Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Theatre Instruction On Speed!

I’ve been creating an undergraduate course about communication that will be taken as an intro course by every person who goes through the new program its being created for. Because this is a course designed by me, I have a certain license to indulge my predilections for content, which, if you haven’t notice, include theatre. However, much as my inclination tells me otherwise, I am not allowed to turn this into a theatre course. Two weeks is all I’m going to spend on the subject; I have essays, journalism, poetry, short stories, and a novel to teach as well.

Here’s the trouble – how do you introduce undergraduates to theatre in two weeks? The impossibility of the task, in a way, is both completely binding and utterly freeing. I have no possibility of actually introducing theatre in a complete and meaningful way; my goal is to teach some interesting plays and to get across the uniqueness of theatre as a communications medium. What I’ve decided to go for is a combination of two classically-structured plays (one drama, one comedy) for the first week, with a couple of unconventional plays and a monologue to really “play” with the idea of audience and theatrical convention in the second. I’m hoping that a group exercise where the students will read out loud will help them understand how theatre is meaningful on the page, but “pops” on the stage. I’ve done some crowdsourcing, because I have an exceptionally wide base of friends who work in and study theatre, and have turned to a piece I wrote in grad school where I actually had to alter an entire syllabus on 20th-century American plays.

In a way, this exercise maddens me, because I want to teach an entire theatre semester (I tried, but was kindly rebuffed). I want to be able to spend an entire week on Angels in America, but because of these constraints I can’t really teach it at all, as it can’t have an entire week to itself. I’d like to show various modes of theatre and theatre through history; I’d like to get some serious diversity in the plays I teach. Heck, I’d like to teach musical theatre but that’s putting the cart before the horse, theatrically-speaking. I’d like to teach an entire course on theatre as a vessel for social justice, or the way theatre deals with illness; I’d like to teach a course on the monologue, on Canadian playwrights; I’d like to get the chance to teach several of the courses I found immensely valuable in grad school, such as the 20th-century one, the modern theatre history one, or the evolving theory of comedy. But I also find this idea of comparative media to be exciting. I designed this course so that I wouldn’t be “penned down” (pardon the pun) to any particular type of writing, and that came with its advantages and disadvantages. The comparisons between the types of writing are going to be very interesting, but each style/form subset of writing has driven me to its own particular crisis of “what to include?” The range of students in this program, in terms of background, level of English skill, and country of origin will likely be breathtaking.

With that, the starting point changes. Last week, in one of my classes a large percentage of students stared blankly when asked to place the reference, “Alas, poor Yorick!” The grad student in me wanted to lie down and cry. The professor in me decided that this was an awesome learning opportunity, and explained the reference and its meaning with enthusiasm. And, honestly, I think the meaning was understood – that’s the great thing about writers who deal sensitively with universal issues.

In the end, whatever plays these students are taught in this new course (and five is definitely pushing it, even if some are short), the key word is enthusiasm. I’m not going to be able to give anyone a thorough grounding in theatre theory in two weeks, but an idea about why theatre is special and exciting and fun, conveyed through a combination of study and enthusiasm, seems possible.

I’m not going to tell you which plays I’m choosing, because, in the end, the syllabus, particularly pre-approval, is a private matter between the institution and the course developer. I’m hoping I haven’t overstepped my bounds here by just talking out some of my mental process. Feel free to speculate or suggest, though!



  1. My sister randomly found your writing online while reading. I think the first piece of yours I read was a piece about college essay writing. It was two-three years before I had to apply for college myself when I read it for the first time and it was absolutely hilarious. Even now, the phrase "collide - and fracture beautifully" from a review of Into the Woods exist permanently in my mental collection of noteworthy phrases and quotesr.

    A comment on this post: I'm an undergraduate communications (and sociology double) major! I love that you're spending some time on theater, especially considering how many papers and excerpts we have read from Goffman's dramaturgy. I grew up with a very enthusiastic Shakespeare teacher by my side for a good 6 years(the only analysis papers I aced in high school were due to his teaching) and I absolutely loved Hamlet so I understand (to a degree) the pain of those blank stares. I think theater is an underrated communications medium, especially in my major department. We spent one lecture in the introduction to communications course reading an excerpt of a play and a good chunk of book on dramaturgy.

    I think Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead & Beckett's Waiting for Godot were the plays that really showed me how unique theater as a medium is. It really depicted the presence of a backstage, the need to watch it as a play rather than just read it on paper, and the necessary analysis of actions (or lack thereof, in the case of Waiting for Godot), rather than just plot.

    An introduction communications course, that's such an exciting course--

  2. Speculating/suggesting away:

    very impromptu.

    what if you asked the class (which I'm hoping isn't more than a 100 people...) what they know about theatre/what they think it is(a chance for students from other countries to also offer view of it) and asking them for plays they know, to put down on the chalkboard.(then take the most popular play, & talk about a remake of it that you liked/know about)-to show how it changes. Its crazy and probably completely impractical but i thought it would be cool to give them something they know, or think they do and then present it in an entirely different light.

    on a more general note because this got me excited:

    talking about mime/lecoq : to show communication without words.
    theatre games?
    Augusto boal. -similarity's with political movements now?
    peter brook??

    ok now i see why you want to teach a whole course/semester on this, and the craziness.
    I'm sure you'll be awesome at this course./I'm excited for you. because enthusiasm is what undergrads need most,( i would know ; P)

    Tijana :)