Disciplining the Imagination
A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved.
The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of a human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful.—Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Failing at Discipline
On December 7, 1991, I purchased Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison—three months into my first year in graduate school. I know this because I still have the receipt from the legendary and now shuttered Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. The purchase of this book that tracks the history of prisons and punishment marked not only my entry into graduate school, but also my problems with the silos that delineate learning and life.
How do you become useful to the theatre? I’m asked this question every day. Artists ask me what it takes to be seen and recognized in this profession, and every HowlRound post I write becomes a chance to reflect on some angle of that question. As I was recently putting together a syllabus for a class, I began to think about my own struggles with containers of knowledge—my problems with the disciplines. How do we teach and mentor artists in the idea of creativity versus discipline? Where is our emphasis? Is it on the “how” of our area of expertise? Or on the more existential “why,” of why make theatre in the first place?
How do we teach and mentor artists in the idea of creativity versus discipline?
In a deep exploration of eighteenth and nineteenth century disciplinary practices, Foucault contends that the use of discipline both as a form of punishment and as a way of segregating knowledge results in a culture of “docile bodies,” where the focus of training (in his case he uses the training of soldiers as his example) results in increased “aptitude” and “capacity.” The disciplined body and mind has more utilitarian value. It’s more obedient and it’s trained to know its place and its next move.
But with discipline come consequences including, according to Foucault, “increased subjection and domination.” Being useful comes at a cost. It requires us to pay for an education, to gain expertise in a field or a profession, and kneel to the requirements of the disciplines.
Early on in my own training toward docility, I tried desperately to embrace the disciplines. I was a good student, studying subject by subject, periodically running into trouble with things like multiple-choice tests. I could never make sense of the clarity implied by multiple choice, and spent many hours trying to convince my teachers why a was as valid a choice as b. And then in the seventh grade I suddenly couldn’t be disciplined. My docility ended in the strict confines of the Catholic school system. Ruth Sinclair, my seventh grade art teacher, was the breaking point. I unraveled one day when forced to literally draw within the lines to create a Valentine’s Day card. Mrs. Sinclair gave my assignment an “A.” I threw it in the trash. Things escalated from there. In eighth grade I was in the public schools.
Throughout my academic career, the disciplines of education continued to prove a challenge for me. I struggled to demarcate a direction as my interests wandered from economics to modern literature, from philosophy to critical theory, and from film to theatre. How would I make my mark and determine my use value to my community and my family?
I struggled to demarcate a direction as my interests wandered from economics to modern literature, from philosophy to critical theory, and from film to theatre. How would I make my mark and determine my use value to my community and my family?
I inadvertently settled in the theatre. It found me. In my early days at the Playwrights’ Center I saw myriad possibilities for what I might become, but fifteen years later I wonder if we’re doing ourselves a favor in what feels like a growing admiration for discipline and definition. Are we defining what we might become too soon and without enough imagination?
An anecdote I’m sure I’ve shared before: I began working at the Playwrights’ Center in 1998. In the first few years it was still a place where “emerging” writers could emerge out of the imagination, rather than the disciplines. Within five years, by 2003 or so, you could not get an early career Jerome Fellowship without an MFA from a top program, although there was always an exception or two. For me, this is a result of the downside of disciplines, the way in which they fail to account for talent outside of their own rules.
In a wonderful essay by Justin Maxwell, “August Wilson and the Playwrights’ Center,” Maxwell chronicles the career of Wilson from the moment that Wilson realized he was a playwright. August Wilson received a Jerome Fellowship for emerging playwrights in 1980. He didn’t consider himself a playwright at that time, but rather a poet. He applied with what became Jitney, but at that time it was more in poem form than in script form.
The first time I saw myself as a playwright, I was sitting in a room of sixteen playwrights, I looked around and realized since I was sitting there, and there were only playwrights in the room that I must be a playwright also.
In 2013 August Wilson would not likely receive a Jerome Fellowship. The fact that he quit school at age fifteen, that he wasn’t preordained through his early education and aspirations to be a playwright—that he wasn’t properly disciplined—would make his entry into this profession nearly impossible now.
The Why Versus the How
Disciplines create isolated silos of expertise. Our institutions now rely on them. We have so many departments: marketing, artistic, development, management, finance, production, and most recently, connectivity. We have so many disciplines: acting, directing, dramaturgy, producing, stage management, design, arts administration, and theatre education. And these disciplines have tremendous use value. They create efficiencies and they make our lives and our institutions run more smoothly.
But do disciplines create better theatre? Do they create openings for more diverse experiences? Or do they foster, as Scott Walters pointed out recently, the Wal-Marting of American theatre? Do our stories on stage and the disciplines for producing them limit the possibilities of what we might become?
Disciplines are essential to defining the “how” of our work, and are extremely valuable in this respect. We accumulate the history of ideas and practice into an effective “how to” become a playwright, director, actor, designer, or dramaturg. And I’m convinced that the more time artists spend making art, the better they become. Disciplines allow for time. They make space. It’s why we organize our lives around them. And the how of disciplines provide you moments of knowing and understanding that build confidence and experience. Disciplines make you marketable, they locate you in time and space. They make it easy to introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m a director”—and a cascade of questions and associations make the conversation easy.
But disciplines are less functional around the question of “why?”—they take themselves and their existence for granted. They believe in themselves and if you believe long and hard enough you will embrace them with the religiosity they demand. You will stop asking too many questions about the why of your profession and become myopic in the details of your knowing.
Mike Daisey, in one of his latest performance pieces, American Utopias, tells the joke of the potential pitfalls of too much disciplinary detail (I’m paraphrasing). He tells the story of the academic who sets out to know everything about the avocado. But he was young, he didn’t know what he was saying. Five years into this study he realizes his foolishness and embarrassed by his hubris, confesses that the idea he could know everything about the avocado was a mistake. He is now focused on just the skin, and this will lead him to a lifetime of study.
Foucault says, “Discipline is a political anatomy of detail.” But what does all of this detail get us?
Detail provides epiphanies. And we like epiphanies. They are moments of knowing, of sorting out the nuances of knowledge and self-understanding. Think about therapy. The purpose of talk therapy is to go deep into the details. It’s not enough to say your parents’ divorce upset you, in talk therapy we can go over and over the details of each encounter of our childhoods. Epiphanies come from connecting the details of the stories to the emotions that followed and to the pathologies that result. The idea of epiphanies in talk therapy is that studying the details will set us free.
Epiphanies come from connecting the details of the stories to the emotions that followed and to the pathologies that result. The idea of epiphanies in talk therapy is that studying the details will set us free.
But as we learn from the HBO series The Sopranos, even a mob boss can have epiphanies and still be a sociopath. And though I like to have an epiphany here and there—those moments when the impossible and incomprehensible seem possible and clear—I understand when writer Charles Baxter complains in Burning Down the House that the epiphany in fiction can be antithetical to the creative process. Like disciplines, epiphanies define and contain knowing.
Docility is like an epiphany—once you know something so deeply, once you define clarity for yourself and behave accordingly, imagination ceases. You become like Foucault’s soldier, obedient and useful. And as Baxter points out,
To line up with the anti-epiphanic is to withdraw from officialdom. Officials and official culture, are full of epiphanies, insights, and dogmas.
And I’m particularly suspect of the dogmas and officialdom of the American theatre. We are full of knowing—we have conferences around our silos and containers. Most recently we’ve decided we have to solve the audience problem, because honestly we don’t know who is going to come to live theatre twenty years from now and that scares the hell out of us.
In the context of the not-for-profit theatre, we are selling epiphanies as hard as we can. We provide insights in our marketing taglines. Our fundraisers are armed to the teeth with narratives of epiphanies about the transformational capacity of theatre and why audiences should donate and buy tickets. Season planning can be a constant process of clarifying the potential audience epiphanies—with everyone from the artistic director to the dramaturg to the marketing director to the box office manager needing to clarify what the play is about, what its technical needs are, what its message is. We push for understanding, clarity, and insight. We bring discipline to unruly theatre artists and their unruly stories.
But disciplines and epiphanies often promise more than they can deliver. With all of our silos of expertise we can’t seem to solve the simplest problems in our profession. We have plenty of female playwrights, for example, but we can’t seem to produce them. We don’t know how to diversify our audiences because we haven’t figured out how to diversify our stories and our casts, let alone our staffs and boards.
For all of our discipline, some key knowing is escaping us.
And how often do we criticize the play that doesn’t have an epiphany as the resolution? How often do we elevate not knowing over knowing? How often do we hear our leaders in art or life admit they just don’t know?
And so I wonder what a radical rethinking of disciplines would look like. We all talk about the problems of silos in institutions, but how do we, together, imagine a different future? How do we use the disruptive process for making good art that surprises and unravels us while staring the efficiency of discipline in the face? And if we all unraveled a little, how might we reform our definition of usefulness? And how might that transform our art and our institutions?
We desperately need an epiphany. Or so we think.
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As someone who teaches playwriting in a prison (as well as to adults with developmental disabilities) I'm particularly intrigued by the concept of discipline which we revere beyond measure- ("He's so disciplined. He jogs every morning" "She gave up smoking just like that. She's so disciplined.")
The men I "teach" certainly think that singular word is society's answer to their woes. And if they simply had found that elusive "discipline" earlier, their lives would be rosy.
Yet, I see these men every week find the time (they work 8 hour days) to write plays. Their work is interesting, very interesting. Are they "professional" playwrights? Of course not. But are some of their plays better than some we've been told are "well-made" and "are deeply layered?" The answer is a resounding YES!
As for my true love, August Wilson... he was indeed August Wilson. Every fiber of his being told a story of The Hill District (which I was advised not to go to on a visit to Pittsburgh. I went anyway.)
I drove up to Seattle Rep to see him do his one man show and the stories he told (mostly to white theatre patrons) did not surprise me but they did tell me even more about the man that I already loved. And I loved him even more... if that was possible.
Today perhaps he'd be told the structure for Seven Guitars doesn't work. Or that the allegories in Fences are too pat.
But the bottom line is- when you're watching a Wilson play... just like when you are watching plays by the incarcerated men in my class, you feel something. And that has little to do with "discipline."
I've done a lot of thinking and discussing about how our theater can be more authentically diverse. I understand why people would look at the profession and feel like the work is mostly made by and for wealthy people from the Northeast. (Using "MFA" as a shorthand for that world is only semi-correlated, but that's another post/comment.)
However, I've started to believe, recently, that the prevailing belief that a person needs an MFA from an Ivy League school may actually be as harmful as whatever actual barriers exist to access. Certainly, we're in a competitive profession. And if you look at the people at the very top of any competitive profession (being a major American playwright is roughly as challenging as becoming a Supreme Court justice), you'll see a preponderance of top school backgrounds. We're actually fairly heterodox in this regard compared to many fields.
As an example, the recent New York magazine article about young playwrights mentioned 11 writers. Six have MFAs and five do not. Only two of them received MFAs from the Ivy League. Hardly the closed-circuit that our conversations can sometimes imply. I do worry that original voices are being overlooked. However, lately I worry more about original voices (who may, all things considered, be doing OK) making themselves unemployable by creating social media identities that involve complaining about Yale grads every other day. (In fact, there are many playwrights whose Yale MFAs have not, in fact, brought fame and fortune.) I just can't imagine Sam Shepard wailing on Twitter every day that other people went to Yale rather than making distinctive work.
A big thank you for this. As someone who is in the academic world but who has trouble defining herself a just "a director" or "a theatre historian" or "insert label," I appreciate your questioning spirit. Often, it seems that in order to be perceived as legit in the theatre world, we have to define ourselves so specifically--as if we cannot cross boundaries. The desire and openness to cross boundaries is what got me into theatre in the first place--and kept me. Maybe we have become a bit too insular in our thinking and could benefit from stepping outside our containers? I wonder if that might help us solve the "audience" problem, too. Great food for thought. And action.
As a poet/scientist/playwright/lecturer, I am compelled by your call for dissolution here. What would we become if the membrane between you and I, this and that, biology and theater, etc. and etc., were more porous?
Far too many theater makers want to say "That's not theater if [insert complaint]." What if we just stopped saying that? What if we said it's ALL theater, or nothing is theater and it's all just "stories" or "experiences?" Why do the names we give things and the categories we put them into (an impulse that seems so 18th century) matter? And why are we so concerned with making theater that conforms to some categorical ideal of what a play is supposed to look like?
In times like this I am very glad to be an autodidact, theatrically speaking: to have entered our shared territory from poetry and science, rather than an MFA program. Yes, the gatekeepers are less receptive to me...but maybe I don't really want to get through those gates anyway. Maybe what those gates are closing off is a prison, not a castle.
Oh man I am so thankful for this article and your voice here in general. I have always had a hard time defining myself as anything but theater maker - sometimes I make it by acting, sometimes by writing or assembling text, sometimes by watching it in the room with other people. Because I've been resistant to silo myself, because I turned down a paid MFA, and have not been able to stop doing more than one thing at a time, I feel like I'm just starting to emerge into something like an artistic vision, at 44. I hope this feeling of assuredness doesn't last too long. I became suspect of my own epiphanies at some point, because they inevitably led me to conclusions, which took the life out of whatever I was doing, and now I try to follow my discomfort, my confusion, my questions. In any case, thanks.
Thank you Aaron, so glad to be traveling down this road with others. The longer I make work and think about theater, the less assured I become about every thing. Most surprisingly has been a shifting aesthetic, rethinking what makes "good" or "great" theater. It's the not knowing that keeps me awake and alive.
The possibility that you could comprehend the initial quote at the beginning of your piece is most impressive to me. Of course I found interest and value in your contemplation [always do]. Heart disturbing over the very real probability of someone like August Wilson not being able to be supported within the present structure of theater making. Also, while I am indeed grateful for the opportunities presented within higher education in the training of professional theater artists [including playwrights] through MFA programs, and that indeed many of them may be very talented, it does not mean because you have an MFA you are automatically gifted as a playwright. Enjoyed both articles you provided links for, the Wal Marting of American Theater was quite potent. Thank goodness 'risk takers' still exist. And unravelers.
"One does not discover new lands without consenting to loose sight of the shore for a very long time." Andre Gide
"The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes." Marcel Proust
Thanks Michael-- love that Gide quote, so hard to stay in a place of not knowing, the place before the epiphany, it can be so uncomfortable but so necessary to our creative life.
What a strange synchronicity. I read this on the morning I am preparing to talk to my theatre history class about the August Wilson/Robert Brustein "debate," with its questions of class, race, disciplines, and silos.
Polly, you continue to contribute to my unraveling, and that is a very good thing.
Thanks Craig, glad we're unraveling together. Interesting how relevant that Wilson/Brustein debate continues to be.
Yes, Wilson's talent was recognized early on by many. However he came along at a time when raw, unpolished talent was able to be recognized and supported. He came along at a time when it was easier to take a risk on a completely unknown voice. He came along at a time when he did not have to compete with scores of freshly minted (and very talented) grads from the top MFA programs. But times have changed. The field is challenged by a system that did not exist fifteen,twenty years ago.
Also, we have to remember that Wilson's work as we currently know it, was very different than his early plays. In many cases they were not even really plays, but long, elaborate poems. But it was through his time spent at Penumbra, the Playwrights Center, and theO'Neill, that he was able to further develop his talent. Today that kind of opportunity for serious creative and professional growth only exists in graduate school.
I would love to believe that August Wilson would be recognized today, but most likely he would not. Be we can change this. But it requires a lot of risk-taking. So far I have been lucky to encounter some amazing 21st century risk-takers - people like John Fleming and Eugene Lee (Black and Latino Playwrights Conference), Paul Meshejian and Michele Volansky (PlayPenn), and Vicki Meek (South Dallas Cultural Center/ NPN Chair). And God bless them for it.
Yes, thank goodness for the risk takers! We have to be sure we don't become so disciplined that we close ourselves off from the possibilities of imagining new forms, new voices, and new stories. Appreciate your thoughtful comment here.
Polly, you have just made a good case for dramaturgy by people with imaginations in addition to academic achievement. August Wilson's plays have their own aesthetic that is different from other playwrights' aesthetics, though he is clearly influenced by a wide variety of predecessors. His value, his idiosyncrasies, were recognized quite early by a lot of people, regardless of his academic prowess or lack of same. If his gifts would not be recognized today, for whatever Foucaultian reasons, then shame on us. But I don't believe it. I don't want to believe it.