A young Hispanic student hangs out shyly near the door of my classroom after the first day of class. As I exit, she whispers to me, “Professor, can I write a bilingual play with the Rio Grande as a character? I tried in my last workshop but my teacher said that it wasn’t real theater. I shouldn’t use Spanish because nobody would care about the play and that the river isn’t a real character. I know it sounds stupid but I think I could do it.”
Two playwrights meet at a public master class that I’m leading. Both graduated from well-regarded theater programs. They are laughing and discussing how they read the exact same plays in their contemporary American theater course. They graduated 20 years apart.
I’m mentoring an undergrad playwright who has endured three years of rigorous theatrical training. He can’t name one playwright under the age of 50 who has world premiered a play within the past five years except Sarah Ruhl who “is cool but we don’t really read her work in-class. I like her essays though.” His contemporary touchstones are Williams, O’Neill, and Hansberry.
All of these situations are real.
All of these situations are terrifying.
All of these interactions are common in my experience as a travelling teaching artist.
Why are we encouraging students to write plays for audiences that are dead? Who do we think that their work will be connecting with in the future, the zombie subscriber demographic? Would a student painter only be educated in the aesthetic of Picasso and his contemporaries? Would an emerging graphic designer only be trained in wood block print and never touch a computer? Would a young architect only visit the Colosseum, Great Wall, and Eiffel Tower? No. That’s ridiculous. Teaching artists in other disciplines look at me with incredulity when I describe the limited engagement my students have with actual contemporary theater and theater makers. When I began teaching at one well-known institution, I was the first professor to introduce students to any work post-Vogel’s 1997 How I Learned to Drive; a piece that I love and have taught but is almost 20 years old.
We seem to be intent on intentionally stifling young voices by limiting their exposure to what is possible in the Now of theatrical space.
Please don’t freak out. Or do. Maybe it would make the discussion more vibrant and that would lead to more productive results. But this is no baby with the bathwater situation. I am not suggesting we excise well-regarded, well-known texts from our syllabi. They are a vital aspect of an artist’s education. Our Mozart. Our Cage. Occasionally, our Bieber. (What? You never read a play that, no matter what your teacher said, you absolutely knew was terrible in any decade?)
But too often an over emphasis on well-established texts leads to an absence of today’s texts and theatrical viewings in colleges and universities. As a result, we are only exposing our students to ideas, aesthetics, and forms that audiences have often already absorbed and moved beyond.
Audiences come to theater for many reasons but the core of their experience is connection – with stories, with characters, with each other, with an experience, with an intellectual idea, with living, breathing, exuberant energy. Otherwise, they’d just stay home and watch Netflix in their pajamas for $8 a month. And we don’t write for dead people. For audiences that lived in the ‘40s or ‘70s; even if an audience member was alive in the ‘40s, they are a different person today than they were at that time. We should be training students to create for the Now person. For the vibrating soul.
Let’s leave the O’Neill, the Mamet, the Wilson, the Greeks, Shakespeare, even the Sheppard (whom I love more my luggage) in the literature classes, in the theater history classes, in the script analysis classes. Let’s keep our playwriting workshops and contemporary theater classes current, vibrant, electric with possibility.
Let’s commit to encouraging young creators to engage with the today’s American theater scene; before creating our syllabi, let’s take a look at what’s world premiered within the past 5 or 10 years and emphasize those works and then supplement our syllabi with recommended reading/viewing lists of older work.
I have an odd affection for zombie audiences but I’m not encouraging my students to rip out their hearts and devour their souls for them. What would be the point?
Jacqueline Goldfinger is a playwright, dramaturg and teaching artist. She teaches theater at the University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania. She co-founded the Philadelphia-based emerging playwrights lab The Foundry with Michael Hollinger and Quinn Eli. She’s taught from coast to coast at programs as diverse at McCarter Theater, UCSD, the Disquiet Conference (Lisbon), and PlayPenn. Her new comedy, Trish Tinkler Gets Saved, will premiere at the Women’s Voices Festival in DC in conjunction with Unexpected Stage Company this fall. Visit her online: www.jacquelinegoldfinger.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.