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For broader education, the play’s the thing

Nancy Kindelan

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In a new book pub­lished this summer, “Artistic Lit­eracy: The­atre Studies and a Con­tem­po­rary Lib­eral Edu­ca­tion,” asso­ciate pro­fessor Nancy Kindelan in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design makes the case for an increased role for the­atre and the arts in under­grad­uate edu­ca­tion. We asked Kindelan about her book, the result of more than 12 years of research and writing.

You describe your book as a “call to action” for arts educators to play a stronger role in the development of undergraduate college curriculums. Why is this so important now?

It’s crit­ical that the arts play a strong role in edu­ca­tion, because they pro­vide alter­na­tive ways to under­stand and express per­sonal, social and eth­ical issues. How­ever, they have had sig­nif­i­cant cuts in K-​​12 throughout the years. I’m now seeing stu­dents who come to the uni­ver­sity who never had sig­nif­i­cant the­atre expe­ri­ences before, so why should they even look for a the­atre expe­ri­ence now? They don’t even know it exists.

Regional the­atres are also reporting that their audi­ences are going away. Their audi­ences are made up of people who are an advanced age, shall we say, and the con­cern is when they are gone, who will go to the theatre?

It seems to me that these three areas should be talking to each other because we are all inter­ested in the same thing. We are all dis­cussing issues of the impor­tance of the arts as a pow­erful tool for dealing with social engage­ment, with the com­mu­nity that one is involved in, issues that relate to humanity and the human con­di­tion. This is where the arts began in ancient times and where the­atre flour­ished more than 2,500 years ago in Greece, and we really have not left that. But in edu­ca­tion in this country we’re finding it’s very dif­fi­cult to embrace that idea.

What do arts educators need to do to bring the arts into a more prominent position in higher education?

My book deals with the impor­tance of get­ting the arts back into the cur­ricu­lums of insti­tu­tions in inno­v­a­tive ways. The arts deal with what insti­tu­tions are inter­ested in: cre­ativity, inno­v­a­tive thinking and prac­tice, expe­ri­en­tial learning, under­grad­uate research, entre­pre­neur­ship, col­lab­o­ra­tion and moving beyond silos. And it just so hap­pens that my dis­ci­pline, the­atre, does that: we work that way, we develop things that under­grad­u­ates are inter­ested in — but nobody knows it.

I think the reason why nobody knows it is because we haven’t come to the cur­riculum table. And as I have recently heard it said, “If you’re not at the cur­riculum table, you’re on the menu.” That’s some­thing that con­cerns me quite a bit. We need to talk about what it is that we do and we need to talk about how we develop stu­dents who have what we call an enlight­ened eye, the ability to look at or listen to a work of art and under­stand what that piece is saying about our rela­tion­ship to society, about who we are and our rela­tion­ship to others.

How can theatre change undergraduate education, especially in disciplines that aren’t traditionally tied to liberal arts?

The plays we pro­duce are written by play­wrights who are inter­ested in the human con­di­tion. So what we do, as actors, designers, tech­ni­cians, col­lab­o­ra­tors, is mine that play and under­stand how that play illu­mi­nates not only the world and society of the time it was written, but also our con­tem­po­rary world. And you cannot do that without engaging in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research.

I’m a director and a dra­maturg, so I do that through cre­ative research. This kind of applied research encour­ages deep thinking with our stu­dents — it’s not just per­forming, it’s asking ques­tions like, “Why does the char­acter do the things he or she does? Why don’t they do some­thing else?” We’re really exploring moral issues, often, and in order to do that you have to be well-​​read in his­tory, in polit­ical sci­ence, in other cul­tures, in phi­los­ophy and the list goes on. It embraces every­thing cen­tral to the uni­ver­sity of today: crit­ical thinking, cre­ative thinking, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary thinking, mean­ingful research and the exchange of ideas across fields.

I would call a play a case study of a par­tic­ular group of people at a par­tic­ular time. And cre­atively trans­fer­ring that case study to the stage is, in a way, expe­ri­en­tial learning. We take all we have learned, we develop it and we apply it to the pro­duc­tion of a play so that a larger group of people can take that infor­ma­tion and think about it, expe­ri­ence it and feel it. Hope­fully that encour­ages social engage­ment and gets your audi­ence talking about social issues.