Integrating Production and Curriculum In The Liberal Arts Setting
by Patricia Van Denberg Blom '73
We had problems. The faculty was overworked; the students were restless. More immediately, who was going to supervise the student-directed lab bills? For years this responsibility had been assumed on a non-credit (read "volunteer") basis by the Director of Theatre. As the new hire in that position, I knew that I could not do a good job of supervising the lab bills in addition to all of my other responsibilities. I refused to do so and asserted that none of my colleagues should be expected to volunteer for the job either.
Confronted with the likelihood of student outrage if their directing opportunities were eliminated, but having no faculty volunteers to allocate to the cause, my department was compelled to hunker down and get creative. One of the benefits of directing a theatre program under the auspices of a Department of Communication Arts and Sciences is that some of my non-theatre department colleagues came to the problem of theatre production/curriculum with few, if any, preconceived notions. Their innocence gave us fresh insights and more than the student-directed lab bill issue was resolved. Our departmental deliberations convinced us that in order to alleviate student and faculty burnout we had to more effectively integrate production and curriculum.
We have now created a system by which all of our productions come out of classes. Students receive at least partial academic credit for work on any of the four productions we do annually. Faculty workloads are more reasonable. In addition to relieving the burnout problem, our solutions have resulted in some pedagogical benefits. While our plan is very specifically geared to our program and institution, I believe that variations on these solutions could be used in numerous contexts.
Calvin College is a private, liberal arts college. The Theatre program employs three theatre faculty as well as a staff technical director, costume designer, and costumer. We produce four theatrical productions per year: three are faculty or guest-directed, and the fourth is the previously mentioned student-directed lab bill. We serve our own majors as well as many students from other fields.
Fortunately, we did not have to start from scratch in integrating production and curriculum at Calvin. Our major fall and spring productions had long come out of a class called Theatre Production. It is a curious hybrid whose precursor was a drama club. During the 1960s the former Director of Theatre cleverly plotted a strategy whereby the students in the class receive 1/4 credit hour per term for participation. (This parallels the choirs and band at Calvin.) Students audition/interview for the class. If accepted, they can participate all four years and are able to accumulate up to two full course credits toward graduation. The group normally numbers around seventy and represents students from many majors. The class becomes a company of sorts which produces the major play each term. Only those in the class are allowed to audition for, or to crew the two mainstage plays. Competition to get into the class is stiff, drawing around 115 applicants for 20 positions each fall. (The other 50 places are already taken by students wishing to remain in the class.) In addition to producing the plays, the class meets once a week for one hour, and the instructor receives one course teaching credit per term for producing the plays and leading the class.
There are some drawbacks to this plan, but we have found that the benefits outweigh the problems. One obvious drawback is that there are students on campus who would like to participate in mainstage productions but who either are not accepted into the class or do not audition because they don't have the time or the inclination to make the commitment to the course. (There are numerous other production outlets for these students, however, both within the department and sponsored by the student-run Drama Guild.) Another problem with the system is that directors are limited in casting to those who have been accepted into the class.
The benefits, however, are many. The class sessions provide opportunity for all students involved to be part of a systematic approach to play production. The class explores various aspects of the play in production, such as the genre, the playwright, the social context in which the play was written, and the matter of production style. Students are privy to why the play was selected, the production concept, and the design process. The entire class participates in workshops relating to specific needs of the production, like mask making and period movement. Over four years the students are exposed to a wide range of plays and playwrights. Each student has opportunity for hands-on experience in numerous areas of production. We have found that the class fosters lifelong appreciation of theatre even in the students who pursue non-theatre-related careers. For those who pursue theatre professionally, it serves as a solid base for further study or training.
After considerable rumination on the problem of lab bills, one observant member of our department pointed out that the catalog featured a departmental seminar which had not been offered in years. We agreed to use that course as a theatre seminar culminating in the production of student-directed plays. The course is now offered annually, taught by department faculty on a rotating basis. The professor chooses a theme or topic for the class: a playwright, a genre, a style; the subject changes annually and the class may be taken more than once.
The first half of the term is dedicated to studying the topic; the second half, to production meetings and rehearsals. Class members who wish to direct submit proposals including play choice and production concept to the class. The class votes to determine which one-act plays will comprise the bill. After the directors are determined, the class assigns itself other production responsibilities. Usually all positions, including design positions, can be filled by class members. Acting auditions are open to the entire campus. Our production staff is available to give guidance, but the student members of the class essentially own the production. The results over the past four years have been very exciting.
As a professor one has the flexibility to explore areas of interest or research. One also has the joy of watching as students see themselves becoming empowered both intellectually and practically. Listening to the discussions on play selection is marvelous. For the first time the students understand the challenges of selecting plays which will be appropriate for the audience, include an acceptable number of female roles, be technically feasible, etc.
The students respond with great enthusiasm to the learning experience because they are discovering things for themselves and from one another rather than taking the professor's word for it. They understand the process of theatre production—from the selecting of the bill, to creating publicity, arranging for house management, and dealing with the myriad details which are necessary to making the production happen. Because the students evaluate and grade themselves and their classmates, their sense of responsibility to the group and the importance of collaboration in the theatrical endeavor is heightened.
And finally, the product is better. The production is conceived in a context of exploration and understanding. The playbill has a cohesiveness which contributes to the audience's potential learning experience. The evening of theatre has flair and polish (via such attention to detail as entr'actes and lobby entertainment). And the audiences love it. We play three nights on a weekend toward the end of the spring term to full and lively houses. These productions are eagerly awaited and heavily attended by students.
Having integrated three of our four productions into courses with happy results, the department looked to integrate our interim term production into a course as well. Calvin's interim term, which takes place in the month of January, is a time when the college faculty is encouraged to offer innovative curses. In the past, when we offered a theatrical production during the interim, a faculty member had to teach a class in addition to directing the production. Now we offer the production as a class and usually do the kinds of things we would not do during the regular season, such as readers theatre or children's theatre or a smaller play which would not be chosen for the mainstage. Recent offerings have included a readers theatre production of Michael Quigley's April is the Cruelest Month, a children's theatre presentation of Telling Wilde Tales (based on the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde), and productions of Davis's Mass appeal and Glaspell's Trifles. Students who wish to work on the production enroll in the class. Auditions are open to the entire campus. Students are supervised by the theatre staff and receive a full course credit for their work on the production. In the three years we've been using this approach, there have always been more students interested in taking the class than we've had spaces to accommodate. The hands-on nature of this course fits in well with the experiential nature of many interim term courses offered.
Thus, by working creatively within the given structure, we have made a good start at effectively integrating curriculum and production at Calvin College. It feels right in terms of pedagogy, workload, and the respect it engenders for theatre as a discipline.
My years of teaching theatre in liberal arts settings have taught me a number of things. First, it is not imperative that the combination of liberal arts and theatre studies create intolerable workloads. If we, as theatre educators, are willing to take a stand, we can, in many instances, create more humane working conditions. Second, I have found that administrators are not the enemy. At the four institutions where I have taught I have, without exception, found the administrators to be open, even grateful, to theatre practitioners who wish to improve the liberal arts education offered by the institution and who can articulate their vision—and its financial implications—clearly and rationally. And finally, I have concluded that the integration of production and curriculum is part of the solution to the workload problem and is critical to the long range health of theatre education in liberal arts settings. When curriculum and production remain distinct entities, the result is not only faculty and student burnout; the separation undermines the value and validity of theatrical production as a pedagogical tool. Integrating production and curriculum can change the way administrators, students, and audiences perceive theatrical production on campus. When goals are carefully articulated and implemented, production work is given the respect it deserves; it is viewed as an integral and important part of a quality liberal arts education.
My passionate commitment to providing the students with a quality theatre education, while at the same time providing the faculty with the possibility of a reasonable personal life, made standing my ground in the departmental fracas quite easy. I believe that we in the theatre should be dreamers…we should imagine how things should be, how they could be. And then we must use our considerable creativity to being to move in the desired direction.