Live Design has been running a series of columns titled What’s Trending, mostly focusing on hardware and software, from lighting consoles to cutting-edge content creation. We decided to shift the focus to another side of our universe: education. What is going on in the theatrical design programs these days and what advice do the professors have to offer those about to step over the threshold into the vast unknown of “the industry?” There were no guidelines provided; we simply asked a few academics to muse on the question: What’s trending in education?
This thoughtful reply comes from Michael Riha, Chair of Theatre, University of Arkansas, who is also featured in a recent podcast, Coffee Break, broadcast from his university studio.
When I was asked to write a short article about “What’s Trending” in the educational world, I immediately thought, “Well, this should be easy.” However, the more I pondered the topic, the more complex that question became. Should I talk about the practicality of what training programs must offer their students by discussing all the light boards, sound consoles, drafting and drawing programs, and sound/video editing software that all young theatre designers and technicians must master while they are at school? Should I fall into the trap of having the age-old conversation about the need for students to become master carpenters, electricians, seamstresses, welders, and foam carvers? Should I once again state that all theatre training programs must ensure that their students be competent at drawing and painting; are trained to be thorough researchers; are able to work seamlessly across multiple computer platforms and operating systems; and have a thorough understanding of theatre history? That would not only be the easy way out, but would be repetitive and quite boring. For today’s student, all of the above are simply the “given circumstances” of their theatre education.
There are two points I would like to share that are unique to the way students are currently being trained, as opposed to how I was trained some 30 years ago. The first is community engagement. Some theatre departments have had established community engagement programs for many years; but for most institutions, community engagement was defined by simply adding a few mid-week matinees of Romeo and Juliet to the production schedule so local junior and senior high students could take a field trip to see “live theatre.” Sadly, with today’s shrinking budgets, most schools do not have the financial means to take these kinds of trips.
Community engagement is being redefined to take a more inclusive stance, and is therefore changing how we educate our students. Nationwide, there is an effort to bring theatre out into the community as opposed to asking them to “come into our home.” Many programs require coursework that is designed to provide master classes, workshops, readings, and devised theatre pieces for underserved and underrepresented schools and/or organizations. Creating relationships with local schools and organizations that might not otherwise have an opportunity to see or engage in the creative process is becoming far more important to the health and continued success of theatre programs across the country.
The second point is simply this: We help to develop students who are less ethnocentric via the work we do in the classroom and on the stage. In a world where separatist tendencies and exclusionary ideals seem to dominate our world news headlines, theatre is still the place where diverse individuals will put personal agendas aside and work together to create something that is greater than any single point of view. We’ve always known this about our art form, and it is perhaps more important today than it was 30 years ago—theatre always has been, and will always be, the way we are able to understand and appreciate what it means to be a human being. And isn’t that what it’s all about?