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Handbook Appendices Forms Theatre Scholarships For Theatre Majors, Minors, and Intendeds University Theatre Handbook Table of Contents Theatre Home

A.1.b  The nature of the academic discipline. 

Intensive study of theatre on academic campuses is a relatively new phenomenon.  Only in the 1920s did there emerge, in certain ivy-league schools, a separate emphasis on drama within Literature departments.  The trend spread slowly.  A few institutions, particularly in the midwest and the west began experimenting with staging plays as extra-curricular activity, a form of socialization and recreation analogous, in the thinking of the time, to sports activity.  It took the end of World War II in the mid-1940’s with the resultant tsunami of returning soldiers privileged to the support of college access through government “G. I. Bills” to establish theatre as a separate academic enterprise.  Theatre departments dedicated to both the study of dramatic literature and the techniques for staging it sprang up all over the country, usually from the base of English or Speech (now Communication) departments.

Today over 1600 colleges and universities in the nation support the discipline through the offering of majors.  With varying degrees of emphasis on liberal arts or technical theatre training, the subject matter of these majors have been standardized to provide preparation in what can be described as three distinctive areas.  Classroom (both lecture and studio) instruction coupled with the practical experience of production has emerged as standard pedagogical practice.

Logically, the study of dramatic literature, theatre history, dramatic theory and training in criticism, emerged early as viable components of the discipline.  Logically, that is, considering that the roots of most stand-alone programs were anchored in English and Literature departments.  At institutions focused on a liberal arts education, these contemplative and human studies areas still form the background for instruction in the more technical areas associated with theatre production.

Professional training degrees such as the B.F.A. appeared late on the scene, and are directed nearly exclusively to the training of actors.  The focus of attention in these programs is given to matters of ensemble, improvisation, voice, accents, psycho-physical centering, specialized stage movement, and other such distinctive performer skills.

The past couple of decades has seen the rise of a distinctive discipline emerging from the social science area and which centers around communication theory: the study of meaning and purposeful manipulation of symbols.  This, too, is finding its way into the theatre curriculum (although the theatre has been doing this since before recorded history).

Through studying plays, history, theory and theatrical criticism we sharpen skills of discriminating reasoning, come to value clear argument, learn how to distinguish themes, and increase our understanding of the world through contact with the past.  We learn methods for analyzing scripts, to appreciate the complexity of really good ones, and come into direct contact with the great minds which have given them birth.  We are led to treasure lan­guage and to comprehend the vastness of its possibilities.  And we come to view ourselves with a more discerning eye, and, hopefully, to work toward self-improvement.

A second area of disciplinary interest is that of performance.  Course work associated with this area is concerned not alone with the technical preparation of the performer, but in the study of audience control, presentation choices, the nature of communication, and the creation of the artistic experience.  Study here does focus on the performer’s instru­ment of course (imagination, sensitivity, putting aside of inhibitions, vocal and physical control, self-knowledge, and so forth), but also with the process of play writing and the special­ized study of placing the play on the platform, stage directing.

The subject matter of performance training includes elements shared with several other academic disciplines: Literature, Writing, Communication, Psychology, Art, Music, Dance, to name just a few.  It directs its attention toward both an understanding of audience (human) response, but also toward self-expression, ideational development, persuasion.  It must be super-sensitive to techniques shared with other artistic disciplines, techniques of unity, insinuation of meaning, and control of the meduim.  It must, arguably, unashamedly embrace and foster that which is poetical and ideal as well as demonstrating acurately the world in which we live.

Performers, playwrights and stage directors then, beyond specialized techniques of their craft must learn to 1) understand, contact, and discipline self, 2) comprehend the issues of humanity, 3) employ persuasive and ethical choices in motivating and manipulating the intellectual and emotional responses of others, and 4) become masterful in the perception and use of both verbal and non-verbal communication.

The third discrete area of study encompassed by the discipline is that of theatrical design and technical craft.  This notion embraces envisioning and accomplishing the “world of a play’s action”, including scenery, costuming, lighting, properties, and sound (leaving out a few).  The goal of this activity is to make the play's ideas and communication clear, and to evoke a sense of era, place, society, and controlled emotional moods.  It must also concern itself with the practicalities of the available theatrical space and equipment, the demands of the action, and the engineering of safe and workable realizations of the designs.

Theatrical design is directly tied, of course, to the same concerns which drive all visual arts.  It is distinctive, however, in that it submits itself to the demands and needs of the script or scenario under development.  Its chief goal is one of communication, embracing and leading the audience into another world.  In this communication the methodology is a social one rather than the statement of a solitary artist in a studio.  Many artists working together toward a central goal of enticing or enchanting an artist is “social” indeed.

Learning for the student of theatrical design and technical craft includes, but is certainly not limited to 1) the development of an "aesthetic eye and ear" which facilitates a sensitivity toward the demands and possibilities of opening the ideas and moods of a script to an audience, 2) the discovery and control of the means associated with the ordering of aes­thetic responses in others, and 3) the acquiring of techniques and craftsmanship which will serve to facilitate intended production concepts.

In addition to studies in the three areas as defined above, the discipline of Theatre also nurses a concern with the notion of business management, although not to the degree, of course, of academic Business departments.  Theatre’s investigation is far more limited, and is chiefly concerned with the acquiring and management of audiences: promotion, publicity, ticket management, and audience development.  Recently several Arts Manager degrees have been emerging from academic Theatre programs across the nation.

The discipline of Theatre is also subject to special study interests such as children's theatre and non-Western theatre, and theatre of special social concerns: gender-based studies, racially-based studies, sexuality-based studies, religion-based studies.  Various of the institutions which offer Theatre degrees will extend emphasis to one or more of these areas.

Finally, course offering are often made toward developing specialized skills in the performance elements of theatre which are not intended as training for performance purposes.  Creative dramatics has long been a recognized tool for teachers--primarily on the elementary level--useful for opening the imagination and personality of pupils.  And a degree of success has been achieved in what is called psychodrama, informal and improvisational playing out of personal issues for the purposes of psychotherapy.  These kind of courses are often taught with the cooperative support of other academic disciplines.

Next Section: A1c. The Christian and the Theatre

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