In Defense of the “Boring Classes”
C. Austin Hill
Back to school! My favorite time of year—and it always has been. I loved back to school as a kid because it meant new clothes, new supplies, new friends, and an end to the summer doldrums. I loved back to school as a undergraduate student, because it meant new challenges and progress towards the completion of my degrees. I loved back to school as a grad student, because it meant a fresh set of classes to take, and a fresh set of students to teach. And now, as a professor, I love back to school. I love the energy as the campus springs suddenly back to life. I love the nervous tension in every classroom as we all navigate our new classes, new students, new professors, new living arrangements, and new (very expensive) books. Theatre students also get to look forward to productions—on stage, back stage, in the shop or the booth, or even in the audience.
At my college, I am the only theatre faculty member. Therefore, I get to function as a generalist—meaning that I have the exciting challenge to teach ALL OF THE THINGS. I get to teach acting, directing, playwriting, and technical theatre/design courses. I also get to teach the “boring classes” like theatre history, script analysis, and dramatic literature. I have arranged my curriculum on a rotation, and this year is all about this last set of classes. And I couldn’t be happier.
Before I get much further, I will own that I am something of a nerd...as you probably guessed when I said I love back to school. I spent 9 years in college, and loved every single minute of it, even the hard parts (maybe especially the hard parts). Even though I am a very active director (I’ve directed 30 productions since 2008), and even though I have been on stage in dozens of productions (I stopped counting when I hit my 50th production), and even though I love design and technical work, I went in pursuit of, and earned, a Ph.D. in Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Criticism. I enjoy immensely the practice of theatre—the “artistic side,” but I enjoy the “academic side” just as much.
As a generalist, I have watched my own students storm the classroom, full of energy and passion, in my studio classes. I have watched them struggle, and stretch, and strive, and grow as artists—actors, directors, designers, technicians, stage managers. And I have watched my students, as I watched my classmates when I was a student, reluctantly slink and slump into their theatre history classes and lit classes. The latter, you see, are compulsory courses, which many theatre students see only as a requirement they must endure en route to their degrees.
I challenge theatre students to reconsider. These classes are SO MUCH more than a rite of passage. Maybe it’s because I had such astonishing professors for these classes—both at the University of Utah and at The Ohio State University—or maybe it is because I am a bit nerdy anyway, but theatre history, script analysis, and dramatic lit were my absolute favorite courses to take. As an artist (aspiring or accomplished) you have a responsibility to understand your art as thoroughly as possible. You need to understand where it comes from, how it has evolved, how it continues to evolve. This is true regardless of artistic field. In the theatre, there is a rich and varied set of histories, ripe with lessons to be learned about what to do and what not to do. There are giants there, upon whose shoulders you can stand—if you know who they were, and why they matter. There are, too, giants who are left out of the history books because of their genders, their classes, their races, their specialties…and if you can find them, they will change your lives. You owe it to these giants—those you can easily read about in your textbooks, and those you will need to help us find and write into new textbooks—to understand their artistry, and you owe it to yourself. Sometimes you’ll find unexpected surprises in your academic courses—a new favorite play, a time period or a person who catches your eye, or you could find yourself in a classroom downstairs from an acting studio that has been turned into a tap classroom for the semester. The last happened to me, and I will forever associate Noh theatre with “flap-ball-change.”
You need to know as much as you possibly can learn about dramatic literature. You need to be able to see and identify intertextuality. You need to be able to find, in every text you read, as many of the reference points (stylistic, generic, historic, intertextual) as possible. How silly would it be, for example, NOT to recognize and understand the importance of Hamlet in The Lion King? As a theatre artist you MUST be able to analyze a script and turn it from a blueprint into a production. The BEST theatre artists (regardless of emphasis) are the best READ theatre artists, because they have the artistic vocabulary to bring greatness to the table.
So instead of schlumphing into your classes like (to paraphrase Shakespeare) snails, unwillingly to school, I hope you all will meet these “boring” classes with as much fervor as you meet your studio classes. There is nothing boring about learning the history of your field. There’s nothing boring about learning the literature of your field. And there certainly isn’t ANYTHING boring about learning the skills and tools that will make you a better (and more valuable) artist. I am very lucky, because my own students seem to understand this…or at least are willing to perform it for me. Yesterday, in my theatre history class (the second day of the course), I dubbed them all “theatre historians”—as they are about to embark on a semester of study and writing about theatre history. I had to wait several minutes for them to stop high-fiving and congratulating one another.
Theatre history, script analysis, and dramatic lit are vital areas of the art-form for you to understand…and to strive towards expertise in. I know that that sounds daunting, and intimidating. I understand that these classes require long hours of reading and studying, paper writing and research. I know that it’s more fun to be plotting a set design on Vectorworks, or doing Suzuki movement exercises, or sewing, pulling props, or building. But the foundation that you are laying now will shape those designs, help you to use that intense energy, and help you to find the correct props. You can do this. Your professors are here to help.