So, this is what I wrote on Facebook this morning: “[An EMU student] reminded me why today is important–it’s class registration day at EMU (apparently. By “reminded” I mean “informed”). I’m teaching theater history and also vocations. So register! It’s going to be the best theater history class ever. Recent grads should audit it just for the party atmosphere.
oh, also apparently you should go vote today.”
Several people “liked” my status, but a few privately expressed their concerns that EMU, a Christian university, might not like the idea of me…ahem…”partying” with students. I was actually going to write about this anyway, and given that today is Election Day (this will all make sense later), I thought now was a perfect time.
I believe that most classes should be pretty fun. Not fun in the sense that my high school trig class involved playing Tetris while my teacher, a basketball coach, talked strategy with the teacher/coach across the hall. More in the sense that passion is fun and should be infectious. You should feel like you’re having a good time because people are excited about what they’re doing.
I’m teaching the first part of theater history (the beginning of time through the Neoclassicists, roughly) at EMU next semester. I’m really excited about it. Last year, I heard an EMU student describe theater history as “boring and irrelevant.” Another student, who graduated from that institution a few years ago and had a different theater history prof, called the class she took, “a death march.”
Not cool, people. Not cool.
I’m really passionate about what I like to call “theater history as a living art.” I did my graduate work at the American Shakespeare Center, a place that focuses on what we can learn by applying what we know about Shakespeare’s original staging conditions to his plays. I think that’s a great paradigm, and I want to take it further. What did the people of back then (for whatever “then” you are interested in) know about theater that we have forgotten? We have a strong present-bias, an idea that the kinds of acting and staging that we now consider “good” are universally the best way of doing things. Is that true? The only way to find out is to embrace the staging conditions of the past, to inhabit them, and to be open to their lessons.
This is also a more fun way to do theater history than an endless lecture with impossible tests.
Back in 2000, when I was a first year at Hiram College, my calculus prof invited our class to the math department’s “puzzles and donuts” election-night party. It was at a professor’s house. There were several televisions tuned to different stations for election coverage, plates of donuts everywhere, mugs of cider, and lots of puzzles (just to be clear–no alcohol). People rooting for both sides of the election were there together, laughing and eating. It was great–one of my earliest and favorite undergrad memories. At one point, two professors got into a crazy and impassioned discussion about the electoral college, statistics, and how much more an Ohioan’s vote was worth than a New Yorker’s. They literally worked out the multiplier on a napkin. Now, I should say, I am not a math person. I came pretty close to failing that calculus class. But I followed this complex discussion with deep interest. I learned from it, too–I was able to follow all the drama that unfolded in Bush v. Gore as an educated citizen. I learned more than math, though. I learned that passion is catching.
One of my favorite classes in grad school was a Ben Jonson seminar. It was a hard class. We had lots of writing. We had to read lots of Jonson (even the stuff that has been deservedly forgotten). Our professor, Ralph A. Cohen, had written his dissertation on Jonson, and his passion drove the class. I took a bunch of classes with him, but this was the best, by far. He came in saying, “I want to have a good time. I want to be the Tribe of Ben.” We shared food together as we argued over whether or not A Tale of a Tub was the worst, or only second-worst, play of the English Renaissance. We went out together after class to work on the masque (about the life of Jonson) that we ended up writing and staging. Oh, and that masque? It was hilarious.
I want my class to be a party. I’m going to have chips and guacamole and music on the first day. Maybe we’ll dance (scandal!).
I want to be clear: This is not going to be an easy class. There’s a pile of reading. There are assignments of various kinds. Everyone will earn their grades. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be a celebration.
Theater came out of festivals. Religious festivals, yes, but not Puritan-religious. More Bacchanalian, really. I want to take theater history back to its roots (but don’t worry, EMU, not in a way that you would disapprove of…I hope).