Note: This post is the first in a 3-part series exploring the process of taking theatre instruction outside the white, European, male paradigm.
Since I’m currently unemployed and have a lot of time on my hands, I’ve been doing a lot of work developing curricula for when I have a classroom of my own. In addition to the usual suspects (acting, tech, public speaking), I decided to put together a dramatic history/literature class. But when I started to work on it, I realized that all of the theatre history classes I’ve ever had followed the same pattern--a short unit on ritual beginnings, a long unit on ancient Greece, a unit on the Middle Ages, a long unit on Shakespeare, a unit on what came after Shakespeare in Europe and the United States, and a, usually comparatively brief, unit on non-western theatre, which tended to focus on Japanese theatre forms.
So I started to ask myself why? Surely theatre existed outside Europe and the U.S. Surely there were countries elsewhere with a theatrical tradition. And so I set about developing a curriculum that gives equal time to countries throughout the world, giving an overview of key theatre forms and how theatre developed in different areas.
The first step in this process has been a lot of research, because my knowledge of non-western theatre forms, especially pre-20th century, is woefully lacking. To begin the research process, I decided to seek out a definition of theatre that was less exclusive than Aristotle’s, which is usually used as the standard for defining theatre. According to Aristotle, theatre requires 6 elements: plot, character, thought, diction (or dialogue), melody, and spectacle (he was specifically writing about tragedy, but this definition is frequently used by scholars to determine if something is theatre). Aristotle’s definition had a strong influence on the development of western drama, but outside of European-influenced theatre, drama developed differently. Plot, in particular, is often less important than the other elements. Fortunately, during my research I discovered Milton Singer’s definition of theatre: it must include “a definitely limited time span, a beginning and end, an organised programme of activity, a set of performers, an audience, and a place and occasion of performance” (from Traditional India: Structure and Change (1959: xii)).
Using this definition and a whole lot of research into various theatre forms from outside Europe, I am slowly but surely creating a curriculum that asks the question “What is theatre?” and guides students along the path to answering it for themselves.
Next week: Reflections on how people react when I tell them about this project.