The Commons and Common Ground at Emerson
I’ve joked for years that a nail in the coffin of a professional directing career is to teach. As more of us join the rank of the “teaching-professionals,” or “working-professionals who teach” or the “professional faculty” and all other such titles, the more irrelevant and untrue this comment becomes.
With the move of the Center for Theater Commons to Emerson College I’ve been reading the idea of “retreating” into academia as though that were a given, as though a theater training program is removed from the profession. We are not unique at Emerson to have a faculty of working professionals: but we are becoming more and more unique by the way we are working side by side with ArtsEmerson and now, in looking forward, with The Commons.
I have taught at Emerson for eleven years now and have been Department Chair for five of those years. It has always seemed natural to me to wed professional work to academic work: I came to teaching via a professional life, and have found the same to be true of most of my colleagues at Emerson. What has been interesting in the last two years since the creation of ArtsEmerson is the systematic joining of these two realms. For me, choices are gaged against the objective of my work and the question I must answer every day: does this project support the curricular goals in innovative ways that an Emerson education promises?
We are not unique at Emerson to have a faculty of working professionals: but we are becoming more and more unique by the way we are working side by side with ArtsEmerson and now, in looking forward, with The Commons.
ArtsEmerson has been in residence at Emerson for two years now, a period through which Rob Orchard and I have worked quite closely to find ways to truly collaborate and shift the language of professional versus academic work. We’ve had a number of small co-productions involving the faculty and students of the department working alongside professional theater artists (sometimes overlapping in these categories) but our most recent two ventures point to the strengths and challenges of our kind of work, which is as any new venture bringing us new challenges: Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, and Anne Bogart’s Café Variations, a new theater piece with music by the Gershwins and a book by Chuck Mee.
Over a year ago Rob mentioned to me his passion to bring Anthony Lukas’ Pulitzer Prize winning account of desegregation and busing in Boston, Common Ground, to the stage, and I realized knowing Tony’s book that we could begin the exploration of its theatricality by using it in a class. With a loose theatrical model in mind and a group of twenty-six students, the playwright Kirsten Greenidge and I set to work on a semester-long exploration of the material in the book, while also trying out ideas for possible framing devices to make the material theatrical and relevant. The semester culminated in a public performance last December, and now we are poised to continue exploring this material with a professional company, emboldened by the draft-in-progress and workshop energy of the class. Some of the students will continue their involvement, and all will be credited as a part of the genesis of this theatrical work. To paraphrase a bit, the beginnings of this project do not know its ends.
Café Variations will accomplish in many ways a similar trajectory. A large student ensemble (twenty-two) is joined by eight SITI company members in the creation of this new piece, all led by Anne Bogart who has been in residence at Emerson for over a month. The production will open in Boston and run for two weeks, but its future as a SITI Company work will most likely not involve the Emerson community beyond its Boston iteration.
Complexities abound and I don’t mean in any way to soft-pedal the conflicting interests and struggles involved in this work. There is a clear upside of time spent for the students working with professionals in the field, the rewards of creating new work, the knowledge that they are contributing to a larger whole. There is also the danger of feeling like simply fodder for a larger machine, and to have the awful sense that one’s work is being taken for granted. But the presence of Anne and her company has had a impact on the culture of performing arts. One faculty member commented this week that his students, none of whom are in Café Variations, are modeling a discipline and focus that is a hallmark of Anne’s work. I look forward to The Commons impacting Performing Arts the same way.
From my point of view, the work itself is worth these challenges. There is no question in my mind that the department at Emerson gains from these collaborations: the students are our focus and our future, and they are more able to see and feel and imagine what is ahead for them through the prism of these experiences. The Commons will be a new adventure for all of us, and I don’t begin to imagine where these collaborations will lead. But I view the presence of ArtsEmerson, of The Commons, and the addition of Polly, David, and collaborators, as I do any good rehearsal room: we don’t have to know where we will end up, we just need good voices to start the conversation.