Putting a Face on Theatre
Most of my teaching responsibilities since coming to Purdue have been at the graduate level. There are a lot of reasons for this, but suffice it to say that I have--much to my own chagrin, quite frankly--found my curricular development efforts directed at the MFA degree program, rather than at undergraduate course work. Recently, I received a bit of a promotion--from lecturer to assistant professor!--and with this change comes the opportunity to shift my focus to include undergraduate course work. Consequently, I've been spending the last few weeks thinking about our course offerings in scenery technology: what we currently teach, what we could teach, and what might make an appropriate course sequence at the undergraduate level.
One thing that has always bothered me about our undergraduate course offerings: a typical student would never make the final cut in the recruitment process for the graduate program. I'd be hard-pressed to suggest a student attend the same program for both an undergraduate and graduate degree--you need to learn from different teachers, and broaden your perspective--but no undergrad after completing the major in design and production here would stack up against students recruited from other programs. This has always seemed a little bit criminal, and now I have an opportunity--a mandate, really--to address this. One objective for an undergraduate course sequence in scenery technology, then, is to give students competitive experiences and learning.
I've also been struck, during my time at Purdue, at how few students walk into our scene shop with an interest in scenery construction and scenery technology. We are an engineering school--many of the students who attend Purdue have at least a passing interest in tinkering, creating, and exploring technology. Technical theatre is chock-full of technology--we are constantly applying the engineering and technology students are learning across campus, and doing so in what are often very non-traditional ways. And yet, for the most part, students on campus don't know it. It seems to me that offering more courses to undergraduate students--and, of course, marketing the heck out of them--may open up opportunities for more students to see what possibilities exist in theatre and entertainment technology for people interested in engineering fields.
Finally, it has always struck me as somehow problematic that many of us seem to believe that an MFA is required to go far in this field. Truthfully--and I'll catch hell for this, I'm sure--most of the material we teach to graduate students (here and at other institutions) is absolutely accessible to the typical undergraduate student. Certainly the theories, procedures, equations, and what not related to structural and mechanical design, automation and control systems, show control, arena rigging, and the like. These aren't areas out of reach for most undergraduate students. Indeed, I have often felt that my graduate courses could stretch students further if they'd had a little more preparation at the undergraduate level, in statics, physics of motion, data communications and basic electronics.
What I'm trying to develop, then, is a course sequence that addresses these concerns of mine: to create courses that prepare undergraduates to be competitive in the job market and in terms of graduate recruitment and that engage students like those at Purdue who often tend to have an interest in technology. I'm planning courses in microelectronics, physics of motion, statics analysis, entertainment control systems and show control, rigging, advanced wood working, metalworking, and more. These courses would be intensely hands-on and project based; the intention would be to lay a foundation of understanding in these areas, so that by the time they reach their final year they could enroll in graduate-level courses, which focus primarily on the technical design process, building on an understanding of statics, mechanical analysis, control systems, etc. to solve large-scale, real-world application problems.
I think this is exactly what we need at Purdue, and I think it can work. Of course--otherwise, I wouldn't do it. What do you think? If you're a student, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this idea--would you be interested in classes like these? If you're a teacher, are you teaching courses like this to undergraduates?