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Theatre History As a Living Art

Why do I have to take this class? It’s the unspoken question every student carries through the door. When we’re teaching theatre majors, they often come with their own answers: I’m taking movement class so I can more fully realize my characters. I’m taking design so I can participate in the storytelling process. For non-majors in theatre appreciation classes, we have to provide a bit more scaffolding. You’re here because this will help you become well-rounded, cultured, empathetic. When our students—mostly majors—bring this question into theatre history class, they often don’t come with an answer, and neither do we. Learn these dates, the uses of these ancient costume pieces, the names of these dead playwrights, actors, designers, because...because I had to, and so do you?

We have trouble giving our students a compelling answer to their first, silent question because many of us never got a good answer from our own professors. We teach the way we were taught, imitating professors who were imitating their own professors, a pattern that stretches back for generations. Most graduate programs in theatre don’t teach us how to teach. Pedagogical theory is out of scope, although most MFAs and PhDs will find themselves teaching in some capacity.

I have an unusual background for a theatre artist; I began my professional career working at Rosetta Stone, writing a series of puzzles to teach people foreign languages. Subsequently, I moved into their research lab, where I studied adult pedagogy. At the same time, I completed my MFA at the American Shakespeare Center, which has an experimental approach to theatre history. I walked into my first theatre history class with a stronger background than my own professors started out with. My class was an experiment, and an unqualified success. My students did independent research that wasn’t for any assignment, sparked by a class discussion. They got in a shouting match over Horace’s writing on the purpose of theatre. They told me that this class was unlike any other, and they wanted me to tell their other professors about it. The only relevant difference between their other professors and me was my background in the science of how people learn.

What Is Theatre?
Dr. Ken Bain writes in his book What the Best College Teachers Do: “People are most likely to take a deep approach to their learning when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they, the learners, have come to regard as important, intriguing, or just beautiful.” To get our students excited about theatre history, we need to start, as actual historians do, with questions rather than facts. Forming questions without facts to start from is nearly impossible, but students come to us with some background knowledge. Many of them know shockingly little about history (I once had to scrap my entire lesson plan because I realized that my students had never heard of Alexander the Great), but they do know theatre.

The question I started with is “What is theatre?” I asked them to write their own definitions of theatre. These began as fairly superficial statements: You need an audience, lights, a story. As we went through the semester, this was the last question on each exam. Over the course of our fifteen weeks together, their definitions of theatre deepened and became personal. Do we really need lights? What separates the actors from the audience? How necessary is a story? Their definitions of theatre also helped them understand a piece of why we do theatre history. Everyone in the class had a different definition particular to them. They read each other’s definitions and argued about their validity. Asking “What is Aristotle’s definition of theatre? What is Racine’s? How are they different from yours, and why?” seemed easy after that.

As a teacher, I started the way historians do—with the evidence.

an actor reading a text
A student actor experiments with audience contact in an original practices production of Love's Labor's Lost, Eastern Mennonite University, 2010. Photo courtesy of Alisha Huber.

Flipping the Syllabus
To teach theatre history process, rather than theatre history factoids, I flipped the traditional syllabus inside out. When I was a student, all of my theatre history classes began with the textbook. We received the wisdom of Brockett and Hildy, and then read a few representative plays. As a teacher, I started the way historians do—with the evidence. I asked my students not to read ahead in their textbooks. We read plays together, first. We discussed them: How many actors do we really need to do this play? What are we shown, and what do we have to imagine? Who is the audience for this play? What does this play tell us about the role of women, of class systems, of education, in this society? Could we do this play now, here, or not? Why? Always, why? I guided the conversation, but the students participated actively. One told me later that the plays felt like mystery novels. She knew the clues were in the text, she just had to find them. When people solve puzzles, their brains get a little hit of dopamine, and they want more. That’s what keeps us playing level after level of Candy Crush, and it’s what kept my students motivated, with minimal urging. We didn’t memorize facts. We solved puzzles.

In an experiment at Rosetta Stone, we discovered that the best moment to learn a new word is in the instant when one’s mind has formed the concept. Class discussions around plays were where I slipped in vocabulary, listening for the moment when the student was reaching for the word. “It seemed like everything was going to be OK, and then there was this—this—it all changed,” a student said. “We call that peripeteia,” I supplied. For the rest of the conversation, the students used the new word with as much facility as any other, and they remembered it. I provided vocabulary lists before exams, but they weren’t necessary.

Swan theater
DeWitt drawing of the Swan Theatre. Photo by Pintrest. 

After we’d worked through a play, teasing apart its component bits, we looked at other primary sources—archeology, first-hand accounts, drawings, and paintings. I tried to knock theatre history as a discipline off its pedestal a bit. I used an exercise that I stole from Ralph Alan Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center. The students drew, from memory, the set of the last play that the department had produced—something they’d all seen. They traded them around, and each person copied someone else’s drawing. We traded them around again, and each person had to imagine that they were theatre history scholars in the twenty-fifth century, who had to write everything they could possibly conclude about the university theatres of the twenty-first century, based only on this drawing—a copy of a drawing of a theatre, drawn from memory. The results are, of course, hilarious. I told them that this is how we got one of the most famous drawings of an early modern London theatre, and I showed them the DeWitt drawing. We discussed the conclusions they could draw from looking at this drawing, and I told them about some of the competing theories on the things under the stage—curtains, or columns? By doing this, I hoped to help them understand that theatre history is a series of educated guesses. We have rigor and process, but we’re never all going to agree on each detail. I put questions on my exams like, “What is the purpose of character types as defined by your textbook? What are competing theories? What arguments do you find compelling? What one piece of evidence would sway you?” I want them, not to learn theatre history, but to become theatre historians.

Turning to the Textbook
Once we analyzed primary source material, we finally turned to the textbook—and we argued with it. Often, the facts relayed in the text are at odds with conclusions the students have reached. They demand to know where these ideas came from, thus, we research and explore. Sometimes, the received wisdom sways them, but not always.

an actor in a mask
Experimenting with masks, Eastern Mennonite University, 2010. Photo courtesy of Alisha Huber.

When we have a question we can’t resolve, we take it to the laboratory. I reserve the black box theatre for half of our class sessions. We do our best to mimic the conditions of the past: shoving chairs into a thrust, taping rectangles on the floor to demarcate the crowded playing space of a pageant wagon, turning lights on and off. Many of these experiments are ones I’ve planned, but others arise from the students’ pressing questions. Several of my students argued that masks couldn’t be as emotionally evocative as bare-face. “Then why,” I asked, “are there so many traditions of masked theatre?” In the lab, two students who were in a production together performed a short scene for the class, four times—both wearing neutral masks, neither masked, and one masked, while the other masked. The watching students were shocked at their own response. They found the fully masked version to be the most emotionally engaging. Why? they asked me. I didn’t know. One of them was so bothered by this that she couldn’t let it go. She marched into class the next week with a paper from a psychology journal that proposed that the neutrality of masks makes more room for the audience’s own emotions. “Masks are like emotional mirrors,” she said. It wasn’t assigned. She didn’t ask for extra credit. Her reward was having an answer to a question that itched at her mind.

By repeating an exercise, by asking over and over again, ‘What do you think theatre is, does, is for?’ ‘How can we test this?’… we construct the narrative of their development as a theatre historian.

Two actors on stage
Student actors experiment with audience proximity in an original practices production of Love's Labor's Lost, Eastern Mennonite University, 2010. Photo courtesy of Alisha Huber.

A Living Art
The last, and most important, advice I have to offer is to take your students to see theatre history as a living art. Don’t just take them to see Shakespeare; take them to see an “original practices” company performing Shakespeare. Arrange for them to see classical Chinese theatre, or Indonesian puppet shows, or medieval cycle plays. One of my students had worked at Sight and Sound Theatre in Pennsylvania. It’s the pinnacle of “theatre of illusion.” He didn’t believe in theatre of the imagination, refusing to believe that it could be compelling. Here’s what he wrote after seeing a play at the ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse:

It was hard to get theatre of the imagination, but having watched Twelfth Night at the Blackfriars, you just get it. You don’t need to have a set to get what’s going on, provided the play functions on the interaction of characters. Both styles have their place, but I think that we tend towards theatre of illusion too much and take not enough advantage from the theatre of the imagination.

As theatre artists, we know that humans love narrative. One journey we can reveal to our students is their own development over the course of the semester. By repeating an exercise, by asking over and over again, “What do you think theatre is, does, is for?” by saying, “How can we test this?” and then showing the students their own previous work, we construct the narrative of their development as a theatre historian. In her first definition of theatre, one of my students wrote that she didn’t really know if theatre had a purpose. In her final definition, she paraphrased Aristotle and Horace, on a closed-book test. She had become so interested in the ideas of the theatre that she was able to engage with the critical conversation at that level. Here’s what she wrote:

I agree with the Aristotle line that, “Theatre provides a unique mirror in which we can see ourselves.” It’s very vague as opposed to, [Horace’s idea that] “theatre should teach a moral lesson.” The vagueness of it makes it more open and accessible to more people, which is why I like it. And an argument could be made that the other could be encompassed in it. Theatre provides the mirror and the mirror could be used to teach a lesson, or to entertain the ignorant masses, it only depends on how you use it.

When I handed her exam back, I stapled her other definitions of theatre to it, in order. She was astonished, excited, and empowered by the change over a few months.

My students weren’t more motivated or smarter than any other college theatre majors. One was struggling with depression. Another was wondering whether she’d be able to afford the next semester. A third had a serious case of senioritis. They weren’t excited to take theatre history. Several were openly hostile to having to do it. But by reframing theatre history as a living art, as a laboratory science, as a two-thousand-year-old conversation, I helped them become historians. Their projects in the years that followed referenced our work together. I ended our last class by addressing the question they all brought with them, one that we quickly buried in the excitement of more interesting questions:

You’re all artists. You all get to do the art that you feel in your heart. But by understanding the art that has come before, and situating yourself in that bigger conversation, you make your art clearer and better. You learn what you are and what you are not. And that’s why you study theatre history.

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Fascinating! Have you written more about this somewhere? This is the way I've been stumbling toward teaching theatre history in my high school classroom for years. It would be nice to stumble forward some more by having more information...

I am currently building a 2-semester undergraduate course in Theatre History and this was very helpful!! I wish I could talk further with you about your course. It sounds very engaging.

Alisha, you are singing the song of my heart! I am teaching theatre history for the first time this semester and have been trying to impress on my students WHY we must know history as practitioners. I only wish I'd read this article in December so that I could have stolen so much of what you're doing. :) Thank you for this important work - and for so beautifully outlining it here!

"As a teacher, I started the way historians do—with the evidence."

"We didn’t memorize facts. We solved puzzles."

"...by understanding the art that has come before, and situating yourself in
that bigger conversation, you make your art clearer and better."