Practice differs from theory only when theory inadequately describes it.
-Christopher Dewdney

What is "The Place of Practical Theatre in an Academic Setting"? This question was posed to four panellists, professionals and educators, at the Festival of Original Theatre (F.O.O.T.) at the University of Toronto in February, 1994.1 It says something significant, I think, about the state of the "discipline," if it can be called "one," that no two of the panellists spoke about precisely the same thing, and that I, at least, was unclear as to what, precisely, the topic delineated.

What, for example, is "an academic setting"? 2 Drama and theatre are studied in English in Canadian post-secondary institutions in a variety of ways, including the intensive and focused professional training that is offered in classes across the country in places such as the Banff Centre, Equity Showcase, the Maggie Bassett Studio, and the Theatre Resource Centre; and "conservatory training," as offered at the National Theatre School and at various Colleges such as George Brown, Ryerson, Sheridan, and Humber.3But these are not usually what is meant by "an academic setting," a phrase which seems to have been intended to refer primarily to universities.

There are two general types of education in Drama and Theatre offered in English at Canadian universities. Although these categories encompass a multiplicity of variations, the fundamental distinctions are between: 1) "Theatre" programmes, which are related in philosophy and practice to the training programmes at colleges and conservatories, involve intensive and focused training in acting, directing, or technical theatre with few elective courses, and usually operate out of a college or School of Fine Arts and lead to BFA and sometimes MFA degrees; and 2) "Drama" programmes, which usually function within the context of a college of Arts that includes traditional humanities disciplines and departments, require a range of courses outside of the area of concentration, and lead to BA, and sometimes MA or PhD degrees.

It is Drama programmes-which are offered by independent departments or as multidisciplinary groupings of courses from Departments of Languages, Fine Arts, Classics, and English-that are most often referred to as "academic," in contrast to the "practical" concerns of colleges, conservatories, and Theatre programmes. Even within Drama programmes themselves, however, the split between drama and theatre is usually replicated in two "sides" of the programmes, usually constructed as the academic and the practical, and usually functioning in real or imagined conflict. And even this division of the kingdoms obscures the fact that the rubric of "Theatre Studies," as it is called in the United States, brings together what must be for the undergraduate a dizzying range of very different disciplines, from theatre history to dramatic literature and theory, acting and directing, to design and technical theatre.

"Practical theatre" within the academic setting of University drama programmes is itself variously configured, ranging from a fairly full complement of courses in acting, improvisation, voice, movement; sound, lighting, set, and costume design; directing; technical theatre; playwriting; theatrical organization; theatre for young audiences; and so on, to minimal offerings of catch-all courses on "Drama in Performance," or required "extra-curricular" involvement in a university theatre. It is the question of how much "practical theatre," how it is packaged, delivered, and assessed, and how it relates to the "academic side" of Drama programmes in which the organizers of the panel were interested.

Most undergraduate Drama programmes present themselves as constituting part of a liberal arts BA curriculum, and make no claim to offer professional training. They claim, rather, to offer, for anyone, a sampling of the field, and for Majors, exposure to the full range of disciplines involved. The theory is that anyone who plans to continue in the theatre or in theatre studies in any capacity, from acting or technical theatre to teaching or administration, will benefit from background and experience in all areas before going on after graduation to do further and more specialized work in conservatories or in MFA, MA or PhD programmes. In distinction to this, Theatre programmes offer the undergraduate direct access to the profession, reserving the MFA option primarily for those who wish to teach.

This division between the practical and the academic in theatre studies, of course, serves a particular set of purposes and interests. On the one hand, the various kinds of practical training programmes are well designed to serve a "theatre industry," in which theatre itself is constructed as a commercially-produced, consumable product, manufactured by trained workers for consumption by an identifiable "market" or "clientele." Theatre arts and conservatory training, in this configuration, are comparable to the training of workers in any other industry: the trainee learns how to make the product-sometimes even a new, improved product-but s/he doesn't learn to ask questions about society, culture, cultural production, or even theatre.

Similarly, in this configuration, "academic" programmes involve the study of the product as a completed object, and needn't concern themselves with the process of manufacture, except insofar as such study helps provide an understanding of what the product "is." Drama programmes, then, need only concern themselves with theatre history, dramatic literature, and theory as the analyses of (completed) performance texts, positing a kind of pseudoscientific "objectivity" that is achieved and preserved, in part, by an almost deliberate ignorance of the process, and detachment from what in this construction is felt to be the impure world of what theatre people actually do (and worse, do for a living). This concept of academic objectivity is comparable to the romantic view-which conspires with it to keep the academic and practical separate-that the artist mustn't destroy or sully the purity of her or his creative inspiration by thinking too much, or by analyzing her or his processes or work; and that the "academic" similarly mustn't descend from the realm of "pure" art, aesthetics, and themes, to the level of material production and commerce.


Times change; values don't.
-television advertisement
Why is it that parents who would be appalled to find their college-age children studying the same chemistry textbooks or economic theorems that they themselves were taught twenty years ago fully expect that those children will learn the same things about Shakespeare that they learned when they were in college?
- Marjorie Garber (243)

If we are prepared to accept that the ultimate goal of theatre and theatre studies is to mount reproductions of Miss Saigon, or of American television shows, or indeed reproductions of any kind, there is clearly no role for practical theatre in academic drama programmes, and no role for theatre history or dramatic literature and theory in theatre arts programmes. And indeed it is an essentially reproductive (and culturally affirmative 4 ) theatre that our current binary system is designed to service and study.

It is the purpose of most programmes in Theatre Arts, as it is of most conservatory training programmes, to prepare students for a future career in the profession-which in such programmes is often referred to as "the real world" (Feldman, 14)--equipping them with all the tools that they will need to perform, direct, design, or do technical work in whatever kinds of theatre they might become involved after graduation. The techniques and methods that students in such programmes learn, for the most part, are presented as being neutral and value-free, "pure" technique that can be applied to any kind of work in any context. We might think of this as the "times change" side of the equation represented in my first epigraph to this section, the side where technological and methodological progress is central to training that would no more ignore the latest computerized lighting boards than the chemistry teachers of the second epigraph would ignore the latest research or laboratory equipment in their field. After all, the underlying logic goes, the world does not and cannot stand still, and to deny students the latest and best would not only be to deny progress, but also to deny graduates their edge in a highly competitive field.

Meanwhile, in Drama programmes across the country, students on the other side of the equation-"values don't"-are far too often still dutifully taking notes on the unchanging, universal values embodied in great plays, values that provide stability and the reassurance that, however much times change, life will remain the same, only better. These programmes derive from the liberal-arts belief that has survived since the Christian humanists of the European Renaissance, that, in spite of increasing evidence to the contrary, learning makes people morally better-which usually means making them "better citizens," in the sense that they reproduce currently dominant social models in the so-called "real world." Courses and classes in drama programmes still tend to focus on audience empathy, individual psychology, and cathartic structures, often in realistic plays that are presented as containing transcendent truths about human nature, and in doing so they tend to affirm the status quo. Social problems, because they are represented "realistically" in these texts and teaching methods as being universal, are also implicitly represented as unchangeable; discontent with current social conditions is implicitly dismissed as the result of individual immaturity or pathology; and potential social unrest in the audience is defused through a cathartic release of disruptive impulses. After all, the logic goes, the world may not be perfect, but it is recognizably the way it is and has always been. There's no point in trying to change things, the structures imply, so you might just as well adjust. (Is it any wonder that we are witnessing an upsurge of interest in Drama Therapy?)

Taken together, the double thrust of our Drama and Theatre programmes (like much of our educational system) is to segregate values from the material conditions-methods, training, space and equipment, as well as social and cultural factors-within and through which they are produced. The effect of this is to affirm a myth of pure technological progress within an unchanging and by implication unchangeable social system, and to produce theatre workers and educators who are encouraged unthinkingly to reproduce currently dominant values, together with the systems within which they are silently inscribed. It is not accidental that my first epigraph to this section derives from the world of consumer capitalism.

But to twist the epigraph a little, times change values, don't they? And don't the social, cultural, and material conditions through which theatre is produced and received themselves communicate meaning? Isn't it worth asking, in the classroom, the workshop, the rehearsal hall and the studio, what messages, values, and ideologies are inscribed in the forms and techniques that we teach? What is it about (say) Method acting, proscenium stagecraft, corporate organizational structures, or poetic naturalism that make them dominant forms of theatrical practice here and now?

Many educators and theatrical practitioners are drawn to theatre, as to the other arts, because they are interested in the potential of the form to examine or even be critical of aspects of the world in which we live. The arts, after all, are generally seen to be one of the few remaining avenues in our society for free expression, exploration, and dissent. Is it just me, or are many of those who were drawn to theatre for these best of reasons ultimately disillusioned, disempowered and embittered by the time they're (oh, say) my age? Might this condition derive from the fact that our training, and the forms and structures through which we work, serve to contain our analysis, our criticism, or even our rage within the safe and comforting confines of a soft-core liberal niceness, as we are encouraged to spend our time impotently mumbling platitudinous bumble about human nature and clothing imagery in King Lear, while across the equation we are teaching yet another generation of actors unthinkingly to get in touch with their sense memories?


What can we do?

For a start, we can integrate the fields of study now represented by Drama and Theatre programmes, an integration that would ensure, among other things, that actors, directors, and others would enter the profession knowing something about theatre history and dramatic literature, while academics and critics would graduate with some training in what actors, directors, designers and technicians do. Of greater importance, however, is the possibility that such integration might open the door for classroom 'analysis of exactly how the supposedly neutral techniques and technologies of the theatre serve to shape the deeply embedded, structurally inscribed ways in which our theatre means, together with the ways in which our teaching of drama and theatre, in spite of our best intentions, can work to contain or deflect dissent or the drive toward change.

"Method" acting, for example, at least as it is popularly taught in Theatre Arts programmes, tends to conflate the "natural" with the psychologically consistent (narrowly conceived), and to privilege and naturalize the individual pursuit of linear, logocentric or phallocentric "objectives" through conflict as the basis for character (and by extension human "identity"). This approach to actor training can be seen to collude with the focus on empathetic responses to character, on linear cause-and-effect action, and on coherent and logical structures of unified meaning that still dominate our drama classrooms, in privileging a brand of psychological realism that favours the "universal" over the historical, the individual over the social, and the transcendent or transhistorical over the culturally contingent (and therefore subject to change). The analysis, within the same programmes, classes, and workshops, of the ideologies inscribed both in theatrical techniques and dramatic forms-of, say, "the Method" and Aristotelian dramatic structures-could serve at once to denaturalize those techniques and forms, to demystify the ideologies that underlie both, and thereby to open the possibility of questioning them.

The second thing we can do is to take a long hard look at the myth of objectivity that underlies so much of our educational theory, practice, and administration. It is not incidental that the split between changing times and ,unchanging values, and between the arts and sciences, first emerged in the European Renaissance at approximately the same time as the founding of our Christian-humanist brand of liberal education, the establishment of the scientific method, the rise of individualism, and the beginnings of the industrialization of the western world that gave rise to capitalism. Each of these tends to construct the individual mind and psyche as independent subject, the repository of value, while positioning the world "out there" as the value-free object of "scientific" and therefore disinterested observation and analysis. According to these models, which have been dominant in the western world for four hundred years, the so-called external world is constructed as raw material for the production of knowledge and of goods, while on the other side of the curriculum philosophers, artists and others engage in unscientific (and therefore, in our society, devalued) speculations about "subjective" (because not externally or experimentally verifiable) human values. Methods of observation and analysis, however, are ways of producing knowledge, and are analogous to supposedly value-free technologies and methods of industrial production, through which raw materials are made useful to the human subjects for whom, presumably, they exist. But as scientists themselves have in recent years begun to recognize, such models for the production of meaning are not value-free, and the results of scientific observation and analysis are shaped by values inscribed within the tools and observers through which they are produced and filtered.

What does this mean for the study of drama and theatre? It means, I think, that we need to develop classes, courses, and curricula that resist the liberal-education model of separating the "scientific," technological, and methodological from the realm of values. We need to teach neither neutral and value-free theatrical techniques nor the transhistorical meanings of dramatic texts, but the ways in which particular and historicized dramatic and theatrical techniques in the theatre and in the classroom conspire with the social and cultural backgrounds, educations, and expectations of audiences and students to produce meaning. We need, that is, more readily to engage our students and ourselves as practitioners and academics in analyses of how and in whose interests meaning is produced, not only in the scripts and techniques we teach, but also in our own workshops, rehearsal halls, studios, and classrooms.5

Finally, we need to reconceptualize the relationship between theatre studies and theatre practice. In an article on "Theatre Research as (Theatrical) Practice" that explores the relationship between researchers and practitioners in Theatre for Young Audiences in Québec, Hé1ène Beauchamp has recently argued on behalf of "theatre research as a practice: a practice in theatre" (179). 1 would argue, similarly, on behalf of theatrical practice as research and theory, and for theatre less as a product to be (re)produced, than as laboratory experimentation. In this formulation, "research" ceases to be either the detached academic analysis of an objectified product, on the one hand, or on the other "R & D" on the current industrial model, in which granting agencies "invest" in "avant-garde" new-play workshops in the hope that they will one day pay off in new, improved, "hit shows," that in turn will serve to rejuvenate (without essentially changing) the mainstream (and the economy). Similarly, the process of rehearsal, design, and creation in this formulation would no longer be constructed as the "manufacturing" stage of production but as research valuable in and of itself; the stage of production in which the audience participates-the "show" itself-would no longer be considered to be a marketable product but part of an ongoing process of exploration, experimentation, research, and interrogation-of theatre and its cultural context; and audiences, like students, would no longer be considered to be passive consumers but active co-producers of meaning, and of theatre itself as an unstable and multiplicitous communal form that is not simply culturally reproductive, but culturally productive as well.

If theatre practice and theatre study are to be reconceived in this way, and active cultural intervention and analysis are to be made possible, then the current conceptual and administrative division-between theatre as a set of techniques to be learned and as the detached "object" of study and analysisis both inappropriate and inhibiting. If theatre studies are to keep up with and support the theoretically sophisticated interventions and practices of such innovative theatre workers as Daniel Brooks, Ken Gamhum, Maenad Theatre Company, Pol Pelletier, Guillermo Verdecchia, and others, and if the theatre world is to benefit from the insights and analyses of a deeply committed generation of scholars, critics, and theoreticians, what happens in the theatre world and what happens in "the academy" must impinge directly upon one another. They must both involve the integrated study and exploration of what theatre is, as process and as cultural production-how it works, where it's going, what it does, how it relates to society, and so on. In this case, to return to the question posed of the panel, "practical theatre" becomes "the academic setting," theatres and rehearsal halls become classrooms and laboratories, theory and practice blend together, and the distinctions among different kinds of theatre professionals and academics disappear, together with different categories of education and training, within a larger community of "students of the theatre." 6


1 Parts of this paper are revisions of one I presented on that occasion at theGraduate Centre for the Study of Drama on 2 February 1994. The Festival was organized by artistic co-directors Ted Little and Shelley Scott, the panel by Jane Freeman and Anna Migliarisi. I would like to thank them, and my fellow panellists, Leah Chemiak, Bathsheba Gamet, and Tomson Highway, for providing the occasion and context for these deliberations. The central portion of this essay is a revised version of parts of an article commissioned by Margaret Burke and published in Drama Contact ("Times Change Values"), the magazine of The Council of Drama in Education Ontario, which is not widely distributed or readily available in libraries.
Return to article

2 The summaries of different types of programmes that follow have benefited from my attendance at meetings of COUTP (Council of Ontario University TheatreDepartments) in recent years, and from my having served as an external examiner of various graduate and undergraduate drama and theatre programmes.Joel Greenberg also considers "two types of training options" available to drama/theatre students in Canada, but tends to view both the "liberal arts program" and "professional conservatory programs" as "ways to train as a theatre professional" (38), taking the goal and therefore to some extent the ideologies of professionalism as given.
Return to article

3 Denis Salter provides a valuable ideological analysis of teaching methods and programmes at the National Theatre School, particularly for actors, while Laurin Mann reports on theatre training at four Toronto-area colleges. Mann's article raises some of the tensions and issues that I am focusing on here, but her interviews tend to construct the poles of theatre training as "entertaining an audience," on the one hand, and "the deeper purposes of art," on the other (33).
Return to article

4 I use "culturally affirmative" in Marcuse's sense of an art that reinforces rather than questions the hegemony of the societal status quo.
Return to article

5 As I have argued elsewhere ("Otherwise Engaged," particularly 194-5), this also means moving away from a practice of teaching students how to adopt correct or appropriate subject positions-teaching them, that is, to read, see, and interpret "properly" and "objectively" (which usually means from the point of view of a white, heterosexual, middle-class male)--towards a pedagogy in which scripts, productions, audiences, and students are all seen as historically and culturally contingent sites of struggle. It means moving away from teaching students to "see" and construct unities, towards a practice of teaching differences in the classroom, including tensions within texts, and differences of culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and background among the students themselves.
Return to article

6 There are, of course, innumerable practical difficulties to be overcome before a vision such as this can be realized. En route it is worth asking how we can avoid the not very useful, but potentially debilitating and destructive situation-endemic in university theatres-of using un- or undertrained actors, directors, writers, and so on-the bland leading the blind-as "laboratory rats." Similarly there is little time and money for the use of the professional theatre as a laboratory, at least as it is now configured, as there is little leeway for "experiments" there to fail. In spite of these and other problems, however, utopias have their uses; I posit this one as a site for debate (perhaps in these pages?) and as something, perhaps, to work towards.
Return to article


Beauchamp, Hélène. "Theatre Research as (Theatrical) Practice: Recognizing Theatre for Young Audiences." Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada 14.2 (Fall 1993), 178-195.

Dewdney, Christopher. Demon Pond. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

Feldman, Peter. "The Theatre Student." Drama Contact 16 (Fall 1992), 14-17.

Garber, Marjorie. "Shakespeare as Fetish." Shakespeare Quarterly 41.2 (Summer 1990), 242-250.

Greenberg, Joel. "Rhythms of Leaming: Expectations and Aspirations." Canadian Theatre Review 78 (Spring 1994), 38-41.

Knowles, Richard Paul. "Otherwise Engaged: Towards a Materialist Pedagogy." Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du théâtre au Canada 12.2 (Fall 1991), 193-9.

______. "Times Change Values, Don't They? Drama, Theatre, and the Myth of the Liberal Education." Drama Contact 16 (Fall 1992), 11-13.

Mann, Laurin M. "Teaching Acting: Four College Programmes." Canadian Theatre Review 78 (Spring 1994), 32-37.

Marcuse, Herbert. "The Affirmative Character of Culture." Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon, 1968. 88-133.

Salter, Denis. "Body Politics: English-Canadian Acting at NTS." Canadian Theatre Review 71 (Summer 1992), 4-14.