Whenever we or the scholars we’re reading talk about what possible use the humanities can be in the “real world,” I can’t help but think that something is missing. There is already an arena where so many of the things we consider academic are directly, vitally useful: theatre. I participated in the Buffalo theatre scene for five years, acting, crewing, stage managing, or other times as an usher or set construction crew member or envelope stuffer. I did my theatre BA at the same time as my English literature BA. If you are a theatre person who also happens to passionately adore academia, you start noticing places where your conversations start merging or crossing over in strange ways. Not just the theatrical bleeding into the academic, like reading plays out loud in class, but talking about how blocking can affect the interpretation of Iago’s character, and then going home to memorize your blocking. One of the things I miss most about being involved with theatrical practice is not just learning some kind of skill- though how practical it is depends on who you’re talking to- but also having a direct, immediate application for almost everything I learned. As a theatre person- especially if you’re involved in several different areas- you either already have a humanities education, or you get it the hard way.
If you’re the actor who gets to drop the title line in a play, you had better be able to explain exactly why that title fits the play, and what it means in context. Sometimes you have to call a meeting with the director and the lighting designer to try and preserve the essential aspects of their artistic vision because there’s a dance concert on the mainstage and we’ll only have 60 Source 4s, so we need to rethink the dramatic red shadows in the murder scene. Or, conversely, sometimes you need to be the one to convince your director and producers that it is worth spending $45 on a single prop that is absolutely central to the story you’re trying to tell- both of which mean, of course, that you have to be able to figure out which parts of that story are the most important to your theme as well as being able to suggest creative solutions. Sometimes you need to mediate between scene partners who are both utterly devoted to completely incompatible readings of the same line, and sometimes you’re one of the scene partners, and you need to revise the way you’re thinking of your scene in order to accommodate the other person’s (wrong) interpretation- which means you need to be able to formulate a cogent argument for your reading of a text, as well as reconcile drastically different readings, or come up with a compromise. Putting together an informational packet as a dramaturge means you have to be able to identify, summarize, and relate major advances in the dramatic, and often scholarly, criticism of whatever play you’re working on.
I’m not trying to paint the theatrical world as some kind of humanistic utopia. There’s never enough gigs, they never pay well enough, and plenty of people- particularly on the business side- don’t give a flying Foucault about artistic and theoretical integrity. There are probably environments where you can go ten, fifteen years without ever engaging in the kind of intellectual labor we do in the humanities- but there are definitely those where you have to do it every day. I simply want to suggest that if humanist scholars want to see one example of how theory and practice (are forced to) get along, they could do a lot worse than going to the theater.