Design training and an uncertain future

I got into a facebook discussion yesterday with Randy Gener, senior editor of American Theatre Magazine about a piece my colleague Richard Isackes wrote about theatre design curricula.  While I agree with much of which Richard writes, he – and I, and our design education colleagues – have been saying much the same thing for years.  The problem, as I see it, is that that piece of conversation just doesn’t go far enough.  There is so very much I can say on this topic, that I need to focus and edit both for the purposes of this site and for my own time management.  So, my comment today focuses on theatre design education as it relates, or could relate to my more recent teaching focus, arts entrepreneurship and to my earlier posting on Howard Gardner’s “disciplined mind.”

Isackes rightly points out that we need to consider “for what destinations are these students prepared?”  The market has not yet brought into balance the number of MFA theatre design programs with the amount of actual professional work designing for theatre/opera/dance.  Isackes explains that many students finishing an MFA will matriculate back into the academy as teachers, perpetuating the insular practices of many undergraduate theatre programs.  There are alternatives.  MFA training could, for example, teach the disciplinary mind of the theatre designer in ways applicable to many other areas of work from theme park to video game, from the opera stage to the small business owner.  In all likelihood, as my colleague Ruth Bridgstock writes, such arts workers will have “portfolio careers,” not one job or job title, but many, sometimes simultaneous, experiences throughout the creative industries.  This makes for an uncertain future.  Entrepreneurship theorists talk about “managing uncertainty.”  One way to manage uncertainty, according to Gardner, is to develop the disciplined mind.  Thus, I implicitly connect the dots between entrepreneurship training (how to manage uncertainty, among other areas) and design training (the discipline).

Managing uncertainty is just one area of entrepreneurship. Another – and it’s a biggie – is innovation.  Here is where I think design programs, and theatre programs more generally, really fall short.  [Full disclosure – I’ve written about this before on the entpreneurthearts blog and talked about it at an ATHE plenary last summer.]  Do most theatre program encourage real innovation and collaboration? Do they provide a space – both actual space and psychic space – in which students can create something new? Or, are programs, by design or accident, just reifying the work that has come before when MFA-holding faculty, as Isackes points out, “teach what they were taught – namely how to put on a college play.”  To encourage them to be truly creative, we, as educators, need to give our students room to play, to explore, to experiment, and to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.  Unless we do, we fail them.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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2 Responses to Design training and an uncertain future

  1. Monique Walker says:

    My MFA(SMU ’89…gulp!) morphed in to so much more for me, but not till after I got out of the education system. What it did for me was made me recognize good design in nearly anything, have opinions and point of views about all things not just set design, and….most importantly, how to come up with something better, if I didn’t like what I saw. I hated designing scenery, but I loved coming up with the perfect prop. Bill and Jean Eckart(god rest them) were my teachers and they were disappointed I wasn’t going on to assit and become a designer myself. That’s the attitude that I think needs to alter in the education of MFA theatre design students. You are right Linda, there can be so much more….
    I am now teaching 8th grade Drama in Middletown, NJ.

  2. klad2688 says:

    I tried to write Richard a fan letter after reading his piece yesterday. The email to the university was returned. Please pass along my thanks for articulating, in print, a number of issues I find frustrating. I address those issues as an occasional professor/lecturer and as a professional. I was shocked, reviewing MFA candidate portfolios in NYC last spring how many candidates my colleagues and I could NOT hire without additional training.

    I also agree with your comments about innovation. Although I have always preferred to hire people with theatre degrees because of their general ability to think creatively. That facility has diminished over the years.

    My caveat to your comment is that students need to be put in interesting situations and work with interesting artists, but they also need to be taught the difference between projects that are strictly artistic and projects that are ‘commercial.’ This distinction leads to making different choices.

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