International Exchange

Higher Education in Theatre

Higher Education in Theatre:Paradigms and Prospects

Modern education in theatre follows two paradigms: conservatory training and liberal arts education. Higher education in theatre in European and American countries is highly developed, with more liberal arts education than conservatory training. After the graduates master the related knowledge and skills, they can take up any job. In China, higher education in theatre has long been the mold of conservatory training for elites. In this paradigm, the proportion of students’ independent practices should be increased and the cross-disciplinary cooperation should be encouraged. As the society’s need of related talents is growing everyday and takes on a tendency of diversity, education in theatre has been developing rapidly in recent years and the jobs graduates take up have also been diversified. Therefore, it is necessary to absorb the advantages in liberal arts education, lay a broad foundation for the students and start new disciplines. Universities should continue to develop the theatrical discipline as well, emphasizing liberal arts education and opening double-discipline courses.
Key words:
education in theatre, conservatory training, liberal arts education, all-round development, performance, social performance, project studies
Since more than 2500 years ago when there were historical records showing that human beings had regular theatrical activities, for most of the time education in theatre has been conducted in a mold similar to that of a master educating an apprentice. Even though later some theatrical companies and even royal courts set up schools, the mold was not changed essentially. Education in theatre in modern schools outside theatrical companies first began in modernized Britain. In 1861, London Academy of Music opened courses on theatre. The college is now called The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Another top-rated theatrical school – The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was founded in 1904. At that time, universities generally refused to acknowledge that education of artists had any academic value and did not set up departments of theatre in schools of higher education. As a result, middle and higher education in theatre was still weak in the first half of the 20th century. The first drama school in the United States was the Lyceurn Theater School of Acting founded in New York in 1884. Later proved by the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1899 and 1952, it was affiliated to the university. Most of the drama schools in the world today were established within the past fifty years, not only in China, but also in the U.S, the super-power of education in theater. Nowadays in the U.S, there are nearly two thousand departments of theatre in colleges, more than the total number of departments of theatre in other countries in the world. But most of them were set up after the Second World War. Later, as all the divisions of SUNY owned their own department of theatre, the affiliated Lyceurn Theater School of Acting was renamed The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The foundation of drama schools brought about two major changes. In the past, the apprentices received one hundred percent conservatory training and could depend on their masters to find them jobs. Now, schools are independent of the theatrical companies. They follow the educational policies of ordinary schools in teaching courses beyond theatre such as humanities, social science and even natural science. Meanwhile, the future jobs of the students are likely to have nothing to do with theatre. Some people may think that the decrease in conservatory training and the loss of jobs in theatre are disadvantages rather than advantages. If it is really the case, why education in theatre at schools widely substituted the traditional way of conservatory training of apprentices in the past few decades in the whole world?
The reason is that society has changed and so has theatre. From the social point of view, the one hundred percent professional education in theatre and the nearly-lifelong job security in the past were based on apprentices’ dependence on their masters and the theatre companies. Obviously, modern people no longer want such a system. From the theatrical point of view, genres of theatre today are a lot more than one hundred years ago. Non-theatrical jobs which involve some theatrical skills are even more. Young people studying theatre tend to diversify their choices of professions including non-theatrical ones. As early as one hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels predicted that the ideal society would be one in which every individual could get all-round development. A man could be a worker and a painter and a writer at the same time. Society allows every individual to possess sufficient time and condition to show their diverse abilities. “Liberal arts education” is an important concept in modern education. It not only refers to education of arts but also contains all the basic human knowledge including mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, history and philosophy etc. That’s why in American universities there is no division of specialty in the first two years. Educationists have put forward various theoretical bases for liberal arts education. To educationists in China, the most persuasive theory is the one of Marx and Engels’ about the all-round development of individuals. This can also explain why one hundred percent conservatory training is not ideal.
Although the theory of Marx and Engels’ make liberal arts education acceptable theoretically, to carry out it is no easy job. After all, society has not allowed individuals to develop in an all-round way and students still have to find jobs according to their specialties. Even in many university departments in the U.S, the proportion of courses of specialties and that of liberal arts courses are constantly disputed and adjusted. The problem is prominent in specialties like arts and physical education which needs special talents. Therefore, in the general entrance examination system in China, academies of arts and physical education have the privilege to carry out examinations of specialties beforehand. But in the universities in the U.S, where liberal arts education is emphasized, there are many degree courses in theatre which are not completely given according to the policy of liberal arts education, namely, BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and MFA (Master of Fine Arts). Students there can study in a way similar to the way traditional apprentices study. Generally speaking, there are two paradigms in higher education in theatre: one is the paradigm of liberal arts education where courses of liberal arts and courses of specialties are equally treated; the other is the paradigm of conservatory training where courses of specialties surpass courses of liberal arts (Conservatory also refers to an institution where musicians are trained because the study of musical instruments and vocal music is also conducted in apprenticeship.).
The nearly two thousand university departments of theatre in the U.S mostly are using the paradigm of liberal arts education, but the best graduates mostly graduated from the over one hundred academies and schools which are using the paradigm of conservatory training such as The Juilliard School in New York (with music, dance and drama divisions, not a mere music school in many people’s misunderstanding), Yale School of Drama and the Tisch School of the arts in New York University, etc. There are not so many drama schools in European universities, but there are far more drama conservatories than in the U.S and they use the paradigm of conservatory training. The paradigm of China’s higher education in theatre was borrowed from Europe about fifty years ago, but is more extreme. At the beginning, there were no drama schools in universities, with only two theatre academies founded in the whole nation (The National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts was founded later.). As a result, China’s education in theatre has long followed the paradigm of conservatory training instead of the paradigm of liberal arts education.
But things are beginning to change now. On one hand, departments related to theatre (mostly film and television arts) began to emerge in universities. In such departments, more general courses are given than in conservatories. On the other hand, the traditional courses of conservatory training in theatre academies are facing more and more challenges. With the reform in theatrical companies and groups, less and less graduates work in professional theatrical companies while with the fast development in media and other non-theatrical fields, more and more graduates of theatre become the creative workers in media and other fields. For example, according to the employment analysis of graduates in Shanghai Theatre Academy in 2001 and 2002, in the department of acting which owns the highest ratio of employment, only 53% (including students with an associate degree) and 65% of the graduates entered theatrical or film and television enterprises, 37% in department of directing (no graduates in 2002), 13% and 30% in department of dramatic writing, 21% and 13% in department of stage design, 34% and 62% in department of lighting design and 0% and 7% in department of costumes and make-up design [1]. These figures do not mean that all the other graduates are unemployed. Actually, some of them are working in newspaper offices or publishing houses, others became freelancer, but none of them are in theatrical field. In such circumstances, how can the traditional courses which aim to teach playwriting, directing, acting and design in theatre continue?
Professors of theatre in the U.S faced the same problem long ago. Many graduates of theatre graduate from universities but there are not that many positions waiting for them in society. In fact, only about 3% graduates of theatre in the U.S will find jobs in the theatrical field. Does it mean the failure of education in theatre? Or have professors of theatre concealed the fact of a market with insufficient needs and cheated students to study theatre? The first question comes from the professors of other departments because the employment ratio of their graduates is far higher than graduates of theatre so 3% is unbelievable to them. The second question comes from the parents of the students. They failed to persuade their children not to choose theatre, the “useless” specialty, so they just blamed the teachers for opening too many departments of theatre which market does not need.
Professors of theatre say to the complaining parents: “Your children have grown up and they will see the situation in the job market by themselves. We don’t guarantee that they will be stars, but if they want to study theatre, why do we refuse them?” There are some of them who are dreaming of being stars naively but most of them are rational. After all, a degree can not be obtained on impulse. Then why so many children want to study the “useless” theatre? Specialties in universities in the U.S are freely chosen by students. Students are allowed to choose their courses in the first three to four terms and then decide what specialty to choose after getting familiar with all of them. In all the specialties except theatre, the number of students floats naturally with the specialty’s expectation of employment in the job market. Students know that it is hard for theatre majors to find jobs but they still swarm to universities to study theatre. From an overall perspective, in the past fifty years, the number of departments of theatre and the enrolled students of theatre both have doubled and redoubled. Although the period of climax has passed, the two figures in the recent two years have been steady, showing no evidence of declining with the low employment rate.
However, society’s question on the serious supply-demand imbalance in higher education in theatre is a huge pressure for theatre educationists. To deal with this question, two opposite ways appear. One is to further intensify the paradigm of conservatory training in order that students can become eminent in the more and more fierce competition for the limited positions of playwriting, directing, acting and design. There was a discussion in the Department of Drama in California State University Northridge where I once taught. Some people suggested changing the paradigm of liberal arts education (offering Bachelor of Arts degree) into the one of conservatory training (offering Bachelor of Fine Arts degree), which means more specialized courses and less general courses are given. The proposal was not approved finally because most people thought the other way. They admitted that most students would not become professional practitioners in theatre and they help the students broaden their knowledge so that they could find jobs in other fields where theatrical skills could be used. Some people who held this opinion even insisted the liberal arts education be intensified.
Of the two ways, the paradigm of conservatory training is the easier. Students only need to be trained according to the requirements of the market of show business. The Juilliard School is such an example. The students it enrolls should go through many rounds of extremely strict interview with stress on appearance. They do not have to take any examination on other subjects. Students of Juilliard have a high ratio of becoming famous. Their ratio of employment is far higher than most departments of theatre in universities. But hundreds of similar conservatory training classes nationwide are not that fortunate. Those who have only studied performing arts find it difficult to change their professions when they cannot find jobs in show business. In comparison, the paradigm of liberal arts education preparing the students to “change their professions” in the future is much more complicated. What courses should be given other than the specialized ones? Most places adopt the way of broadening the definition of theatre based on new theories such as deconstruction of classics, post-modernism which breaks the boundaries between elite and mass culture, and feminism which rewrites the masculine history, etc, adding more and more cross-disciplinary contents in the courses.
In the 1990s, there was a heated discussion in universities in the U.S about the pan-theatrical tendency in liberal arts education in theatre. There are three major schools of thoughts. One school proposes that humanities should be added in the courses. The Chief Editor Bonnie Marranca of New York Performing Arts Journal, an influential journal in higher education in theatre, wrote a long thesis entitled “Theatre and the University at the End of the Twentieth Century.” She points out, “What is important is that the whole program should be redesigned according to the requirements of cross-discipline. Teaching of acting should be combined with history of visual arts, theatre, dance, film and television. There is meanwhile a cross-cultural requirement. We should emphasize a concept, that is, performance is happening in different countries in the world at the same time.”[2] The interest of this school lies in the avant-garde theatre of European style which breaks the boundary of arts but not in traditional theatre, especially the commercial theatre in Broadway.
On their opposite stands the school of tradition which urges the departments of theatre back to theatre. They insist on “teaching dramatic literature, acting and performance on a solid basis of dramatic history and theories; this is our primary mission.”[3] This school certainly hopes to train a professional staff for repertory theatres, but they are also aware that the goal is not likely to realize because there are not enough positions to satisfy everyone. So they also point out that even though most of the students can not enter the show business, their performance at school theatres is also meaningful because drama on campus is for students of theatre as well as for the local communities. “Theatre in universities assumes responsibilities for itself, for the students and for its audience and should discover and express general human experience, moods and thoughts. We have the duty to help the students and audience gets familiar with the legacy of classics inherited from our forebears since Ancient Greece.”[4]
Professor Richard Schechner, a master in New York University puts forward the third point of view. Ironically, as those parents who complain of too many departments of theatre, he also thinks that there is no need to open so many departments of theatre in society. But his proposal is to reconstruct most of the existing departments of theatre essentially, abandon the paradigm of conservatory training completely and train practitioners and researchers of various kinds of performance who are needed in society. His slogan is, “Stop fake training and start teaching culture.”[5] According to him, facts show that a lot of students of theatre are learning some over-specific theatrical skills which may not be used. As they will probably be employed in non-theatrical business such as education, sales, politics, etc, they will have to seek to change the skills learnt according to job requirements. It would be better to teach them to explore the more adaptable ways and principles of performance at school. That is to say, he is neither for too much conservatory training nor satisfied with traditional liberal arts education. What he wants is to create a brand new discipline based on the concept of liberal arts education, a discipline following the paradigm of conservatory training on a broader sense.
Schechner’s words are persuasive theoretically. The new field – Performance Studies created by him and other scholars has attracted more and more scholars and researches. Related courses are given in universities. Some of the courses belong to department of theatre; others belong to department of literature, philosophy, anthropology, social science, politics, management, law, business, etc. But meanwhile, the execution of his proposal to change the department of theatre faces lots of difficulties. He made this appeal ten years ago at the U.S Annual Congress of Higher Education of Theatre, but up to now, there are only two departments of performance studies in the over three thousand universities in the U.S. One was established by himself in the early 1980s, located at New York University. It was reconstructed from the former department of theatre for graduates. The other one was founded ten years later at Northwestern University Chicago, the origin of which dated back to the department of speech existing in most western universities for a long time.
We can say that what has been said is more than what has been done in Performance Studies. Why? According to my experience during my study at Department of Performance Studies at NYU and of being a Contributing Editor of The Drama Review, a flagship academic journal with Schechner as the chief editor, I think Performance Studies in the U.S lack the practicality and workability as an educational paradigm. Although Schechner is a Doctor of Theatre and has been teaching in universities for quite a long time, he began his teaching at roughly the same time as he began to study avant-garde theatre which is a major field in his Performance Studies – and this is similar to Marranca’s point of view. The reason they rename theatre as performance is that avant-garde theatre has broken the boundary of theatre, which calls for a new name. However, the market of avant-garde theatre is limited, centralizing in metropolitans such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Even in these cities, avant-garde theatre with a small audience does not belong to mainstream arts and is not likely to attract many students of theatre in the universities. Only 3% graduates of theatre work in show business (including theatre, film and television), and even less than 1% of the graduates are in avant-garde theatre. Therefore, it is not realistic to reform the departments of theatre with avant-garde theatre. Furthermore, another research direction in Performance Studies is the study of rituals in primitive tribes, which stands for the cross-cultural side in the field and is where the interest of Schechner and other scholars lies. Since the 1970s when western avant-garde theatre began to go downwards, Schechner, like other artists like Peter Brook, turned his attention to the non-western performance culture. As a result, the mask dances in India, the tribe rituals in Papua New Guinea, the practice of child mediums in Indonesia, the Nuo Opera and the Tibetan Opera in China, etc, became the major projects in Performance Studies. Despite the important academic value of these researches, it is difficult for common students to raise enough money to do the field work or to gain more interests than in other performance. It is also unrealistic to regard them as the key points of studies. It is the case in the U.S, let alone in China.
What significance do these paradigms and the disputes they cause have toward the higher education in theatre in China? First of all, it should be affirmed that as there are few higher education institutes in China which are engaged in education in theatre, the paradigm of conservatory training must be intensified in the only three academies of theatre (and Chinese theatre arts). But to intensify does not mean to give more classes. What’s more important is to create more opportunities of practice, especially the diverse practice manipulated by the students themselves. The present paradigm is a class of about twenty students directed by a teacher or a group of teachers for four years. Almost all the artistic creations are conducted under the direct instruction of the teachers. The students generally do not get the opportunities to practice their creative scripts, the ideas of directing and design. Such a mold is for the convenience of management and can offer timely help to those who are not self-motivated but it cannot help to inspire the initiative and creativity of the students and especially cannot prepare them for the fierce competition in society. On the premise of maintaining the original paradigm, we can spare some time of “independent study” for the students to exert their initiatives, put forward their original projects and realize them through team work. The teachers only have to give them rough instructions and give marks and credits according to their performance throughout the whole process. Experience in U.S universities proves that for most students, the effect of such project studies is far better than that of following the teachers to do homework. Obviously, the operation of such studies is quite complicated, not yet possible to be done every year. But it could be suitable for the students in their early years and at least every student should have such a practice during their four years of studies. For the students who study directing and the students in graduate programs, this should be the main method of studies. In the U.S, apart from the independent projects to gain credits set in the system, the students have a lot of independent drama group activities to attend, which is helpful in training their abilities of independent creation and social operation. Many universities set the rule that every day from three or four o’clock in the afternoon till night, the students can study by themselves and complete their own projects.
The way of independent studies also breaks the boundaries between specialties. Few projects in theatre can be finished by a single person independently. Every student who undertakes an independent project faces the problem of how to form a team with students of other specialties, which requires them to have the knowledge of other specialties in theatrical arts. That is to say, within the paradigm of conservatory training, we can borrow the ideas of liberal arts education and break the boundaries between acting, directing, literature and stage design to a certain extent. For instance, students of all specialties should master quite a number of classic works, all the playwrights can act on stage and all the actors can make the settings.
Such requirements are to be found in well-established drama schools in European and American countries. Even some universities without drama schools like Oxford and Harvard produce a lot of masters of theatrical arts such as director Peter Brook (Oxford), director Peter Sellers (Harvard) and actor Hugh Grant (Oxford), etc. There, they received education of high standards and at the same time mastered their practical skills in large numbers of independent artistic projects. Those training classes in which students are taught some superficial skills cannot be compared to such education. Schools in the U.S which adopt the paradigm of conservatory training such as Yale School of Drama and the Tisch School of the Arts divide the students in their three-year graduate program offering MFA into studying specialties like playwriting, directing, acting, stage design, lighting design, costume design and theatre management, etc, but the students are always in communication with each other and conduct their projects after they form a team, which will be of great help when they enter society. In comparison, theatre academies in China are too inflexible to provide the students with opportunities to carry out their own projects. The problem is especially obvious with students in departments of directing, who neither have the opportunities to direct in class nor find actors to produce a play after class (even the teachers cannot find actors to produce plays, let alone the students). This not only shows the problem in department divisions but also reveals that we are too particular about “actors”. What we can learn from the problem is that even within the paradigm of conservatory training, we can use some liberal arts education for reference.
Not long before, I went to the Practice Performing Arts School in Singapore to give lectures in the “research and training class”. The founder of the school, Kuo Pao-kun (1939-2002) had a good knowledge of eastern and western cultures and was awarded government prizes and honors in Singapore, Australia, Japan and France. He merged the ideas of liberal arts education into the three-year conservatory training of actors as much as possible. He also invited teachers of major performing arts traditions from east and west to teach the students traditional performing patterns of China, Japan, India, and Indonesia, the western classics of Greece, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett. The studies involve different aspects like literature, acting, directing and stage design. With such a broad and solid foundation, the students can mix together what they have learnt in their own productions. I taught the Brechtian performance there. The actors did not possess ideal exterior qualifications at the first sight in that they varied in age and background, they had tried all kinds of jobs before and they couldn’t speak standard actor’s lines. But once we started working, I found that they were greatly creative. They were able to give improvisatorial performance after given an outline of Brechtian story within two papers. They made up the lines and created the characters all by themselves, naturally mixing the Brechtian style with traditional Chinese theatre arts. Only after the twenty-hour rehearsal, a forty-minute production was carried out with perfect effects. If we can combine the strict requirements of appearance and the diversity and creativity in Kuo Pao-kun’s training classes, it will be the ideal educational paradigm to cultivate versatile theatrical artists.
Secondly, outside the specialties in conservatories, there is a vast area to extend new specialties related to theatre, such as education in theatre (to train teachers of theatre needed in general education[6]), exhibiting (planning, design and directing activities), social performance (directing activities in politics and law, sales, media, celebrations), etc. Social performance has something to do with Performance Studies advocated by Schechner but we should start from the situation in China, put emphasis on social performance made evident in the process of China’s modernization, and make it a more practical and operational discipline, cultivating talents of public relations, management, and training for every walk of life[7]. The spokesman system established in governments since 2003 again proves the need of such talents[8]. All of the three disciplines are cross-disciplinary so they need a paradigm with the emphasis on liberal arts education. The foundation should be made solid but too specific skills are not necessary. In recent years, Shanghai Theatre Academy has started such work. For example, we open the specialty of writing and directing in broadcasting and television (since 1995) and management of arts (since 2003) in the Department of Theatrical Literature. New specialties are likely to be controversial. Some people think the specialty of writing and directing teaches much but not specific in one area. Actually, it is a normal phenomenon. Professions in modern society vary every day. Higher education is not able to teach skills which can be used all through one’s life. But we should lay the foundation for the students and teach them ways of life-long learning so that they can be adaptable to any jobs inside or outside their fields. If the students favor some courses, they should be allowed opportunities to seek further self-study after class.
Finally, in general universities, there can be more specialties of or related to theatre, which completely follow the liberal arts education. Of course it is not possible or necessary for China to establish so many drama schools in universities like the U.S. what is urgent now is to open specialties of theatre in departments of arts in normal universities, relying on institutions like education centers in charge of education for all-around development, and to strengthen courses on theatre, offering double-specialty degrees in cooperation with non-theatrical specialties. The other specialty in the double-specialty degree is not necessarily close to theatre. Even those who study engineering can study theatre at the same time. Such a student with double-specialty degree is likely to become an engineer and amateur of theatre, or to become a spokesman, a bidding representor or a trainer of employees in an engineering company. In a word, talents with knowledge of his own field and theatre are needed in every walk of life. They cannot be taught in any traditional specialty. Only double-specialty can meet the needs.
Generally speaking, Chinese higher education in theatre should also follow the paradigm of conservatory training and the paradigm of liberal arts education to meet different needs. Most of the departments of theatre seek the balance between the two extremes to find out what is the most suitable for themselves and for their students. As for schools of higher education in China, in my opinion, there are three different ways under the three circumstances: firstly, the traditional courses of specialties in theatre academies should stick to the paradigm of conservatory training, with emphasis on students’ independent practice and at the same time blend some ideas of liberal arts education, breaking the boundaries within theatre; secondly, theatre academies should also adopt the combined paradigm of liberal arts education and conservatory training and open some edge and cross-disciplinary new subjects the society needs; thirdly, it would be better if more theatrical specialties appear in general universities but they should develop the strong points and avoid the weak ones, taking advantage of liberal arts education, combining theatre with various humanities and scientific specialties and cultivating talents with various skills.
Theatre Arts 2004 Vol.1

[1] Statistics comes from Shanghai Theatre Academy Students’ Affairs Division.
[2] Bonnie Marranca, “Theatre and the University at the End of the Twentieth Century.” Performing Arts Journal, May/September 1995, The Johns Hopkins University Press, P.70.
[3] Alice M. Robinson, “Theatre Education.” Performing Arts Journal, May/September 1995, The Johns Hopkins University Press, P.91.
[4] Ditto.
[5] Quoted from Jill Dolan, “Geographies of Learning.” Theatre Journal, December, 1993.
[6] See my article, Position and Role of Theatre in EducationTheatre Arts 2002,Vol.1。
[7] See my article, Emphasis on Performance – Introduction to Social Performance StudiesTheatre Arts 1999,Vol.4。
[8] Wu Chenguang, 2003Group of Spokesmen Appears in ChinaSouthern Weekly 2003,11,13,p. A4.
Sun Huizhu
| Updated:2010.05.01    Clicks:2174