Is there an ethical way to teach & make theatre?

The university where I earned my BA, Trinity Western, has just been approved to start offering a BFA in acting this fall and I’m very excited about this. I think it will do two things for the school: first of all, it will allow them the opportunity to expand their training and secondly it will, in my opinion, expand their credibility as a theatre education option in the Vancouver region. In preparation for this new program, Trinity hosted a two day session with the staff, faculty & a handful of former students to discuss what an ethical BFA program looks like and what sort of best practices will come into play there. I was honoured to be included in the sessions and was so pleased with the conversations that were happening.

In the six weeks since attending the two day session, I’ve had a lot of conversations with others about the direction TWU’s BFA is heading, and the people I’ve talked to are fascinated and encouraged that the conversations about these subjects are happening. Many theatre practicioners with whom I have discussed the goals of the program made comments like, “I wish someone had done something like that when I was a student” or “I am so glad someone is finally taking steps in that direction.”

While we talked about a lot of things those two days, one of the sessions that I found most interesting came out of the idea of power in theatre & teaching. The basic premise was that the system of theatre and of education often causes harm because of the power relationship between director/cast & teacher/student. Of course, this is true in all systems where there is an imbalance of power. The goal is to be professional about it, by which I mean to recognize the harm that you do despite your best efforts because of the system. It requires you to ask, “How can we avoid harm to foster healthy, creative growth?”

In a response to this, we spent time in small groups discussing times when we had observed or experienced harm being done and created from those conversations a list of things that would have prevented those situations from occurring.

Here is the start of the list that we came up with that afternoon:

Do not indulge in self-flagellation

Do not condone bullying because it furthers “art”

Do not push an actor too far to serve your ego or because of our idea of “art”

Do not be offended by an offer of help or if your offer of help is refused

Do not fight dirty or avoid disagreements or let disagreements fester

Do not avoid the responsibility to speak for fear of rocking the boat

Do not sabotage

Do not treat women differently from men

Do not confuse the role & the person

Do not disrespect any person’s role in the process

Do not fail to take responsibility for your choices & actions

Do not quash creativity

Do not triangulate

Do not use emotional manipulation

Do not disempower a colleague

Do not shame another

Do not disrespect your part of the contract

Do not evaluate by unclear criteria

Do not use theatre as an excuse for your inappropriate behaviour or being inconsiderate of others (ie “Well I’m just a theatre person, so…”)

Do not dodge scrutiny

Do not adhere to double standards

Do not disrespect process/judge too soon

Do not teach by humiliation

Do not think you have all the answers/the only answers

Do not ever speak in absolutes

Do not put your own personal artistic fulfillment ahead of the learning opportunities of the students

Do not use teaching as compensation for a failed theatre career

Do not create scapegoats

Do not justify undisciplined artistic behaviour due to wounded pride

Do not demand trust, it must be earned

Do not create a culture of mistrust

Do not contribute to a culture of defensiveness

Do not put anything before the student’s needs

Do not privilege one role above another

Do not contribute to a culture that divides “artists” & “technicians”

Do not step outside your scope of practice

The school is in the process of converting all of these into positive statements which will become a set of guidelines that they will hand out to all students, staff & faculty. I have a draft of this new document sitting in my e-mail inbox and look forward to spending some time reflecting on it and offering some further thoughts.

Can you think of a time where you saw or experienced harm being done in a theatre education or rehearsal situation? Is there a guideline that would have prevented it? Please share your thoughts in the comments. I will happily pass on additions to the university.

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Comments (15)

  1. Dennis Baker

    Great topic and conversation. Glad to hear a theater department is concerned about this.

    Head of acting tried to kick out MFA student without any warning, after saying in the beginning of the semester that no student would be dismissed without ample warning.

    Details here: Rutgers MFA Acting

  2. Lois (Post author)

    So what sort of “do not” would you put into place there? Is that covered by the “Do not evaluate by unclear criteria”? Or does that require its own piece?

  3. Dennis Baker

    Do not lie to your students.

  4. Ty Unglebower

    The list is pretty comprehensive, I have to say. I couldn’t really add much to it, other than praise for it’s principles.

    It is probably already covered, but I would add something like, not confusing your interpretation of a character, (i.e. how YOU would play it), with what you must teach an acting student. I did, when in school, have to put up with some of that. The notion that what was being taught was “how to play the character” instead of “how to find a way to play the character.”

    Finally, a question…what exactly is meant by “triangulate” in this context?

  5. Net Soucy

    Do not underestimate.

    During an undergraduate production of Antigone, harm was done when the faculty director/stage manager team abandoned all faith it their student cast. As a student lighting-designer, the stage manager told me, that there really wasn’t any point, because as students, the actors just didn’t have the chops to handle the subject matter.

  6. Nick Hutchinson

    I agree with everything here.
    There is one more that I would add, however. In the list is: “Do not use teaching as compensation for a failed theatre career,” I would also say conversely “Do not assume that just because a teacher teaches theatre that they have a failed theatre career.”
    I have worked in several situations (particularly in the educational field) where “Oh, he/she is just a theatre teacher” has been the norm. While, yes, you may run into the failed actor/actress/technician who decided to teach in order to fulfill his/her own selfish purposes in the theatre, they are NOT the rule, but the exception to it. In my experience those people who have been very successful and have worked regularly in the theatre genuinely have a desire to “spread the love” in a sense. Teaching gives an opportunity to those that have succeeded in the field to give back and perpetuate the whole ideal of “good theatre.”
    Just because I teach theatre does not mean that I failed at doing it. And that stereotype is damaging to every arts program in the country!! We all to often shoot ourselves in the foot by belittling the work we do with each other. “Just” a teacher, “Just” a technician, “Just an actor, “Just” a producer… We must understand that we are all in the same boat with an ultimately grander goal than is merited by the damaging backbiting that we all at some point have been participatory in.

  7. Brian

    I like the “do not be offended by an offer of help”. I can’t tell you how many times I saw someone doing something out-of-character on stage that they didn’t realize (i.e. the actor normally wears glasses, but his character doesn’t… and the actor squints the whole time he’s on stage), offered some advice (i.e. “I don’t know if you know you’re doing this, but you’re squinting the whole time you’re on stage..” (maybe more tactfully than that)), and got an offended responses (i.e. “Fuck you, you’re not the director”).

    Some people don’t seem to realize that if YOU look terrible on stage, we ALL look terrible on stage — you looking like a total jackass doesn’t make me look like the best actor in the world. If I offer advice, _it’s because I want to help_. But people… ugh. It’s frustrating.

    Or even if I offer to help run lines, or schedule extra rehearsals, or anything… Part of it is that ego that we theatre people have, that “Hey, look at me!” attitude, which is fine for theatre, but sometimes you gotta step back and say “OK, three people have told me I’m squinting… maybe that’s a problem.”

    Part of growing as an actor (and a person).

  8. Charlene

    I wish more schools and other organizations that do theatre in a teaching setting would look at these issues and adopt these principles.

    These are definitely a great starting place and I’m sure as the program develops there will be more added as the issues arise.

  9. Lois (Post author)

    Ty – in this context triangulate is being used to describe situations of two people in conflict who, rather than resolving their disagreement, involve or entangle a third person, usually in an attempt to avoid or diffuse their conflict.

    In the official document (which I am starting to read through, it is phrased thusly: “Disagreements will be dealt with directly whenever possible. Those in a disagreement will avoid triangulating the other. If a mediator is required, the Chair will be consulted.”

    Make sense?

  10. Dennis Baker

    I would second Nick’s comment and add that just because one is/was successful as an actor/director/technician does not mean they can teach. Doing the art and teaching the art require different skills. Without specific teaching skills one gets a teacher that frequently says to a class, “I don’t know how to help you”, which speaks more to the skill of the teacher and less to how competence of the student.

  11. Nancy

    I dislike “Do not” statements because they set things off with an air of negativity. And they are a lot of them hear.

    I agree with the idea, just not the practice. Why not rephrase to things like “Treat women and men equally” ect.

  12. Susan

    I started my career in cultural entertainment in Stage Management. My dedicated area was opera; however I also stage managed theatre productions, contemporary dance, and even a symphony orchestra.

    My first mentor was not an accredited teacher, which, may mean a lot to the “education community”, because in education to teach in this vast community you are required to be accredited by the education community.

    I learned by example, positive re-enforcement, respect and by my honoring the knowledge and wisdom of a mentor.

    I took the initiative to learn systems, and when asked to, created new systems for “calling’’ opera – following scores and watching the stage at the same time from off stage right or left. In dance most of the calling of shows was visual and memorizing a score.

    Most of all I learned about coordination and a kind of “manipulation” of people because my wise and knowledgeable mentor informed me:
    “The ARTs work best as a benevolent dictatorship”, because the Arts are just that, “a benevolent dictatorship”; if you chose to work in the ARTS handle yourself proudly, graciously and handle others with a “firm, but, polite, hand”.

    I also see too many “Don’t(s)” coming out of the discussions posted above and it reminds of: “Every time I enter certain countries at International airport’s the first thing I see is a red sign: a red circle with red a line through it and the word DON’T. Not terribly welcoming for starters and moving on to disconcerting, at best”.

  13. Nick Keenan

    Been giving this a lot of thought as I’m about to head into teaching 160 17-year-olds what a professional life in the theatre feels like.

    It is hard to navigate “do not” as a goal – that tends to create a maze of ifs and if nots that are good to keep in mind but can leave you spinning in circles as a teacher.

    To me, much of what is said above can be simmered and reduced down into one lesson that I think every program that I know of largely fails to cover:

    Teach your students to build an audience.

    Implicit in that statement is that any student can be empowered to create a following for their identity, for their unique brand of theatre.

    Implicit in that statement is that if you are the kind of teacher who both cannot build an audience of your own AND cannot inspire others to do so for themselves, then you may wish to reconsider a career of teaching.

    Implicit in that statement is that humiliation and disrespect and guruism is poison to creating a network of artists AND audience that form a self-sustaining theatrical community.

  14. Lois (Post author)

    Nancy, as I stated in the post, the list is being rephrased (actually it’s done and sitting in my e-mail inbox for comment) so that it is not a list of “do nots” but rather a list phrased in ways like “In the pursuit of excellence, we will allow others and ourselves to fail, resisting impulses towards judgement and self-flagellation.” The list of “do nots” was a first step because it is often easier to phrase things negatively for the sentiment and then convert it into a positive statement later.

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