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Some Thoughts on Teaching

My approach to teaching is one that understands performance as both an object of study and a method of learning. Because performance entails visual, auditory, and kinesthetic ways of knowing, I have found that it can serve as a helpful tool not only for those who wish to pursue careers in the arts and humanities, but also for those who wish to strengthen their critical thinking skills and develop a deeper understanding of human behavior and political circumstances. My pedagogical practice stems from my experience as a theater artist, as well as from my graduate work in performance studies and undergraduate training in philosophy and English literature. On my own educational journey, I have had the privilege to move between a smaller college setting, with its intensive Core curriculum, and large, research-focused institutions. I have also had the opportunity to work and study at both private institutions as well as public institutions in the U.S. and abroad. As a result of this process, I have come to understand the great benefits of integrating a more holistic liberal arts education, in which students are encouraged and supported to expand their artistic and intellectual sensibilities through individual attention, with an expanded university context of interdisciplinary and community collaboration.

In both the seminar room and the studio, I work to achieve a balance between an emphasis on interdisciplinary forms while also maintaining a rigorous commitment to the methodologies, literatures, and practices of the disciplines I engage. Through a combination of workshops, lectures, invited guests, in-class and online discussions, and individual and collaborative assignments (both scholarly and creative), I guide my students not only to digest, but also to critique inherited frameworks. I help them to situate dramatic texts, theatrical productions, and theoretical interventions in their larger socio-historical contexts. I challenge them to examine how our varied roles are inflected by intersecting categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability. I am emphatic with my students about the primary importance of close-reading skills: be it marking the beats of a dramatic scene, deciphering important directorial choices in a live performance, or pinpointing the logical moves and rhetorical shifts of an argument. And I am also adamant about the fundamental importance – no matter the choice of major, or of future life goals – of learning how to write critically, effectively, comfortably, even adventurously. I help students to see that writing well – like playwriting, directing, and devising – greatly benefits from a deep familiarity and fluency with a particular set of guidelines, and I encourage them to develop the necessary knowledge and expertise so that they feel permitted ultimately to break those rules.

When teaching directing, adaptation, and devised theater, I emphasize a detailed historical focus on important figures in twentieth and twenty-first century directing theory and ensemble-based creation, while also provoking students to explore a range of intermedial practices that engage the shifting role of the text, music, site-specificity, street performance, spectacle, as well as a repertoire of postdramatic paradigms: collage, surreal experience, vaudeville, dream image, parataxis, and simultaneity. Ultimately, my practice-oriented courses – be they introductory or more advanced – aim to help students cultivate an ability to engage critically, ethically, and actively with their peers, their community, and their art. From the first day of the semester, I place a great amount of emphasis on generosity, personal responsibility, and the importance of ensemble. I believe – and I communicate this over and over again – that good theater making depends on the individual’s ability to react to others and to the world at large with openness and presence. I help students to discover that the optimal conditions for reaction – poise, spontaneity, and specificity – are themselves predicated on mutual trust and respect.

Whether I am teaching directing, theater history, or dramatic theory, I work to establish the classroom as a safe space and as a dialogic space. Rather than relying on a model of teaching in which the professor deposits knowledge in students’ minds, I aim to create an environment of critical inquiry where students actively participate in the processes of knowledge creation. My goal is to help students make their own discoveries and to equip them with the resources, contexts, and confidences to do so. In order to build this confidence, one tactic I employ is to introduce materials – be it avant-garde texts, obscure performances, dense theoretical analyses, or controversial political events – that attempt to push students (way) beyond their comfort zones, while also being careful, encouraging, and compassionate in greeting the fear and frustration that sometimes comes from being pushed in new ways. When I was an undergraduate, I was very fortunate to have a few instructors who were insistent on the importance of tackling these kinds of challenging materials as a means of emphasizing – instead of tabooing – that there are many individualized ways of accessing and generating ideas about a text or performance, while also remaining patient, understanding, and supportive of the resistance I had to being challenged to think beyond the notion of a “right” answer. I am very open with my students when I adopt this approach, and I assure them that I am always available to discuss and work through any concerns they might have. In their evaluations of my teaching, students consistently note that my classes are filled with passion and enthusiasm, and that they find me to be open, patient, and accessible. As one student in my “History of Theater & Drama II” course wrote at the end of our semester together (in spring 2017): “Brandon is very good at making students feel welcome and comfortable to speak in class. His classes enabled free discussions and I really felt like I was able to speak without feeling inhibited in anyway. He is also very approachable and that helps! It’s nice to know that your professor cares and Brandon cares!”

In the classroom, as in my research and theater practice, I am committed to exploring the interrelations of theory and practice, scholarship and public engagement. I encourage my students to make connections between the university and the surrounding community, assigning projects that take them from the library to the stage, and from the classroom to the field. For example, at NYU, I reconceived our “Theory of Drama” course as a seminar on “Thinking Antigone,” using the classic heroine to introduce dramatic and performance theories ranging from Hegel’s tragic collision to contemporary questions about gender, race, and activist politics. Our unit on “Avant-Garde Antigone” explored the conjunctures of performance, political action, and the politics of theatrical adaptation. Various Antigone adapters and critical interlocutors served as vehicles to guide students through detailed analyses of dramatic and theoretical source texts. Simultaneously, these varied Antigones became a springboard to help students consider their own roles as activist-artists and to think about what an “aesthetics of protest” might look like and how tactical performance could be useful both on campus and beyond. In addition to longer research projects culminating in a final essay, students also crafted activist Antigone manifestos (that coincided with election season) as well as group performance experiments to better understand the way the dramatic literature classroom might also constitute a laboratory for aesthetic, conceptual, and political experimentation.

Teaching in and between the arts and humanities, I find it especially useful to help students think about and work through the practical (and often less glamorous) side of artistic and academic labor and the ways these practicalities inform and affect that labor. For instance, this coming spring I will co-teach a course on “Curating Radical Performance” with Jay Wegman, the new director of NYU’s Skirball Center. This course will chart a theoretical trajectory from more classical debates about aesthetics and politics to more contemporary questions about precarious labor and project-based work. Through trips to the theater and classroom visits from artists like Gob Squad, festival curators, and artistic directors from various New York “downtown” theaters, students will also develop a vocabulary to analyze the aesthetics of contemporary, interdisciplinary performance. Together we will also develop a familiarity with the funding instruments and policy decisions that impact the kind of work being produced in New York. Students will collaborate on and submit grant applications for (fictional) curatorial festival projects and will serve as jury members in a mock selection process. This examination of the paradoxes and hidden assumptions behind those (ever-dreadful) grant applications will help students develop a deeper understanding of the infrastructural and administrative dimensions of making and presenting theater today. I taught a similar course in spring 2012 at the Freie Universität Berlin about Berlin’s off-theater scene. The strategic interweaving of theoretical debates, aesthetic approaches, and hands-on practical administrative and artistic work sought to fill a particular gap in the teaching curriculum and resulted in extremely positive student evaluations, saying things like: “Thank you very very much! One of the most meaningful seminars until now, especially in exploring the complicated relations between academics and artistic practice.”