Eric Abele

Costume & Puppet Designer

Teaching Philosophy

As an essential element of education, it is our duty to give students an inherent understanding of the fundamental questions of humanity. In higher education, we should transition our students from a test-oriented culture to a thinking one, where wisdom is valued over knowledge. I instruct students that it is their educated opinion that matters in life, not their ability to retain and then regurgitate fact.

This is not to refute that, as a matter of principle, theatre education should be oriented towards product. Given that our very art is generated to be shared with an audience, most often at the price of an admission ticket, we are an art form dedicated to producing a commodity. However we do a student a strong disservice not to invest deeply in the process of theatre creation: to expound on the themes of text, to ponder the questions of humanity, and to manifest abstract concepts into physical being. It is at the level in which a student is prepared to engage, either undergraduate or graduate, that should dictate the level of balance between process or product oriented theatre education.

Undergraduate theatre education should be a thorough introduction to the art form as a whole, without producing highly specialized young artists. The inherent goals for undergraduate education should be exposure and freedom. We should introduce broad theatre arts concepts and grant students the ability to explore those tenets that most interest them within a reasonable and skill-building session of study. This type of education should heavily emphasize writing and reading, with an equally strong component being the practice of theatre.

Specific to the discipline of design, I believe in the cooperative experience of the design process, with secondary emphasis on design product. At the undergraduate level, students should engage in the process of research and play analysis, and use a liberal base of instruction to draw connections from the text to the world around them. Students should then be given specific instruction and experience in the skills needed to apply their research to a production including, but not limited to, drawing, model-making, sewing, carpentry, etc. If the student can successfully engage the intellectual and then the practical processes of design, then he or she will be an excellent candidate for any graduate program in which specific design skills can be mastered.

Additionally, students of all levels need to experience as much theatre as possible, both as audience participants and as active production assistants. Students should experience the range of theatre production from acting, directing, design to technology, and through arts administration within their undergraduate education experience. This approach has a two-fold outcome: the students will sample each aspect to perhaps discover preferences and the students will have a deeper understanding of the entire community of skills necessary to produce an evening of theatre. This creates young artists who are more likely to gain employment post-graduation because they are versatile, empathetic, and capable to go above and beyond their job descriptions for the good of the company.

By contrast, graduate education is where the candidate, who has experienced a variety of theatre aspects and has demonstrated a professional aptitude towards a specific set of skills, is prepared to become a consummate professional in the field of theatre. The inherent goals for graduate education should be excellence and professionalism. Excellence in graduate education begins with careful graduate recruitment. The ideal candidate for graduate training is one who is prepared for the rigorous journey of perfecting his or her art, not one to be schooled in the fundamentals. The three-year MFA program should be a systematic and incremental journey toward perfection of the artist to the best of his or her abilities. This process can be made successful only through choosing the highest quality candidates who have the most to gain from a particularly suited graduate program.

During the course of the design MFA, candidates should be professionally prepared for their careers through training in three fundamental areas inherent to a chosen medium: art, technology, and business. The art emphasis is not only the practice of drawing (or any other device by which we express our ideas) but also in the understanding of the art form as a whole. This is the area in which we study history, anthropology, psychology, architecture, literature, and visual art to develop the candidate as a thinking and engaging contributor to theatre. The practice of theatre design is about making a series of highly intuitive and educated choices about a particular aspect. If we do not push our candidates to be thinkers, first and foremost, then they will not have the faculties to push the boundaries of text past the most conventional of realizations.

In terms of technology, candidates must have an innate understanding of that which they ask others to create. For example, a costume designer is poor indeed if he or she does not grasp the tenets of garment construction. Understanding the output product of the medium creates the strongest possible type of working designer. This permits the designer to make informed choices regarding budget, time, and personnel from the drawing table and beyond. Our craft transforms past the sketch and grows into creation through the hands of skilled artisans. A technologically savvy designer will have the ability to take their profound artistic understanding and coordinate the production team in manifesting the design into reality by the most effective manner possible.

Finally we must instruct our candidates on the business of theatre and assist them in crafting a professional image that will take them to the most successful point of the career they desire. We must not allow someone to complete an MFA program without demonstrating the fundamentals of how to find or generate work, how to interview, how to teach, how to prepare portfolios, how to network, etc. Additionally we need them to understand the structures of professional theatre, from Broadway to a community based non-profit, tax law, union structures, and methods in bidding out work. These are skills that will always take a lifetime to hone and refine no matter how in-depth an education one receives. However we can give our graduates the greatest possible chance of success by preparing them for the real world: where theatre becomes about meeting deadlines, not just about realizing ephemeral concepts.

In both graduate and undergraduate education models, I believe most strongly in the concept of teaching through mentorship. I am always willing to act more like a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage,” shifting from being a fountain of knowledge to a facilitator of learning. This means creating a structure of organization with the students so that their process does not become chaotic, but also knowing when to release the structure occasionally to allow creativity to emerge through stream of consciousness or free expression. The end product of this type of learning is intrinsic: he or she emerges as a freer thinker, who tends to ask “why” more often than “how”.

Through mentorship, an integral sense of educational ownership shifts the responsibility from the teacher to the student: the students are allowed to form their own opinions of the subject, are allowed multiple viewpoints, and most importantly are able to affect the outcome of their environment. The role of the mentor then largely becomes that of facilitator and respondent, as opposed to rote instructor. A key concept to this model is that of permitting failure within a safe environment. Students must feel secure enough in their educational environment to take bold, risky choices in their work, which may ultimately fail in multiple outcomes. I as a mentor then must create a model of feedback and reflection, to allow the student to gauge the success or failure of a particular project through their own criteria, while ensuring that the final product is always being pushed towards a place of individual, rather than standardized, excellence.

A world of discovery and expression can be awakened in the curriculum oriented to process. Students need an outlet in which they have the chance for their inner thinkers to emerge. Although I see the merit and necessity of traditional academic forms, I cannot help but love how a constructivist classroom elicits a true expression of creativity and not just a demonstration of inherent talent. I therefore endeavor to infuse my classroom with a deep sense of caring for the success of each individual student. Combined with this constructivist approach, students learn best from a nurturing human being, not a remote and distant instructor. This is the cornerstone of excellence in education, where every instructor and course stimulates the student to become a curious scholar of the human experience.

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