Propose, Experience, Fail, Learn, Repeat: some (more) thoughts on teaching theatre history

Last year I submitted a course syllabus and accompanying (ir)rationale for “TH3171 – Theatre History from the Ancient Greeks to the Neo-Classical Age” to this forum. The (ir)rationale allowed me to elaborate on my choice to teach the canon against itself, as it were, by teaching skills for deconstructing the materials we encountered as we encountered them. I named my plan of action tactical failure: “I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address [Steve] Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’”

I’m writing now to report on that experience. In the words of Lisa Le Feuvre, “Even if one sets out to fail, the possibility of success is never eradicated, and failure once again is ushered in.”* These words describe a paradox at the heart of failure pedagogy; namely, that the results of tactical failure will likely lead to great confusion. Did I succeed in failing? Is that even possible? What precisely have I succeeded in doing by performing the limitations of traditional theatre history survey courses? Did my performed failures elucidate anything for the students or were they just plain old infelicitous attempts at action—non-exciting failures (fizzles?), as opposed to productive failures? After reflecting on the highs and lows of that particular course, I came to two realizations:

  1. Tactical failure [as described in my (ir)rationale] helps to teach students the value of self-reflexivity and the benefit of asking good questions: What is this source that I’m reading? Who translated this text? How much of my contemporary, U.S.-based, privileged viewpoint is shaping my reception of this medieval play (for example)? These questions are fantastic, and students recognizably appreciated grappling with them.
  2. Tactical failure did not offer clear strategies for reading old texts, nor does it offer insight into the art of theatre scholarship, by which I mean the craft of doing research.

In short, tactical failure encouraged students to research topics on their own, but it did not teach them the skills to undertake that research. After reflecting on that experience, I decided to approach the 2012 version of TH3171 from a completely different angle. My main goal was to teach strategies for undertaking historical research, thereby introducing theatre history through the doing of historiographical inquiry. I divided the semester into three sections. Section one presented Ancient Greek tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, and Noh Theater as the foci of a case study on Ancient Theater. Through lectures and class discussion, I modeled strategies for learning about these historically specific theatrical practices and introduced students to how historians and theatre scholars have gone about studying these events that happened so long ago. Section two introduced the concept of comedy and asked students to track how comedy had changed from the time of Terence to Molière’s day, and from seventeenth-century France to the world of Aphra Behn and Restoration England. Section three presented a rigorous research project to students that challenged them to practice the ideas we have explored in the first two parts of the course. Guided by detailed prompts (available on the Faculty Club page), students generated research journals and blogs to share their research process; they locate diverse materials—texts, visual art, secondary sources—that lead to an in-depth understanding of an assigned topic such as Yoruban ritual, Russian Theatre pre-1750, and Tudor Drama (to name but a few). Distilling all of their information, students presented a lecture or a performance to the rest of the class that elucidated their specific topic and helped the class to understand how they went about their historical research. By asking them to construct an annotated bibliography while undertaking their research, I was able to collate all of their sources and distribute a lengthy bibliography to the class at the end of the semester.

The experience of teaching this syllabus called to mind the words of Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman: “Failure is an argument for acceptance. To embrace failure is to surrender the will to control.”** Instead of revealing the inability of canonical works to illuminate the mysteries of the world through tactical failure, I found myself letting go of the reins to the class so that the students could collaborate with one another and inch towards their own discoveries. The relaxing of my grip on the class did not mean that I could not teach lessons. Reading Odai Johnson’s essay on Terence and genocidal memory (in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions) during the first section of the course, for example, allowed me to turn the class’s attention toward the power of absence in the archive. It was only through the doing of the research project, however, that students could put the knowledge gleaned from that article into practice. The effort of completely remaking my theater history syllabus yielded great surprises and a sense of satisfaction among the students that they were learning skills they could transfer to other courses. I will happily re-deploy this syllabus in the future, and I invite you all to borrow from and adapt my assignment prompts to fit your needs.


* Failure, ed. Lisa Le Feuvre, (Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 12.

** Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman, “The Anatomy of Failure: An inventory,” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts vol. 17, no. 1 (2012): 110.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Allan Davis March 29, 2013 at 11:11 am

This sounds exciting . I had two questions (or rather two areas of question). But I seem to have issues posting them so I am going to try posting them separately:

1) How did the course you teach fit into a larger departmental curriculum? I noticed it is a 3000 level course; does that mean it was mostly juniors and seniors that were primarily theatre majors? Did the class fulfill a GE or core requirement that might have pulled in non-majors? Did students in it already take a 2000 level theatre survey course? If it is a class primarily for theatre majors, how does it engage with other curricular requirements in more production or craft oriented classes?

I like that your syllabus and project forefront teaching not the what but the how of theatre historiography and that one of the goals outlined is “To think of research as a collective undertaking as well as an individual activity.” I was wondering if and how you might have modeled how the skills they develop as student historiographers might then transfer to other spaces. Because like you said on the first go around with tactical failure, they engaged with the questions of interrogating sources and thinking of their own subjectivity which seems like it might then transfer to other experiences or outlooks they’ll have. In focusing now on developing the skills component, how did (or do) you see this course fitting into a larger or departmental curricular experience?

Allan Davis March 29, 2013 at 11:12 am

And for the second question:

2) Did any of the student design their argument in a mode that was not a lecture style? Did students stage their argument as a performance or a ritual? I love the idea of giving them the freedom to explore different possibilities for conveying arguments about their research. Were these different formats modeled throughout the course as well or are there courses at your institution that introduce that possibility earlier in their course work?

Will Daddario April 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm

And thanks for your questions.
Here’s a brief answer. Feel free to contact me for more details.

The Theatre History sequence is offered to mostly sophomore students, though there are always numerous juniors and seniors in each course. We have between 60 and 75 student in the class each semester. This class allows BFA and BA students to come together, which presents many possibilities to me as a teacher. I can, for example, treat the classroom space as a place where students with different training can share their knowledge with their fellow students.

The curriculum has not been revamped for quite some time, so the specific role of this class in relation to the overall curriculum is not entirely clear. Theatre History is not a writing intensive class, which means students are not expected to write a lot, nor are they expected to spend a tremendous amount of time revising their written work prior to turning it in. Some of the students will enter the class with knowledge gleaned from Introduction to Theatre, knowledge that prepares them to think about theatre as a producer of political relationships, theatre as a social event, etc. Other students will not bring this perspective into the classroom. From my perspective, I want all students, regardless of their previous experiences, to leave the class understanding how theatre has participated historically in the construction of ideologies and material social relationships. They can take this knowledge into their practice-based courses and, hopefully, analyze their scripts through this understanding.

Here’s the big point: I don’t want Theatre History to become a part of the curriculum. It shouldn’t be relegated to the sidelines as the place where students do critical thinking. Instead, I want to reveal how all aspects of theatre production and criticism require and thrive off creative and dynamic thinking such as the kind we practice in Theatre History. Still more important: learning to think historically about anything/everything will help you to engage the complexity of the world. Attending to complexity makes better actors, but also designers, politicians, writer, people in general.

Regarding your second question: most students did a lecture. One group tried to do a ritual event linked to the Roman spectacles of death. The presentation was hindered by a lack of framing. I think the students realized that creating a performance would require much more time than the class allowed, and so they defaulted to the traditional lecture style in order to convey the bulk of their findings.

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