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“Now, well into the 21st century, we remain committed to training which is rigorous and relevant, producing artists who are artistically fearless, socially conscientious, and creatively intelligent,” Pippin Parker wrote in his Message From the Dean, welcoming students to the New School’s drama program. Though written years ago, the letter is especially prescient during the COVID-19 era, when educational institutions around the world are rethinking, reshaping, and reformatting the ways students are taught.
Parker is committed to creating a space that celebrates the tradition of theater while remaining open to how the challenges of the times may allow for communal creation. Here, he speaks with Backstage about how he plans to do so in this uncertain moment and what prospective New School drama students should know.
Art is about change, and art changes. The content of theater, particularly, of the work itself, is so often about change and the challenge of change and the hope for change, and the things that stand in the way of people being able to change themselves and other people. So it’s sort of the permanent that we use to describe ourselves, as being in permanent revolution. Our industry was already undergoing huge changes before this, and the world was going through huge changes: the convergence of technology and media, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo was happening already. Trump being elected, too. I was in school that day, and it was an extremely moving day. Those things have poured into our work. There are some really fundamental aspects of our work that are being informed and challenged by what’s happening in the world, and our students are totally committed to it. We have students in every time zone, all over the world—which is great, because we see them as the leaders of the future.
It’s a little bit different for each. In the undergraduate or BFA [program], they all take writing and directing and acting and creative technologies. They take two semesters of global dramatic literature, they take two semesters called Structures and Styles, which is hard working; there’s a lot of writing involved. And there’s also a lot of dramaturgy for script analysis. And they have two semesters of something called Collaborative Theater Process. All the students learn some sort of research methodology, and then they are out in the field, working with groups—like schools or settlements, for instance. They also do some kind of capstone project, called Directed Research, but it’s both research and performance.
Our university philosophy is very progressive; we’re about making positive change in the world. So we pose the questions: Who are you, and do you have a sense of identity and a sense of yourself? And then, what impact do you want to make on the world if you could make an impact?
We don’t put much pressure [on] trying to challenge you and make it the hardest for you to do your best, because these are young people. The world is discouraging enough; we don’t need to discourage. We try to develop a sense of comfort. We think it’s just a way of starting off that situation by approaching it in a very human kind of way. Usually when we work with actors, they present and we give them adjustments and we work with them. And only after that do we sort of engage in a conversation. So hopefully they’re a little bit more relaxed, and we put them in a place where it’s easier for them to have that kind of conversation.
For undergrad, they prepare a contemporary monologue. So, obviously trying to identify material that is somehow relatable to you and you can tell the story of that monologue with some credibility is very important. It’s hard if you get a 17- or 18-year-old with a Willy Loman monologue. Students should remember that the purpose of a good monologue is moving the character from one place to another, or at least offering the opportunity for that character to move or to transform in some way. We’re always looking for what’s active. Who are you talking to? What do you want them to do or feel and why is this character saying this now? What is the sort of revelation or moment of discovery in this piece?
Both the MFA and the BFA programs have industry showcases—[attendees are] casting agents or casting associate managers, some artistic directors. All of the seniors who are primarily actors are in the showcase, and you can also approach students who are sort of multidisciplinary and they can audition to be in the showcase. They work over a semester in the spring to put the content together, finding the scenes, sometimes original material as well. And when undergrads present, it’s at one of our buildings on campus, although we were planning this year to move it into another venue, more like we do for the MFA, which is traditionally in one of the houses around 42nd Street.
Some students come from backgrounds where they’ve been involved in theater; they’ve gone to high schools with strong programs or they are in cities with really strong after-school programs and have gotten quite confident and have a lot of experience. And I think for them, it may be surprising that we push them to explore areas beyond their comfort zones. It’s not necessarily enough, in our estimation, just to be a good, confident performer.
For other students who have come to acting or theater later, they are surprised to know how really deeply collaborative making theater is and how many different people need to participate as creative artists and production people.
This is such an important decision, on so many levels, that the first level that we are always trying to shift is this notion that the choice is a life-or-death situation, [that] if you don’t get in, it is permanent. That sort of judgment about your talent or your ability is just simply not true. There are millions and millions of different pathways to successful careers, including not going to college.
The second thing is, parents bring a lot of expectation to the students and to where they’re going to study. It’s really important for students to get enough space in their mind to make the decision that they feel the best about. The last point, I think, is meant for parents and for adults who have had the experience of looking for an apartment or a house. They understand that there’s this weird thing that happens where you think you know exactly what you want, and you go looking and somehow you end up with something that was just not on your radar at all. I think they need to be open to that, to doing what really feels right.
We have an undergrad BFA program that we started in 2013, which was designed as a multidisciplinary program for those who audition or portfolio in as actors or writers or directors or creative technologists. All our students take foundational classes in all of those. Many of the students come in identifying as having multiple artistic identities, or as multidisciplinary artists, but it’s common that someone who comes with a specific background or interest ends up adding one or two more disciplines or switching their form of expression.
Another aspect that makes us unique is we are fortunate to be within a structure of a college that includes two music schools as well as a very, very collegial, really partnered situation. Across our College of Performing Arts, we really believe strongly in all artists as makers and creators, not just interpreters. It’s a really, I think, important way of supporting artists and it has lots and lots of implications in the current context.
We spend a huge amount of time with the students and we really engage in an extended conversation with them, so we have an idea about where their interests are and what their abilities are and where they see themselves. And the other thing is in these required foundational courses, by doing the thing, by writing for the first time or directing, they find a natural affinity and then the way our program is designed, the undergrad is just one degree, so they are free to switch. Essentially, what would be considered sort of a difficulty—switching your major—our program is designed to actually support that.
They need to really authentically know themselves and ask if this is really what they want to do. I can think of millions of different reasons why people end up as former theater and performing artists. So, high schoolers, ask yourselves: At this time in your life, is this the right, healthy, important thing for you to do?
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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