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.