A PhD in Theater
Working in Theory to Work in Practice
Whenever I meet someone new I’m always happy to tell them that I am currently pursuing a PhD. “Oh, wow, that sounds really incredible…” and other head-inflating statements about the prestige, honor, and difficulty of such a task often follow that make me feel very good about the educational path I have chosen to take. But, then there is the question that inevitably follows, which usually results in a small amount of anxiety and trepidation: “What are you studying?” But, I always answer with the confidence of someone who has full faith in his life decisions that I am pursuing an advanced degree in theatre. There is often another affirmative shake of the head, a look of interest, and then the conversation is over.
The social, cultural, and educational value of such an advanced degree in theatre is reflected in more than the casual conversations of this PhD student. With every conference I attend and every person I talk with currently holding a PhD in theatre (regardless of their employment status), the mantra is always the same: there are vastly more PhD graduates in theatre than there are jobs for them to fill. Furthermore, the question about the necessity of such a degree and its place in the halls of academia is becoming more and more, well…questionable. Many years of hard work, long hours, plenty of hair pulling and in the end what’s waiting for me?
The Web site for the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) provides a FAQ section for those who may be considering a PhD in theatre. It is a very realistic picture about what to expect, generally, in attempting this herculean task; providing neither a rosy and rich future for theatre PhDs, nor a broke and unhappy life of job seeking. But, much of the research is a decade old and does not reflect a post-recession artistic and academic world, where the practical necessity of theatre in our larger society is increasingly seen as a cornerstone of youth culture that is eventually memorialized once one moves into adulthood and more “realistic” exploits—You can study theatre in college only if it leads to a steady paying job! In essence, it is the professional training value of theatre departments—the acting, design, administrative, and management classes—that are the bread and butter of most departments. The idea of college as a “job factory,” an idea which permeates our cultural view of higher education (something to debate for another time), has pushed theatre departments to look to MFAs and other theatre professionals who have connections in real-world artistic spheres as a way to bolster the claim that their particular department is a professional training program that can get a perspective student a job after graduation. Just look at the advertisements of any theatre department, even from small liberal arts colleges, and you’ll see what I mean.
Thus, when I complete this journey and begin applying for jobs in theatre departments across the country, I will be competing not only with other newly-minted PhDs, but also MFAs, many of which will be moving from the professional theatre world (the commercial and nonprofit alike) into the educational theatre world.
In an article written for The Chronicle of Higher Education in January of this year, a Phd in theatre writing under the alias, Jody Olson, presents an argument for eliminating the theatre PhD altogether. The crux of his argument lies in the academic equivalency the MFA has gained in respect to the PhD over the past two or three decades. When departments look to hire new faculty many are equally considerate of candidates holding either a PhD or MFA for teaching a mix of practice-based classes (like those mentioned above) and academic classes (e.g., theatre history, dramatic literature, etc). Thus, when I complete this journey and begin applying for jobs in theatre departments across the country, I will be competing not only with other newly-minted PhDs, but also MFAs, many of which will be moving from the professional theatre world (the commercial and nonprofit alike) into the educational theatre world.
Knowing this emphasis on practical work that many universities place when hiring new faculty, I have included a lot of work on directing theory in my studies and I take as many opportunities as possible to direct on campus and off. In addition, I have written about and presented this work at conferences around the country. So, why not just get a directing MFA? The simplest answer is that I don’t intend to become (solely) a professional director. If I receive opportunities to work in commercial and nonprofit professional venues then I am happy to do so, but I intend to advance and appreciate the art of theatre beginning with young performers who are in the earliest stages of their careers. The goal of so many theatre PhDs and the programs they attend is to be an expert in theatre as a holistic art—its history, theory, practice, literature, criticism, etc. Thus, the impact I hope to have on this art that I love starts at the educational level, not the professional. For many MFAs the opposite is the case: they hope to have an impact at the professional level and occasionally or eventually enter into the educational level.
But, as Jody Olson points out, this is not the reality in many of the departments around the country. In contrast to many PhDs who have spent many years teaching, researching, and completing their degree, an MFA (generally a shorter and less expensive graduate degree) who has been working in professional theatre for many years brings with them a practical authority not gained from the halls of academia. This “real-world training” in the face of the larger cultural expectations about higher education as a “job factory” translates into a seemingly more legitimate training program, one which provides students with the ability to do theatre like it is done in the professional sphere. Thus, the argument for eliminating the PhD hinges on the current state of theatre departments—it’s simply not necessary or practical to pursue a degree most departments do not value like they once did (evidenced, according to Olson, by the growing number of faculty and administration that hold MFAs rather than PhDs).
I certainly understand the position of Olson. So does William J. Doan, Heather S. Nathans, Patrick Anderson, and Henry Bial who co-authored a response to Olson’s piece in The Chronicle. And while they acknowledge many of the troubles facing so many new theatre PhDs in finding job placement, they point out that the metrics by which the success of new theatre PhDs are measured need to be expanded and more detailed in order to truly gauge the number of recent graduates who find successful and enjoyable employment in a varying numbers of fields. The co-authors of this piece represent the past and present leadership of two of the largest higher education theatre organizations in the country, the American Society for Theatre Research and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Each of these organizations fights tirelessly for the existence and expansion of theatre in higher education and for an understanding of the importance of theatre as a viable and legitimate academic pursuit at any level of education. And in their article the writers point out the need for more data on the state of the theatre PhD field before jumping to conclusions, especially ones that suggest ending the degree altogether.
But, how does a PhD student advance against the larger cultural expectation that I identified above? What do I do in this environment where I must justify my academic pursuits against their practical implementation? Especially in the current state of budget cutting and subsidy shrinking for the arts and humanities.
So, I decided to pursue a PhD, not only to enhance my knowledge of this art and continue teaching, but also to immerse myself in an environment that would hopefully allow me to find new ways to impact the larger theatre world for the better.
I am currently into the second year of my PhD in the Theatre History and Criticism program at the University of Illinois, one of the oldest and most well respected theatre PhD programs in the country. If all goes well, I’ll be ABD by March 2014. I hold a BA in Musical Theatre from Ouachita Baptist University, a small private liberal arts college in Arkansas (one of the few schools that offered a degree in musical theatre when I was looking at colleges back in 2000). Having a BA rather than a BFA set me on a path for enjoying and participating in the entirety of the art of theatre rather than participating in a single facet like acting or lighting design. After college I worked several great acting jobs, primarily in Miami, Florida, but I found teaching to be more fulfilling than performance. I enjoyed introducing the art of theatre—the risky, scary, unpopular, noncommercial—to students and witnessing them discover things about themselves and helping them cultivate new ways of seeing their world. Don’t get me wrong, I love being on stage and I love directing even more, but I found the professional theatre stale, predictable, and stuck. So, I decided to pursue a PhD, not only to enhance my knowledge of this art and continue teaching, but also to immerse myself in an environment that would hopefully allow me to find new ways to impact the larger theatre world for the better.
But the divide between theory and practice is much wider than I could have anticipated. As a theatre scholar, I study, research, and write about theatre practices, both current and historical, but my participation in the implementation of these practices is often very limited. I love teaching theatre, researching its history, and developing new ideas about how to serve as a director for different theatrical practices. And this is where I distinguish myself in my studies: I use my research and scholarship to inform my practice. I have fashioned myself more as a theatre historian, even working very closely with history faculty in addition to theatre faculty, but, for me, what I do as an historian must have real-world applications in an art form that is about doing. So, while I research the history of theatre I also work to develop methods for making historical plays, especially those that are rarely staged, more relevant to current audiences and more enjoyable to stage for theatre practitioners.
In this way, I hope that I characterize myself and my work as unique and useful. Through the practice of directing I can expose students and professionals alike to the study of theatre—its history (often forgotten), literature, and theory. I hope that I’m able to do this on the stage as much as in the classroom.
I look forward to receiving the PhD in theatre. But, I also hold a different perspective towards the state of the field going forward. I know that the field of theatre in academia has changed. I understand why so many theatre departments in the colleges and universities across the country are offering only BFA programs in individual areas of theatre, where, in contrast a decade or two ago, the only places to find BFAs in theatre were at conservatory training programs in a few locations. This is not (just) a product of the state of theatre, but rather a product of the economic and cultural times in which we live. For many, going to college is about getting a job; it’s about making sure you have the best training to put you in a position to succeed once you have achieved your degree. This is not a criticism. I know that theatre is an art of doing and doing must be a part of the PhD in theatre if I am to hope to find a job doing what I love. But I consider doing to be teaching and I argue there is a place for the PhD in theatre as the educator/practitioner who prepares the next generation of theatre artists for the full spectrum of a life making theatre.