Welcome to Teaching Theatre | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome to Teaching Theatre. The idea for this podcast was born out of a need to reassess how we teach theatre post-COVID. So many things have changed. Conversations about equity and inclusion have led to departments re-evaluating many of the systems and protocols they’ve relied on for years. We are reassessing rehearsal schedules, the plays we teach and produce, and how we have difficult conversations in the classroom. But what I keep hearing from my colleagues at both my university and at other institutions is that our students have changed as well. So, how do we move forward?

I’ve invited an interesting and diverse group of theatre educators from large public universities and small liberal arts colleges, people who teach in BA programs and those from elite MFA programs. They’ll join me as I explore some of these topics to see what works, what we’ve learned, and what we need to do to effectively prepare our students to be the next generation of theatre artists. I hope you’ll join me each week.

I’m kicking off the series with a discussion between two dynamic educators: Cynthia Henderson and Valerie Curtis-Newton, who will touch on many of the topics we’ll be covering this season—things like work ethic, season planning, teaching difficult material, and reinventing the canon. Come back each week as I do a deep dive into these and other important topics. Let’s get started.

Valerie Curtis-Newton is the head of directing and playwriting at the University of Washington’s School of Drama, where she teaches directing and acting; and Cynthia Henderson is a professor of acting at Ithaca College’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Performance. Thank you both for joining me today.

Valerie Curtis-Newton: My pleasure.

Elyzabeth: I wanted to start today by talking about some of the challenges that you see programs dealing with. But that feels like a very broad topic, so I thought we would maybe break it down a little bit. First, let’s talk a little bit about programs as a whole. What are some of the biggest challenges that you see your departments dealing with in this post-COVID era, whether that’s programming, or funding, or staffing, or all of the above?

Cynthia Henderson: I can start. This is Cynthia. I think I would want to preface, because I think like you said, it’s a big question. I’d like to preface it with just this mindfulness of the fact that we are all navigating—and I’ll speak in the “I,: in terms of what we’re doing at Ithaca College—we navigate these challenges like basically any good theatre practitioner. We’re going to try to move deftly with an eye towards growth, always towards growth. I did look at it from starting with students. I actually started with students when I was considering this question, because at a small liberal arts college, students need to go first, because they impact everything at a tuition-driven private institution.

I guess the biggest challenges that I see in the department, I actually see it across the board, and it’s a trend I’ve noticed nationally because I’m a member of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers, and some of the things we’ve talked about are student engagement is down. This is, again, something I’ve heard from colleagues nationwide. The students we’re currently teaching were very sheltered for about two years, and they weren’t engaging in a school environment during the pandemic. They were all on screens. So they seem to have difficulty with meaningful in-person engagement right now, now that they are no longer behind a screen. That’s one of the biggest things that I find myself trying to help my students navigate.

Theatre in general has not fully recovered from the pandemic. A number of shows closed on Broadway during the pandemic and couldn’t reopen post-pandemic. So audiences are a little bit nervous about returning to enclosed spaces and sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people. Even now, if a person sniffs, I’ve seen people take an involuntary step back or avert their faces, and often they don’t even know that they’re doing it. This unconscious nervousness about being close to others finds its way into the studio and rehearsal spaces with our students. And so, just getting them back into this idea of meaningful engagement, this person-to-person engagement.

I find that they want to do the work, the in-depth, the deep dive work, but they don’t really know how. Years past, especially the caliber of students at Ithaca College attracts, they knew how to go into this deep dive. It was always this kind of fun, “let’s go scuba diving together.” But I find that I’m having to teach them what it means to do a deep dive. And they want to, they just don’t know how to. And so there’s a lot of backtracking on where I would say as an educator, I got a little spoiled with my students, because they knew what the deep dive meant and that depth of human engagement meant. And I’m having to kind of coax that out of, teach my students how to do that. Once they get it, it’s really wonderful watching them embrace it. But it’s getting them to that point.

Valerie: Yeah. I think I agree, and I think that one of the places where I’m concerned about teaching students about that deep dive is that they are incredibly sensitive. And so this idea of microaggressions and triggering, for many of them going deep means doing exactly that. I’ve come to say to them—I hate to say this—but the truth is that in the dictionary next to theatre, it should actually say, “trigger warning: may provoke.” To the extent that there are teachers, myself included, who believe that one of the functions of theatre in community is to provoke, there’s a misconnection between students who don’t want to be provocated and an art form designed to provoke. Navigating that is, I think, the fundamental issue that I’m having at the University of Washington.

The other piece is, and Cynthia, I agree with you, that trying to be student-focused, student-centered is very important. And yet in our program, we have graduate students. The purpose of a graduate program is to help train people for a profession, and we don’t actually know what professional theatre is turning into. We’re having conversations in our program about how to balance craft with making. I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive, but we have to evolve a language that includes both the fundamentals of design, the fundamentals of acting, the fundamentals of directing, and a devised generative process, an iterative process. How we manage that, we don’t know.

That’s a big challenge for us, trying to make the shift, because we can’t guarantee them that a theatre will exist at which they will be hired to do work. And we need them to understand that they are the architects of their own future, but we also need to ensure that they have all the skills they need to do the work that impassions them. That’s a lot of big fundamental stuff. Who we’re training, what we’re training them for, what are the critical skills they need, and how important is making as a skill set? Is devising, is generative work now the new center of theatre practice? And if so, are those skills different than making text-based theatre? And if they are, what do we do with people like Elyzabeth Wilder who write plays? Where do they go in that world of increased devising and artist making and collaborative theatre? What do you do with people who are, in fact, specialized?

Lots of huge questions at play right now. But fundamentally, it’s in an industry. In a field that is dying in order to be remade, we have to place bets on where we think the future is going and spin the wheel. That’s what we’re trying to do right now. How to spin the wheel with the greatest probability that our students are going to get out and be able to shape careers for themselves.

In a field that is dying in order to be remade, we have to place bets on where we think the future is going and spin the wheel. That’s what we’re trying to do right now. How to spin the wheel with the greatest probability that our students are going to get out and be able to shape careers for themselves.

Elyzabeth: I guess the next question is, we’ve talked about what some of these issues are. What do you see your program or other programs doing to address some of these issues?

Cynthia: Okay, I can go again. I love that Valerie talked about students going into the profession. Because at Ithaca College, our BFA acting and musical theatre program, we’re actually a conservatory-style program within a liberal arts context. We are also training our students to go out into the world. Some of the things… I have a lot of notes here. One of the things I wanted to talk about was this idea of how theatre is changing, and how we are preparing our students for it. I guess one of the things that we’re doing is as we strengthen what we do well, which is training the theatre artists to go out into the profession or preparing them for graduate school. Depending on which way they want to go, they can go in either direction. But as we strengthen what we do well, we’re also adjusting to the changing needs of both our students and the profession.

We’ve been folding in intimacy direction and coordinator [IDC] practices in rehearsals and in the studio spaces. We’ve brought in some IDC professionals to work with faculty and staff and students. I’m in the process of getting my consent for artists certification. And we take the call to decolonize how theatre is considered, and taught, and produced. I guess in order to measure twice, cut once, we began by bringing in DEI professionals, experts, and then we formed our own working groups to assist faculty in decolonizing and creating gender-neutral accessible classrooms, and studios, and shops, and rehearsal spaces.

A couple of years back, we responded to the White American Theatre, We See You manifesto in a number of ways that I just outlined as it relates to anti-racism and IDC. We also shifted from things like six days a week rehearsal weeks to five days, and shifted from two ten out of twelves to one eight out of ten. And we’ve added student representation on some of our committees. And especially, and most importantly, I think, we have student representation on our season selection committee where we decide what productions we’re going to produce that year. That goes through almost the entire, I was going to say department, but almost the entire center, so that we are speaking to not just doing, for lack of a better phrase, the dead white guys.

Valerie: Yeah. I think that we’re doing all the same things. We also wrote an anti-racist action plan. We’ve also implemented more work-life balance kinds of practices. I think that it’s becoming the new normal. I think another place that’s important to investigate is whether or not it means no more dead white guys or just fewer dead white guys. Do we need to say that all the writings of all the people who went before us should be chucked in a bin, and we can only look forward? I think that that’s part of the struggle that we’re having right now, is whether or not… this is in the big society, not just in our field, but whether or not there’s anything to be saved, rescued, or improved from our history and from our past that can be useful to us in the going forward.

I think as I get older that I struggle a lot with the impulse to trash the past, to get rid of it all, because there is wisdom there. There are examples there; there are lessons there that are worthy of being investigated, interrogated, interpolated, adjusted for the future. And so I want to say less “no more dead white guys,” and more like, “what does the canon want to look like if it represents all people?” In that move towards more rather than less, what are the qualities of a good play? What are the qualities of a good roadmap for a public event? And then, how do we vet this material against it?

Some plays don’t survive the test of time, and others do. And even those that don’t survive the test of time, we are teaching in learning institutions. They can be examples of principles, ideas that we want to challenge, interrogate as a community, and decide to lay aside. I think that there are a lot more conversations that we have to have about what a big tent actually looks like. And we also need to figure out how to get to the level of what are the criteria that we want to apply for making events that bring communities together? In fact, how do we define community? Because people throw that word around a lot. We don’t know, quite frankly… am I allowed to curse on your podcast, Elyzabeth?

Elyzabeth: By all means.

Valerie: We do not know what the fuck we’re talking about when we use the word “community.” It’s become jargon. I think that if we actually take the time to invest in a shared definition and publish that definition as we use that word in our documents, and in our marketing, and so forth, I think it would go very far to making a difference in shared vocabulary.

Cynthia: I love that you said that. Because, two things. I went through our entire theatre library on my own a few years back, just to identify, what do we have and how do we expand? Because I’m looking at expanding the canon, not toss out all the dead white guys, because there’s some good stuff in there. But how do we expand it so that we can go beyond just the Eurocentric, heteronormative, male-dominant history and plays that we’ve all learned? That doesn’t mean that we don’t teach Shakespeare, or Ibsen, or Williams, we just need to make room for the rich diversity that is what makes theatre so engaging.

On that thought about community, this is literally something that we do every single year, at the beginning of every single academic year. We’ve been doing this for the past four years, and it’s based on an exercise that I do. I have this international project called Performing Arts for Social Change. What we do is we bring the entire department together, students and faculty, to create a living document with generated definitions of ideas of discipline, artistic engagement, safe space, work ethic, community, etc. There are about ten words, ten items, ideas. What we do is we realized that we needed to agree on these things in order to help our students grow as artists and scholars. Once we have those definitions, the exercise usually takes about three hours.

Valerie: And you revisit it every year, Cynthia?

Cynthia: Yes, we do. We do it every year. Then we share it out to every single person in the department, so that we remember what we agreed on at the top of the academic year.

Valerie: That’s great.

Cynthia: We do it with the faculty and the students, figure out what it is that our community needs. And so, how that’s interrelated with professional theatre, with theatre that we do on the university campuses, theatre that is community-engaged, it’s all community-engaged. Because even when you select your season, what is it that your community needs? What do they need to hear? What’s something that they need to change? What do they need—

Valerie: And inside the university, some part of that is also what do your students need?

Cynthia: That’s part of what the season selection committee is about. Because we are trying to also look at pedagogically, what is it that… what do our set designers need? What do our actors need? What are our musical theatre majors’ needs? What do our dramaturgs need? What do our assistant directors need? What do our playwrights need? Because we run the gamut. Our costume designers, our light designers, what do they need? What do our theatre arts management students need? And so, all of the degree programs come together, and now we’ve added student representation to that, to figure out what is going to be our season. But we also have that one component where we go, okay, we’re answering all of this, but what is it that we want… the community that comes to the theatre, what did they get out of this?

Valerie: I think that’s an important question. For us, it translates all that, and to what end? Is it that we want to have a particular conversation with the community in which we make our work, or is it that we actually have an opinion that we want to present? I think that that kind of theatre is also very valid, and it struggles in today’s environment. In fact, that every piece of theatre is an invitation to a conversation. Even if the playwright wants to say “love sucks and is impossible,” you can put up a play that says “love sucks and is impossible” and invite the audience to agree with you or to disagree with you. That, in fact, is social justice, engaged theatre practice that comes out of working on a text-based form.

I think that that’s also part of what I’m—as I’m rapidly becoming the oldest person on my faculty—that I’m trying to help as much as I can, navigate the transition from… we used to be a conservatory program, and we’re not anymore. Our graduate students were in a conservatory program. Our undergraduates, we don’t have a BFA. And in fact, at this point, I think it’s roughly 70 percent of our undergraduates are double majors with theatre as a minor. The world that we’re operating in is much different than it was fifteen years ago, when everybody was coming to be an actor, or coming to be a designer, or coming to be a director. Now we’ve got a person whose major is astrophysics and their minor is theatre. And they will do with what they will, and we’re good with that. But the idea of figuring out what they need beyond a place where they can run amok to make stuff, I know they need that, but I don’t know that they need department to do that, to have a space and a place to make things. I don’t know.

Cynthia: I think they do. Because we still have students, predominantly the students that come in to study acting and musical theatre, and soon dance, because we’re creating a BFA in dance, they are coming to us because they want to do professional theatre, film. They want to go into the profession. And my question to them is, “Why? What is it that you want to do when you’re in the profession? How is it that you want to impact your fellow human beings? How do you want to change the way we relate to one another?

Valerie: I agree with you. I phrase it in my interviews, I ask them, what do they want their work to do in the world?

Cynthia: Yes, exactly. How do you want to impact the world? Through theatre, film, web series, what kind of impact do you want to have? I still have some of our students who have gone into the profession, they still call me. Actually, one came into Ithaca the other day because she wanted to talk to me about the direction she was taking her career in, and I was very proud of her about that. I’ve had students call me and say, “Cynthia, I’m struggling with this script right now because I’m trying to find the heart of this piece.”

Valerie: Yeah. I think as long as we’re training folks to do that, I guess that’s where I get a little bit tentative with big changes. Because I think that the idea that there are… trying to figure out how decisions get made in an empowered environment, where the opportunity for things to go bad because no one will say no, that’s a place where I’m working to be more flexible, and also to just let go and know that younger generations are going to have to figure that part out. But I actually believe we need people who make choices, who are deciders. And as we talk more and more about collaborative creation, the step that I think gets under explained, is the stuff where we decide who’s going to choose? If you, Elyzabeth, and I are making a piece, and we all have a great idea for the opening, first, we try to synthesize them, and take the best of all of them and make a thing. But if we’re still at loggerheads, who decides what actually goes into our piece? Somebody has to.

Cynthia: Well, that’s where you still need a director.

Valerie: I don’t know that there’s consensus about that. But I hope that, I’m a director, I hope that there is a world in which directors exist ten or fifteen years from now. They might have a very different job. I think we might get retitled editors or curators, and we do away with the title of director, because that invokes so much bad history, so much patriarchy, so much all the other stuff. But all the other titles feel less empowered to me. It feels like, and I’ve said this, and this gets me in trouble, but how come it is that now that women and people of color are in charge, we want to do away with people in charge?

Cynthia: Thank you. I feel—

Valerie: What is that? What is that? Can we interrogate it in a way that’s productive, but still leaves us some power as we help shepherd these organizations or projects forward? I’m not interested in co-directing everything with everybody.

Cynthia: I’m not either. Yeah.

Valerie: This is a thing, in an environment where theatres are creating leadership models that are shared power leadership models, in which a director doesn’t have to be one of the people. And then we’re talking about collaborative processes in which to heighten the empowerment and the visibility of the actors. We now have first day of rehearsals that take four hours of letting everybody be seen, and introducing our principles and our values, and getting buy-in from them, and then we get to read the play after lunch.

Cynthia: No, I concur. There’s a lot of processes that go with that. One of the things, though, that I have been trying to maintain as the director, because the director holds the vision of whatever the piece is together. Because everybody is working on, the actors are working on—

Valerie: But Cynthia, the first step is the one we have to define. How do we get to a vision? Do we have to convene a committee and have the committee decide the vision, and then that’s the vision I’m holding? Or am I supposed to look out, interrogate, investigate, gather information, float an idea, get feedback, navigate that feedback, and shape a vision, and then call people to work on it? Is that what it is? But I think that we’re not clear on what that first step is anymore, Cynthia. That’s the thing. We’re not sure that we want to actually let somebody be visionary. What is the first question?

Elyzabeth: We’ve talked a little bit about the role of the director and how that role has changed or is evolving. I’m wondering, what are the changes that you’ve seen in your students, especially in this post-Covid era?

Valerie: Well, I think, Elyzabeth, that I have never in the last three years, the last two years coming out of Covid, I’ve never in my nearly thirty years of teaching, had as many requests for disability accommodations for mental health as I do now. Depression and anxiety are at a super high. There’s also, it’s hard to see what other work is being done besides accommodating these mental health issues. One of the classes I teach is called Resilience, and when I have a class of forty students, and eight of them have disability accommodations for anxiety, and so there’s no testing, they can’t be asked to do things in class, they need extended time, I have to give them extra time for assignments. I’ve taken to actually putting up assignments for the whole quarter at the very beginning, and offering that they’re free to start whenever they want to, and that I’m happy to sit down with them to have conversations about what they need to know to get started.

But there’s a lot of that right now, and also a lot of burnout. Attention spans are short. The ability to sit and pay attention, or even to move with intention, the days need to be shorter in the conservatory elements of our program. The idea that you have school all day and then have rehearsal, has made us begin to think about how we incorporate rehearsal into the day. We can’t really ask them to do any homework beyond their school day. When they have a production, we have to figure out how to give them more time. Maybe that’s shortening the rehearsal days, eliminating at least one of the weekend work days, and giving a day off during the week. The rhythm of rehearsal has shifted, so it’s now two days, day off, three days, day off, and that’s a very difficult way to gather the momentum into opening. That’s one element.

The other is, I think that the internet, because they were isolated for so long, they’ve become even more fluent in the internet. And that’s limited, I think, their ability to really research. If you assign a topic, you’re going to end up with the same four footnotes in most of the class. You don’t have that thing you have with the Dewey Decimal system, where when I get to a particular subject, there are like twenty books on it on the shelf, and I can actually go into different modes of interrogating the same principle. That doesn’t happen when you’re doing online research. In that way, the students are further hampered in the acquisition of knowledge.

Again, because as I was saying, if we’re inculcating a culture that says everything that existed before today is not useful, all that’s useful is what I can call up on my pocket computer. And now if I can’t Chat my paper, or if I can Chat my paper, we’re going to get the same five sentences across three or four papers in the room. It’s a very different environment than when we were back with paper books, and pens on paper, and pre-calculators. I think that the mindset of trying to be efficient, we haven’t taught the difference between efficiency and excellence. I could be fast and make something that’s really trash, or I could be slower, I could be somewhere in the middle between the tortoise and the hare, and figure out how to do it at a pace, and with a level of intensity and intensiveness. But the intention for them is to get it done and get it done fast.

Cynthia: All of the things that Valerie is talking about, yes. One of the ways that I try to combat that is when they do have to do their research, even if it’s character research, at least one thing in their work cited page has to be hard copy, has to be something they went to the library and found. If everything is from an online source, that lowers their grade, I’ve made that very clear to them. But also, and this goes into one of the biggest things that I think is missing, is imagination. I think a lot of that, again, comes from the screens, comes from everything being readily available on the phone. I don’t allow devices in class. I don’t allow students to read their script from their phone. I don’t allow it. They have to have a hard copy, so that they can write in it.

Now, some students have confused and perplexed me by bringing in an iPad and a pencil thing, and writing on that. But I say, “But you have to turn that into me, and I have to have a working copy of your scored script. I have to see the journey you took with this script as you were scoring it, as you were finding all of the nuances in this script.” But imagination is missing as well. One of the things that I try to do is to help them reignite their sense of adventure and imagination, which is what will make them curious enough to do a deeper dive, and encourage them to figure out what’s possible?

And understanding and appreciating, after we as a department have come to an understanding of what discipline means, and how discipline is required to bring what we imagine into reality. And that resilience is a part of discipline, and discipline is not punitive. It requires a vision for possibilities, and it’s a way of being in the world so that one is not defeated after the first few attempts. That’s what discipline is there for. Discipline breeds resiliency. And so, it’s really trying to reignite this imagination of what is possible.

Valerie: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. Our Alexander teacher, probably ten years ago, started working in a way that was intended to ignite imagination. She said what she was seeing in students, is she would do this exercise about a tree, and she was watching students increasingly embody a tree, smaller and smaller. They could look at it outside, but when they thought about a tree, it fit inside a television, and now it fits inside that palm of a hand. I think that one of the things my colleagues and I are hoping will come out of this drive towards more iterative, devised work, is imagination.

We’re going to say, “Cynthia and Elyzabeth, we want to see you create a scene in a train station, and what you have is this cardboard box, this broom, and this towel. Go. You got sixty minutes.” And then you have to look at those things and use your imagination to figure out how to make it happen. We’re instituting an Auto-Cours class for our graduate students in winter, where every week at the end of the week, they will have to show us devised work based on prompts that faculty will give them on Monday. So they have from Monday to Friday to do their Auto-Cours projects. The hope is that that will increase imagination, because they’ll be able to look at what they have and try to figure out how to make what they need, which is the heart of being a theatre artist.

One of the most important jobs that a community has are the people who go forward into the darkness and light the light. I want my students to be the light-lighters, the fire-lighters, going off to show people the way.

Cynthia: And the loss of imagination is fairly recent. Because in 2017 I did a project at Julliard along those same lines, and I was bringing together all of the disciplines. I told them, “I don’t want to just work with the drama students. I want the dance students. I want the music students. I want them all together.” And I would give them prompts, and then they would create a script, and then they would devise how they were going to bring that idea to life. It was some of the most beautiful work I’d ever experienced. Along the same lines, in my Theatre for Social Change class—I created a course called Theatre for Social Change—and to what you were saying, Valerie, just the idea, even the tree, I would do this image theatre work with them, and everything was teeny, tiny, teeny, tiny. Nothing was expansive. Nobody would embrace the expansiveness of the idea. This loss of the imagination is fairly recent.

Valerie: Yeah. We’ve been taking our students outside to work outside in a big space, because any theatre space is tiny compared to the world. I think it’s just that I’m very hopeful that we’ll figure out how to utilize all the skills that we’ve been trained with and experienced over time, so that whatever comes next, there will be a level of excellence and craft to it. Looking at American Theatre magazine as it tracks all the theatres that are closing makes it really important that we are flexible about what comes next. And also, that we are mindful that there are still some good things to be salvaged, and there are bad things that need to be gotten rid of, and that everything new still needs to be interrogated.

I just want us to lean into the fact that we have the things we have to make what we need. We just need to continue to be honest about what we need, and to be kind to each other while we figure it out. Right now, we’re a little bit becoming increasingly like rats on a sinking ship. We want to make sure that everybody has work-life balance, we want to make sure that there is pay equity, and we also want to make sure that we have a product that people want to buy. Or we need to figure out what’s the national campaign to get us funded by the government? Because until we are, we’re stuck in the limbo. That’s a very dangerous place to be.

We are a common good. We are like the Defense Department; we are like the Department of Education. And while Republicans want to get rid of a lot of departments, the Department of Defense is not one of them. We need arts and culture to be on the list parallel to Defense, because we’re one of the places where community and culture come together to make us strong. And the lesser we get excited about the arts and their importance, the more at risk we are.

Cynthia: I love what Valerie just said, especially as it expanded out into how our government views the importance of the arts. Because when you look back on history, yes, historically there are documents, and this and that, but what really tells us about what happened during the Greek periods, or during the Roman periods? It’s the plays. Art tells us about civilizations from the past. Even to cave drawings, it’s about the arts. But in a book I wrote back in 2004, Understanding Character Through Self, I wrote that I feel a great responsibility to equip my students to not only be the best artists that they can be, but also being the best human beings that they are capable of being. And I still believe that to this day.

Valerie: I agree with you. I think that that’s actually the purpose of all education, is to make us the best human beings that we can be and teach us how to be kind and compassionate with each other. So, a hundred percent.

Elyzabeth: I think also what we do, is we teach people how to collaborate. Whether our students go on to be theatre makers or they move on to another profession, knowing how to collaborate is a skill that they’re going to take with them no matter where they go.

Cynthia: That’s where it goes into being the best human being that you can possibly be. Because that is what’s going to make you be able to collaborate, be able to look at your community and see what it is that your community needs to have said to them, for them, on their behalf. To champion funding the arts. That’s the part about not just being a great artist, but being a great human being. That’s one of the keystones of how I go about teaching, how I go about directing, how I go about creating art, because I’m an actor also, how I go about doing that. I tell them, the secret to acting is to care. Care enough to do the research, care enough about that character to speak their truth. Well, their truth is not your truth. Go find out what their truth is. And then what is it that your audience is going to need from that truth? There’s a whole chapter in my new book about called “The Art of Truth.” I’ve done numerous talks about the art of truth. You have to care in order to do that.

Elyzabeth: As we come to a close, I wanted to ask you, what excites you the most about your students as artists and as theatre makers?

Cynthia: I would say their potential to change how the world engages with one another, and that they are all truly the future of theatre, film, entertainment, and the policies that affect us all moving forward. That’s exciting. There are a lot of things that we need to work with them on, but what’s exciting is as they get this work that we’re giving them, that’s the potential that they have.

Elyzabeth: Valerie, what do you think?

Valerie: I think I agree, but I’m really hoping that they’ll also be able to find their fire. I think that they’ve spent a time now in this protective lockdown, and the way that their anxiety affects them, is that there’s a lot of trying not to offend, trying not to ruffle feathers. But then they also have these social justice demands, and I keep trying to express my hope that they will embrace the brave space. Because a safe space does not exist. You cannot be in safe space and make change. Safe space is the antithesis of good trouble. My hope is that they will find a passion for brave space, and a joy for the provocation, an excitement for the provocation, a passion for the provocation.

I think the sparks of it are there. I’m just not sure… I don’t see embers yet. I do see the sparks, but I don’t see embers yet. I’m really hoping that the work that we’re all doing will help the embers burst into flame. I’ve been asked to give a speech on illumination, and I think I’m going to actually flip that script to talk about the difference between light and heat. That we do need to see, but we also need the warmth and the fire to go forward. One of the most important jobs that a community has are the people who go forward into the darkness and light the light. I want my students to be the light-lighters, the fire-lighters, going off to show people the way. That would be my hope, is that they would be comfortable enough with the darkness, and their skills to survive the darkness, that they could go into it to build the fires of light for people to follow.

Elyzabeth: That sounds like a wonderful place to end. I want to thank you both for joining me today, and for sharing your experience and insight. Thank you both very much.

Cynthia: Thank you.

Valerie: You’re very welcome.

Elyzabeth: This was the first of ten episodes in the new podcast series Teaching Theatre. If you enjoyed this episode, please join us again. We’ll be doing a deep dive into topics like dramaturgy in the classroom, teaching difficult material, reinventing the canon, season planning, collaboration, playwriting, devising, serving trans and non-binary students, as well as mental health and work ethic. This series is meant to be a resource for theatre educators, so please share it with friends and colleagues. Thanks for joining us.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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