A Change of Scene
Expand the expectations and assumptions in theatrical design training, and students, teachers and the profession will benefit
By Richard Isackes
Several years ago I attended one of those weekend exhibitions affectionately known to stage designers as the Clambake—produced and organized by Ming Cho Lee and his wife Betsy, and now unfortunately defunct—devoted to showcasing the portfolios of graduating Master of Fine Arts designers from certain selected programs in an effort to introduce them to the professional world. The overall finish of their work, I noticed, was extraordinarily high—much higher than portfolios of my generation—and with few exceptions almost all of the design work in these portfolios was for theatre or opera.
Paradoxically, the diverse professional destinations toward which these students were heading did not include a realistic option of making a living working exclusively in either of these venues. The fact is that there is noticeably less probability of such a career path now than there was when I left school 35 years ago. I also noticed that the room was filled with some of America's most distinguished theatre designers and also some of America's most distinguished design teachers—and, ironically, with few exceptions, they were one and the same people.
While no one likes to admit it, the profession of designing for live theatre is virtually conflated with that of design teacher. The fact is that most design training, and by extension most design, in this country is done by designer/academics, teaching design for the theatre to students who will, in all probability, either migrate to other areas of the entertainment industry or become designer/academics themselves.
What's the problem with that? Aside from the fact that with very few exceptions there is almost no curricular preparation for either teaching or alternative media destinations in most MFA programs, this conflation has some fundamental consequences that are not altogether benign. For American Theatre's January '09 Approaches to Theatre Training issue, I moderated a panel discussion with several distinguished designers and educators to begin exploring these issues. In the ensuing two years, I've solidified my own conclusions about the state of design training, and about the evolution I believe it must now undergo.
While this fusion of teacher/designer has produced some excellent skill training in top-tier programs, as the excellence of the portfolios at the Clambake testified, it has also created some very real problems for the field. The fact is that much design education in this country is based on a calculus that is structurally unsound and makes a promise upon which it does not deliver.
There are, at last count, over 300 MFA and BFA design programs in America, a number that, when measured against the comparatively small pool of students aspiring to such programs, is troubling. And on the back end of the equation, there is a limited demand for design graduates. This is particularly true for those wishing to work in the narrow field of theatre. Normally, market forces would align available students with professional demand, but of course this does not happen because of the need for students to support and sustain self-perpetuating academic programs. Thus, there are too few potential students, too few potential jobs, and perhaps too many programs. This observation will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the field.
Because the MFA is a professional credential, any program that confers it makes an implicit promise to its students that the training, if applied with sufficient drive and talent, will lead to a professional career. But this promise is in many cases undelivered. Departments characterized by narrow theatre-centric curriculums and driven by heavy production seasons that primarily serve performance majors often have neither the time, faculty expertise, infrastructure nor the interest to develop training regimes for anything other than traditional theatre. Furthermore, most design and technology programs exist to a large degree in service relationships to the departments in which they are situated, a constraint that sorely limits programmatic development.
Designers and technologists were originally brought into the academy not only as teachers but also as primary elements of the production workforce—they were there to create sets, lights, costumes, sound and all of the attendant needs of the physical production. Yet the professorate alone, except in very small departments, was an insufficient labor pool, and adding year-round professional staff with full benefits was very expensive. Throwing large numbers of untrained undergraduates at production was at best a neutral contribution. Graduate students, on the other hand, who arrived with some technical expertise, were, even with tuition remission and healthy living stipends, a comparative bargain. Schools got inexpensive skilled labor, and grad students didn't have to pay for a degree.
This would seem to be a win-win situation—unless, of course, the design curriculum is prohibitively limited; the faculty has never worked outside of the academy and therefore has no way of introducing students to the external profession or its workings; there are not sufficient numbers of students studying design to constitute a real learning community; or the student is not really qualified for graduate level work. In such cases, the win-win turns into a very real win-lose.
The simple fact is that many students recruited into MFA programs are not prepared for real graduate-level work but are recruited anyway to supplement a labor force. As a consequence, they graduate with limited skill sets that only qualify them for low-paid craft jobs in the regional theatre. Of course, because the MFA is also viewed as a terminal academic degree, they can always matriculate back into the academy to perpetuate a cycle of problematic undergraduate teaching. They teach what they have been taught—namely how to put on a college play, a practice that is often hermetically sealed off from anything that looks like real professional practice.
The corollary to the consequence of this academic migration is its corrosive effect on the economics of the external profession, an effect that becomes self-evident even from the most casual study of United Scenic Artist design fees. In most categories, regional theatre fees have declined over the last 20 years in real dollars (adjusted for inflation). And any attempt at effective national collective bargaining for designers has been completely bulldozed, in part by the glut of designers being shoved out into the marketplace, but also because many members of the professorate need "professional" credits far more for academic promotion and tenure than for actual dollars. Additionally, USA membership has become an essential academic credential swelling the coffers of the union but ironically creating no economic leverage for the design profession. And why should regional theatres or USA care when they know that American colleges and universities are happy to provide them with a substantial de-facto subsidy?
If this indictment of the field seems too sweeping and over-generalized, it probably is. Most of us who teach design in higher education are well-meaning, hard-working people who try to do our best for our students, despite systemic structures over which we have little control. However, most of us know there is a problem, and the issues I'm raising here have been repeated in countless conversations in countless forums.
The real question is: What as a field can be done about professional training and the design MFA? While it would be difficult to generalize specific remedies for any particular program, there are underlying assumptions that the field as a whole needs to consider.
First: For whom is this training appropriate? And second: For what destinations are these students being prepared?
The simple answer to the first question is that the field needs to be more rigorous in selecting students for this training. Anyone who has ever attended the University Resident Theatre Association National Unified Auditions and Interviews knows that of the 200 or so students who present portfolios every year, very few are actually ready for graduate-level study. What recruiters are hoping to find are candidates with developed drawing and art skills matched with knowledge of dramatic literature and performance theory (though usually just plain cultural literacy will suffice). We want to find students with a point of view about why they want the degree and what they want to do with it. What we tend to get are students who have spent a lot of time working on college productions and who have only the vaguest notion of the career for which they are heading—students who have marginal art skills and who show little evidence of a rigorous intellectual undergraduate experience. As a consequence, almost every MFA program in the country is to some degree doing remedial work. So the answer to the first question is that the field needs to raise the bar on what kind of students we are admitting to our graduate programs, not out of any sense of market exclusion, but out of a commitment to the future success of these students. Programs that cannot attract candidates with a high probability of success should quite simply not be engaged in professional training.
The answer to the second question is more complicated and requires a reality check in terms of the professional marketplace and what it is likely to become. The rapidly expanding fields of entertainment design and display offer students many possible employment destinations beyond traditional theatre. Along with more established fields like film, television and theme-park design, there are new areas such as gaming and multimedia installation. By extension, this range of employment offers the academy new opportunities to craft highly diverse and targeted training programs that explore how designers might integrate with fields that have heretofore been unconnected with theatre design training. Theatre departments exist within colleges and universities that offer the promise of extraordinary partnerships and unique programmatic intersections—partnerships that could carve out niche curriculums while still using theatre as a stem discipline. Such programs would offer a real service to future students.
However, all of this requires faculty, chairs and deans to move out of comfortable disciplinary silos and engage with the wider research agendas of the colleges and universities where they live. It will also require that departments of theatre redefine the role of design/technology programs. Whereas these programs may be situated in these departments by virtue of history, for many the reality will be that their training is no longer restricted to narrow theatrical practice. So curricular change must be accompanied by a redefinition of the service relationship that now exists between many parent departments and their constituent programs. One thing is for certain: Generalist programs that focus only on those skills needed for producing large college productions are not going to be either sufficient or successful.
Moreover, there are some general notions that should, in my judgment, underpin all professional training.
First, training needs to be intellectually rigorous and theoretically informed. Coupled with the skills and protocols of production within any given media destination, training needs to be expansive in its understanding of what unites all bounded performance.
Tom Walsh, who heads the Art Directors Guild in Los Angeles, argues for a training rubric that he calls "Narrative Design." This is a curriculum that focuses on narrative structure as the fundamental link uniting all performance design. For Walsh, design, when reduced to its most elemental concern, is about storytelling. I prefer the term "Performance Design" because I think that narrative is but one of several common links that tie together many diverse design fields. Along with narrative I would include considerations of space, site, temporality and character. In any event, we agree that training needs to be based on a unifying theoretical foundation that looks beyond the narrow craft skills of any given media. That is not to say that the acquisition of craft is not important—it certainly is. It is by means of craft that the designer has expressive language. It is only to say that craft for its own ends is empty until it is put in service of informed reflection. The fact is, aside from drawing and a basic understanding of composition, anything that looks like a craft skill today will in all probability be replaced or radically transformed by technology in an increasingly rapid cycle. Craft skills will be learned and relearned many times over the course of a career. What will be sustaining will be the intellectual and creative elasticity that only a fundamental theoretical understanding can provide.
Secondly, training needs to be situated within a framework of social as well as aesthetic responsibility. Performance, as a cultural product, is never neutral. As public speech it is either consciously or unconsciously generated from some ideological position, and those that create it are fundamentally complicit in that speech. We live in a world where the images of performance have enormous power to shape our understanding of others and ourselves. Clearly, the academy's job is not to impose an ideological position; however, it does have the responsibility to insist that the artists we train take the responsibility of creating public speech seriously.
Beyond this, it is important for students to consider how work is made, for the how of practice will fundamentally shape the invention of product. We cannot expect that work created in rigid, parochial structures will be able to respond to the creative challenges of a diverse and expansive disciplinary scene, which leads to my final proscription for professional training. We need to empower students as generative rather than reactive artists. This has implications for both how designers structure their careers and what role they will assume in making work.
The traditional role of the designer in the theatre has been as a support to an authorial hierarchy that honors the verbal over the visual, and in turn valorizes a decision-making process in which the designer's contribution is reactive to a primary vocative text—a text strained through the conceptual lens of a director. While this is perfectly appropriate for text-driven theatre, we are increasingly living in a visual performance world that is not driven by text. Live performance spaces are increasingly mediated by technology, and virtual performance spaces are dominated by that which we see more than by what we hear. In this world, the visual artist has an important generative function, and the rigid protocols and linear decision-making of traditional theatre will not well serve creative collaborations. I would argue that the future will reward designers who think more like directors and writers, and writers and directors who begin to think more like designers.
From a practical standpoint, generative designers need to conceptualize careers that not only empower them as freelance artists who will be employed by various producing entities but also as producers of their own work. The days of leaving graduate school with a polished portfolio and a résumé as the sole products of an MFA degree need to be over. Students must have as part of their curriculum course work that introduces them to the non-artistic skills of making a living. At a minimum they need to understand how to organize themselves as small businesses: They need to know about agents, unions, contracts, sales and work flow. Better still, they need to know the skills required to produce work: how to raise money, how to bring other artists into collaboration, and how to coordinate a complex process. Without these skills students will have little chance of success in the non-academic world.
As a final word and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit my own complicity in how the field has evolved over the past 30 years. I have taught in three professional training programs since 1980 and have served on the boards of both U/RTA and the National Association of Schools of Theatre. The current system of training has provided me with a comfortable living and a satisfying career, so it may seem at best ungrateful and at worst disingenuous to bring this critique forward now. I do so only because I do not see the current system being indefinitely sustainable, particularly in light of the economic state of both the academy and the theatre. If we as a field are not troubled by our students' futures then we should as a matter of self-interest at least be concerned with our own. We who teach in professional training programs have turned a lack of institutional reflection into an art form; we do so with ad hominem arguments that exempt our own programs from fault and point to others as the problem. When we witness the erosion and elimination of some very good programs, such as those at Brandeis and Florida State University, the tendency is to dismiss these examples as anomalies—but it would be perilous to do so. In the end, they in fact may be canaries in the coalmine.
Richard M. Isackes holds the Joanne Sharp Crosby Chair in Design and Technology at the University of Texas, where he served as chair of the department from 1998 to 2006. He has designed extensively in both the nonprofit theatre and opera.blog comments powered by Disqus
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