June 29, 2010

New Horizons

You know what’s funny about higher education?  As soon as you get comfortable in one place, it’s time to figure out where to go next.  It’s like a gauge of how long you have been somewhere versus how long you should be somewhere.  If you know the good lunch spots then you can be nearly certain that your number is about to come up.  If you have the hours of the local starbucks (or better yet, independently-owned coffee shop) ingrained in your memory, if they know your drink the minute you walk in the door, if you’ve established a table at the local café with free wifi, if you just figured out how to use the library system efficiently, if you know where to go for the shortest lines at the communal printer, you should also know that it’s time to be looking onward, upward, outward, and packing up the gypsy caravan to hit the next destination on your long journey to academic enlightenment.

And so, since I’ve finally found a grocery store that I like, I know that it’s time to figure out where my next port of call is.  PhD programs.  The thought is intensely frightening and exciting, gratifying and thrilling in that going-up-the-lift-hill-on-a-roller-coaster way.  And still, here I am, knee-deep in websites, e-mails and pamphlets.

I visited Columbia this past Friday to explore their PhD in Theatre Arts program.  I was shown around (and bought pinkberry!) by the wonderfully brilliant and exceptionally helpful Joseph, a current student in the program.  As we talked and meandered the campus (by the way, if you ever get a chance, go see the library… it looks like Hogwarts), a few thoughts were high in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been gearing up to be Dr. Rosvally my entire life.  If theatre wasn’t a source of academic inquiry, I would have either had to give up the goat and go to med school (sorry mom, not gonna happen) or give up the dream and just be Danielle (don’t worry, mom, not gonna happen either).  I’m also not implying that there’s no place for Theatre Scholarship, because as this blog and an entire field can attest to that is incorrect as well.  But to me, that place is in the theatre itself, not in a library.

Geologists live in caves, botanists forests, ichthyologist by the ocean.  Let the English majors have their libraries, we should be in the theatres getting our hands dirty.  The problem that I have with most Shakespeareans (either thespian or scholar) stems from this issue: theatre scholarship does require books, but it also requires a stage.  So when did the two become so segregated and why?

I don’t really have an answer that can be backed with charts and figures (but granted, I haven’t exactly researched it… yet).  What I do have is a lifetime of experience and from my experience, I can tell you a few things.

The first is that nobody likes to be told how to do their job, especially not people who having invested so much time and money into it that they have acquired a PhD, DFA, MFA, or some other fancy set of letters.  Merging scholarship and practicum must be done delicately, otherwise the thespians feel like the scholars think they know better (and they probably do think as much) and the scholars feel the same way about the thespians (again, likely the case).  Without a mutual appreciation for areas of expertise, hard feelings are to be had all around.  The best directors (and most interesting theatre people I know) are individuals who have devoted their lives to the craft.  There is a reason they are called “theatre people”, it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.  The same is true for scholars; here are individuals deeply invested in their work (as obscure or off-the-beaten-path as it may be).  Neither the scholars nor the actors know how to react to people from the other side of the fence.  Shock?  Awe?  Pity?  What is this strange art, so closely related to what I do, and yet so very different and how should it effect my own work?

I hate to make a sweeping generalization, but let’s face it: most actors aren’t exactly the bookish type.  They are practical people, people who are in their bodies, people who are required to face every scary inch of themselves publicly and make the discoveries held therein fresh on a nightly basis.  Actors are a resilient breed, unabashed by rejection.  They are survivors, warriors, and the good ones are some of the toughest people you will ever meet.  Actors are creatures of emotion.  They have to be.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to perform.

Scholars thrive off mental energy.  It takes a certain type of person to hammer at a research problem until it breaks, to argue on paper with people long dead, to face an ancient academy of peers with an idea that is entirely new and different.  Scholars are thinkers just as actors are feelers.  Logic, reason, discovery, curiosity, and a healthy dose of red pen go into the making of a scholar.

I’m not saying these two groups are diametrically opposite, but I am saying that they are fundamentally different.  I’m also not saying that an individual couldn’t fit both descriptions (if I was, it wouldn’t say much about my self-awareness now, would it?).  I am saying that to breech a gap like this takes courage, faith, understanding and trust.

I don’t think either world is ready to do this yet.  A level playing field hasn’t been established and neutral ground hasn’t yet been created.  To bring these two worlds together will require more than just a kid and a dream (mostly because that and $2.25 will get you on the subway).

I think I’m up for the challenge, but I’m going to need help.

Visiting the program at Columbia was inspiring.  It made me believe that I’m not the only one out there thinking about these things.  It showed me that sometimes you do need to re-visit old haunts in order to move forward (story for another day: how I didn’t go to Columbia for my undergrad).  Most importantly, it got me totally stoked for submitting PhD applications.

Thanks again, Joseph. 

Next stop on the PhD prospectus tour: Brown. 

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