Theatre studies: why study drama?

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Pod Academy’s Daniel Marc Janes speaks to playwright and academic Dan Rebellato, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway and one of Britain’s leading theatrical commentators.

Daniel Marc Janes: I’m in the Calder Theatre Bookshop in London. It couldn’t be better located to evoke Britain’s theatrical heritage, situated as it is on The Cut alongside the Old Vic and the Young Vic. Looking at the bookshop’s selection, I can see plays from some of the most distinguished British playwrights of recent years. Here’s David GreigSarah KaneDennis KellyMark Ravenhill. What all these writers have in common is that they all studied drama at the university level. But drama at the university is a recent innovation. Many of Britain’s most brilliant playwrights have been autodidacts: Tom Stoppard, George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare. So why study drama?

I’m in the downstairs rehearsal space of the Calder Theatre Bookshop. This is a place where writers and performers go to make plays come alive. But how far can the inscrutable, mysterious act of playwriting be taught in an academic environment? What is the role of drama in the university? To talk about these topics, I’m joined by Dan Rebellato, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, author of numerous stage and radio plays and of several books, most notably 1956 And All That: The Making of Modern British Theatre. Professor Rebellato, thank you for joining us.

Dan Rebellato: Thanks very much.

DMJ: So before we start to unpack the broader questions, I’m wondering whether you could outline for us a kind of potted history of drama as an academic discipline in the British university.

DR: There are lots of examples, of course, of theatre being made in universities and that goes back centuries, but drama as an academic discipline really starts in the late 1940s at the University of Bristol. Oxford University, during the war, set up a commission to see if drama was a suitable subject for the universities and it was a very ramshackle affair. They booked the wrong flights and they lost their luggage and they ended up with half the amount of time they were supposed to have. And they recommended that you shouldn’t do drama at the university. But the University of Bristol decided that it was a good subject and that was the first degree – I think that started in about 1947, 1948, something like that – and the big waves of expansion followed from there. Manchester, Hull was quite early, but the 1970s had a lot of expansion and the 1990s saw another big wave of expansion as well.

DMJ: But what’s interesting is that drama, as an academic course outside of English, took some time to be accepted. Even at Bristol it took them 21 years for drama to be a full honours degree. You mentioned the committee at Oxford; Oxford and Cambridge stopped short of having full honours drama courses. Where do you think that this lack of acceptance comes from?

DR: A lot of things that I think are interesting about the theatre are the reasons why it can sometimes be a difficult subject in the academy. Because it’s neither purely literary, nor is it purely a live experience. It’s a kind of mixture of the two. I think that in academic terms – of course there are certain kinds of theatre that are, in a sense, purely live and also purely literary – but also I think there’s a sense in which theatre is clearly a collection of different crafts and skills, because you have scenic designers and you have actors and you have directors and you have writers and composers and so on and so on. That maps on in the academy into the fact that it’s a very interdisciplinary subject. So in order to fully – if you could ever fully understand theatre – you’d have to be a bit of a linguist, a bit of a philosopher, a bit of a psychologist, a bit of an archaeologist and so on and so on and so on. And the question is left: if you took those things away, is there anything intellectually distinctive about theatre studies in itself? And I guess that’s the ongoing project of 60, 70 years of theatre studies in the academy.

DMJ: You mention theatre as interdisciplinary and, I was wondering, since the National Curriculum in the late 1980s, that promoted a kind of compartmentalisation in the school curriculum, more subject-centred, whereas in the past Theatre In Education programmes would be the stimulus for lots of work in other subjects. Do you find that this has had ramifications in the university?

DR: That’s a very interesting question. It’s had ramifications in the sense that there was a much clearer path through school to drama at a university and so drama expanded massively in the 1990s so there’s a very direct causal link. If the question is whether that created a kind of specialisation that started to exclude other things, I tend not to find that. It may just be the students that we get at Royal Holloway, of course, but we get quite a broad range of different things that they’ve done and different interests that they have. And those tend to be brought into the room quite a lot – so, no, I don’t find compartmentalisation a problem.

DMJ: When it comes to creative writing, there’s a persistent worry that an academic environment can be didactic or inhibit the conditions necessary for theatrical innovation. What steps do you take to create the right climate for your students to be creative?

DR: I think it can be inhibiting – absolutely can be inhibiting – and I think there are two reasons why it can be particularly inhibiting. One is, of course, I think it’s really hard if you’re reading plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pinter, Caryl Churchill, to then think you couldn’t possibly pick up a pen or sit at your typewriter and come up with something, because you have these icons of dramatic literature to compare yourself to. That’s never helpful. The other thing is that there are certain points in the making of a play where it’s kind of important not to do certain kinds of thinking because academic degrees, of course, favour lots and lots of cognitive processes and developing those cognitive processes to a very high level. It is possible that some students studying playwriting fall into that trap of overthinking something when in fact they need to pursue certain kinds of intuition in a not particularly rational way.

DMJ: One example that comes to mind for me about the contradictions of studying playwriting at university is Sarah Kane, in that when she talked about her experience at Birmingham she said that the course nearly destroyed her as a writer, she found that atmosphere inhibiting, but on the other hand, the first two scenes of Blasted were performed at Birmingham and it was really that that led to its coming to the Royal Court.

DR: Yes, Sarah was quite a nonconformist character – almost any situation she was in she would probably have found quite confining. I think when you look at Blasted what’s interesting is that she’s enacting her problem with the kind of teaching she was getting at the MA in Birmingham in that it starts as a very, very well-carpentered, well-constructed box set naturalist play and no doubt that she used a lot of the skills that were taught to her and developed in her at Birmingham in order to construct that very plausible, well-constructed thing and then she blows it up – and the blowing up is both a comment about the violence of the world, but it’s also a comment about theatrical structure. And it’s her saying goodbye to ever doing that kind of box set naturalism again. So I think that it’s a play that actually learns quite a lot from that Birmingham experience and is in dialogue with it.

DMJ: On top of the growth of drama departments at universities, there’s also been the growth in the last few decades of a writing infrastructure at mainstream and fringe theatres – young writers’ programmes, playwriting groups. What can you get from a course in drama that you can’t get from these programmes?

DR: They’re different sorts of thing, really. Let me say, I don’t think that an MA in Playwriting is essential to becoming a playwright. I didn’t do an MA in Playwriting, for example. But what I think it does give you is both you get the kind of intensive training and you’re made to think through certain things that it’s very easy as a playwright to skip, as it were: you just fumble your way towards understanding scene construction, or how to deploy time and space in a play, or what character might be, or different kinds of dialogue. Trial and error is a perfectly good system, but an MA gives you a certain kind of space in order to think about that. The other thing is that, by forcing a kind of space in your life, I think it also suspends some of the other things you might be doing. So in other words, making that commitment to do an MA also means saying ‘I’m going to spend one or two years committing myself to the project of writing a play’. And you a pay a certain amount of money which gives you a huge impetus to complete doing that – which, I think, if you just turn up to a writer’s group, it’s much easier to drift from the path (he says, sounding rather religious). There’s nothing easier in the world than not to write a play.

DMJ: There does seem to be a cult – this is especially in playwriting groups – of the ‘young writer’. Often there are age limits, 18 to 25. Do you think there is a bias in theatrical institutions against the writer who discovers playwriting in later life?

DR: Yeah, I do. It changes throughout time, doesn’t it, but certainly the last few years. I think, perhaps since the rise of Polly Stenham, and Anya Reiss as well to some extent, Nick Payne… who were all discovered very, very young, there’s been that thing that maybe that’s the most exciting thing we can do now, to find incredibly young playwrights and be the first one to spot them. I think that will probably pass – in a sense, these fashions tend to pass – but you’re right, I think it is quite strange to have competitions that have that kind of age limit, the 18-25 thing, which seems at one level kind of oddly discriminatory; in most other walks of life, you wouldn’t be allowed to do that. I would reflect on the fact that Ibsen wrote all of his most famous, his great prose plays, well after the age of forty.

DMJ: What I find interesting is that it seems that the threshold for a young writer is lower than the threshold for a young novelist. With, say, Granta, it’s young novelists under 40, whereas with the world of playwriting it seems that 25 or thereabouts is the threshold. Why do you think that that this?

DR: There are typical things – this is going to be a terrible, terrible generalisation, so I don’t mean what I’m about to say – but there are certain kinds of vigour and energy and roughness that you typically get from a talented and first-time playwright. So, for example, Anya Reiss, who’s a playwright I really, really like. I wouldn’t say I think her plays are perfectly formed, or elegantly structured – or particularly elegantly structured, I think they’re quite well-structured. They’re formally not that sophisticated. But the dialogue is completely fantastic and you get that sense of someone who’s suddenly found a voice and is now able to just give that in a relatively unrefined way that is actually very exciting. So I think, you know, that sense, that kind of playwriting, is perhaps something we feel we want, having maybe gone through a phase of rather sophisticated kinds of playwriting that we may feel is more emotionally dead on some level, I don’t know.

DMJ: Since the growth of drama departments, since the growth of these writing infrastructures, I’m wondering if you consider that there’s a risk that they create telltale signs of having been constructed in this environment. I’m thinking of the genre known as New Writing. You’ve got things that you recognise – the mysterious past event, a speaker addressing an unknown interlocutor – and sometimes it can feel workshopped. Do you often find that there’s a risk of this?

DR: I think that’s a huge risk. I think anyone who runs any kind of writers’ group or development department or MA in Playwriting needs to be as aware of that as possible. Obviously you have your own preferences – the kind of things that you find most interesting in plays. But [it’s the] same as, I think, with a theatre critic. A good theatre critic needs to be someone who sits down in the theatre and thinks: ‘What is the project that I’m in front of? What are they trying to do? What do they want to do?’ You can – once I think you understand that – want to discuss it or criticise it from your own set of perspectives, but certainly with the students that I teach, I try very hard – I don’t know whether I always succeed in this – to think ‘What is the play that they want to write?’, not the play that I want to write, and to try and support them as much as possible.

I think as well, you’re completely right in saying that you do sometimes notice that there are certain types of play that you go to the theatre and keep going: ‘Why is everyone writing like this at the moment?’ I saw this recently. I won’t name it, but I saw a play at the Royal Court quite recently and thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is someone who’s just mainlined Mike Bartlett and perhaps Duncan Macmillan, and they’ve just regurgitated that style’. I love those two writers, but I found this kind of deadening because it felt like, more than anything it was trying to say about the world, it was just sort of saying ‘I’m writing the kind of play we write now’.

DMJ: Theatre in educational institutions has traditionally had a social role. Groups such as Belgrade Theatre in Coventry had socialist politics; one of Bristol [drama department]’s mission statements, according to its founders, was ‘to tackle social problems created by rapid developments in popular dramatic entertainment’. How do you conceive of theatre’s social role in your teaching?

DR: Well, this is difficult, because I think I have two rival commitments. One is that I have my own politics and my own view about the way the world is and should be and so on, and I guess like a lot of humanities academics I consider myself on the left, but then I also feel a bit like – I say with students’ own creative work – in a sense, the point is to have the dialogue. And I’m as careful as I can be not to try and force people into certain ways of thinking or make it difficult to express points of view that are different from mine. Though I suppose that secretly I think that that opening up of dialogue is itself a slightly left-wing thing, so eventually I recuperate my liberalism and turn it into something more radical in my head.

DMJ: I was thinking about this, in fact, because you’ve written about theatre as a form of resistance in some ways, and that idea is very long-standing. I mean, I say this speaking from a bookshop which is full of Marxist texts and copies of Red Pepper and Free Bradley Manning posters, but this is to the left of most plays which, a lot of people like David Eldridge have complained, convey a wishy-washy Guardian sentiment. Do you find this?

DR: I would say that the political resistance that is in a play is not really in its content. It’s not so much in the ideas that well-meaning characters say to each other, which I think is actually, politically, a fairly negligible thing. I think it can be a very interesting thing, but in a way I think the most resistant thing about theatre is that it’s sort of a pointless activity and that it seems to – and so does all art – escape the kind of means-end utilitarianism that is structurally underneath the logic of capitalism. So by saying I’m going to be spending two hours doing something pointless is itself quite an interesting thing. I think, in a certain sense – I’ve got to be very careful how I say this – but I would say that university education has an element of this as well. Now, I’m not saying that university education is pointless, but I do think that there is a big pressure at the moment, of course, to turn university education into a training for industry, whereas that rather 19th-century notion that it’s about developing a love of knowledge and understanding for their own sake is itself a kind of attempt to escape that means-end logic. So I think an education about theatre has that kind of slightly utopian resistant quality to it.

DMJ: What you were saying about that means-end conception links in very well to the kind of Maria Miller position of culture as a commodity. There are various government reports from the DCMS that say things like ‘giving young people creative skills for the workplace of the future’, that kind of thing. So you’d feel that a university course is inherently opposed to these positions?

DR: I don’t think that it’s inherently opposed to those positions. I do think that university tends to be an open space in the sense that I think students don’t tend to realise at the time but when people look back on their university days and say they were the best years of their life, I think they often mean, ‘I hadn’t realised how few commitments I had, how much freedom I had, of expression, of behaviour, of thought’, and it was post-school, that’s heavily regimented, and before paid work, that’s heavily regimented. In a sense, it’s also that opening-out of space. And of course students work extremely hard, and it can be means-end focused in thinking about marks and assessment and all those sorts of things, but on the other hand I think most students do get through university with a sense in which they suddenly get inspired by something that they know is probably not going to make them a huge amount of money. But they’ve suddenly found something fascinating about The Winter’s Tale or the work of the Wooster Group that they just feel they want to explore. And it’s that moment that opens something up, that’s resistant

DMJ: This kind of links to the role of the imagination. There’ve been people who’ve talked about the imagination as a battleground and theatre as a weapon in this battle. How far would you agree with Edward Bond that the future depends on the state of our imaginations and theatre plays a key role in that?

DR: Yeah, I do. I don’t think just the theatre – I think any kind of creative activity plays a part in that – because, I suppose, if you think that one of the ways that capitalism works is to constantly find new experiences, events of all kinds, to turn into a commodity, the process of turning it into a commodity will streamline it in a certain way and make it into a means-end experience. The imagination is of course something that is used in advertising – the imagination is used in creating any kind of innovative new product – but I think it’s very hard to think of it as being completely colonised. Where Edward Bond is coming from, he’s actually somebody who’s got very interested in Kant. I think Immanuel Kant’s sense of the imagination as something a priori free is something that, unfashionably, I’d kind of go along with.

DMJ: Today’s young people, they have access to social networks, mediatised images, new sources of information. What would you say is the role of the theatre-maker in this environment and how can they compete better with these forms?

DR: My first response to that would be to counsel complacency. A statistic I’m very fond of quoting is that between the high point of cinema-going in this country, which I think was about 1948, to the low point, which was 1982, ‘83, the cinema lost 95% of its audience. It’s recovered a little bit, but not very much, so it’s now probably only lost about 85%-90% of its audience. That is by any stretch of the imagination a staggering statistic. Now, the theatre, which has always been a kind of minority pursuit, has basically flatlined, in a good way, at around [the] 3% or 4% of the population that regularly go to the theatre. Over a hundred years, it’s been completely constant. In other words, it has been relatively unchanged by the advent of radio, of television, of cinemagoing, of video at home and, now, of computer games and social media and those sorts of things. So in that sense, I kind of don’t think it needs to worry. The historical precedent seems to be, it just satisfies a different sort of yearning in people.

The other approach to that would be to say I don’t think the theatre needs to think of itself as competing with those things. There are certain things that are very theatrical about some forms of social media, in the sense that things like Twitter, for example, are live. They’re live experiences. It’s really interesting the way that Twitter has seen a modest revival of live television watching because people actually don’t want to watch The X Factor the day after, because they want to sit with their phone, making snarky remarks about The X Factor – and I do this too, so I’m not being snarky about snarkiness. So what Twitter seems to have done is to reignite the liveness of certain kinds of cultural experience.

There was a suggestion somebody made – I think it was somebody at the West Yorkshire Playhouse about three years ago [who] made a joke suggestion that there would be ‘Twitter seats’ at the theatre so that people could live-tweet their experience and it got a load of people saying ‘This is the most grotesque idea, it ruins the experience of theatre’. I think that would be a really interesting idea. I think that’d be a very, very interesting idea. I’d quite enjoy live-tweeting a theatre experience to some extent. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects that have tried to integrate theatre and social media in particular. [I] did a thing recently where I played Puck for the RSC in their most recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was, basically, I posted things online. They did a one-off live, real-time performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and they surrounded it with this massive online hinterland in which there are about fifty characters and I was Puck online. And I tweeted as Puck – tweeted and Google Plused as Puck – for about a month earlier this year. And it’s very interesting, because what you find – I find this very often on Twitter as well – it is very like writing a play, because the character does start taking shape in a way that surprises you and you suddenly hit a seam and the character will take you in a direction you don’t expect and you start getting these interesting interactions. So I sort of feel that actually the media are much more theatre-like than they were 10, 15 years ago.

DMJ: Thanks very much for talking to us, Professor Rebellato, and you’re listening to Pod Academy.

The photograph of Bristol Drama Department was taken by Walt Jabsco.

DR: Thank you.

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