The State of Theatre in American Education

By Hobgood, Burnet M. | National Forum, Summer 1990 | Go to article overview

The State of Theatre in American Education

Hobgood, Burnet M., National Forum

Theatre has had a place in American education for more than a century. Not an important lace, to be sure, for its role resembled that of a foster child of whom the family often seemed unaware. For generations this fosterling didn't seek acknowledgment as a fully autonomous member of the education family; it sought to be tolerated and occasionally indulged in its playmaking as it made its way through a prolonged childhood. When the family prospered and grew, it gained in recognition but felt intimidated from being regarded as an illegitimate child of the Humanities. Yet the foster child proved attractive and resourceful, even when it had to endure misunderstanding and exploitation. At length, theatre made itself too useful and productive to be ignored and won a modest place in the nation's education system.

More explicitly, putting on plays and studying drama did not hold a high priority for the nation's schools in America's first hundred years. But by the second centennial these activities had spread so widely in colleges and schools that theatre education was the largest enterprise within the nation's theatrical scene. To assess the condition of the theatre in education today, we need to consider how theatre won its place.

It could have happened only in the United States, for indeed no other society has granted theatre the position in its educational structure that it occupies in America. Nor did it seem likely to do so in the years after the Civil War.

The society at that time did not exhibit a sure sense of its indigenous sell In all the arts, its agenda called for clever imitation of European models. When the Yankee spirit generated the democratic right to education for all, Old World molds had to be broken and new patterns evolved. In other cultures, study and pursuit of theatre and the arts remained a privilege of a select, persistent few; in America serious interest in the arts would be available for anyone who possessed the requisite talent and energy. It actually required a generation or two to work out the rationale justifying the inclusion of the arts in education, but when it emerged first in music) the import was that the arts could have a place in schooling and even an important place if the community or constituency wanted them dealt with. Moreover, educational programs of this kind could exist anywhere in the land because this society didn't buy the notion of restricting accessibility of educational opportunity to national centers of arts production, which was the tendency in traditional Western education.

That was the undeclared mandate when, in the Twenties, American culture came of age and impressed the world with the work of Eugene O'Neill, the Theatre Guild, and the ingenious song and dance confections of the Great White Way. This was also the era of the Little Theatre Movement and the New Stagecraft; the former stimulated the growth of amateur theatres to stage plays spumed by the professional theatre, many of these titles having premiered in the art theatres of Europe, which employed the scenic innovations of the latter.

The momentum behind these trends thrust them into the agenda of community theatres, extracurricular school programs, campus drama clubs, and the few theatre departments that universities had by then permitted. As a consequence, when Kenneth Macgowan traveled in many states to gather information on the noncommercial theatre, his Footlights Across America (1929) treated the many playhouses and programs he observed as a generic class of promising producers. The future of the American theatre lay with them, he clearly believed, rather than with the commercial theatre in its pricey Broadway confines. The communication link among these multiplying enterprises was the handsome magazine, Theatre Arts Monthly, whose shrewd editor Edith J.R. Isaacs tirelessly championed this analogy to the European art theatres as a "tributary theatre" whose function would be to revitalize the American professional theatre.

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