Planned Obsolescence? Technologies of Performance Training in Detroit, Michigan

Article excerpt

At a recent gathering of the Mid- America Theatre Conference (MATC) in Cleveland, Ohio, esteemed theatre historian Odai Johnson remarked that he had observed, across the conference presentations, a 'propensity to look for the familiar' in the past.1 While this propensity, he noted, was not necessarily unique to the presenters at this conference - most of whom teach at colleges and universities in the American 'midwest' - Johnson encouraged us to pursue investigations that, rather than looking for the familiar, consider 'how strange even the most immediate past can be'.2

Since I have been teaching Theatre at Wayne State University - an innercity State-supported institution of higher education in Detroit, Michigan - it has occurred to me that there is perhaps no better landscape through which to respond to Johnson's call for studies of the strange. Narratives documenting the blight, urban decay and corruption in Detroit have proven to be immensely profitable for national and international media outlets. This exposé-style news coverage, which exploits and fundamentally misrepresents the city's recent past, only amplifies the sense of estrangement that one feels while passing through Detroit's critical mass of formerly 'grand old streets' that play host to so many dilapidated homes and absent institutions.

For the purposes of this special issue, devoted to contemporary practices in the training of Theatre students, the Detroit anomaly upon which I will focus is my Department's own Hilberry Repertory Theatre. With a $1.1 million (US) annual budget and a subscription base hovering around 2,000, the Hilberry functions both as the largest professional - though non-Equity - theatre company in the city, as well as the training ground for an average of twenty-six to thirty postgraduate Theatre students each year,3 all of whom are paid a living wage for their three years of work on Hilberry productions. Company members - who include actors, designers, stage managers and theatre managers - 'learn by doing' on a six-day per week schedule in which the majority of their time is spent in rehearsal and production/performance. Required courses, organised by area - acting, design, etc. - follow a conservatory-type model of instruction, with elective options in play analysis, dramaturgy, dramatic literature and theory/criticism. Assessments occur both within individual courses as well as in the context of individual productions. The six Hilberry Rep productions, which run from September through May each year, are directed either by faculty or local professional artists.

Our production budgets, box office income and number of graduate research assistantships - the means by which we compensate company members - are extraordinarily high for any university Theatre programme in the USA. They are, of course, all the more exceptional when considered in me context of the political chaos and economic instability of Detroit, and, furthermore, a university with a dedicated urban-serving mission, with the lowest tuition costs and most meagre endowment among the 'research' universities of the State of Michigan. Yet, because our training paradigm - in which a rotating repertory production schedule is at the centre of all student activities4 - is so structurally different from any other extant model of theatrical training in colleges and universities in the USA, we regularly find ourselves in the midst of a debate over whether or not we should 'keep the Rep'. If we are the only institution of higher education in the USA that is training students in a rotating repertory model of production, does üie Hilberry Rep, established in 1963, represent the uncanny resilience of an 'old' Detroit institution, and the integrity of the founders' vision for the programme? Or do we constitute an academic and aesthetic anachronism?

Beyond the simple fact of its difference inspiring a certain anxiety, the Hilberry Rep has garnered a degree of scrutiny from within the faculty because its demanding schedule of rehearsal and production is the primary organising unit for all postgraduate teaching and learning. …