Reflecting on the Semester, and Two Musical Musings

Pictured: Not an accurate depiction of my desk.

Earlier this week, I wrapped my second round of Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre, a class that is, in many ways, my sweet spot. Historically, the course has asked a little too much: it’s part script analysis, part dramatic literature, and part dramaturgy, all three of which could easily take up a full semester on their own. There’s also the challenge of teaching some version of the canon while at the same time revising that canon for greater diversity. In short, it’s got a lot of the stuff that interests me, quirks included. I was excited to take another stab at it after learning so much during my first go-around. Back then, I spent a lot of time curating the reading list and adapting previous syllabi (big ups to Jonelle Walker, Jenna Gerdsen, and Allison Hedges) for an online environment. This time, I experimented with structures of grading and community expectations, partly by embracing flexibility and student involvement. The results were largely successful and, as always, very revealing. Here are a handful of (non-prescriptive, totally anecdotal) takeaways.

The Students Responded Well to Flexibility. Last summer, I briefly looked into contract grading, a system that rewards grades primarily according to the amount of work done rather than (potentially arbitrary) rubrics that judge the quality of the work. The systems I looked at never quite suited my needs, but I did adopt a few grading policies that gave students some flexibility and tailored my rubrics to place greater value on meeting each aspect of a prompt. Most assignments had a 24-hour grace period after the due date and a decaying grade that went down by 10% for each 24-hour period afterward until the assignment hit 50%. After that point, students could still turn in the work at any point during the semester. The idea was that they would always get some credit for doing the work, and anyone who was burdened with other life requirements would benefit from some built-in generosity. Amazingly, I can count on one hand the times students turned in work after the 24-hour grace period. Perhaps that’s not a surprise considering I had a small class and considering the student only had to turn in 10 out of 12 writing prompts, with the remaining two prompts counting as extra credit. It’s worth noting, though, that half the students did turn in prompts for extra credit. Again, a small sample size, but I take some encouragement from the fact that 1) students took advantage of the class’s flexibility but rarely to the extent that it harmed their grade and 2) students routinely did more than they were required to do.

Students Filled in the Gaps When Asked. In addition to investigating contract grading, I had previously heard of instructors (colleagues Lindsey Barr and Jordan Ealey among them) taking time out of class to establish community norms with their students. I liked the idea and decided to set aside two portions of the syllabus to be completed as a group: the Participation expectations and the Discussion guidelines. Together, we spent the first class discussing “good” and “bad” examples of each and filling out the syllabus accordingly. I put “good” and “bad” in quotes on the board because oftentimes conventional participation—regularly speaking, engaging with the full body—is mediated by a variety of factors, including ability and culture. To that end, I decided to grade students individually and offer them a chance to appeal if they thought my participation grades were unfair. To their credit, anyone who got less than full points accepted their grade and, in every case, showed demonstrable improvement afterwards. There are a few caveats for these findings, among them the fact that it is, again, a small class that allows for individual meetings and that the guidelines, while agreed upon by the students, are too general to really quantify in points. Nevertheless, I found the students’ responses to these processes very encouraging and I think it set the groundwork for a collaborative class. Speaking of filling the gaps: students were also quick to point out problems in my quizzes, of which there were several. Seeing as how part of the point of the class is to train careful readers, I counted them catching me as a win…

Assessing Play Selections Gave Me More Things to Think About. In addition to completing some of the community requirements of the syllabus together, I distributed a survey at the top of the course that included four options for each play “slot.” Students were asked to identify which plays they had already read and then participate in a follow-up discussion. The idea was that I would use the results to assess the final play selections and ensure we weren’t retreading overly familiar territory. In truth, I already had a rough outline of what I wanted to teach, but the survey and follow-up talk justified that list. I also got good results in an end-of-semester reflection that asked students to write about a play they found engaging, a play that had trouble with, and their overall assessment of the selection. The results revealed a handful of plays that were consistently popular, one that was consistently confusion or even disliked (sorry, The Rover), and an appreciation for the breadth and diversity of the reading list. Students also had great insight on how to improve comprehension, including by releasing play texts earlier (easy fix) and either spending more time on complex texts or picking texts with difficult language but not so difficult stories (a slightly harder fix if you want to teach Early Modern plays).

Note to Self 1: Scaffolding Doesn’t Work as Well When the Heavy Stuff is Backloaded. One of the main objectives of having almost weekly writing assignments was to get students plenty of practice in responding to and analyzing plays. While their writing improved over time, the students seemed confused about some of the expectations around their summative assessments and overwhelmed by the stack of work they had to complete at the end of the semester. I addressed some of this by creating a bonus mini-lecture about writing reviews, but the larger problem seemed to be that all the big assignments were backloaded to around finals when stress is high and there’s little time to process finer-grain feedback. Thankfully, one of my students alerted me to this problem during our final project consultation, and the rest provided thoughtful feedback on how to resolve it. In the end, I pared down the final project and adjusted some due dates to free up more time. The students roundly appreciated the effort and I appreciated the opportunity to address a flaw in my design.

Note to Self 2: Don’t Have an In-Person Class That Could Have Been a Zoom Meeting. This was my first semester back on campus since March of 2020, and I returned determined to (safely) enjoy it. Having been converted to the “flipped” classroom format while working with Caitlin Marshall on the grant-funded redesign of our introductory course, I had every intention of maximizing class time through discussion, group work, and embodied activities. While I would like to think most of the classes employed those tools to good effect, there were a handful that could’ve just as easily been Zoom calls because they were largely stationary discussions. I say this not to minimize discussion, or Zoom classes, or the differences between talking on the computer and talking in person, or all the spontaneous interactions you get in and around the classroom that you don’t get online, but rather to point out that co-presence alone is often an insufficient use of shared time in the classroom, particularly in theatre education. The past two years have energized digital performance and given new edge to debates about theatre’s “requirement” for being there; I won’t resolve any of those debates, but I will say that being there may be different than being online, but if it is supposed to be something truly special, then it needs to be maximized, not taken for granted.

What West Side Story Gets that Tootsie: The Musical Didn’t

Last week, I returned to The National Theatre in Washington, D.C., where I spent the better part of a year combing through the archives preparing a series of historical websites. This time, though, I went as an audience member for Tootsie: The Musical and brought my girlfriend along. Honestly, we would not have gone if the tickets weren’t on the house: I was familiar with accusations of transphobia aimed at the show, and despite my admiration for the film (which is very much of its time and even more worthy of those criticisms), I tend to be wary of movie-to-musical adaptations. Nevertheless, I thought it would be worth enjoying a night at the theatre and thinking through the politics of updating older material to contemporary sensibilities, a subject I wrote on recently with regard to Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The show itself was largely what I expected: cheerfully tongue-in-cheek at moments, kitschy in others, very New York, and never quite able to rid itself of heteronormative anxieties around sex and gender, despite its obvious efforts. If anything, the fact that the show apologizes for itself so profusely, including in a heavy-handed monologue from the best friend character, only made it more grating, especially considering the narrative thrust of the show—angry male actor finds success impersonating a woman and somehow gains a conscience, too—is largely unchanged. It’s maybe a bit hypocritical to say, but sometimes art is better off owning its problematic qualities than offering a limp self-justification.

One musical that did stick the landing (critically, if not commercially) on its updates was the new West Side Story film, arriving 60 years after the first thanks to the efforts of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. West Side Story has always been the subject of controversy: the original Broadway production struggled to get funding because its subject matter and protests against the paper-thin characterizations of the Puerto Rican characters have been levied at it since day one (check the bibliography in the link for sources on the subject). Spielberg and Kushner’s new West Side Story addresses some of that by fleshing out the characters and adjusting some of the numbers; “America,” for example, starts as a playful back and forth between the men and women before evolving into an ecstatic communal number that takes up the streets. Much of the characters’ dialogue is also in Spanish, which is presented without subtitles and, very often, without English translations clumsily shoehorned into other characters’ speech. I don’t know that Latin audiences will every truly feel like they have stakes in West Side Story, but that second choice alone ensures many of them will be spoken to, quite literally, in ways this film’s predecessors did not. Interestingly, while the film does important work in updating the Puerto Rican characters, it also presents the White characters, mainly the Jets, in a more incisive light. Riff and the gang are immediately and deliberately positioned as the aggressors in a rapidly diversifying New York, a place undergoing radical gentrification. The shame they feel about being left behind, a shame that is so often compounded by xenophobia and siphoned into racist violence, is made explicit by Lieutenant Schrank in his very first appearance. These shades of historicization speak to Kushner’s grasp of the social dynamics at play during this period, a grasp that, with all due respect, exceeded that of original librettist Arthur Laurents.

Naturally, the film is still West Side Story. It’s still brash and balletic, it still has some awkward dramaturgical and tonal shifts, and it still runs on the engine of teenage infatuation that will always oversimplify its racial politics. But a lot of what has always been thrilling about the musical remains, and a lot of the changes, from the addition of the Rita Moreno’s Valentina to shifting “Cool” to before the rumble, really work. The vast majority of the performances, with the exception of Ansel Elgort’s voice, work too, and you can expect the cast to be full of Oscar contenders. It may not convince any doubters and it may not fully answer the eternal “why now?” question, but if it has to exist, it exists in arguably the best form it can. It also gets a lot of credit from me for aiming at a more accurate and honest portrayal of the past rather than apologizing for the problematic politics at its center. Sometimes that’s the best you can ask of a “modern” update—that and some truly thrilling dance numbers, filmed with old-school flair an American master in Spielberg, a longtime fan of the original who looks like he’s had a musical in his pocket his whole career.

My Favorite Sondheim

Like most red-blooded theatre folk, I was moved by the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, the Dean of the American Musical Theatre. I say “moved” because as sad as death is, the passing of a true great often prompts as much celebration and reflection as it does mourning, especially for those of us who only really know greats like Sondheim by his work. It is worth noting that those who did know Sondheim personally were full of praise not only for his artistry but for his mentorship and encouragement. To depart this world after life like that—long, successful, full of friends and students—is something most of us can only dream of.

There is a lot to celebrate about Sondheim, both in terms of individual works and overall contributions to the form, and far more educated people than me have written far more eloquent tributes than I can. What I will say is that I, like so many, have a favorite. Well, maybe two: I used to show the filmed production of Into the Woods to classes all the time and it will probably be the one I hum the most in my old age. But the one that still resonates with me most is Company. For years that was because I, like Robert, was a perpetual third wheel who never seemed suited for relationships. The fact that my middle name is Robert seemed to make it all the more apt. Now, a year and a half into a serious, loving relationship, it all hits a little differently. I’m still thrilled by the many variations of “Bobby” layered into the opening, the crescendo in “Side by Side by Side,” the technical demands of “Getting Married Today,” the head-bopping fun of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and so on. Now, though, I find myself responding to the ambivalence of “Sorry-Grateful” and the terrified yearning of “Being Alive,” songs I always respected but never quite loved. “Being Alive” is especially remarkable because it captures so much in such simple lyrics. All Robert asks for, over and over again, is someone to want too much of him: to hold him too close, hurt him too deep, need him too much, know him too well, someone who has to be let in, have their feelings spared, who expects him to care, and so on. On the surface, it seems like accepting a dreadful loss of self by entering into a partnership, but the yearning in the music is so poignant that you can feel it overpowering Robert’s fear. That tension is something present-day Jared understands much better than the Jareds of yore.

I like to think the great works reward repeat encounters and grow up along with us. That has certainly be true of Company for me, and I suspect it’s been true of at least one Sondheim musical for every Sondheim fan.

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