Updating Modern Theatre

As I wrote to my friends on Facebook this morning, I’m doing something different with my Sources of Modern Theatre class this semester. In the past, this 400-level course has included a mix of theatre history, theory, and plays from the 20th century. It’s aimed at seniors and almost always offered in the second semester. TH 468 used to be required for the BFA programs in my department, but over the years these programs have cut this requirement in favor of more practical courses. Traditionally, it’s been one of the few dramatic literature seminars in the department small enough for extensive reading, writing, and discussion.

Perhaps I do not need to add that this has not made the course popular.

So, this semester I decided to do something different. The idea came from this article in WiredIf it students in Mexico as pursuing their own ideas in math, why aren’t my university theatre students doing the same? Do I really know better than them what they need or want from my course? Well, maybe. But, it seemed like a useful question to ask them rather than tell them. Rather than assign work I think the students should read and dictate the outcomes I think they should get, I asked them to define for themselves what they want. On the first day we discussed as a group: What do you want from this class? How will you get it? How will you know if you’ve got what you wanted? And then we took the first two class sessions to write the syllabus together. There were a few guidelines. They had to write at least 20 pages over the course of the semester, they needed to define a metric for regular class participation, they had to select one theoretical reading and one play per week, and there had to be and oral presentation, and they needed to define some kind of final project/performance/paper that would synthesize ideas from the work over the course of the term.

Here is their outcome and assessment grid (structure required by the university):

OutcomesBy the conclusion of this course, students will: Methods of Assessment 
create a model for an original work of theatrical innovation final oral presentation of individual theatre models; B or better demonstrates mastery
identify critical moments of theatrical transformation in-class discussion; class-generated online timeline; B or better demonstrates mastery
analyze diverse forms of drama and theatre practice, and evaluate their impact on contemporary theatre craft in-class discussions; 2 5-page critical essays, each revised and rewritten at least once each. B or better on revised version demonstrates mastery
articulate the social, historical, and biographical contexts for the texts studied and their authors in-class introductions to the authors, including background, history, and relevant information to understand the text presented (will be presented by two students each Monday). B or better demonstrates mastery.
  Specific evaluation rubric for each assessment noted in Course Evaluation.

This initial exercise was valuable at the very least because it demystified the construction of the assessment grid and turned what can be an onerous and rudimentary exercise into a real conversation about why one takes a theatre class, specifically this theatre class. We also voted on the requirements for attendance, the criteria for these assessments, and whether our aims should be proficiency (C+ or better) or “mastery” B or better. I’m pleased to say we went with mastery. (Now, we’ll see how many of us achieve this.)

Although we vote and my vote is supposedly only one among many, it’s clear I have a power advantage in the class and I’m very happy to own this. As the only one who had read all of the plays and theories before, I made suggestions, recommendations, and gave brief teasers on selections that students weren’t sure about. At the same time, I actively resisted the impulse to make their choices “better,” and this was not easy. I wince, for example, that we are reading no Brecht this semester–a significant oversight. We are reading less from the first half of the 20th century than the latter and I would critique our selections as devoted overwhelmingly to works first published in English.

At the same time, however, we constructed some wonderfully wacky pairings that I would have never dared. Rather than reading Arthur Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man” with Death of a Salesman, we’re reading it with Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (aka, “Death to Salesmen”?). Appia’s “Organic Unity” sits with Six Characters…, Langston Hughes is together with Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre. My favorite is Marinetti’s “Futurism and the Theatre” with Chekhov, for which some students are reading The Cherry Orchard and others are reading The Seagull (based on previous exposure). Suzan-Lori Parks, Maria Irene Fornes, and Sarah Ruhl are present together with a range of theoretical writings. Wilson’s Fences goes with Yeats’s “The Tragic Theatre.”

It’s not the syllabus I would have written. It doesn’t have lots of things I think are essential and the pairings, though potentially inspired, worry me. But, it’s not my syllabus; it’s their syllabus. Whether or not they’re happy with it by the end of the semester, only time will tell. For now, though, we’ve already had more engaged discussions about the purpose of the class and what we’re reading than many other classes I’ve taught. I’m cautiously optimistic, even as my OCD goes a little nuts.

I’ll keep you posted on our progress this semester.

2 thoughts on “Updating Modern Theatre

  1. “Perhaps I do not need to add that this has not made the course popular.” Preach.

    This sounds like a promising approach and I hope your students take ownership of the course. I’m curious: Did you have readings/titles posted somewhere during the discussion? Were students able to select modern plays outside of what you had posted? (or was that a limit imposed on the creation of the syllabus?)

    This post seems fit for http://www.theater-historiography.org/ if your willing to crosspost.


    Jeff (BGSU)

    • Happy to send syllabus or put links to this blog on theater-historiography.org site (just as soon as I get permission from the rest of my co-authors). The main source of the readings were from two anthologies: David Krasner’s Theatre in Theory 1900-2000 and Gainor, et al.’s Norton Anthology. I had the students bring the books to the first day of class and/or internet-ready devices, so we could look at the table of contents as we selected readings. Students did suggest additional plays–Ruhl, for example and a different Oscar Wilde, Salome instead of Importance of Being Earnest. But otherwise we selected most of the readings from these two collections. That was a choice made primarily because I had to order books ahead of time and I wanted to keep the syllabus development to no more than 2 class sessions. I might consider a different alternative in the future.

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