Theatre IS democracy. Pass it on.

Tomorrow is mid-term election day in the U.S.; my best wishes to all of my American readers, colleagues, and friends.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an important election. It is an election that may well determine whether the U.S. returns to some semblance of its pre-2016 self, for all its flaws and troubles, or pushes closer to the brink of genuine fascism.

This frightens me, as I know it frightens many of you. Depending on where you teach, it may also frighten your students. Or, it may be they are tuned out, don’t care too much.

Maybe they are old enough to vote and are planning to vote. Maybe they are old enough to vote but are also disenfranchised for one reason or another. Maybe they are old enough to vote but won’t be voting, sick like so many of us of the disgusting and horrifically xenophobic rhetoric that passes for political discourse in so many corners of the world these days. Maybe they aren’t old enough to vote yet, but care deeply anyway.


Whoever your students are, you might be thinking today (whether you’re American or not) about how to talk to your students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. (If you don’t live in a democracy, you may be thinking about these things even more urgently.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, too.

I’ve been working slowly over the past year on a new research project about the place of theatre and performance education and training in the contemporary university. (This is a collaborative project – a big hello to Kat, Diana, Sylvan, Rebecca, Barry, and many more of you out there.) At the core of this project is one essential belief: that learning about, and learning to make, theatre and performance is akin to learning about, and learning to make, a healthy, supportive, socially progressive democracy. For this reason, theatre and performance studies are not just “niche”, nor are they “just” creative arts. They are about learning the art of genuine citizenship – and should be recognized, funded, respected, and promoted that way by university leaders.


The Theatre of Epidaurus at sunset. The Greeks knew it.

Today feels like a good day to reflect on the firm, urgent bond between theatre-making and democracy-building. What is theatre, after all, except a creative endeavour in which a group of human beings research, practice, struggle over, and negotiate the challenge of inhabiting the attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, wisdoms – as well as the geographical and socioeconomic and cultural and historical contexts – of a group of other human beings? At its most basic, acting is the art of the proverbial walk-a-mile-in-another’s-shoes gesture, the central act of empathy that binds us to our fellow citizens (and to those among us who are not so privileged as to be our fellow citizens yet – the hardest stretch of all).

Actors say repeatedly and vehemently that it is not possible to play a character in whose experience you do not, on some level, have faith; you may be far, far from that character’s context or politics or even sense of human decency, but without some basic understanding of who that character is, where their actions come from, and how you as a human being are linked to them as a human being, no creativity can come.

The portrayal of another without even a smidge of shared understanding would result in stereotype, and nothing more.

(Brecht devotees, I am among you. But performing Brechtian distance is not the same thing as acting without empathy or emotional investment. One of my favourite clips to show students when I talk about this kind of thing is from a French documentary made about a decade ago for ARTE, about the acclaimed British touring company Cheek By Jowl. In the clip, Tom Hiddleston talks about what it feels like to play two diametrically opposed characters in the same production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. His thoughts are compelling and resonant, and represent how closely Stanislavskian or “system”-style acting is to Brechtian or “alienated” acting, at its core. [Click through to the middle to find Tom.])

But theatre is about more than the empathetic bonds actors build with characters and with one another, of course. It is also about the fundamental challenge of collaborative world-building. You start with a script, or maybe just an idea. You play. You devise scenarios from held objects. You think about design, about scene structure, about set architecture. You select patterns to draw out – then you argue about whether or not these are the right ones. The contours of your world emerge from your shared graft, energy, arguments – creativity.


I have shamelessly snatched this evocative image of 12 Minute Madness from’s website; please click through to read my colleague Kelsey Blair’s terrific review of this production. Thanks and apologies to alt!

It’s hard to be sure – lots of feelings circulate in the rehearsal hall and sometimes they are ugly. But you have a shared project to make – a world to build together. The world must go on! So you return the next day, patch it up a bit, move on together, and the suture strengthens. You keep building.

This is for me the heart of theatre’s link to democracy. To make a world is hard. To cross the barriers of difference with humility is hard. To fight over something fundamental without destroying a relationship is hard. To fight over something fundamental, almost destroy a relationship, and then come back in the morning to try again, together, is hard.

So far so true, you might be thinking. But what about studying theatre, in academic (not practical or conservatory) programs like the one on which I teach? Like all critical liberal arts, academic theatre studies requires teachers and students together to enter into a shared world built by others, for others, and then undertake the challenge of really, carefully thinking through what is at stake in that world: what social claims are on the table, for whose benefit they have been tabled, and at what potential costs.

This is the work I’ve been doing every week with the students in my new experiential learning class, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. We read (via a team of student leaders on each production, who build a wiki-page of intel for us in advance) about the place, the artists, the history and the ideas behind a production; then we see that production together, ask questions afterward of the artists and other makers, and finally return to the classroom for a debrief, held alongside a discussion of relevant readings. We investigate a world – with empathy for the makers and yet also with questions about their choices, as well as about the social, economic, and demographic constraints that have shaped their work. We ask each other what the work is meant to do for a community (Toronto and its many constituencies), and what the work seems to want to say to us.

We respect the work but push hard back on it. Which is to say: we do the work of citizens in a democracy.

I know not all classes can, or should, look like this one. (It’s a lot of work to run and expensive, too.) And yes, I also know that not all theatre practice looks like the idyl I describe above. Lots of artists are total jackasses. Lots of us prefer to nullify rather than negotiate difference in rehearsal. Lots of us are egomaniacs and practically dictators when we hold the director’s baton. (So: pretty much like your average democracy, then!)

But that’s all the more reason for us to remember, today, what theatre – as a practice, a study, an art form, and a form of worlding – at its best teaches us, and what we as teachers consequently need to share with our students. Theatre shows us how to act like proper citizens, regardless of the day: how to care for one another, how to care for our world as if we are all invested in it, and how to contour that world as if it is for all of us to experience, appreciate, negotiate, and enjoy.

This is the message I want to send my students, tomorrow and everyday, about what learning in our shared classroom means. About what I as a teacher believe in.

I hope you’ll pass it on!



On “Minding American Education”, by Martin Bickman*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.


(This image comes from

For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.


Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.


Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.

220px-Henry_David_Thoreau_2 220px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857 Sarah_Margaret_Fuller_engraving-2

(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)

As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.

Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.

For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.

In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” [154]); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones [153]); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” [155]). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.

This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.


Check out a preview of the book here.