Woodpaths comes from the German (Holzwege) that refers to dead end trails you find in a forest. You follow these trails for the pleasure of discovery rather than in an attempt to get somewhere.
Why so defensive?
I recently had a conversation with a friend about theatre being taught in schools. They were pressing me to defend why it was important to make theatre available to students in elementary schools as part of the curriculum. They admitted that theatre was “entertaining” for the children but aside from that why should it be a part of their education? This line of questioning used to send me running to a soap box, ready to defend the cause of theatre and the arts. But I don’t anymore. Instead of defending what we do as theatre artists I ask people, like my friend, to consider what theatre and the arts contributes to the lives of students.
Theatre is a social art. Everyone does math alone and you don’t really need anyone else around to perform labs. With the aid of ipods, facebook and texting we can pretend to live in a connected virtual world and yet be completely alone. Engaging in the practice of theatre allows for students to explore who they are in relation to other people. It asks them to engage emotionally with their peers and to explore conflict. Rehearsals allow for potentially dangerous situations to be encountered and explored so that the people involved can understand what brought the characters to be in this situation. Theatre allows for groups of people to explore the lived social network.
Theatre connects us to a sense of our own personal value. So much time as a student is spent feeling that you are not enough. It is what I have heard referred to as the “mug and jug” of education. The student is thought to be someone with no ability – the empty mug – and the teacher – the jug - is the holder of all knowledge and fills up the student. The need to live up to the teacher is made manifest by the habit of students requiring someone else to tell them that they are good. Theatre encourages people to source their own experiences, their own understanding of the situation, as the basis of creating. Theatre asks people to take the information of a situation and reflect it through themselves, eventually sharing their personal understanding with others. In this way they learn to value themselves as active creators in the world.
And finally theatre demands the development of relationship through interaction (and sometime conflict). When students are asked to remain seated, be quiet and simply accept the information that is coming to them (be passive mugs to be filled by all the jugs around them) then no relationship can be built. The student is not involved and the teacher is not required to understand the personal nature of the person in front of them; they are mugs to be treated the same, without consideration of their personal make up. Theatre asks you not only to understand yourself in the situation but attempt to connect with the other person within the situation. It asks you to consider who they are and what they want. You must proceed along a delicate path of dialogue in order to achieve your goal with the person; each moment together reveals a new piece of information about the person you are relating to. This is also very true for relationships based on conflict. You cannot dismiss the person but have to engage with them toward the eventual resolution.
Now I don’t believe all theatre artists make great human beings or that everyone should stop what they are doing and join the theatre (there are already enough people vying for the few jobs available). But I do believe that by engaging in the practice of theatre and other expressive arts we challenge students to develop much needed abilities. And we give them a safe space in which to explore some fundamental human experiences. When my friend asks me “why is it important for kids to have this in school” what they are comparing theatre to is math, science or some other “core subject” that has a quantifiable outcome that can be measured. But I refuse to defend theatre and arts on those grounds since the question misses the central benefit to an exploration of the arts by all people: it gives us the ability to express ourselves and connect with other people. And there is no one test that will measure this ability. But it is an ability that will be tested through the course of their lives. The arts have the ability to open students up to the process of living a connected life.
In asking my friend to consider these various points I don’t know if I changed their mind (and if they did, they didn’t admit it to me). But by exploring the contributions of theatre and the arts to the lives of people it connects me to the value of the work we all engage in and that is always a better place to be than feeling defensive.