The reciprocal link between artistic and scholarly work

Jun 04, 2015

An acting student at Columbia University once mentioned that her father, a surgeon, had a saying: “Study one, do one, teach one.” I instantly recognized that this formula, familiar to surgeons, “study one, do one, teach one,” is precisely the right equation for me as well. The ratio that allows me to be the best possible theater artist is: 1/3 research, 1/3 directing and 1/3 teaching. If I do not dedicate enough time to research or if I teach too much or too little, my work as a director, as an artist, is compromised. The correct balance among the three activities is key. 

This ratio/equation is also crucial to the effectiveness of SITI Company. One third of our engagement is research and cultural exchange, one third is spent making and performing new work, and one-third is engaged in teaching. This equilibrium is central to our well-being, productiveness and usefulness.  

Research, or study, for me, includes reading, writing, reflection, analysis and unconscious rumination. A successful process is both active and passive. After a certain amount of committed study, when the unconscious is sufficiently primed, the imagination must be left to do the necessary associative work. The composer, conductor and polymath Leonard Bernstein suggested that it would be technically possible for him to compose a short sonata within a few hours through sheer willpower, but the sonata would not be good. In order for the work to have substance, he said, it needs to pass through what he called a trance-like state of unconscious processing. “It cannot come from the made-up, thinking intellectualized, censoring controlled part of my brain.” 

I did not study directing in graduate school, rather, in 1975 I entered into a then two-year academic Master of Arts program at New York University, now known as Performance Studies. Performance studies continue to impact my work in meaningful ways. Every time I approach a new production I pose the questions that I was encouraged to ask at NYU: What is a play? How does a play function in society? What is acting? What is performance? What does it mean to the world to act or to perform? What is a rehearsal? What is an audience? These questions are anthropological and sociological. Performance studies initiated an appetite for theoretical inquiry that continues to this day to affect all my waking hours.

Teaching is also a key component to my work as a theater director. If the arts were subsidized in the United States as they are in many European nations, I would probably not need to teach as much as I do. The extended rehearsal periods enjoyed in Russia, Germany, France and the Scandanavian countries afford artists the deep exploration of subject matter that any serious theatrical endeavor demands. In these countries the development of training, the shared research and the essential experimentation can be carried out within the context of rehearsal. In the United States, most of my work in developing technique and in investigating content occurs, alternatively, within the classroom. I study alongside my students at Columbia University and in the context of classes at SITI. The SITI Company actors also work to advance their personal and shared understanding of technique and form through their teaching at SITI and world wide at academic and artistic institutions. The standard three to four-week rehearal schedule that is the norm in the United States demands that everyone must hit the tarmak running at top speed in order to stage the given play with courage and alacrity within the given amount of time. But where and when does the crucial preparation happen? It can happen in the classroom.

The university environment provides an alternative to the lack of arts subsidy in the United States. The collegiality of fellow academics, the enthusiasm of young artists heading into the field and a quiet campus environment can offer a respite from the relatively cutthroat commercial and not-for-profit world. But there must be a lively and mutually beneficial interchange between the profession and the academy, otherwise the relationship will be perfunctory.  

Finally, the give-and-take between artistic and scholarly work extends to the period following the première of any new production. After the many crises of rehearsal, after the obstacles and inherent challenges of bringing a new project to fruition, there is the opportunity to ruminate, analyse and ultimately share new, hard-won insights with others. This sharing can transpire via writing, conversation, practical workshops or teaching. Thus, now full circle, the reciprocal link between scholarly and artistic work can begin all over again.