THE THEATRE PRACTICUM
RELIC OF THE PAST OR HOPE OF THE FUTURE?
James De Young
Practicum or practical courses in Theatre Arts are the equivalent of studio courses in Art, applied courses in Music, or laboratories in Science. Yet, in some quarters they still have not received the badge of legitimacy those courses enjoy. Our college labels them "workshops." But whatever the name, practicum courses function as laboratories where students can put theatre principles to practice and receive academic credit for their efforts.
At our institution there are three different practicums. The most popular is called Theatre Workshop and carries one semester hour of credit. It is used by actors or technicians who are working on current college theatre productions. This course requires a minimum of thirty-five clock hours of work plus a satisfactory evaluation from a faculty supervisor. The time requirement is based upon an assumption that a full semester course would involve an average of forty class hours plus two hours out of class for every hour in. l/3 of l20 hours equals a forty-hour minimum requirement. We have shaded this to thirty-five hours since the grading in the practicum is on a credit/no credit basis. Our institution requires that each student take at least two semester hours in artistic performance or practice and this requirement can be fulfilled by taking the Theatre Workshop twice. There is a second two-hour workshop for advanced practical production projects and a third level at three hours for independent study projects in acting, directing or design. These latter two levels carry standard graded evaluation and also require more traditional academic work in addition to practice.
The basis of all practicums is doing. Although there are usually no formal lectures, class meetings, reading assignments, or examinations, this does not mean that traditional academic work is absent. One of the significant advantages of practicum experiences is that the actual contact with a real problem can motivate a student to do more and better work of all kinds than he or she might have done in a more traditional classroom setting.
For instance, if a student on the property crew is assigned to construct a medieval battle ax for an upcoming production, an integrated set of contacts, problems, and deadlines are involved. Interviews with the director and actor about nature of usage for the ax will have to be combined with library research on the appropriate look and construction of the piece. The entire project must be completed for the opening of the play in "X" number of weeks.
It is this welding of practical task with time that creates good motivation, and it is good motivation that makes practicum education pedagogically superior. This conviction has been reaffirmed at National Endowment for the Humanities Workshops on our campus in recent years. It is no secret that educators are becoming more interested in cooperative and group learning and less interested in competitive and solitary learning. A recent report on Integrity in the College Curriculum called for, among other things, a reduction in the amount of passivity in education and a drive to give students better tools for problem solving, decision making, and value discrimination.
Since the main goal in theatre practicums is the cooperative achievement of a high quality artistic product and every step in a production involves a new problem or new decision, it would appear that theatre departments already have in place an ideal model for life training as well as for artistic training. Strictly speaking, all learning is experience, and all practicum education is based on the premise that people learn well by doing. In this sense, arts practicums are in the good company of other proven forms of experiential learning such as simulation, field observation and internships. It is not an accident that these are growth areas at many educational institutions today.
Learning research in the last twenty years has concentrated on how we acquire knowledge and ultimately apply it. David Kolb, Arthur Chickering, and others have built an experiential learning model that tries to capture both the cognitive and socioemotional factors that go into knowledge acquisition and application. They draw from classic theory (including Dewey and Piaget) as well as modern research. Their construct looks like this:
THE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING MODEL
Formulations of Abstract
Concepts and Generalization
Kolb's model portrays learning as a dialectic process. In stage one an individual carries out an action or has an experience. In stage two there is an observation of the results or effects of the experience along with some reflection on it. This leads to stage three where there is a realization that if the same action or experience would be repeated, similar results would occur. In other words, observations are assimilated into a theory or generalization that is predictive of the future. The final stage tests the theory or applies it in a situation or set of circumstances that appear to be within the range of the generalization. With the learning cycle complete, the final synthesis is available for use as a guide for reacting to new experiences or actions.
In a typical theatre practicum the process would work like this: the student who needs to construct the medieval battle ax talks with the director and actor and goes to the library for appropriate pictures and historical data. Armed with this material he or she proceeds to make drawings or sketches, which are ultimately brought to the sceneshop. There the student must work with or instruct others in the timely construction of the property. The student is now fairly confident that if another type of battle ax was called for, he or she could repeat the same process and get similar results. The final educational stage is actuated when the student realizes that the same procedures could be used to execute Victorian moldings or Restoration snuff boxes.
Kolb and Chickering go on to articulate the different kinds of abilities that learners need to have at varying points on the "Experiential Learning Model" and also to predict that people with certain aptitudes or preferences will show stronger capabilities at some points of the cycle than at others. For instance, they have found that people who specialize in the arts are often very strong in Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation. They seem to excel in viewing experience from multiple perspectives and organizing complex relationships into meaningful Gestalts. They prefer dealing with human relations rather than things. They perform extremely well in situations that call for idea generation and brainstorming. Theatrical directors, actors, and designers would seem to be good examples of this kind of person. Using this information, the theatre instructor ought to be able to design practicum experiences that would take special advantage of the experiential learning cycle and the particular strengths of arts students.
In the meantime, it does appear that the typical theatre practicum and many assignments within theatre courses are supremely supportive of the very latest model of modern learning theory. Doing theatre involves having experiences or taking actions, observing and reflecting on the experiences in order to generalize from them, and ultimately re-using the generalizations to solve new or similar problems. Every step along the way major importance is attached to analysis and the rigorous application of cognitive learning.
The Gestalt or final theatre product may be forged by combining logical processes and research with more affective process or intuitive information, but ultimately in the theatre the creative totality is always tested on the anvil of the stage. The furnace of performance is quite real and the temperature of the reaction (cheers or boos) can be felt immediately. There clearly resides in the situation a strong motivation to exert maximum effort and produce high quality results.
Not only does practical work in the theatre offer a respectable cognitive challenge, but in the affective domain working on theatre productions remains an ever-fruitful human relations laboratory. Whether it be in a theatre class, rehearsal hall or scene shop, we are teaching critical socialization skills as well as creative problem solving. As the leaders of these experiences we need to consider our own role modeling behavior. For example, do we berate or belittle our students while we are encouraging them to treat their fellow workers kindly and with respect? Do we "do it all ourself" while we exhort them to develop good teamwork? And, finally, do we lecture about free imagination and creativity in the classroom and then turn around and demand blind obedience at rehearsal or in the shop?
Ideally, theatre practicums should be developing positive self-images, and good practical interpersonal relation skills for students. They should be arranged to move students toward successes. They should demonstrate some values in regard to fair play, working together as a team, gender and racial equality, and even some real attitudes about the nature of artistic truth seeking.
Finally, of course, there is the work of art itself that impacts on the practicum student. While doing theatre one is exposed to the thoughts and ideas of the ages. You can see and debate the relative values of human actions and vicariously touch momentous victories, stinging defeats, thwarted desires, and fulfilling loves. This is why there is no time for anything but the very best and most provocative plays in a school theatre's production schedule. If there is an educational function for us, it can be magnified if the form and content of our seasons are the best and most challenging we can find.
The bottom line is that practicum education is strong education. It offers direct experience and assures strong motivation. Modern pedagogy leans heavily on participatory learning, simulations, case studies, role playing, etc. and our participation courses have been doing just that for years. Theatrically oriented experiences are both absorbing and fun. Play acting, like child's play, is a ritualized form of exploration of the world that is both enjoyable and challenging while being structured to move towards a satisfying learning conclusion. Seeing is better than hearing, and doing is better than seeing.
Or as an old Chinese proverb has it:
I hear; I forget
I see; I remember
I do; I understand