment is interactively passed from one performer to another. Performing traditional non-Western plays presents challenges because their performance conventions often demand years of training. American students typically have six to eight weeks, and at most a semester, to mount a production. Learning the complex movement conventions or any other aspect of Peking Opera or Kathakali is only possible at the most rudimentary level within these time constraints, and one must question whether appreciation for non-Western theatre is served by crude imitation.

Many schools address this by bringing non-Western theatre artists to perform on campus or by taking students to professional performances. Study abroad programs offer students more in-depth study. All of these increase knowledge of and appreciation for non-Western theatre. For Julie Taymor, undergraduate experiences began an exploration of non-Western theatre forms such as Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppetry, forms that she brilliantly incorporates in her work as a director and designer for theatre and film (Blumenthal & Taymor, 1995). The Lion King is an example of her ability to combine Western and non-Western theatre techniques in ways that enrich performance.

Theatre in higher education seeks to increase racial and gender diversity in plays studied and produced. American theatre has a history of racial prejudice that includes “white” actors portraying stereotyped characters of color in demeaning ways. The film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) records an example of this in Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an ill-tempered buck-toothed Japanese neighbor who wears thick-lensed glasses. Additionally, fewer roles exist for characters of color than for “white” characters. Conversely, casting a character of color can be problematic for schools with limited minority enrollment. Such schools might choose small cast shows or invite actors of color to be guest artists. The practice of color-blind casting in classic and contemporary plays has opened roles for actors of color in university as well as professional theatre.

Regrettably, the goals of educational theatre may become conflicting. A campus that has many students who audition will hesitate to produce a one-person show such as I Am My Own Wife (2003), even though it won many awards and is one of the few plays that respectfully stages transgender identity. In addition, male playwrights tend to write plays with more male than female roles. While more female playwrights are produced today, achieving gender equity in the quantity and quality of roles for women remains challenging. This may be addressed by cross gender casting of traditional plays that also exposes gender stereotyping. Campuses may also stage more productions in an academic year to increase racial and gender equity. This often requires assistance from guest artists as well as student directors and designers. It may also necessitate more frugal staging of every production.

Theatre facilities, budget, professional staff, and student population influence the selection of plays for production. Inadequate resources either eliminate plays with elaborate scenic and special effects, or necessitate stylized interpretations of these scripts. A small theatre program with minimal theatre facilities and staff would have difficulty staging Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Conversely, schools with BFA and MFA programs are challenged to produce plays that give their candidates the myriad of experiences needed to begin careers in acting, directing, design, and technical fields.

In large and small theatre programs, uniquely gifted students appear who induce directors to find plays that will showcase extraordinary talent. In addition, the economics of current professional theatre has reduced the cast size of many recent plays. University theatres are torn between staging exciting new works that offer fewer students the opportunity to perform and older plays that offer more students performance experience. The history of theatre in higher education and the diversity of theatre programs today lead to the production of desperate genres of dramatic literature, diverse performance styles, and innovative use of media. These may move into other fields that include film studies and performance art.

The interests of faculty involved in directing and designing plays also affects play selection. In many theatre departments, choosing a season of plays can mean protracted negotiations. Many educational theatre artists would empathize with Francis Fergusson’s 1928 letter to the Administration of the American Laboratory Theatre in which he argued for an “evolving drama which shall be vital and comprehensive to a public large enough and rich enough to support a small theater full of frugal theatre artists…you can confidently expect me to look for and bring plays which seem to me significant.”

No director wants to spend 200 hours of research, production meetings, and rehearsals on a play that would lack meaning for the actors, technical staff, and audiences. Given the multiple and sometimes competing goals of play production in liberal arts education, choosing an academic performance season can be a juggling act in which multiple players launch as many of these goals as they can. If they can keep them in play, they may captivate as well as educate their audiences. Those who spend their careers as theatre artist/educators seek credible plays of significance that both conserve and transform dramatic art. They are grave-diggers who juggle.

References

Als, H. (10/20/2014). TA-DA. The New Yorker. Reviews the revised It’s Only a Play by Terrence McNally. The original script premiered on Broadway in 1986.

Birringer, J. (1991). Theatre, theory, postmodernism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Blumenthal, E., & Taymor, J. (1995). Playing with fire. New York: Abrams.

Summaries and brief production histories of plays cited in this article can be found at http://www.en.wikipedia.org by searching the play title.

Author

Mira Wiegmann is an emeritus Prof. of Theatre Arts at Concordia University, Nebraska, where she was Director of Drama from 1986 to 2009. She has directed over 30 productions and was a Region V play respondent for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for over 20 years. In 2001, she was selected by Region V to direct a student-written short play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Staging and Transformation of Gender Archetypes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, M. Butterfly, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, was published by the Edwin Mellon Press in 2003. She presented papers at the Mid-America Theatre Conference and led numerous educational theatre workshops.

Email: mira.wiegmann@cune.org.

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