Universities should build better BFA Theatre programs

During a lunch chat I got on the subject of undergrad and graduate performing arts programs. I noted that I have an issue with the systematic subordination of university theatre programs’ undergraduates to its graduate students. For example, the University of Washington’s (Seattle) main-stage shows universally star and feature graduate actors while undergrads are lucky to get a supporting role of significance. The program was finally forced to support an Undergraduate Theatre Society that gave the undergrads a serious chance to perform, but with more limited resources and support.

I don’t fault a university’s emphasis on its graduates. These specialized programs intend to take students to a new, more focused level with their chosen field of study and this research/process requires greater emphasis.

(Whether a given student seeks a true higher purpose through their choice to attend grad school, rather than a merely buying themselves a few years away from facing the music with their artistic career or just buying themselves some extra credibility for the resume, is another matter. Let’s presume for now that placing a premium importance on graduate work is purely justified.)

My greater issue with undergraduate BFA theatre programs is the existence of acting tracks and emphases. Everyone wants to be a star. Never mind too many chiefs and not enough workers. In theatre the problem is that there are far, far too many actors and not nearly enough techs, directors, wrights, stage managers, generative stewards, or well rounded individuals skilled in and capable of fulfilling the many other roles a theatre needs to produce work and shows.

Undergrad programs make what I consider a mistake in giving 18-22 year old kids the chance to choose their path (typically something between acting, tech and the more general ‘theatre studies’), and inevitably most of these idealistically naive kids are going to choose acting, the path that involves getting on stage and being a star.

Acting programs are at their core a path to selfishness. Actors by and large at any level aren’t going to do the dirty, inglorious work of theatre (working backstage, in the booth, at the front of house, or on tech/setup/cleanup before and after the show) unless they absolutely have to. At the same time, there is a glut of actors in every theatre community along with a dearth of both producers and people who are skilled and able to do the vast amount of production work required to mount a show.

An undergraduate theatre program should not include the option for an emphasis on acting. In fact, I don’t think a good undergrad theatre program should give students anything but a complete and well rounded theatre education. An undergrad should have to learn acting… and set/light/sound design, and stage management, and how to work the front of house, or backstage as a stagehand, how to work every board and piece of machinery in the house, and the business of theatrical production.

Is that a lot? Yes. I mentioned this idea to Vanessa DeWolf and she immediately offered a thoughtful rebuttal: This might be too much material for an undergraduate program. Having thought about it for a bit, I would counter that most BFA students take too many specialized classes in their track as well as too many book-based classes.

Acting isn’t rocket science but it’s also not a teachable practice the way carpentry is a teachable practice. People like Keanu Reeves are proof that any good looking dumbass can be a capable or successful actor. And there are a lot of uninspiring MFAs in the community who illustrate that no amount of training can make you a good actor. Someone can teach you how to competently turn wood into structure with training, but someone cannot necessarily turn you into an engaging actor with a similar volume of training.

It’s possible through training to become a highly skilled and trained actor.And there are a lot of MFAs and BFAs who honestly aren’t all that better than devoted adult studio trainees, or even talented but untrained actors. Acting training does not hold the same value as, say, training to be a doctor. You can’t perform surgery without training for a decade to specifically do so. However, you can act in a show without attending a single acting class, let alone without a BFA in Acting. Not that every person off the street can capably do so, but if someone in your cast doesn’t have a BFA, no one who sees or works on your show is going to die.

You do not need all that much acting training to capably act in a show. Full Meisner Technique training takes maybe a year. Improv schools can pump you through their once-a-week program and take you from zero to improviser in a year or so. Many of the theatre community’s strong actors have little more training than a few classes at Freehold Studio. Once you’ve developed a methodology or skillset, it’s all about active practice. If you just don’t get it or just don’t possess charisma, no amount of advanced intensive training is going to make you all that much better than you are. Never say never to the occasional remedial class, but the idea that a BFA or MFA in acting can make a novice thespian a very good actor is largely mythology.

So you don’t need a bunch of finer point acting or voice/movement classes. You can be free to take specialty acting classes (e.g. classical styles, musical theatre, clown), but a student shouldn’t *need* to take more than one acting class and one voice/movement class per quarter. Beyond that it’s a matter of personal practice and school-related projects.

As for tech and stage management, I reitierate my point that the development of experience is one parts education and many many more parts practice. Any more than three classes on any single aspect of design (lighting, scenic, sound, makeup) is probably overkill. Two is probably fine for the future producer, and one will do for most who just want a future in theatre and aren’t yet sure of their career path. A future stage manager certainly needs an intensive class in the subject as well as at least one of each of the design disciplines, and would do well to take a few classes on outside but relevant subjects like project management, human relations, etc.

From there, it comes back to a currently utilized but underutilized curriculum factor: The Practicum. In every decent theatre program every student has to take a quarter/semester practicum where they work in the theatre with a given discipline, whether helping with props management, the costume shop, the scene shop, working the booth as an op during a production, etc.

Rather than a 3-4 term one-credit obligation, make the practicum a required item for every term. Allow for multiple practicum sessions in some terms as the schedule allows. Have the students work in every aspect of theatre. Have them assist the Stage Manager on shows, handle props for the department supply as well as for a show, work in the shop, assist the house manager and administration with productions and other relevant paperwork. Have them intern and do other outreach with other theatre organizations, working with their administrative staff to develop an understanding of those requirements.

Wow, that sounds like a lot… especially when you factor in core college requirements: The usual Math, English, Science, History blah blah. I still remember. And I still remember my collegiate theatre experience (before I had to leave the program and go work for a living) plus research into a four year academic path. Even given those requirements, a good 60-70% of your credits still centered around your major depending on what electives and minor you selected.

And I still remember that much of the 300 and 400 level curriculae centered around irrelevance and redundancy: History classes and seminars plus multiple acting classes every term. A lot of this can be streamlined or cut out. One book-based class per term is enough. Again, one acting and one movement/voice class is enough. The average full-time student quarter/semester features 4-6 full classes. Given a book class, an acting class and a body class that’s three classes if we insist on a strict acting curriculum every quarter (not a given; we haven’t even explored the idea of integrating acting and voice training into a single in-class curriculum). In fact, you may not even have to take acting every quarter. Sure, you should have some sort of physical practice built into the curriculum (voice/movement or anything similar), but acting technique could be taken or left, introduced and omitted from term to term depending on factors.

That leaves space for 1-3 classes for other study. Plus practicums often take up a fraction of the credit-term space a class does (at UNLV a practicum was 1 credit hour while a standard class was 3 credit hours) and provides far more relevant experience. Looking closer, the academic undergraduate curriculum provides a lot more room than meets the eye to offer a fully well-rounded theatre education as well as room for exploratory thesis or otherwise self-guided work: Creating work, experimenting with processes, exploring a form or facet beyond the basic program.

Now, I didn’t talk that much about grad school. Given its advanced and specialized focus, I don’t have a problem with grad school keeping it’s modus operandi…. even if I fundamentally disagree with the idea of MFA acting programs. If I choose to fundamentally vilify MFA Acting programs I realize it seems like I tacitly vilify MFA Tech and MFA Directing and MFA Playwrighting programs as well. After all, grad school is where you go to specialize and it should be your call what you get to specialize in.

I do think grad school should, like other non-arts disciplines, focus on education with a higher purpose (focused more on the research and developmental side, less on the fundamentals side). In that respect I have a problem with MFA Acting programs. It’s a continuation of work that should have been done in the BFA stage. But that’s another matter for another time. The other programs, to their credit, are in underrepresented fields. We may have too many actors but we don’t have a lot of trained directors, techs, SMs, playwrights, etc.

A friend named Amy Shephard just completed an MFA program in Exeter, England centered around the integration of theatre with the community. That to me is a solid example of a higher purpose in grad study. Developing plays that reflect and resonate with a local community is another. Engineering better methodologies for technical production and management of a show is another.

Working on improving one’s mediocre acting skills (mediocre despite four years of BFA work and additional community productions + lessons) is not.

It takes more than a group of trained actors to make a production. BFA programs can and should make a better effort to produce thespians that can provide that “more”. If you want to focus on something in particular, you can do that in grad school. That’s what it’s for, after all.

I’m certain you could cross-apply a lot of these ideas to dance and music programs. I’ll leave that to you for now.

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