Performing Arts as Pedagogy

by Christopher Parker

Part of my Classical Mythology course requires students to attend a live dramatic or artistic performance. Not only are my students benefitting from the rich mythology themes often present in live performance, but most theater offerings and arts performances are rich with conceptual undertones of psychology, language, literature, physics, biology, technology, history, religion, philosophy and mathematics. I think it is clear how psychology, language and literature are present in drama. It takes a deeper analysis, but one can analyze performances for the elements of physics in narrative—such as I demonstrate in some of the examples below—as well as the actual physical science used in choreography, sound and special effects . Performing arts allow for analyzing biology, not only for performances that incorporate biology in the narrative, but by scrutiny of the bodies of the dancers, musicians and actors as well as in the imagery present in scrims. Math is present in the meter of poetry (cf. Birken, M., Coon, A. C. (2008). Discovering patterns in mathematics and poetry. Amsterdam, New York: Rondopi). Religion and philosophy are there in story, imagery and conversation. Of course there are more connections . Furthermore, preparation for attending performing arts, and discussions about them, assist in developing skills for critical thinking, writing, philosophical inquiry and reasoning.

That is why each semester my syllabus includes attendance at a performing arts piece on campus, hopefully together as a class. At Montclair State, student attendance is free because it is included in the their activities fees.

To select a show and time for each course per semester, I begin by researching upcoming offerings with the staff and curators in the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) at Montclair State. The ACP often schedules these performances in collaboration with the departments of music, and theatre and dance, and help me arrange for conversations between my students and the artists. Then, once a show is selected for its relevance to my course material and appropriate timing, we fine-tune our collective attendance at the show.

First, timing: The exam period at the end of the semester usually means reduced attendance. The day before spring break doesn’t always work well either. So experience has shown that the best time to schedule performance attendance is early in the semester. Once we pick a good week we discuss, in class, the best night to attend the performance for the majority of students. Those students who may not be able to come with the rest of the class are invited to go on their own, another night . For a few, it may be impossible to see the chosen show at all, so they are advised to attend a different show. I may make some suggestions for other options currently available, and, for those who do not meet the performance requirement, I meet with them individually to discuss any conflicts.

Students are told that they will be writing a review of the event as well as developing questions for discussion with the people responsible for the performance (directors, performing artists, producers, etc.). We also may read some of the original sources of the theater piece. The syllabus clearly articulates the expected participation in live performances, and lays out what students can expect tied to the course learning goals.

Examples of Campus Arts and Cultural Programming

Most recently, two of my Mythology classes attended On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, from the Italian company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. More than 60 Mythology students from two classes were given the opportunity to meet with the director, Romeo Castellucci, earlier in the day of our chosen showtime. Then, directly before the performance, all my students and other guests were invited to a pre-show conversation with scholar Annalisa Sacchi, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University. This helped us to pre- prepare by understanding the context of the creation of the show and a scholarly approach to analyzing its meaning. These pre-show experiences develop an entire aesthetic: intellectual, international and historical context within which students could then absorb the experience of the performance.

Other examples of performances have been:

Sweeney Todd, which features a classic tragic hero;

1001, a re-creation of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of myths and folk legends from Arabian antiquity;

Prometheus–Landscape 2, a wild modern interpretation of the behaviors and personalities of the Greek gods;

Trojan Women, directly applicable to our course work, and performed using several languages (subtitled in English);

Kiss of the Spider Woman, linked to the myth of Arachne and the archetype of the classic Greek tragic hero;

But, while we were lucky to have such relevant performance pieces to choose from —directly tied to classical mythology—not all arts events are classic theater.

For instance, one semester a dance event coproduced by Peak Performances and Liz Lerman, called The Matter of Origins, told an interpretative story of the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb. To connect more modern narratives with classical mythology, we explored the connections between this dance and the story of Prometheus, the end of the world and other deities of war and conflict. Act Two invited the audience on stage for conversation, inquiry, food and art at tables hosted by “provocateurs,” which was reminiscent of the Greek Chorus, representing people from the community . Insula, a dance-media-music-theater piece developed through the Department of Theatre and Dance, was conceived through collaboration with Artist-in-Residence Kari Margolis and MSU BFA students . Insula was rich with connections to Greek and Roman mythology from Odysseus to the apartment complexes of ancient Rome called “insula.”

We were able to experience Polynesian mythology through the narrative and hula presentation of Na Kinimakalehua, a Hawaiian company of hula artists. The company provided a study guide on Polynesian mythology that accompanied the hula performance. It is always useful to connect Greek mythology and its archetypes to other cultural or ethnic mythology and how they are, in fact, related by similar archetypes.

Pedagogy of Arts and Cultural Programming and the Class Subject Matter

The Review: A week before any performance I will give a workshop on how to write a play review. I am a regular reader of the arts critics of The New York Times and other newspaper’s theater critics, and over the years I have developed a basic format for how to structure a theater review. I give these format directions to the students and we read aloud a very recent theater review from a newspaper. We analyze the correlation between a recent review and our basic format . Reviews on the Internet tend to be different in style. And even though the Internet form of writing contributes a different style and format from more old-fashioned newspaper theater critiques, I find the print format works best for the objectives of this assignment: assisting in better perception of the entire performance in relation to the pre-defined objectives that writing a review calls for; understanding the creative process and how art is conceived; developing critical thinking; attentively addressing source information correctly and making knowledgeable and researched connections of the show to themes in classical mythology.

Communities of Inquiry: Conversations with the production professionals for On the Concept of the Face were readily available during their time on campus, but this is not always the case . It takes effort to bring together actors, directors and a dramaturge to discuss meaning behind a theater piece . The ACP helps me every semester by organizing and arranging schedules so students have access to the artists. I always try to arrange these talks for students so that not only is mythology suggestively brought before them in performance by people of their time or even their peers, but that real conversations of meaning and intent can occur .

To first-year students, such conversations and the ability to develop rich inquiry may not be immediate and natural . So I prepare students in multiple ways: before meeting the production artists, we hold a workshop on how to ask good questions—that go beyond questions such as “when did you start acting?”—to get deeper answers, and we practice identifying where we find classical mythology in the modern day. We explore the Greek poets, their forms and narratives . Then, for example, when poet Tracy Smith was at Montclair State, we reach an inquiry level like this:

I read in your poem “My God, Its Filled with Stars,” what appeared to me to be strong links to mythology (however you look at that). You seem to carry the mythology from what appears to be Gaea, though you don’t use that name in the poem, to the Odyssey, which of course is in the references you make to 2001 a Space Odyssey and then the follow up story of 2010 a Space Odyssey. You must think myth still works in poetry. Do you? And why do you evoke the ancient gods, does your father’s affiliation with Hubble bring in any revelations for you from the divine, at least metaphorically?

The point here is for us to experience the presence of ancient myth, or almost any class topic, through the artists of our time. In this way concepts cease to be old stories in old books and something we live now. I ask the students to embrace this and recognize it and learn better by actually experiencing mythology in the world of successful and talented artists, including their peers.

But learning and practicing critical questioning takes some consideration and thought. We evoke these thoughts in small communities of inquiry with the goal of developing a pool of questions to ask our artists. We experiment with Socratic questioning, and its relationship to Greek mythology and other Greek philosophers and their methods of examining knowledge. Each small team then assigns one or two members to actually present their questions during our conversations with the artists.

Original Sources: In many cases, we will review the original sources from which theater has emerged, such as the short story “Dog Days” which inspired the creation of a new opera piece co-produced at Montclair State, also called Dog Days. Dog Days is apocalyptic, which is a common theme in Greek and other mythologies . The show also explores the animal in the man and the feminine power of the heroine . Reading the short story that inspired the opera helped us develop valuable questions for the librettist and director, understand the narrative of the opera, and the meaning of the musical score itself.

My more than 10 years of experience working with artists on campus has enriched my pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Infusing my courses with live performance experiences gives students a chance to find the relevance to the classical archetypes, evokes an enthusiastic desire for philosophical inquiry and critical thinking, builds (literally) critical writing skills, gives practical useful reasons for research on mythology or any subject, fosters public inquiry and speaking, and enriches the connection of the modern aesthetic with the literature of the past.

About the Author:

Christopher Parker teaches Mythology in the Classics and General Humanities department at Montclair State University and is also a poet and poet-in-the-schools with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Columbia University and is completing an EdD in pedagogy and philosophy at Montclair State.

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