Broad Horizons: Why Studying Other Subjects is Good for Your Art
Emily Anne Gibson argues that stepping outside of a strictly-theater curriculum is both beneficial and necessary.
"The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery." -- Anaïs Nin
Since I was thirteen, I've known that I wanted to work in theater for the rest of my life. When I started looking at colleges, a great theater department was high on the priority list. And yet, here I am, in my third year, studying English abroad. I'm studying it for the same reason I study history: because I think it's important.
I know that my role as a dramaturg is different than most roles in theater. It actively uses skills and knowledge from English and history courses in a way that perhaps others don't. I argue, though, that everyone can benefit from stepping outside of the strictly-theater curriculum. It's an eye-opening experience, and I think the more knowledge you gain—be it in humanities, or science, or other arts—the better you become at creating theater.
Let me explain a bit. I'm taking two tutorials while at Oxford. (Instead of normal classes, I have two separate tutors. I meet with one of them weekly, the other bi-weekly.) My primary tutorial is on Victorian literature and drama. (Okay, you got me—that one does have "drama" in the title. Ignore that for the moment.) The other is J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. So what do these have to do with theater? (Again, ignore the "drama.")
Theater is about telling stories, just like literature is. I just read Vanity Fair, and I learned as much about what defamiliarization can do to an audience from the narration of that novel as I have from the plays of Bertolt Brecht. I've been reading Tolkien's and Lewis' essays on writing stories, and their insight is in many ways just as relevant for plays—understand the history of what you are writing. In an essay called "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien talks about cultural "soup," relishing in the fact that we are always borrowing from what other artists and story-tellers have put into the pot over the course of human history. Theater shares that cultural soup pot with literature.
I believe, as theater artists, we are meant to show people their world – whether through documentary drama, family dramas, absurdist drama, or even hit Broadway musicals. In order to create art that really speaks to the world it reflects, the artists making it must know that world. English and history are just the subjects that I have chosen to delve into, but they aren't the only ones. I took a course in directing that highlighted the importance of studying visual art, music, and dance. I think developing an interest in science presents new viewpoints as well—especially since science and art also share a common history. Foreign languages let you explore other cultures more deeply. Business provides you with skills that can further your abilities to make art available. Education. Rhetoric. Anthropology. Engineering. The list goes on.
What I'm trying to say is that knowledge—expansion—is not a bad thing. It doesn't take away from your theater education. It's easy to get caught up in the "all theater, all the time," mentality especially when it's your major (or your vocation, for that matter). The truth is, though, that every piece of art is in some way coming from something else – it's an homage to, or inspired by, or a reaction against, or a response to some thing that has come before, be it a work of art or a historical event. As artists, we have a responsibility to know so that we can better show. And the easiest way to do that is to love learning, to explore the vast options available to you in college, and to maintain a curiosity about the world in which you live.