Statement of Teaching Philosophy

I approach the classroom in much the same way I approach the rehearsal stage and the archives: with a passion for balancing historical and contemporary context, an unshakeable belief in each new generation’s ability to find their particular artistic voice and place, and a commitment to fostering collaborative creation. After several years serving as an instructor at the college and university level, my belief that Hollywood’s "Inspiring Keeper of Wisdom" trope—in which a singular professor cuts through administration blockades and student apathy thanks to sheer charisma and personal chutzpah—is not only an outdated view of education and metacognition, but counterproductive to the student-centric educational models to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. I strongly believe the modern educator and artist's job is not to fill students' heads with single-perspective knowledge, but to help and encourage them to discover, explore, and think critically about their life and world, to see beyond the limiting barriers of “high” and “low” art, to question the master narratives of both the mainstream and the counter-culture, and to recognize human cultural output—especially as understood under the broad umbrella of “performance”—as interconnected, rhizomatic, and approachable.


Lofty ambitions and cognitive theory aside, what does the above mean in a practical, day-to-day sense? First, it means a broad dedication to viewing every activity, lesson-plan, and rehearsal space through an expanded lens of ‘Universal Design’ principles. Building on my experience and scholarship in Disability Studies, I have come to strongly believe in the vital role accessibility-mindedness plays in educational settings for all participants, and strive—in line with Universal Design dictates—to not retroactively “compensate” for the student who expresses challenges, but rather to create an atmosphere in which every participant can seek answers drawing on their own strengths. By selecting projects which allow multiple pathways to knowledge, building creative choices and flexible structures into assessments, and approaching topics from multiple angles, every student has an opportunity to thrive. I have had the good fortune to practice these skills in everything from tiny workshop settings to course lectures of well over one hundred participants, and have seen that upfront structure and preparation—not classroom size—is the greatest determiner of success. 


It also means an historian’s head paired with a guerrilla theatre director’s heart. Looking through the last hundred and fifty years of Western Theatre progress—from Antoine and Méténier in Paris to Stanislavski and Piscatore in Moscow; from Weill and Brecht in Berlin to Clurman, Crawford, and Strasberg in New York; and from Sinese, Kinney, and Perry in Chicago to the Rachel Chavkin and the Team in NY today, it has been young, fresh-out-of-college, ready-to-take-on-the-world and bored-with-the-status-quo artists and thinkers that have created each new revolution. I view it as my privilege to help connect the next group of students to this artistic pedigree, and to help ensure they have the strength and confidence to find their way.


Most importantly, it means knowing that no one can say what that “way” might be. Unlike what I see as a false binary between “theatre as a liberal art” and “theatre as a vocation,” I work hard to make sure every student recognizes the real-world skills they are developing without pre-emptively limiting their application. Noting our ethical duty to consider what our students will do once they leave our institution, I am just as interested in helping a Business & Marketing student understand the influence of the street mountebanks and commedia performers on their profession as I am in helping a young performer prepare for a career on the stage. I try to ensure the very definition of theatre is called into question as we explore performativity as a natural human act of communication and community-building, appreciating that the interaction between a performer and an audience member—regardless of the presence of a formal theatre—is something nearly everyone experiences on a daily basis. Along with this "theatricalization" of educating non-majors, I work in the reverse means with those who are preparing for a professional career in theatre; from encouraging technical students to take OSHA workshops and physics classes to performers training in appropriate body and wellness care to ensuring those students interested in arts management or starting their own theatres have spent time in grant-writing lectures and non-profit business strategy coursework. I have seen palpable examples of the usefulness and success in helping non-majors find the "art" in their own lines of work, and helping majors find the "science" in theirs, and know from experience and feedback that this approach has helped many of my past students excel as they move on from school. 

In short, with every class I teach I seek to connect theatre and performance to students' own experiences and goals, and the outside world back to theatre. Happily, when actors are hired to help train doctors with bedside manners, when the argument between Aristotelian and Brechtian storytelling directly applies to Madison Avenue, when Apple owes as much to Steve Job’s theatrics as it does to computer programmers, and when characters on contemporary sitcoms can be cleanly traced back to 16th-century Italian street comedy, the connections are not hard to make. Through hands-on projects (student-devised, when possible), research opportunities, and holding everyone to his or her personal best, I hope students leave the classroom with far more than a notebook full of temporarily memorized facts, and that they see their relationship with theatre as infinitely more complex than standing in a spotlight.

If I were to leave with you any single impression of my passion for teaching theatre and performance studies, it would be this: I teach theatre because I truly believe it is a vital, all-encompassing subject, pulling from all areas of the arts, history, technology, communications, and so much more. Theatre is not merely a hobby or entertainment; it is the cornerstone of macro-communication, of storytelling, oral history, and culture. It is, and has forever been, intertwined with education, politics, religion, and revolution. As a theatre teacher, my primary concern is not trying to convince students to "add" theatre to their lives but instead to understand how big of an influence theatre has already had on their world. 
 

© 2018 by John Michael Sefel. This website features photography by Jarod Tseng Photography, Kat Alee Photography, Brandi Sees Photography, and Andrea Stasio.

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