One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: It involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure.
Two weeks ago, I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission was to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at Queen Mary, to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.
We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity, and seeing it through her eyes, as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic.
Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like, once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.
Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing – 25 students from across the university, plus two instructors, will jet to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.
How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course?
In April, MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year, she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in Media Studies, Sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.
While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ. Instead of ‘taking’ (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre?
We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for Destination Theatre, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter, she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee.
And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre ‘intensive,’ helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.
We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would, without question, prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.
I won’t lie. Despite our faith in Caity, and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.
Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.
She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential U.K. partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators.
For example, MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students; she bet both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.
She also reminded us students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists. For many of them, this will be their first journey to the U.K. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud or the London Eye (the huge Ferris wheel on the South Bank), and, of course, many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment.
But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so. They might be tacky, sure, she told us, but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is. They will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.
In the spring, I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s ‘dry run’ will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.
Kim Solga is a professor in English and Writing Studies. This entry originally appeared on her blog, The Activist Classroom, theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com.