When asked the question “what do you want to do with your degree in theatre?” I always respond with the same sentiment: I just want to talk to people for the rest of my life. People often give a thoughtful nod and a contemplative humph, which allows me to elaborate: communication is essential to theatre making, and the quality of communication can make or break a production; conversations between actors, directors, designers, playwrights, dramaturgs, and producers are the building blocks of theatre. Without discussion, theatre would be impossible.
I am most familiar with the class discussion format: teacher poses question, student raises hand, teacher calls on student, student responds, rinse, repeat. I was a terror to the class discussion format for most of my academic life. Picture Hermione at Hogwarts. Take away the magic and the robes, amp up the volume, and throw in a sense of injustice and you’ve got a pretty good idea. I am a woman with strong opinions on nearly everything and a high opinion of herself. But in high school and the early days of college, plagued with an intense need to be heard coupled with a need for validation, it was hard for anyone to get me to stop talking. And my hand was always raised.
This behavior was only amplified when I joined The Politically Incorrect Debate Club (PIDC) my junior year of high school. PIDC was created by a group of junior and senior boys who wanted to talk about sex, drugs, gender and politics outside their dorm rooms. The first debate was about whether teachers favored girls over boys. I arrived to a room full of 17-year old boys who were out for blood. They smiled at me with malice in their eyes. It seemed that I had to represent the entire Middlesex female student body; a daunting task, but one this burgeoning feminist with a flair for drama was more than willing to accept. Those debates remain to be some of the strongest in my memory. Different from our discussions in class, we all wanted to be there and wanted to talk about the topic because we had chosen it. There was no hand raising. We shouted at each other, and the loudest voice won, whether it was the moderator’s or my own. It was a testament to the strength of our opinions, and although it was mostly a nightmare having no real voice of authority, we would sometimes hit a stride in our discussion that would be impossible if a teacher had been there to “guide” us.
I recently read In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector by Diane Ragsdale. The book is a report on a discussion between US nonprofit and commercial theatre producers that happened in 2011. Reading it was like getting a sneak peak of the fascinating discussion hosted by the American Voices New Play Initiative at Arena Stage, which was the third part in a larger discussion began in 1974. The first discussion was hosted by Princeton University, and was between 224 theatre professionals. Diane says that first discussion between nonprofit and commercial producers “would have made for great reality television. Chairs were thrown, people threatened to storm out of the room, voices were raised, and insults were hurled” (Ragsdale 7). Sounds a lot like PIDC, only this time with hoards of theatre professionals… now that’s my kind of reality TV. Nearly thirty years passed before they picked up the discussion again in 2000 at the American Repertory Theatre, and then followed up in 2011. Learning from the mistakes of the past, this discussion was limited to 24 members who were directly involved in commercial nonprofit partnerships. With such limitations the discussion could be much more specific and guided by nature. Indeed a conversation was born out of the make-up of the group. Theatre artists know better than anyone the powers of bringing a group of like-minded people together. Discussions and collaborations are only possible when coupled with a structure and a specific goal.
Diane joined BU’s dramaturgy class yesterday, and lead the class in an inspired and impassioned discussion. As Caroline just wrote in Starting the Revolution, our small group of student theatre artists talked of change and the future and were able to air out our ideas, fears, hopes, and musings on the world that awaits on the other side of the diploma. The content of the discussion was invigorating, but the discussion itself had one big flaw: many of us, including myself, kept raising our hands while others were speaking. Ilana had to tell us to stop, but even then, I noticed that my hand would shoot up reflexively whenever I had an idea.
This is not a recent phenomenon. This hand raising habit has plagued our discussions since freshmen year. I was one of the worst among us, often times shaking my hand fervently, nearly standing up from my seat with a desperation to talk. And the worst part is that I was ever so slightly proud. My hand wagging in the air indicated to everyone that I really cared about what I was saying. And of course I did! And it is a something to be celebrated that we all care so much about what we’re saying and have such strong desires to shares these opinions, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that once you raise your hand, your opinion is already formed, immovable, complete. And I’m doing this while someone else is speaking? My hand might as well have “shut the hell up” written all over it. However, another reason why I hold up my hand up for long stretches of time is to gain those shimmering participation points. If Ilana sees that I have my hand up, she’ll know I read the book (even if I didn’t) and that I have something to say (even if I don’t) right?
The best advice Ilana ever gave me was to try listening more than talking in drama lit. She was telling me to put my hand down. Opinions only get better when they can play amongst other opinions. Discussions can only get somewhere when thoughts—no matter how “half-baked” they are—can be indulged long enough to actually make a point. To be honest, I’m not interested in participation points or proving to anyone that I’ve done my homework. At this point I am interested in the discussions that are possible between a group of inspired and intelligent theatre artists. Let’s leave hand raising to the kids, and start treating each other as professionals.
Read what Diane has to say about her own work on HowlRound: