What If…Traditional Theatre Training Was Replaced By A Multi-Disciplinary Approach?

by Craig Fleming

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if…the specialization of college theatre departments was replaced by integrated, multi-disciplinary arts training?

What if university theatre departments across the country melted into air, into thin air, leaving not a rack behind? And what if they were then reborn, or rather, reincorporated into a single department of integrated arts—a participatory community of curiosity, invention, tradition, subversion—where analog and digital, solid and fluid, live and recorded weren’t dialectics but spark gaps in a Tesla coil of shock and awe? The silos of department divisions—music, art, film, design, dance, theatre—dot the feudal university landscape like towering keeps to be defended at any cost against jealous rivals. Let critics say what they will, let funding and endowments be cut, the truth is that the old distinctions have faded in the sun like so many battlement banners. Look to the new student, the student armed with easily accessed and fantastic tools of self-expression. Most surely they are the ones who know tectonic plates are moving and boundaries are shifting. In this digital age, with its participatory culture, young students are the visionaries and the revolutionaries, and it is about time we acknowledged their multi-disciplinary skills and facilitated their development.

The idea of integrated or interdisciplinary arts education isn’t new; admittedly previous models have been to some degree unconvincing. Yet the rapid increase in New Media literacies over the past decade has resulted in an ecological shift of student capabilities and expectations. A recent series of reports commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation provides background and context for these changes. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project defines the new paradigm: “Today’s youth may be engaging in negotiations over developing knowledge and identity, coming of age, and struggling for autonomy as did their predecessors, but they are doing this while the contexts for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression are being reconfigured through their engagement with new media.” Moreover, if we think of new students as new audiences, we can understand further the need for rethinking our approach to arts education. According to innovative theatre artist Robert Lepage, “We are confronted with audiences whose narrative vocabulary has evolved . . . They can read stories backwards now, and jump cut, and can flash forward. So I would say the new audiences are extremely educated—they have tools to play with—and I’m afraid that often theatre doesn’t trigger that, doesn’t invite that into its realm.” Revisioning theatre (and all performing arts) instruction to provide for a new student and a new audience is not only desirable, it is imperative.

Of course, this is a monumental task. Institutional change is the hardest and slowest to effect. When it comes to higher education, we are talking about a mode of instruction that has changed only superficially since the Middle Ages. For many it is difficult to give up the conviction that knowledge flows in one direction. The exciting aspect of integrated arts training is that it encourages collaboration. Today’s students are steeped in participatory culture, and for that reason, they thrive in peer-to-peer creative engagement. According to the report cited above, “Peer-based learning is characterized by a context of reciprocity, in which participants believe they can both produce and evaluate knowledge, and in which they can develop reputation and receive recognition from respected peers.”

The fact that academic institutions must respond to this new student is the focus of another MacArthur Foundation report, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. In it the authors acknowledge that while most “university education . . . is founded on ideas of individual training, discrete disciplines, and isolated achievement and accomplishment,” we must ask “how much this very paradigm of individual achievement supports the effective learning styles of today’s youth.” The report concludes that “the future of learning institutions is past—it’s over— unless those directing the course of our learning institutions realize, now and urgently, the necessity of fundamental and foundational change.”

The history of the theatre is marked by adaptation and reinvention. Not very long ago a ‘fourth wall’ was introduced to support the veracity of realistic theatre, and audiences came to accept it as a necessary rule. But with the advent of film and its capacity for the naturalistic, theatre’s imaginary wall became unwarranted. The time has come to acknowledge a fifth wall, a wall that separates art from art and artist from artist. The modern tools of our digital age demand yet another adaptation and aesthetic.

We must submit humbly to a truth our students have already grasped. Information has been decentralized. Institutions of higher learning are no longer obligatory for authority of instruction. In the digital age, universities only derive their true value when they facilitate and produce learning, and to the ‘always-on’ student in a participatory culture, that is best accomplished through collaboration. So let’s replace the fifth wall with something shimmering and permeable. At Brown University, the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts has opened to “advance innovative directions for research, teaching, and production across the boundaries of individual arts disciplines.” It is both heartening and stimulating, this hope that “collaboration among artists, scientists, and humanists will seek to create new art forms, new approaches to collaborative work, and will explore, examine, and extend our understanding of the creative process.”

In our participatory culture, the artists of tomorrow will be diverse citizens in a land where the lingua franca is a grammar of all the arts. I already see this yearning in the eyes of my young students. They may be undergraduate theatre majors, but in their hearts they are not devotees of a single discipline. How can they and why should they be? Let them o’erjump the parapets to become what they truly are: artists who wear a multi-colored livery, acting and singing and dancing and filming and building and casting and metal-sculpting their dreams for the new millennium. ‘Tis a consolidation devoutly to be wished.


Craig Fleming is an actor, director, teacher, and writer. He received his MFA in Acting from CSULB, where he was named Outstanding Graduate for the College of the Arts. His theatre background includes acting and directing throughout California. At South Coast Repertory, he served as Education Director and taught acting for fifteen years. In 1988 Craig joined Walt Disney Imagineering, moved to Paris, and directed the nomenclature and scripting effort for the creation of Disneyland Paris. Before becoming an Imagineer he wrote for Teddy Ruxpin and other talking toys. He has abandoned theme parks and talking toys to search for something real.