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!