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Theatre Class Breaks the Fourth Wall in Performance Studies

Theatre Trip
Sharon Green (center, front) pauses with her students for a picture while on their way to a show in New York.

Students in Sharon Green's theatre studies class broke the fourth wall – academically, that is – on a recent trip to New York City. As part of their research, they attended six plays in the city, and in analyzing each they focused both on the fictional, on-stage worlds, as well as the real-world experience and makeup of the audiences.

"When I tell students to pay attention to who is in the audience, I think it surprises them," Green said. She incorporates audience analysis into her course entitled, "Contemporary Performance: Current Trends in Theatre and Performance Studies."

"I ask students what the constituency of the audience might suggest about a particular performance or place of performance, and it gets them thinking in new and different ways about the cultural function of performance," she said.

The "Contemporary Performance" course, offered every other year, is unlike many of the other upper-level theatre classes in that it is not practice-based. Rather, the focus is on contemporary theatre scholarship.

Through readings and discussion, students look in-depth at the multiple facets of theatre studies, and gain the tools and verbiage needed for rigorous academic discourse and scholarly analysis. They then get to implement those tools in real-world application, viewing and analyzing six diverse shows – and their audiences – in New York City.

The October trip was funded in full by a Davidson Research Initiative group investigations grant, which allowed all 11 students in the class to go. This was the third time Green received a DRI grant for the class trip.

"The New York trip is critical to the success of the course," Green said. "You can't adequately replicate what it's like to be part of a live audience. It's all hypothetical and theoretical until you see a performance."

In addition to their analyses of the staging, acting and other theatrical components, the students focused on some central questions: Who else is in the audience? Where is the theatre located? What is the constituency of the audience? How are they behaving?

There are different sets of audience conventions in different theatre settings, Green said, and she made sure to select shows that would expose students to a diverse range of settings, genre and artistic innovation, as well as diverse audiences.

"Some of the best shows we saw flipped traditional theatre on its head," Matthew Schlerf '16 said. "Many were in flexible spaces, and very innovative in terms of set design and special arrangement."

In selecting the shows, Green had several goals in mind:

  • Variety - She wanted students to see that theatre can happen in different spaces and places.
  • Diversity - She wanted to ensure students saw different genders, races and ethnicities represented on stage.
  • Innovation - She wanted students to see at least one show that is doing something innovative scenically or technologically.
  • Genre - As in past years, she wanted to select at least one Broadway show, one off-Broadway, one off-off-Broadway and one new play.

This year, the group saw:

  • Cabaret in the Kit Kat Club at Studio 54
  • Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop
  • Here Lies Love at LuEsther Hall
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Barrymore Theatre
  • Bootycandy at Playwrights Horizons Main Stage Theater
  • brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater

Getting Ready

Prior to the trip, students researched different components of the shows, which informed their viewing and post-production discussions. In addition to the shows, students had the opportunity to speak with professional actors and dramaturges, as well as some New York City-based Davidson alumni working in various aspects of the theatre industry.

Following the trip, students wrote practicum papers in which they selected at least two performances and discussed them using the critical and theoretical tools from class. Then, students split into pairs and traded papers, each writing a response to the other's paper.

"The aim in doing that is to create and practice academically rigorous dialogue," Green said. And, to get students thinking differently about their own work moving forward, whether on-stage or off.

"As a theatre major I've been introduced and exposed to theatre cannon, history, traditions, and I feel that I am now developing my own aesthetic within the context of contemporary theatre," Schlerf said.

Although Green's is an upper-level course, not all students in it are theatre majors, and that greatly enhances the learning experience, she said.

"Performance critique is inherently interdisciplinary, so having students with insights into a vast array of subjects greatly strengthens the discourse," Green said. And getting everyone out into the performance world – as parts of real audiences – invites a shared human experience that individuals interpret in different ways.

"With all of our work in the classroom, we were itching for an opportunity like this trip," Schlerf said. "To finally see so many different productions really actualized the intention of the course."