Every class I give, whether an undergraduate course in Modern Drama or a graduate seminar in Shakespeare, has as its subtitle “Learning by Doing.” My students and I—for I learn along with them—study plays by performing them. Every student chooses a scene partner, and the bulk of each couple’s work during the semester involves staging scenes before the class, then working with me as director to polish the performance, with all members of the class serving as co-directors. Classes are, in effect, rehearsals prerequisite to performance. The students also write paper assessing their experience preparing the scene, from the perspective of both their character and their decisions as an actor.
In this way I underscore in my teaching the fact that plays are not just words on a page but dialogue enacted by live people in front of an audience, and that “text” of a play also includes gestures, blocking, movement, the entire stage picture. The final author of that text is the actor in concert with the playwright. For the former brings to the latter’s words his or her own insights, feelings, life experiences, as well as whatever subtext the actor devises for the character–subtext referring to everything the character is thinking, saying unconsciously or even consciously, beneath the actual dialogue.
Invariably, many of my students work with me in productions in the theatre, from acting to designing to being part of the stage crew. Our “classes” include improvisation troupes, even taking the theatre on tour. For example, we have done David Mamet’s The Duck Variations in nursing homes, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in ten Florida prisons. This latter experience, I should add, led to a book, growing out of my students’ work, called Beckett’s Theatres: Interpretations for Performance.
I judge the students not on the finesse of their performance—any degree of finesse I would consider a bonus—but on what they put into their work, their intent. The courses are about plays, playwrights, the theatre generally, and not primarily about acting. And so Mechanical Engineering majors have done as well, statistically, as Theatre majors who, in turn, have done no better than English or Anthropology majors.
One can, of course, approach the theatre in numerous ways, using various critical approaches (Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, and so on), or stage history, or performance theory. And plays can be the subject of lectures or class discussions and reports. I respect all of these methods. My own approach as a teacher, however, is to take the theatre on its own terms, as something actually transpiring in space and time, and ratified by an audience, as a collaboration between the director or actor and the playwright.
Increasingly and inevitably, this philosophy of teaching has influenced my own work as a scholar. My most recent books, such as Directing Shakespeare: A Scholar Onstage and Staging Modern Playwrights: From Director’s Concept to Performance, have as their focus my work in theatre, that work often done in concert with my students.
Since the theatre, I believe, is also an activity inseparable from life, indeed, is a “tool” for living, my classroom has also expanded to include working with my students in the Arts and Medicine Program at Shands Teaching Hospital (an experience that led to a book from the Purdue University Press, A Fish in the Moonlight: Growing Up in the Bone Marrow Unit) and with at-risk students in the public schools in a nationally-recognized program called “Shakespeare, Summer, and Kids.”