Selling Myself for School
This isn’t a pretty story.
I don’t go around telling it, even to good friends. But a journalist’s job is to convince people to reveal what they wish they hadn’t, and I don’t let anyone with a hot story off the record easy.
Back in the early 70’s, before the Drama Department at New York University became Performance Studies and you could pick up basic theater history, theory and crit courses, I did class time. I managed to get through comprehensive exams, even proved I had a reading knowledge of French, which I don’t. Then I took a 15-year study break to write features and reviews, and one day I discovered I wasn’t all-but-the-dissertation, I was a writer.
In 1986, I was chronicling the onstage triumphs and offstage turmoil at the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn, then in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, worrying that no trade house would publish a book about a little theater that folded. Actually, I started to suspect that when 14 such houses said they wouldn’t. Maybe a Ph.D. would help me secure a university press? I figured I’d submit the first draft as a dissertation and pick up the old doctorate.
I figured wrong.
My matriculation had long since lapsed, but NYU agreed to waive time limits. There was still a matter of back matriculation fees that I could handle by selling my house and kids. An administrator said I’d need new classes, too, since the curriculum had changed. I wailed that I lived 750 miles away now. We compromised. I would write a tuition check for $1,212 for a class I would not have to take.
I was only beginning to understand schoolbiz.
I sometimes think I’d have had a better education if I hadn’t taken any classes at NYU. Michael Kirby said he never read plays and favored “non-matrixed” events involving “compartmented physical effects created by actors and objects;” his projects had more to do with art installations than theatrical events, I think, though he would have said they were a different kind of theatrical event. Richard Schechner thought plays were the enemy. To fight them, he sent actors howling across the stage, often dragging howling spectators, out of some confused notions of what Artaud meant and what the more disciplined Grotowski tried.
Me, I prefer plays with most of the words left in. I got my education at Chelsea, hanging out at rehearsals and meetings and in the greenroom, gabbing with everyone.
Kirby was kind enough to agree to direct my dissertation, since we had little in common intellectually and he couldn’t have found what I was doing stimulating. I liked him, though, and I found him to be fair. He said it didn’t matter that my style was “cutesy journalistic” as long as my research was thorough and accurate. Some months later, he said I was ready to defend the dissertation.
I made sure Schechner was out of the country, on sabbatical. Then I relaxed, not understanding yet that when someone calls something a defense, you ought to have a lawyer.
Ted Hoffman, who liked plays and appreciated my thinking, would have been my dissertation advisor had he not retired by the time I got around to being advised about anything. He took on the advisor role briefly, though, inviting me for coffee the day before to plan a defense strategy.
I half listened, obsessed with strategies of another sort. The impulse for the book had not been so much a desire to document history as to change it. Three zany and brilliant guys, who sometimes called themselves a three-head monster, ran Chelsea. It would take a book—it did take a book—to explain their relationship and the different theories people have for why it went sour. But by all accounts, they were a remarkable team.
Okay, they drove each other nuts, and in the end, Bob Kalfin fired Michael David, who was ready to quit anyhow after Burl Hash walked out. Okay, they didn’t want to work together again. They didn’t even want to talk to each other. No matter. I would give them back to each other, and the American theater would thank me. I would remind them of who they were together, and if that didn’t work, I’d find a way to get them into the same room, and they would remind each other.
I invited them to the defense.
Bob and Burl said they’d come. Michael, who co-founded Dodger Theatricals after his Chelsea years, was busy putting together around 85 Broadway shows and 62 touring companies and had an opening that week. When I stopped by his office for a Pepsi, he looked like he’d been sleeping in the same pair of jeans for a month. But when he said he couldn’t make it, I knew the real reason was the book made him crazy, and he didn’t want to spend a morning with Bob, Burl, a wacky journalist who knew what play they should do for their reunion project, and a dissertation committee. I told him the time and place, should he change his mind.
Chelsea to the Defense
Michael Kirby thought it was fine for me to invite people—the event was public, although in the tradition of scholarly curiosity, usually only those who had to come came. Still, it shocked other committee members when the characters in my book walked into the room. How could they talk about them if they were there? In the academy, I realized later, you discourse about contemporaries behind their backs.
I explained the visitors had let me observe them at work and mumbled something about Brechtian demystification of the scholarly process. “Feel free to say anything,” I told them.
One committee member ventured there were two Bobs in the dissertation, a good guy and a bad guy. Bob rejoined that he wasn’t all good; he was human. Another said some of my stories might be libelous—“this really should go through legal.” A third brought up the serious matter of contractions. Apparently, you cannot say “can’t” in a dissertation. It is not scholarly. It is not appropriate. Nobody said it is not moral, but I had the feeling they were getting there.
Before I knew it, Burl was on his feet, rallying to my defense. “Aww, take a risk!” he implored. Bob was with him. Together, they explained how my style supported the substance and the stories ought to stay because the events really happened and pointed to something larger. They were finishing each other’s sentences! I was so high, I even stopped looking at the door to see if Michael would show, which he didn’t.
The committee asked us all to leave the room while it debated my fate privately, and Bob and Burl abandoned me, taking off for lunch together! All at issue now was the degree, and who cared?
I did, it turned out.
So did the committee, which wanted me to succeed. All anyone asked was that I make the dissertation responsible and respectable and indistinguishable from anybody else’s, after which they would welcome me into the community of scholars.
First to go would be my style. I was writing a Brechtian story with a Candide-like protagonist, and my chapter titles were a cross between placards and 18th-century titles. We agreed I’d substitute Chapter One, Chapter Two, and on for these. I’d take out subtitles and dump clever leads, and I would eliminate contractions.
We went on to correct the substance. My willingness to document some unsavory incidents involving African American actors might make people think I was a racist, they explained. They knew I wasn’t a racist, they assured me, but you can’t be too careful what you write. Other racy anecdotes would go, too. They also suggested I interview a couple of people who weren’t among my original 72 sources, the only advice I took later on, when I revised Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, the book version.
Tears came as I sat in the room, not because I thought I couldn’t get the degree but because I knew I would. I wondered if conformity of style leads automatically to conformity of thought. I considered that they call it a terminal degree because in the process of getting it, you stop thinking.
In 1988, after I did what I did, the kids called me Dr. Mama for a few days, and we all forgot about it. I taught playwriting for a while in an adult ed program for six dollars an hour, fun because the students were there to learn, not for credentials. A year or so later, I applied for a college teaching position, a few blocks from home, and I felt relieved when I didn’t get it. There are people with the courage and strength to stay centered in an environment that encourages conformity, but after what I did, I wasn’t sure I was one of them.
Like I said, this is not a pretty story.
This story first appeared in the September 27, 1993 issue of TheaterWeek magazine, the first in a column I wrote for four years that we called Schoolbiz.
Since I wrote this, I had the opportunity to teach at two schools. I spent one semester as a visiting assistant prof in theater at Albion, a small liberal arts college in Michigan. I had a chance to direct a play and teach modern drama, and though I clashed with the department chair more than once because I didn’t direct the play the one right way, I loved the students, I loved sharing ideas, and I wished I’d actually used my degree to teach. I followed by becoming an adjunct, all that was available to me at the time, in the English department at Eastern Michigan University for the next three years, teaching everything from Shakespeare to Writing the Magazine Article. It was a hoot.
After I wrote about my own trauma in Schoolbiz, I started looking at what was going on in theaters across the country—programs in colleges and conservatories, issues and trends in theater education. Looking over these columns, I find that some are dated, others still resonate with me today. So, I’ll share others with you here, from time to time.
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