db042b0198By virtue of the fact that, at many colleges, students can earn credit by being in theater productions, academia has cultivated a strange, liminal space that is both a classroom and a rehearsal room. I’ve been hired a number of times to direct students in a production, teaching them as I go what is expected of professional actors in a rehearsal and performance room. I call this “teach-directing” and it is one of my favorite endeavors. Unlike the whiny, undergrad PC warriors that the media would have you all fear, student actors are on the whole pretty interested in taking artistic risks. They want to emulate professional labor standards because they see them as important protections for both actors and their collaborators, but students, I find, are not as interested in limiting discomfort in the class-rehearsal room as they are simply eager to know just what the rules are. All the better to fearlessly jump into creative and intellectual challenges, after all.

Last week I responded to the University of Chicago’s letter to its incoming class warning them not to expect trigger warnings and safe spaces by saying that in the theater classroom, some safe space rules are necessary. This is not to keep students from having to experience psychological discomfort (to make theater they have to be willing to do that), but rather to ensure that while they are in that vulnerable place – that place where they’re willing to really be present and really feel in front of other people – they can know they are protected from abuse and real danger.

If I were teach-directing this semester, I’d be attempting to lay out the rules of our safe class-rehearsal room space more clearly than ever before, not because I fear today’s politically correct student body, but because they do in fact have a right to know whether they are putting themselves in danger, and they need reassurance that they will be supported when they take artistic risks.

Here’s what I would tell my student-actors about our shared educational-creative space.

  1. You will be uncomfortable. You will be off balance. You will occasionally fail in front of other people. This will not be nearly as painful as you think it will be.
  2. You might not like everyone else in the room. You definitely won’t agree with all of them. Disagreement is totally normal and really healthy, and it actually leads to better art. It is not a sign of a problem; it is a sign that everyone is really, fully engaged.
  3. You cannot improvise violence or sex. That does not mean that having the impulse to add violence or sex to a moment is a bad thing. It means you have to stop yourself when you have one of those impulses and instead say, “I have an idea, but we need to work out how to do it safely.” So please, honor your impulses, even the unattractive ones. Trust them. I want to know what they are and I want to support them. I promise I will not shame you. But in this class-rehearsal room, you can’t act on the violent and/or sexual impulses until you have consent.
  4. Don’t tell other actors what to do. It’s not your job. If you have that many ideas about what they could be doing, think about studying directing. Here and now, in this class-rehearsal room, your job is to figure out what you can do, not what others can. Have ideas about your part and share them. Then shape your ideas in relationship to other people’s ideas about their part. Do not try to make your ideas other people’s ideas.
  5. I am here to enable you to have so many ideas you don’t even know where to start. My vision is intended as a springboard for you to use to get to other ideas that I could never think of myself, and I trust you to come up with those ideas. If you feel like you’re not getting enough direction, or like you have ideas but you don’t trust that you could try them and fail and not be judged for it, or like your ideas are too different from my vision to work, or like you don’t have any ideas, or best of all like you have so many ideas you don’t know where to start, please tell me. I can help with that. The only thing I can’t do is know what you’re thinking and feeling if you don’t express it to me. I will not judge you for being uncomfortable, afraid, excited, sad, passionate, happy, disconnected, turned on, angry, judgmental, amused, incessantly logical, ridiculously illogical, or any other thing you could possibly be feeling while making theater. In fact all those feelings and more are common and expected. We all have them and we have to have them in order to our job well. What I can do, if you tell me what you’re going through, is help.

If I were teaching this semester, I would also emphasize that theater is not made alone; it is made in companies. Even one-woman shows require more than one woman to make them. Our class-rehearsal room is one in which you have the chance to experience the discomfort, the lack of safety, in front of other people, that is essential to making good art. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, fall down, and get back up again, all with other people in the room. And that is neither comfortable nor, depending on your definition, safe. What is has to be to work is communicative.


9349743409_1fde8abd91_bThe University of Chicago made news by telling its incoming students not to expect trigger warnings or safe spaces, and not to bother petitioning the administration to disinvite problematic speakers. Responses have varied from “good for them!” to “how authoritarian!” In between sweeping bans on a major component of campus culture and the sweeping fear that administrations are trying to silent student voices is the possibility that some trigger warnings in some situations are a good idea and some student protests are valuable contributions to campus culture.

U. of C. is just the latest university to try to craft a policy to deal with the expectations that today’s college students have that their institution has a responiblity to protect them psychologically. In the 14 years that I’ve been in higher education, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in anxiety among students, and had a number of students ask that I change my pedagogy to make them feel more comfortable. In particular, whereas I have always positioned myself as co-learner with my students, students increasingly want their professors to be more like their parents than their colleagues. In one review, I even had a student use the phrase “grown ups” to refer to faculty members. Having to be a next-level babysitter while also providing an educational experience can make co-learning difficult.

Successfully democratizing my own classroom is especially difficult if the college and/or department culture leans more towards professors having to be distant, uncollaborative authority figures. For the students and faculty who see college as an extension of high school with no change in the nature of their relationships with their teachers, this works well. For faculty who see college as a time to train adolescents to be adults by treating them like adults, this can be deadly.

These issues all come together even more dramatically in theater departments. A college rehearsal room – which is often, by virtue of the students getting academic credit to be in a show, also a classroom – is not a safe space. I don’t mean to say that it is a space in which students have to put up with being psychologically abused, I mean that it is a space where people have to take risks and fail. This is a scary thing to do. It’s not safe because failure feels bad, no matter how you experience it. Unfortunately, there is no other way to make good theater – no way around the fact that art is always an experiment. The artist is always venturing an idea – whether it’s an image or a metaphor or a character choice or a feeling – the artist must have an impulse, follow it through, and share it with an audience. That will never feel safe, and I don’t think it should.

The possibility for abuse in these situations is an obvious but unnecessary evil. Artists are required to be vulnerable with one another, and some people prey on the vulnerable. Therefore, director/teachers should have the same professional boundaries they would have in a professional theater, which is to say that they should not use this space to become sexually intimate with the actors/students, they should not physically endanger the actors/students in this space, and they shouldn’t force them to work in conditions or for hours that have been deemed excessive by the people who do this professionally. (This is as much a liability issue as a pedagogical one.) Thus, ironically, the theater classroom is a place where “safe space” rules become almost a must, not so that the students can be protected from experiencing discomfort and vulnerability, but so that they can do so knowing that they will not be preyed upon in the process.

Alas, most theater departments have yet to bridge this gap between “no trigger warnings/no democracy” and “students can complain about anything and genuinely expect their professors to fix it for them.” What I hope to find eventually is a department culture that doesn’t infantilize students but rather actually protects them by making space for them to learn to experience unsafe things as adults. Processes, guidelines, transparency, and safety standards that address both the physical and psychological risks of making theater are essential to achieving this. And giving students a voice in creating those standards is a great way to push them beyond demanding that we keep them safe to learning how to keep themselves safe.

To think it thinkable shortcuts no work and shields one from no responsibility. Quite the contrary, it may be a necessary prerequisite to assuming responsibility, and it invites the honorable work of radical imagination. — “On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye

Slide1This paper was originally presented as part of WAM! LA’s 2013 Conference.

30 years ago feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote about the importance of the imagination to feminism in The Politics of Reality. 20 years ago I read the book in a college Women’s Studies class, and to this day my feminism has been inspired by her explication of how to see oppression and imagine freedom. Oppression, she claims in her essay of that name, cannot be seen for what it is if you only look close up:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

While stepping far enough back from a birdcage to observe it’s structure can be done in the space of a small room, stepping far enough back from our lived reality to see the patterns that indicate oppressive social structures can be only done in our minds. As if that’s not hard enough, we must step far enough back to be able to see not only the patterns that have affected us in our individual lives but also patterns that only affect those less privileged than ourselves. In so doing, we both gain clarity of vision and exercise what I like to call the empathetic imagination.

The empathetic imagination is able both to connect the dots between the individual instances of prejudice and limitation that make up oppression and to understand that even limitations that only apply to other people are still oppression. This is not a new kind of feminism, it is in many ways the oldest kind, but it is a kind increasingly at odds with today’s individualized, consumerized culture. From contemporary parenting practices to technology to for-profit online education, our culture encourages people (young people in particular) to place themselves at the center of their experience and of the world around them.

The question for me, as an academic, a writer, and a theater maker, is how can we engage young people in making the connections that allow them to see oppression as a “network of systematically related barriers?” And how do we help them empathize with people they don’t know, discrimination they haven’t experienced, and struggles that are greater than theirs?

First we have to learn to speak their language, by which I don’t mean the slang they use but rather the way that they use images to communicate rather than words. I got on tumblr recently after a few students told me, “It’s where the young people are.” I have heard millennials described as digital natives and boomers as digital immigrants; I consider myself a second-generation digital immigrant: My family was one of the first on the block to have a computer, but it started up in DOS, so that experience doesn’t really help me with today’s click, drag, and drop interfaces. So while it’s taking me a bit to crack tumblr, I can see that indeed it is where the young people are. And it is largely image driven.

In this virtual space, I can use images in ways that help viewers make connections between individual instances of discrimination and prejudice (what we in academia call critical thinking). The success of the post below, which has been reblogged/liked about 15,000 times and counting, shows that tumblr’s users are already asking questions about whose stories our culture values and about representations of oppression (or the lack thereof) within those stories:

Slide1 Slide2 Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7

My question is whether these same viewers are willing to engage in an even more radical act of the imagination: Using words to create their own images in their minds. My internet plays, written about social issues with as few descriptors as possible in the same space as a blog post, challenge readers to engage imaginatively with words by turning them into images, thereby engaging imaginatively in the creation of the stories, the characters, and the worlds. Whether we imagine stories that reflect the systemic oppression that is reality or stories that reveal the possibility of a new, more free reality, when we create our own images we engage in a radical, counter-cultural act.

The more life I live, the more I am forced to confront how little control we have over anything, how little power we have to align the myriad forces that have to align in order for us to achieve our goals and realize our dreams. I think we tell stories largely to organize what is actually chaos. Stories put events into a narrative in which we can identify cause and effect. They embody intangible forces in characters, put words to our deepest fears and desires, and paint pictures of what cannot be seen by the eye.

When we summon the imagination to tell stories that feature people who are other than us, we teach ourselves to empathize with them. I write plays like A Woman and Her Doctor in such a way that none of the characters have a defined race, challenging readers to imagine the play in their head with characters who may look quite unlike the characters that populate most Hollywood films, television, and theater. I hope the same tumblr users that respond so strongly to pure images will be interested in using words to create their own images as well. The experiment is in progress.  Input is welcome.

How lucky am I? As a feminist theater director, I seek out plays written by women about women. They are, statistically speaking, more likely to be feminist and on the whole they provide more opportunities for women actors. But one of the benefits of having an established reputation for doing a certain kind of theater is that when producers I know read plays that deal with women’s issues, they think of me. I directed a gender-confused Twelfth Night at the University of California at Riverside in 2011, so when they contacted me about doing Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children and I read it, I thought, “Awesome. They get what I do.” Little did I know.

At first I connected to the play primarily on the basis of it’s frank discussion of abortion, it’s illumination of the troubling valorization of teenage mothers that has necessarily resulted from the Bristol Palin debacle, it’s recognition that total reproductive autonomy for women necessarily calls into question the role of men in reproduction and fatherhood, and it’s stylistic representation of these issues through the tortured point of view of the artist. It wasn’t until we began rehearsal that I was forced to confront the fact that the play is also about an writer suffering an identity and creative crisis as a result of his divorce. Ha.

Whereas I often choose material that is foreign to me because I love an excuse to do research, this time I have been hired to direct a play that I feel, more than ever before, is about me. How to deal with that while also providing undergraduates with an experience to make something that is about them? Aesthetic distance, of course: an Expressionist concept that makes use of the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the main character and his creator, Adam Rapp. The play is essentially an expression of a very personal worldview: One forged in pain, confusion, and fear, and one which leads us back to the central issue of abortion.

Of all the plays by women and about women that I have directed before, no other play has given me the opportunity to do feminism in the classroom that this play has given me. Not only do I have to, as a director, make the personal political (in other words use my personal experience to tell a universal story), I actually have to make sure the students understand the difference between medical abortion and surgical abortion, the difference between vacuum aspiration and dilation and extraction, and the rare and yet over-represented-in-the-imagery details behind intact dilation and extraction or late-term abortion.

And it’s not just that I have a chance to clarify the facts on these issues. I assigned a student dramaturg the task of researching those facts and differences and explaining them to her colleagues, and what did she, after a Google search for “side effects of abortion” come in with? Articles from http://www.lifenews.com. I don’t blame her for it. In fact she accidentally made for me the point of the play: Accurate information on abortion is hard to find, and extreme emotions on the subject tend to be inspired by extreme ideas about what it entails. As a result of this, I asked all of the students to compare the information on Life News (an anti-choice site) with the information available from Planned Parenthood (a pro-choice site) with the info on WebMD (a presumably neutral source of medical information). In a few days, the student dramaturg will present the points of view of pro-“men’s rights” group and anti-“men’s rights” groups as well as the positions of men and women genuinely interested in addressing the effect of reproductive legislation on both women and men.

Again, this is not an opportunist exercise. Rapp actually cites a particular abortion apparatus by name: the SU-507 180-watt Crown Suction Unit. To act a line that includes a reference to that, the student must know what it is. But the opportunities as well as the dangers of this are evident: I do not wish to impose my point of view on anyone, but rather hope to engage them in a discussion of the issue based on a clear understanding of the facts.  Likewise I do not wish to make the show about my particular grief upon the end of a marriage, though I share many experiences with the main character and the author. These precipices are dangerous but they are necessary, it seems to me, to the practice of feminism in the classroom.

Despite the misconceptions of Fox News and their fellow travelers, it is not the goal of feminism in academia to persuade people to our point of view. It is our goal to educate citizens about the facts and to teach them to think critically about any and all information they may encounter. That I get to do this while also directing a play about an archetype of me, starring some outstanding students who are invested in the liberal arts’ goal of connecting fields of study through the act of critical thinking, is lucky for me indeed.

The Metal Children will run at the University of California at Riverside from November 8 – November 17.

Since I rediscovered and posted one of my favorite bell hooks quotes the other day, I have been thinking about whether her pedagogy or any of those based on Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed are actually relevant to teaching today’s American college students.

I asked this question once before, when at Marlboro College I served as sponsor of a student’s Plan (that’s Marlboro-speak for area of study/major/concentration/line of inquiry) that included the Freire-inspired theater of Augusto Boal. Examining and experimenting with the material together, the student, community, and I found that the Legislative Theatre exercises designed to give the disenfranchised poor of Rio de Janiero agency in public affairs did not automatically translate to helping the 99%-white, middle-class students at this liberal college solve their problems.

In Legislative Theatre as Boal envisioned it, actors perform a scenario for the audience in which an oppressed person encounters discrimination and/or marginalization. Audience members then substitute for the oppressed character and, through a series of improvisations, attempt to discover ways to change the circumstances of the character’s oppression. Though the exercise in this form did not lend itself to a group composed primarily of those in power, when audience members were allowed to substitute for the oppressing characters instead, they were made more aware of their power and learned to exercise it in more democratic ways. In such a way, perhaps, may an adapted pedagogy of the oppressed be made to suit the conditions of higher education today.

hooks devised the Freire-inspired pedagogy laid out in Teaching to Transgress (1995) for the students she encountered who

want [teachers] to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply seekers after compartmentalized seekers of knowledge.

17 years later, hooks’ “Promise of Multi-Cultural Change” has not come to fruition, and I’m astonished at the extent to which today’s students–not all, but most–expect and even demand that teachers be authoritative purveyors of facts rather than engaged human beings modeling an experiential way of learning. As have many other educators, I blame their helicopter parents, who, along with a secondary education system that revolves around tests and therefore defines the teacher’s job as “making sure the students have the answers,” have created a generation of college students with no idea that they haven’t actually learned to think yet and no practice doing the hard work necessary to gain real knowledge. Add to that the total saturation of consumerist values they’ve been bombarded with since birth through their unprecedented exposure to media and technology, and we’ve got students who see teachers as contractors and themselves as buyers who can and should customize the product to suit them individually.

In the hopes, however, that the only future for higher education is not the for-profit, online model, and being as persistent as ever in my belief that humanism is not dead, I cannot conform to that status quo. When conducting a search for a new faculty member, colleges and universities often request a Teaching Philosophy, but that document is rarely provided to students. Therefore I will lay out here, for prospective students either being forced to take one of my courses by their curriculum or deciding whether to take it of their own accord, the principles by which I teach.

1. I am not a patriarchal authority figure. I do not approach the material as one who has all of the answers. The best way to learn to think critically is to ask your own questions of the material and to seek out, on your own, your own answers. I model this by approaching even material I have been teaching for ten years or practicing for 20 as if it holds yet-undiscovered secrets which only an intellectual archaeological dig can uncover. I ask questions to which I do not have the answers, and this may make you uncomfortable. Here is the good news: THAT’S OKAY. Being uncomfortable does not mean you are unsafe. Being uncomfortable means you are in new territory and though you should proceed with caution, you must above all else work through the discomfort to proceed.

2. This does not mean I do not know my shit. I do.

3. I do not command respect and I do not have to earn it. Just as I respect you as a human being deserving of it unless you do something to lose that respect, in which case I will ask that you work to earn it back, I expect you to enter the room with a default of mutual respect and to participate in a social contract in which others only have to earn your respect if they do something to lose it.

4. I am not a babysitter. I will not police your behavior. If you insist on having side conversations, I will only ask you once to focus on and engage in what’s happening around you. After that I will either ignore you or ask you to leave the room. If you are unable to use your willpower to concentrate through an entire class and are unwilling to accept that what another student has to say is worth listening to and engaging with, you are unready to be in a college classroom. To the students who can concentrate and do believe that you can learn from, say, watching your classmates work a scene that you are not in, I expect you to take responsibility for your own educational experience and use peer pressure to impose higher standards of behavior upon those who would distract you from your goal.

5. I teach the arts, but I use the scientific method. Whether I am asking you to interpret or to create, I will ask you to pose an inquiry, investigate it, gather and analyze data, and reevaluate your hypothesis. And then I will probably ask you to do it again.

6. I am not one of those ever-more elusive master theater teachers who, through a lifetime of experience in the field, always have a relevant anecdote and name to drop, whatever the material. I have studied with some of these men, and they can be pretty awesome. But I’m not one of them. I will, however, use personal anecdotes to model a way of engaging with the material. I do not expect you to care about my stories; whether you do or not is actually irrelevant to me. I do expect you to perform the act of bringing yourself to the material in an equally personal way. Connecting the plays you are reading and the art you are making to your own lived experiences is the first step in encountering and interpreting the material on your own.

7. Though our personal experiences are a useful start to exploring material, they are not enough to interpret art created by others or to create art relevant to others. The next step is to understand the ways generations of received authority have interpreted and made art. If you are unwilling to look deeply into the sources of and conditions which created the material with which you are dealing, you will never be able to make it meaningful in the here and now.

8. Once you have both investigated the material as a unique individual and consumed as much of the received knowledge on the subject as you can in several sittings, you will be prepared to ask the biggest questions of all: what in this material is NOT us, what is NOT a part of some Western conception of the universal but is rather OTHER? To what extent must you, despite your personal connection and exhaustive analysis of the text, also use your IMAGINATION to understand this material and embody the other within it? Is there, in fact, an other or has she been elided all together? Can you use your imagination to see the invisible ways in which power and privilege are at play in this version of this particular story? Can you, therefore, imagine telling this story in a way that creates freedom?

And that’s about it. Discipline, rigor, individualism, and imagination. If you can bring all these things to our classroom, there’s a gold star in it for you. Oh, and you’ll also get the ability to live a self- and socially-aware life in which you use critical thinking to solve problems.

Photo of Freire looking like a patriarchal authority figure via the Paulo Freire Institute

Early on, it was Friere’s insistence that education could be the practice of freedom that encouraged me to create strategies for what he called “conscientization” in the classroom. Translating that term to critical awareness and engagement, I entered classrooms with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer.

When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging our students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. … When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussion so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material.

— bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress