Learning to Read

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Lehigh Culture & Community
Directing a play is applied criticism (which is to say applied reading); the ballistics to the pure physics of literary theory. I feel qualified to say this (and what is qualification other than a feeling turned into a LinkedIn profile) because for the past two years, I operated, simultaneously, as an English graduate student, and as a playwright-director in New York City.
Play Promotional Materials

My ‘applied versus theoretical physics’ metaphor took some time to arrive at. It is the fruit of perhaps two years of feeling that I was a stranger in two worlds and at home in none. I still feel that way, by and large, but having graduated with my Master’s, I feel clearer in regards to my own muddle. For instance, one of my own insecurities as a graduate student, was the way I talked in the seminar room: where I tended to be broad, holistic, metaphorical, personal, casual; on one hand eminently over-abstract and on the other, uncomfortably too solipsistic and personal. I could speak Theory and I could speak  Myself, but I rarely could hit the carefully cultivated middle-ground where I heard and noticed my more experienced peers aiming. This tendency, this way of speaking, however, worked much better (communicated more and more clearly) in the rehearsal room, when I was speaking either as director or playwright. Fast, ad-hoc, highly metaphorical reflective rhetoric is, from what I’ve observed, what actors want and indeed, need; actors who are not interested in the granular details of scholarly debate; actors who must digest quickly. A director needs to be able to grasp a Theory and then ground it in something personal and concrete very quickly; or she loses her audience. Direction must be offered in 30 second to 1 minute bursts; line readings cannot go on to the length of seminar papers — it must be pre-digested; encapsulated.
Scene from Denmark
Scene from Denmark
If this sounds disparaging to the graduate school/seminar mode of thinking and communicating, it is not. What I found, or think I found, was that my seminar training, however difficult and at times embarrassing (for me) was the best possible training for my  creative work as a theater artist. Having to write and speak at length, dialectically, with other dedicated thinker-scholars, makes those 30 second directorial encapsulations (the applied physics) more rigorous, deep, and interesting.
The sports metaphor for this is cross-training: learn to run up the steep hills, and fight running up and down a basketball court is not so difficult; resistance in one activity builds strength for another.

Editor’s Note: we’re looking for more contributions reflecting on the coursework of the 2015-2016 academic year, as well as posts that explore the relationship between creative work and graduate study. Please contact us with your ideas or share them in the comments below.

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