Theatrical Mindset

09.06.11 | 13 Comments

CATEGORIES education

A couple of weeks back I stumbled upon Beloit College’s annual “Mindset List.” Every year since 1998, a faculty member and a (now former) administrator at Beloit have collaborated to assemble a list of cultural and historical touchstones that the incoming freshman class would take for granted, having never known life without them, or be entirely unaware of, having never encountered them, depending upon the example. It is at once a fascinating, informative, amusing and sobering look at what the average 18-year-old might know (unless they are avid historians), in contrast to the received knowledge of those of us who are, well, let’s just say more senior by a few years.

As always, my mind turned to theatre. What has the average undergraduate embarking on a theatre course of study absorbed (or not) during their lifetime through first-hand knowledge? So I have drafted my own “Theatrical Mindset List.”

It is less rigorously researched and time-specific than the lists of Beloit, since I have no intention of producing it annually. I have taken the liberty of assuming that while the list pertains to people born in approximately 1993, no matter how much they might love theatre, their awareness of what was happening in the field couldn’t have possibly come before they were five years old. Consequently, I’ve allowed myself considerable leeway. If some prodigies were precociously cognizant, then they should have gone to college sooner.

So here is my brief, unscientific traipse through the mindset of the theatrical class that will graduate in 2015, but who only started their journey of higher education in the theatre in the last week or so.

1. Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel and August Wilson have always been major, award-winning playwrights.

2. Every theatre ticket they have ever bought or used at a professional venue has been in some way computer generated.

3. Disney has always been a theatrical producer.

4. They’ve never seen the world premiere production of a Stephen Sondheim musical on Broadway.

5. The Phantom of the Opera has always been a long-running Broadway hit.

6. They’ve never seen the world premiere production of a Jerry Herman musical on Broadway (and they’ve never been able to see Carol Channing on Broadway as Dolly Levi).

7. A woman winning a Tony Award for directing is not a breakthrough achievement, although it remains a rare one.

8. Rent has always been in production somewhere in the world.

9. The block of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in New York has always been a tourist attraction for families.

10. Les Miserables and Miss Saigon have always been popular musicals.

11. Edward Albee has never been out of critical favor and only infrequently produced.

12. Audra MacDonald, Matthew Broderick, Donna Murphy and Nathan Lane have always been Tony Award-winning actors.

13. At no time could they see the original production of a smash hit Neil Simon play.

14. They’ve never been inside the theatre where My Fair Lady premiered unless they attended church there.

15. They never had the opportunity to see the original production of A Chorus Line on Broadway.

16. Of all of the Tony Awards broadcasts they’ve watched, only one emanated from a Broadway theatre.

17. They’ve never seen a production under the leadership of David Merrick.

18. They’ve never seen a show at an Off-Broadway theatre called the Circle Repertory Company.

19. Elton John has always written for the musical theatre.

20. Ben Brantley has always been the chief theatre critic of The New York Times.

21. Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Ralph Richardson have always been deceased.

22. Theatrical productions have always begun with announcements to silence cell phones, pagers, beeping watches and unwrap candies. (Yes, this is unverifiable, but doesn’t it just seem this way?)

Startling to realize some of this, no? The older you are, the more startling it gets. Perhaps you can think of a few other examples of major changes, achievements, or losses in theatre before or during the mid 90s that the freshman class of 2011-12 might take for granted, or never had the opportunity to experience. I hope you’ll add them in the comments section.

In any event, it’s important to remember that before college, our knowledge of theatre, for the most part, begins when we began going to the theatre, or performing in it (and we didn’t all necessarily do both). For our college students, and for our interns and young staff, there is a divide, and it’s our job to bridge it.

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Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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  • LindaInPhoenix

    As usual, an enjoyable read, especially since I teach a large (really huge) class of undergraduate theatre majors. I am struck by the irony of #1. “Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel and August Wilson have always been major, award-winning playwrights.”  Even though true, these freshman are, sadly, unlikely to have heard of all — or maybe even any — of them.

  • Guest

    I am skeptical of the questions that would provide these answers. Using the word “always” like this is ridiculous. Audra McDonald can’t have “always” been a Tony-award winning actress. What was she doing when she was 5? Lawrence Olivier, clearly having been alive at some point, hasn’t “always” been dead. And of course students born in 1993 didn’t see the original production of “A Chorus Line” – they weren’t born. So what? I didn’t see the original production of “Streetcar” or the original production of “Hamlet.” Neither did Howard Sherman, and I’m sure he learned about these plays easily enough. They’re freshman. High schools by and large don’t teach theatre history, so why is this surprising? I didn’t know who Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, or August Wilson were when I was a freshman, but quickly found out. The more relevant survey would be of graduating theatre majors, not those starting their degree.

    • This isn’t a list of facts but assumptions students may have, not a survey of what they’ve learned.  You might be surprised at what freshmen assume.  In the ten years I worked in and around a college theatre department, the incoming class usually assumed everyone working in the department was ten years older than we actually were.

      The idea is that they’ve never known a time when Audra McDonald wasn’t a Tony winner, not that she’s eternally been one.

      I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by who and what freshmen did know, like Tony Kushner or Jason Robert Brown, and surprised by what they didn’t know, like Albee or Shakespeare, things that were common when I was in high school.

      Also, as an administrative aside, we prefer that you use real names and email addresses when registering, instead of “guest@guest.com.”  Usually, those comments are moderated out.  Thanks.

    • The “always” and “never” conceit simply mimics the Beloit Mindset List format. I figured if they could get away with it, I could too. Perhaps I was mistaken!

  • I read this list and feel like the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode, “Long Live Walter Jameson.”  At any second, I expect to turn to dust and blow away.  (I suppose I should have put “spoiler alert,” but the episode’s more than 50 years old.)

    I remember when A Chorus Line was still shiny and new, when Phantom opened, when Circle Rep was the place to be (and then when it wasn’t a place at all)…

    One thing that amused me about the incoming freshmen I worked with about four years ago was that they all knew who Jason Robert Brown was–and wondered why he only had a couple of shows–while they only had a vague idea of who Sondheim was.  

    Some more that pop to mind:

    — They’ve never known a time when a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was a hit.

    — The overused, stand-by audition song for young girls is now “Defying Gravity,” not “Tomorrow.”  (I have that on good authority from several theatres that have been auditioning kids lately.)

    — The first show they think of when they think Stephen Schwartz isn’t “Godspell.”

    — For them, “Rent” is a period piece.

    — If they’ve noticed at all, the only new show Sondheim has worked on in their lifetimes is “Bounce”/”Road Show.”  (More’s the pity for all of us…)

    Fortunately, much of this list is about things they’ll learn–or could learn–in their next four years.

    (starts turning to dust)

  • Gil

    Nice read.  One thing though: Miss Saigon closed in 2001, when these children were 8.  So while Phantom has always been running, they may actually not even remember Miss Saigon!

    • Maybe today’s college freshmen were in MISS SAIGON in high school. I suspect an awful lot of shop teachers have been stymied as to how to build the helicopter. Wait, do high schools still have shop class?

      • Gil

        I think shop class has been cut from most high school budgets.  But don’t worry, MTI has a rentable copter! 

  • A couple of my own (for freshmen with a, shall we say, limited exposure to theatre):

    1. Broadway is where “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” and remakes of silly Hollywood films get made.
    2. The generational story for forbidden love is “Twilight,” not “Romeo & Juliet.”
    3. Harry Potter got naked in some play about a horse.

  • So much of this has to do with Broadway shows and artists. I think what’s stunning is the lack of theatre history knowledge. I remember, as a senior in high school, a fellow student picked a Willie Loman monologue because it was the only play “with ‘death’ in the title”.

    • It is rather Broadway-centric, but more people have Broadway as a common experience than they do the work of any specific regional theatre. I was trying not to be too esoteric. And if the word “Death” led a student to Willy Loman and DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the fact is that they found it — and perhaps learned from it.

  • Whereismikeyfl

    I teach a theater history class and one think I find fascinating is that students think of Broadway as a place of family-friendly entertainment–and believe it has always been such.

  • Jim Stark

    It seems that much of this would be true for the parents of new college frosh.