The Children of Theatre: A Manifesto

I wrote the following several years ago while in the midst of an ill-suited MFA program in Theatre Pedagogy. Looking at it now I feel slightly sad that I am no longer on an academic track because there are so many things that needed to be changed in so many theatre departments.

I still believe everything that I wrote in this manifesto–which is unabashadly extreme and idealistic, as all manifestos should be–but it is simply not my battle anymore. At the moment. For the nonce. Who knows, maybe I’ll pick up the mantle of theatre education somewhen down the road. In the meantime, I offer up this manifesto and dedicate it to all my friends who have stuck it out and who are now teaching theatre at colleges and universities across the country.

The Children of Theatre: a Manifesto

A manifesto is, by necessity, naive, willful, arrogant, overly simplified, angry, heartfelt, completely right and completely wrong. These are not the values prized by academic writers, which is why now is the time and the place for someone to come out and say that theatre departments are diseased and should either die or be treated. For many, the treatment will be worse than the death.

We are here to tell you, having seen close up and personal, that theatre departments all over the country are treating their students with the utmost contempt and neglect. Of course, this contempt is disguised by the facade of professional training.

Let us start with the premise that theatre training should not be vocational training in order for graduates to get jobs selling Chryslers or Ipods ore Bud Light nor should it be to place graduates in the latest sit-com or reality TV show. You do not get a BA or BFA in Painting in order to do the diagrams for airline safety manuals or illustrations for Time magazine. Honestly, are you training artist or employees? When the department head of a theatre program notes that a sophomore girl should lose twenty pounds and dye her hair blond … well, it’s pretty fucking obvious now isn’t it. When we pay lip service to teaching history but let students get by who can’t construct a proper sentence or spell Stanislavsky, again, it’s obvious.

“It’s hard,” you bleat.

“We need to give the student’s a sense of the business,” you simper.

“If our kids get film work then our program will be more attractive and will generate more money,” you whine.

Blah blah blah and cod-fucking-swaddle. Maybe we shouldn’t have theatre departments if all we are doing is sacrificing our student’s capabilities as artists and as people for the greater glory of Soap Operas, Commercials, Broadway and “Holy”-wood. Just give up the pretense that we give a shit about their creative powers, about their intellectual capacities, about their potential to find their own voices in a society bent on silencing passion and integrity … give up the pretense and set up some vocational training centers. And yes, we can still call them conservatory programs.

But a Bachelor of Arts? A Bachelor of Fine Arts? Are you really providing those? No. You are sacrificing these passionate, selfish, earnest, deluded, dedicated children. The Children of Theatre who are being crucified upon the insecure egos of academic directors out to prove that they are just as good as “professional directors; skewered by department politics and power plays; thrown upon the flames of sexist attitudes about beauty and appearance.

Have you forgotten it all? In your conferences and tenure, your 401k plans and dental insurance? Have you forgotten why you took on the training of artists in the first place? If you truly want to cure yourself and your department from the disease that has afflicted nearly each and ever theatre department, then follow these thirteen guidelines. If you are pissed off and feel that reading further will be a waste of time, it probably will because you have no interest in doing right by these children.

Put yourselves at risk. Every, every every production should be open for post mortem discussion with everyone in the department. Teachers, your job is to create a space for dialogue and honesty where students can tell you exactly how much and why your show sucked. You have no right to be a director or a teacher if you are unwilling to be judged and found wanting.

Theatre and academia both breed Sadists. Neither an actor’s soul nor an actor’s body is yours to bruise and bleed in order for you to feel good about yourself. But you do, don’t you. Seeing them get dark and deep and nasty in the psyche gets you off. Maybe you like to twist the emotional knife just a little too hard sometimes. Not me you say. Maybe, just maybe you don’t. But we guarantee that you know people, people in your department: colleagues, friends maybe … you know these Sadist teachers and you do and say nothing. There is no place for a Sadist and silence is approval is sadism is irresponsible is wrong. Get the hell out of our schools.

The moment a teacher tells a young man or woman that they need to lose weight to succeed as an actor, fire them. If they have tenure, expose them for what they are: charlatans and failures.

The moment a teacher suggests plastic surgery to a young actor, get rid of them. By any means necessary.

Revel in failure. Show these children with your every action, that their reach should always exceed their grasp. This means facing the fact that if you have stopped reaching beyond yourself, if you have stopped taking risks as an artist, as a teacher and as a person … you have no place teaching artists. Get out.

Never forget that you are a teacher of artists. This means that you expect your students to remake reality on a daily basis. This means that you are expected to remake reality on a daily basis. If you can’t handle that, get out.

Stop defining theatre in the narrowest of terms and stop limiting theatre students to the narrowest of job descriptions. An artist does not wait around until she is hired to create. An artist makes art happen. If your students cannot make their own theatre, you have failed.

If your students believe that getting paid to do theatre means that they are succeeding as a theatre artist, you have failed.

If you do not understand or stop to consider the social and political ramifications of how you display the bodies of women and minorities on stage, go get a job at Bob Jones “University” but stay away from the rest of us, you have no place here.

If you have stopped learning than for fucks sake, stop teaching because you are the walking dead and don’t know it. Zombie teachers are worse than Sadist teachers.

Engage the community surrounding your school. Do theatre for children, prisoners, the elderly, high school students, other departments and school organizations. Collaborate with other voices, other faces, other minds. If you don’t, if you simply do your 4 – 6 main stage shows a year neatly tucked away from the prying eyes and hearts of the world, you will only succeed in training self-absorbed, elitist, white-collar employees for the marketing divisions of corporate America.

When you see policies in place that are for the convenience of faculty members and to the detriment of the students, speak the hell up and change things. Capitulation is failure. And failures will only and ever train failures.

Compromise is capitulation.

If you truly want theatre to mean something in our culture, you have to take responsibility for training these children in the art of the possible, the power of creation and in the joy of unfettered imagination—not how to get an agent and where to get the cheapest head shots. They are there, waiting backstage: eyes wide, breath quick, skin tingling, stomach twisting because they are attempting to fly without a net. It is your job to make give them wings, not shoes. And to make sure those wings will withstand even the brightest of suns.

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