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Visions about Higher Education in the Performing Arts:

A Multi-Perspective from Eastern-Central Europe

What makes a good university? How can universities prepare young performing arts workers for a field that seems both straightforward and immensely unsure? How can universities empower students to become active players and generators of change in their field, both in an aesthetic and a structural sense?

I have found myself interested in these questions not just as a maker and thinker who has already tried her hand at teaching, but also as a PhD student who sometimes wonders whether my path would have been easier with an education better fitted to my professional and personal needs. To delve deeper into the issues that lie at the heart of this topic I invited makers and workers from the Eastern-Central European performing arts scene into a discussion about higher education in the performing arts. From this discussion, ideas on the controversial, unimaginable, playful, radical vision of a good enough university began to emerge.

Although it is impossible to draw a coherent picture of the performing arts education system from this region and the dozen or so interviewees are not meant to represent this culturally diverse area, some issues and experiences do seem to connect them. In the Eastern-Central European region, state-subsidized theatre institutions, with their luxurious budgets and high-end productions, define the mainstream styles of theatre- and performance-making. In dance, state-funded institutions offer even stricter frames to what counts as “high art.” But often artistic experimentation and innovation happens in the underpaid, underrepresented, underground, fringe projects of the so-called independent scene.

It is not compulsory for things to be this way; experimentation takes time and is aided by financial security and hence would be better suited structurally for the state-subsidized institutions. At the same time, as those I’ve spoken to have confirmed over and over again, these institutions are generally not interested in exploring beyond the styles, methods, and concepts of nineteenth century bourgeois theatre—the conventions of which still function as unquestioned frames of what theatre can be.

This paradoxical setup seems true for the education system, too. Traditional systems might be useful for artists working in state theatres, but in reality these big theatre institutions are already working at full capacity and lacking aesthetic diversity. Higher education in the arts has a tough job of keeping up with the changes of this art form. My fellow makers, workers, and thinkers highlight some of the questions one faces when rethinking these systems.

During my research interviews, I had two questions: Firstly, I wanted to understand what type of university my interviewees found suitable based on their personal experiences and artistic trajectories. I wanted to gain insight on what the university they needed would look like. Secondly, I wanted to hear what their thoughts were on what the role of universities is in encouraging experimentation and innovative work versus endowing students with the supposed skill set needed to get a job in the industry upon graduation.

A woman in glasses sits at her desk on a Zoom call.

Image from the online two-on-one performance Closer as captured from the perspective of the viewer. Photo by Shannon Finnell. Closer was created during the first lockdown in Cluj-Napoca by Dániel Láng & Panna Adorjáni who are seen on the laptop screen in this order from left to right.

A Good University

“Giving space to the very own motivations of people: this should be possible even in a regular seminar.” (Zsuzsa Berecz, dramaturg, Hungary)

“First of all, a good university should have very good toilets.” (Dima Levitskyi, writer and dramaturg, Ukraine)

One important insight that came up in almost every discussion I had was about the teaching staff at performing arts universities. Instead of a system that favors a close-knit relationship between masters and disciples, students should be able to engage with all kinds of teachers and ways of thinking. “I would get rid of the masterskaya system and invite international lecturers, so that students may gain different perspectives and hear different voices,” says Ukrainian writer and dramaturg, Dima Levitskyi.

Versions of the masterskaya system are still in place in many of the region’s universities and are probably the most important aspect of teaching that these graduates would get rid of. Instead, they would prefer a pool of teachers or mentors and a curriculum that includes workshops, lectures, and courses by guest teachers—perhaps even exchange programs abroad. As opposed to the heavily-controlled system where teachers are essentially the only source of knowledge for students, the need arises for acquiring a diversity of techniques and skill sets. In this way, students can learn about various aesthetics and theatre concepts and learn just as much from their colleagues as they do from their teachers.

From this shift comes another idea: that students should learn together and not just in classes of specializations. In most Eastern-Central European higher education, a specialization resembles what students in the United States might recognize as majors. The important difference between the two is that the European systems generally do not allow students to change their majors; instead they must commit to them or start over. Furthermore, although core courses are usually offered to students enrolled in different majors in the same year, these specializations are treated as separate trajectories with very different outcomes.

I believe the idea of specializations is based on the preconception that the soon-to-be student is following their calling and channeling their talent when choosing a certain course. However, this concept is seen as outdated by many of the people I spoke with, who expressed the need for adapting the educational system according to the new realities of the profession. Kristóf Kelemen—a Hungarian theatremaker, dramaturg, director, and writer—explains, “It would be important to assess the market and the society and to redefine our basic concepts such as directing, dramaturgy, or acting. I like the idea that everyone could start up in the same class and decide on their specializations only later on.”

Although many have agreed on the benefits of rethinking or rejecting specializations, the place and role of them in the structure of higher education is more controversial. Romania-based actress Emőke Pál believes that joint courses make it possible for students to gain a better understanding of how theatre works by trying themselves out in different roles. On the other hand, another theatremaker, Hungarian Veronika Szabó, finds learning together to be effective in the context of a master’s degree where “people are from different backgrounds and work together interdisciplinary, making use of their many different perspectives.”

The former perspective is built on the belief shared by most of the people I interviewed, that to learn theatre or dance, one has to acquire a certain professional skillset. For instance, dramaturg and theatremaker Szymon Adamczak, who is based in the Netherlands and Poland, asserts that this acquisition of a professional skillset helps theatremakers learn about themselves and what they want to do artistically by gaining awareness about the market and how to get people interested in their work. He also points out that “[the] simultaneity of all of these aspects create a contradictory environment for a student to maneuver.”

Adamczak’s concept allows for a personalized approach to learning an art form while also taking into consideration the fact that more is needed than just methods and techniques for one to make it in the field. It is this idea of personalization that universities should consider when designing their courses. It is possible for a soon-to-be student to have a clear understanding and desire for a certain specialization or to enter a course with just a general interest towards the art form. While the more privileged ones can afford to enroll in more than one course or change between programs, many students have to put up with their initial choice and adapt.

As opposed to the heavily-controlled system where teachers are essentially the only source of knowledge for students, the need arises for acquiring a diversity of techniques and skill sets. In this way, students can learn about various aesthetics and theatre concepts and learn just as much from their colleagues as they do from their teachers.

Most of the people that I talked to agreed that both skill learning and artistic self-knowledge should be crucial parts of artistic university curricula. They also mostly envisioned structures where these two facets take place in a more integrated way. Choreographer and performer Agata Maszkiewicz, who is based in Poland and in France, remembers how both of these were indispensable in her education: being guided into the art and learning techniques on one hand, and developing her own trajectory and experimenting to find her own voice on the other hand.

Maszkiewicz believes that critical and independent thinking should be the primary focus, as these will allow for one to continue educating and evolving themselves even after they have finished their formal education. “Your path will certainly change,” Maszkiewicz explains, “but the question is if you’ve got the tools to learn, to search for the knowledge you need to improve or change your practice.”

At the base of critical thinking and artistic self-exploration lies a kind of freedom that is not readily available for some actor students, especially women. As Romanian actor and cultural manager Oana Mardare explains, there are two levels to this freedom and both need careful and positive guidance: “[The first is] to have the freedom to be a person, to not have to be or to look a certain way. Then and after you’ve gained your tools, comes the freedom to choose what you want to do with them.”

The concept of freedom also extends to the need for universities to become places of inclusion. Hungarian dramaturg Zsuzsa Berecz explains, “University [on] a smaller scale can also serve an emancipatory idea: to balance out the inequalities created by social hierarchies.” In the case of Romania, as actress Zita Moldovan illustrates, Roma minorities have recently started benefitting from restorative practices in terms of their enrollment in universities, but the idea of an inclusive university that also models anti-racist behavior is still waiting to be achieved. Moldovan, who is also the co-founder of Giuvlipen, a feminist Roma theatre collective, imagines “a university that is inclusive, where Roma actors [also] have access, where girls don’t have to look like supermodels, where there is a lot of diversity in terms of the people.”

The adoption of the Bologna Process by most European countries came up several times, both implicitly and explicitly, in the discussions. The aim of this initiative was to create coherence to higher education systems across the continent. Although this system makes it possible for students to easily move between higher education systems in Europe, its adoption in the art universities of the Eastern-Central region has not been without problems. Based on my discussions and my own experience, this might be partly due to the uneasiness of the relevant parties to change the traditional trajectories of art universities, the result of which is an odd structure that is intelligible from the outside but much less productive from the inside.

Most of the basic education now happens in the first cycle of qualifications, the bachelor of arts program, which usually lasts for three years in Eastern-Central Europe. Students are then expected to find their places in the job market without having to enroll in a master’s program because a master’s degree is not compulsory on the job market in that region.

What if we could get rid of the Bologna Process altogether to create a space of learning that transcends the framework of traditional qualifications?

Director Leta Popescu points out how in Romania, this constellation can render master’s programs useless and not a priority for students. It also means that directing students have only three years to become ready for the market, so they risk making fools out of themselves at theatre institutions in the first years of their careers.

On the other hand, enrolling in more than just one master’s program so students can continue their self-discovery might be the new trend in Western European universities. Latvian playwright and theatremaker Janis Balodis, who himself has traveled to the Netherlands to pursue his master’s degree, describes: “With certain MAs the expectation is that you have already been practicing before you re-enter university—which is also a privilege, to be able to return to study.”

While an abundance of quite specific and innovative master’s programs seem to be one of the results of the Bologna Process in the western part of Europe, and some former students were able to capitalize on this development, the eastern region has yet to find the meaning and prospects of this structure and offer possibilities for the students who do not have the privilege or the means to study abroad or re-enter university.

What if we could get rid of the Bologna Process altogether to create a space of learning that transcends the framework of traditional qualifications? Although most of the feedback regarding the good enough university was based on the idea of making already existing institutions better, some challenged the basic principles of this format. Freelance producer, manager, and teacher Zenkő Bogdán, based in Romania, highlighted an important aspect of university education: that its basic format might very well be in conflict not only with a certain set of potential students and their needs with regards to learning, but even with the evolution of the performing arts scene.

“Ideally there would be a medium where you could enter to learn and where you could stay as long as you wish,” Bogdán explains, adding that she would also very much like to take away the right of universities to choose their students. University as a space where anyone could enter to learn something new and not necessarily to learn what is already known, is a concept that sounds both radical and vitally true.

“A good university would be a place where the starting point is not to acquire a skill but to start with nothing. A place where you take part in a common learning process, where you can discover that you are good at things you couldn’t have imagined you could be good at,” says Zsuzsa Berecz, a dramaturg based in Hungary who is also involved in nonconventional ways of learning in her performing arts practice.

Although my informal research did not necessarily touch on PhD programs or the theoretical side of performing arts universities, I did have one thought-provoking conversation about the loneliness of researching theatre. As theatre critic and researcher Agata Tumilowicz-Mazur told me: “[I] entered academia with an idealistic thinking that I’m here to push the science forward, that my dissertation is my contribution to the field, that through it I am able to discover new things. But I felt very much detached, that whatever I was doing had no bearing on people’s lives.”

When thinking about the good enough university, one has to take into account not only issues related to the curricula and the trajectory of students in the various programs and specializations, but also the more basic and essential questions on the accessibility of knowledge, the freedom of the student, and the political, social class, and minority implications of each educational system. As traditional methods and concepts that underline the universality of knowledge are losing their validity, the search for the alternative might actually be a search of alternatives.

Five people stand in a circle under a bridge with an audience standing above them.

Image from the site-specific performance Trash Songs Vol. 2, produced by Universal Pleasure Factory & Someș Delivery in 2018 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, created by zsolt bodoki-halmen, Dániel Láng, kata bodoki-halmen, Krisztina Sipos, and Panna Adorjáni, mentioned in the order as they appear in the photo from left to right.

Artistic Experiment vs. the Status Quo

“After all, theatre means to create something new. It is in constant development, in a constant evolution.” (Zita Moldovan, actor, co-founder of Giuvlipen, a feminist Roma theatre collective, Romania)

“A performing arts university’s function is to at least not limit the imagination. (Veronika Szabó, theatre-maker, Hungary)”

We have, on the one hand, a medium where mainstream theatrical styles remain firmly set in the past through dogmatic teaching and educational and practical tradition. On the other hand, theatre is a neoliberal and capitalist market that demands constant innovation and heightened visibility. In this environment, the complicated and risky business of artistic experimentation and radicalism can find itself at odds with the concept of the higher education system. This creates a complex problem.

Liuba Ilnytska—a theatre critic, expert in grant programs, and independent curator, with extensive experience in teaching based in Ukraine—points out how artistic innovation and employability can be at odds in university. This is because critical thinking does not necessarily lead to a job in the profession. At the same time, the drive for soon-to-be artists to change the reality through their art is also real. “In order to change the reality, we should first change the discourse,” Ilnytska comments.

Reacting to new discourses and to changes in the field may also mean that universities must prepare students to face the fact that performing arts takes place in the context of capitalism. Bogdán explains: “What the capitalist market requires of universities is to produce highly performing and highly trained workers. Universities cannot escape this capitalist system and maybe they don’t even want to. But our state-subsidized sector is full, while the independent scene is still underdeveloped. We should be giving tools to our students so that they are able to work outside of the mainstream sector.” As theatremaker Veronika Szabó points out, although we cannot escape the capitalist system, we can at least imagine what breaking out of it would look like. This highlights the political potential of art.

Facing up to what the future of the field entails can be a sobering experience. One may find themselves seemingly far from the romantic visions of artistic careers that are sometimes suggested by the marketed image of artistic universities. The common understanding is that universities produce workers for the public institutions without taking into consideration the fact that this sector is mostly full and even if it were not, it is not suitable for everyone.

It is also problematic that graduates are forced to invent a job for themselves if they cannot find one, as Maszkiewicz points out, as inventing and reinventing oneself is possibly exactly what a capitalist market requires of people working in performing arts. She explained this conundrum pointedly: “Artists are the perfect slave workers of capitalism because, firstly, we love our job so much that we’ll do it for nothing, and even just by doing it we’ll get a lot back. Secondly, we are so innovative and our innovation can be easily captured by the market.”

Arming yourself to be able to survive and maybe even fight this reality must be part of an artistic education. Theatre director Gosia Wdowik is the president of the Union of Theatre Directors in Poland, and hence knows all too well that young directors like herself are very vulnerable in this system as they lack the skills needed to communicate and negotiate with institutions. “There is also an economic violence that young makers are facing, where they have to work in very bad conditions to be able to support themselves which leads straight to burnout,” Wdowik explains.

The cruelty of staying in the business shows that it is not enough for future makers and creators to learn the ins and outs of the art form and hope that if they are truly talented, they will get by. Freelance choreographer and performer Pawel Sakowicz, also based in Poland, explained that he would have needed throughout his education, among others, psychological support to handle auditions as well as financial and marketing knowledge to negotiate contracts, write portfolios, and stay active in the field.

The difficulty of coping with some of the realities of working in the performing arts sector in the Eastern-Central European region may also have historical and political reasons, as is the case in places like Hungary. Kelemen explained to me how dictatorial systems still have an influence on higher education systems in a young democracy, a context that must be accounted for and dealt with before a society can move on to create new structures and processes.

The influence of dictatorial systems shows the peculiar aspects of this problem in the Eastern-Central European region: although most Western-European cultures nowadays have the issue of neoliberal capitalism and its relation to the art field to deal with, Eastern-Central European countries are still processing their communist dictatorships from the recent past while facing up with the challenges of a democracy that seems to have come in a bundle with neoliberalism and capitalism.

What is needed to create art does not necessarily come from a university degree and the learning process does not stop after graduation.

It Never Ends

I suspect that the conversations that I have started could be forever continued, as there are still a lot of aspects of this subject that I haven’t touched upon or delved into. But I believe there is no one better than soon-to-be, current, and former students to judge the success of a university—although it is probably not us who will have the power to make these changes.

Bogdán believes a solution could be for younger theatre workers to get elected into positions where decisions are made and change the system from within. But I also wonder how many compromises it would take to actually get in the room with the “big boys”—the deans of universities, heads of programs, artistic directors of institutions, and even the ministers of culture. Or maybe the solution, as Berecz thought, is to organize alternative ways of education that expand what a university is and does.

Everyone I spoke with had very distinct and sometimes unconventional trajectories when it came to higher education, which proves what many art practitioners have long suspected: What is needed to create art does not necessarily come from a university degree and the learning process does not stop after graduation. But even if some detours, journeys, and mistakes are unavoidable, discussions on the role and structure of universities remain valid. And thinking for, and about, art and arts education, well, it never ends.

The greatest takeaway for me in conducting this research is how complex it is to draw a picture of the needs and desires of university students. I have chosen the safest route: to sit down with a dozen or so workers in the field and touch upon some of the issues without the claim of completeness. In this sense, this is but an invitation for those who have the means and are indebted with the task of designing art universities to ask not just those who have succeeded, as I had done, but also those who gave up and left disappointed; those who never entered but succeeded, who never had the chance of enrollment, and so on.

I have found that major structural changes are needed for our higher education system in the performing arts to work and that political reasons as well as preconceptions about this art form are to be blamed in hindering this process. What strikes me the most is the boldness and curiosity of the people that I’ve talked with as opposed to the uneasiness of the universities that they have known. But instead of fearing the new and pointing our finger to the past, we could aim to model how we would like our societies and politics to look like in the structure of our performing arts universities.

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