A Theatre of Memory

A few years ago, Karen and I were on vacation, and she took me on a tour of her alma mater. I remember that being the most special of times, because seeing where she had studied and grown as a woman during those formative years helped me to know her better. I loved hearing her adventures and tales of that time of her life.

This past weekend, we were visiting family out of town, and I decided spontaneously, as our anniversary fell on the weekend and because we were in easy driving distance to my own alma mater, to return the favor. Off we went for the quick tour.

Oh, how that campus had changed! I have read about various changes in the alumni magazine, of course, but to see the changes for myself…which were so drastic that I had difficulty navigating around the campus in the car…was simultaneously wonderful and disquieting. New buildings existed, and locations that I thought that I remembered (like the student center) had been re-located to the new buildings. Streets had been turned to sidewalks, and hillsides to streets. Then, however, I found our way back to the fine arts building…the building in which I essentially lived for most of my four-year education. The fine arts building was notoriously confusing, and we used to joke that one would occasionally find the skeleton of a freshman that never made it out. All that said, though, I found my way around it with ease. And, while were on an unofficial visit and thus couldn’t get access to the main theatre stage on which so many of my designs came to fruition, or to the studio theatre where I directed my first scene, the memories of that building were overwhelming. I learned theatre there, as I learned other disciplines.

Moreover, I learned life there.

Beyond the blissful nostalgia, though, is a forward-looking effect of considering where our daughter might go to school one day, what disciplines she will study, and what career(s) she will choose. This is so important to think about, because my four years at that school shaped my perspectives and my life in so many ways, just as Karen’s four years at hers shaped her…and yours shaped you.

One of the major changes that have occurred at my alma mater is that the technology building adjacent to the fine arts building has received a complete make-over. I love that the two have always been connected, there…literally connected, as in a hallway from one building opens into the other. Many of my fellow theatre students (mostly scenic design students) would migrate over periodically to take architectural design courses. I love how the arts and technology meld together…you know, interdisciplinary studies again. This is really important to me now, because it is shaping an upcoming move and career change, as well as future research interests.

I want our daughter to have a lucid connection between things in this way, to see life holistically, not in compartmentalized fragments…something I have learned to do myself all too recently, and that I wish that I had done all along.

Being a father has taken my looks backward at life, and pointed them forward in an odd and interconnected way. It’s still sort of strange, honestly, but I’m loving every moment of it.

Encouraging and Unexpected

Nothing makes your weekend like discovering that you’ve popped up in a YouTube video from a cause you’re passionate about. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this, a retrospective video from the Applied Theatre and Marginalized Communities conference that I attended last March:

I’m in there like four times, if you can spot me (hint: I’m the one doing the Brooklyn accent while yelling out the “cab” window). That, however, isn’t the point of my posting it here. Finding this over the weekend was a bit providential, because I really needed it. Like any good conference, I returned from this one in March completely buzzing with great ideas and positivity. And, honestly, few things make me quite as happy and fulfilled as spending time with other theatre practitioners. Attending that conference lifted me from the doldrums that the daily grind can sometimes plummet me into, and refreshed my perspective on interdisciplinarity…that is, that all of these seemingly disconnected interests and disciplines really do inform each other to the greater good.

It’s amazing, really, how we cling to those little moments, be it a weekend or just an hour of productive writing activity, to reclaim a feeling that we’re not really wasting our time. During an amazingly hectic weekend, I walked away feeling so accomplished because of an hour and a half of productive writing time. Not that much for one day of the weekend, but it made me feel confident, made me at least think that I wasn’t just tricking myself into believing that I was doing something worthwhile. On Monday I experienced a similar “high on life” moment as I implemented tools I learned at the Applied Theatre Conference to great success in two separate sessions with adolescents.

Over the weekend, even if for a brief period of time, I left the robotic motions of just writing pages in a novel and re-discovered what I’m trying to say with the project. Today, I left the robotic motions of a day job and re-discovered how theatre can impact those around me for the greater good. I stopped just being, and began living again in those moments.

Perhaps, more than just fleeting moments of feeling good about ourselves (because buying something new can do that for the briefest of seconds), these moments of feeling as though we’re serving a greater purpose motivate us because we realize just how narcissistic we are to look no further than ourselves. The reason that these glimpses into my true passions invigorated me so much is because it shakes me out of the trap of just getting from today into tomorrow in one piece, which can so often be the short term goal of our lives.

Not that getting from today into tomorrow isn’t important, and not that it isn’t legitimately the only thing that we can manage sometimes. But it is so, so important that we intentionally step back on occasion and try to see the “big picture.”

Its that “big picture” that reveals itself to us in those moments, just like a character does to the writer when you hear him or her speak in their own voice inside your words for the first time, or when an actor begins to be someone else on the stage. That “aha!” moment when we remember, “that’s why I’m doing this!”

I’m a big believer in stopping whatever it is that I’m doing when I can no longer remember why I’m doing it. That’s why moments like this weekend, set in motion by something as small as discovering myself in a YouTube video, are important beyond measure.

I hope you find those moments, as well.

The Basics

Several years ago, Karen and I came to the conclusion that there are two types of education in our society: education in really cool and important things that contribute to the deeper direction of society, and education that earns you money. Rarely, if ever, are they the same.

When I finished a graduate degree in religion, and mentioned to a colleague that I was considering an MFA program in writing, the colleague wryly expressed something to the effect of, “You don’t like to get degrees that will make you money, do you?”

Along the lines of how, in some college towns, it is not uncommon to be waited on at a restaurant by someone with a PhD, Karen and I openly acknowledge that we have quite a bit of the first type of education, while perhaps not so much of the second. That doesn’t mean that I regret the education I have…I think that it has contributed to making me who I am, and to making me a productive member of society. Certainly, it was conducive to becoming a critical thinker. Still, I’m finding myself in a position of considering going back to more of the second type of education before I consider pursuing any more of the first. Karen went to undergrad with someone who, instead of going into college straight from high school, spent a few years becoming a master carpenter. He then used that skill to pay for his undergrad. There’s wisdom in that. Profound wisdom, I think, because he got the best of both worlds…and the personal growth that comes with both experiences.

So, as I am now pursuing some growth in area number two, I found myself particularly sensitive to this op-ed  piece on CNN when I read it last week. Essentially, this is written by a member of the movement that states that college is over-rated, that it emphasizes the wrong things, that it is over-priced, and that it does little to nothing to help you acquire a successful career. This writer is encouraging entrepreneurship in the technological field, and insisting that college is not only not required, but that those who do not conform to the institutional expectation of higher academia will be the ones who change the world.

I’ve personally known some people in my life that felt the same way, and eschewed as much formal education as they could. They were still well-read and very knowledgeable individuals, however. I think, though, that they were limited in what they could achieve professionally, rather than the opposite.

This writer is arguing that undergraduate education does little to nothing to prepare one for the professional world. I would argue that an enormous amount of personal development is built into the college experience, to say nothing of networking opportunities and the opportunity to explore all of the liberal arts, to test the proverbial waters regarding potential fields in which one would like to make his/her living, and to be exposed to the foundation of well-rounded personal development: freedom of inquiry, and the resulting skill of critical thinking.

This is to say nothing of the fact that many people, myself included, find themselves able to function quite well in fields other than their college major, and performing better because of the education they received in other disciplines.

The writer of the op-ed piece, Mr. Stephens, is blindly following the emphasis in Western culture on business, and that is where he goes amiss. There is more to a successful life than business success. Earning money and making profit does not, and cannot, substitute for exposure to the humanities, exploration of the sciences, and opportunities to read, explore, and be instructed in fields in which one might simply have a passing interest. A fulfilling life is composed of infinitely more than earning a good salary and climbing the career ladder.

Similarly, a fulfilling existence for a culture is composed of infinitely more than innovation and technological progress. The progress of humanity, and the exploration of the human condition, is not dependent upon technological innovation. Rather, that innovation is a product of exploration of the human condition, and to invert those priorities is indicative of a poor knowledge of history. Need I say that a poor knowledge of history is indicative of a lack of emphasis on quality education? Stephens claims that time is often better spent in trying and doing instead of learning a theory, but he forgets that doing something well pre-supposes a knowledge of theories.

Now, I’m the first to admit that Western education is far too heavily focused on credentials instead of learning. I’ve expressed before how troubled I am about how heavily compartmentalized our education in different disciplines has become. I hate that education is operated as a business, and is thus far too expensive (again, the Western emphasis on business fails us). To avoid higher education altogether as an effort to correct this, however, smacks of a knee-jerk reaction that involves throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. That is the mistake that Stephens is making…a mistake that might be avoided with just a bit of education.

Innovators who avoid formal education might well alter our world. Devoid of a cultural soul, however, this would be a most Pyrrhic victory, indeed.

What do you think?

Across the Aisle

I’m a firm believer that whenever people cross disciplinary lines to accomplish any sort of task, especially for the greater good, that everyone wins.

Following a fantastic experience at an applied theatre conference a few weeks ago, I presented some ideas to a group of clinicians this week about using theatrical techniques to work with individuals on the autism spectrum. The clinicians were engaged, ideas started flowing, and everyone just broke out of their shell and had fun! This topic is just an example of how this idea of interdisciplinarity works, and there is beginning to be evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies regarding the success of this particular collaboration.

In Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy, Barry Taylor says it this way: “…no field of study stands alone or apart. The present situation is one in which old categories have been dissolved and boundaries separating fields of study have been erased” (p. 201). I’ve witnessed this to be true in my experience. Universities are beginning to launch graduate programs in interdisciplinary studies, and established schools within those universities are beginning to launch interdisciplinary programs of study within their own schools, bringing in students with research interests launched from different disciplines to contribute to the whole in a better way.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our professional expertise has become increasingly compartmentalized. In doing so, we’ve isolated ourselves from those in other disciplines, focusing so intently on the mathematics that we forget the value of the literature, or so pragmatically on the pharmacy that we forget the contributions of music. The actor has something valuable to bring to the psychologist’s practice, as does the psychologist to the actor’s craft. We can’t, of course, discount the idea of being a specialist in a specific field…the idea of being the best at what you do…but we can’t forget to talk to each other in doing so, either.

In fact, if we continue to take the concept of interdisciplinary discussion seriously, I think some really good things will begin to manifest. A mutual respect of everyone for their unique skills, knowledge, and passions, for example. More people will know about more things, which removes some of the unnecessary elitism of knowledge in certain areas that permit some to take advantage of others. Mutual respect leads to more open and civil discourse, something that the U.S. could certainly use more of. When we begin to see, as Taylor states, that none of our fields stands alone or apart, we begin to realize that we actually need each other…that we don’t stand alone. When we recognize that we need each other, we become more civil with each other.

Imagine, civility and mutual respect. Who knows where that might lead?

I’d Love to Be Silent, But…

I set my status update a few minutes ago to say that I was clueless as to what to post about tonight. My friend recommended the “art of silence.”  I’ll avoid that one, because I think it’s way too heavy a statement for my current faculties.

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. And, while all of it is exciting, it’s also a bit wearing. If you’ve read my musings here over the last year or so, you’re not surprised when I say that I need a career change. I’ve made my living in the social sciences, specifically in health care, for about ten years now. On my worst day, I no longer believe in my discipline. On my best days, I feel like I’m beating my head into a wall that isn’t moving. This is a field I stumbled into quite by accident, and its time in my life is drawing to a conclusion, for a number of reasons (namely, due to recent health care legislation, I basically am not marketable should I ever leave my current position).

Fortunately, I’ve been wanting to return to academia since I finished grad school. The problem is that I’ve simply got too many interests for my own good, and narrowing them down to even the two or three that could be incorporated into a good multi-disciplinary program has been excruciating at times. The positive outcome of the three years that have passed since I finished grad school has been that I’ve finally found everything cohesively tied into one research topic.

I think.

But, there’s the issue of making a living while returning to school…which is problematic considering I can’t pursue the type of study I want to here, which means leaving my current position…refer to paragraph one. So, making a career change that would allow me to return to something creative on a full time basis (instead of dabbling and freelancing as I do now) seems a logical choice. In fact, sometimes, it seems to be the more interesting choice.

At the crux of the problem is the old adage, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” I don’t believe that to be true, but I think it says something, in any case, and what it says is at the core of my dilemma. Do I want to study writing, or spend my energy writing? Do I want to study theatre, or work in theatre? Do I want to study, or do? Studying I’m confident in, doing sometimes brings up a host of insecurities. Ideally, I want to do, and have the doing make way for studying. Then I become concerned that that’s too much.

And, did I mention that I’m married, so its not just me that I’m trying to factor into this decision?

All that, not to whine, but because I have all of this spinning through my head and not a clue what else to write tonight. So, here I am.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.