The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Mickey Mouse? Let me at him!
Drama degrees and social stigma
Ben Macpherson

It’s January 2006. It's wet outside. The sky is grey and depressing. Or so I’ve been told. You see, I haven’t been outside for what feels like a lifetime. At least, if I have, then I haven’t noticed. As a final year student studying for my Bachelors degree, the mound of books with corners turned down - opened, closed, fat, thin, old, new, paperback, hardback, worn, underlined, thumbed, useful, useless - has increasingly grown on and over my desk and the accompanying (and now overflowing) bookshelves.

Windows act merely as additional provisions for light under which to run fingers along the veritable dead forest of pages containing oh, so many words. It’s all becoming a blur.

Sound familiar perhaps? If so, then don’t bother reading the rest of this article and do something useful like picking up that book just to your left. (No, not that one; that’s useless. The other one. That’s it).
But does the above sound fantastical and perhaps an over sentimentalised cliche? For those who believe degree courses are easy ways to avoid full time paid employment, then I would urge you to take five minutes out of that hectic routine and read the following. A friend of a friend recently accused me of being lazy, and countless numbers of my peers have all at some stage complained that some associates demean them for always being in debt without a full-time job. Now, this of course gets more complicated when you are a student of Creative Arts or ‘drama’; lovingly termed a ‘mickey mouse degree’ by a friend of mine. This designation immediately conjures up within the ignorant cynic an image of laziness. A brief toe-dipping degree into the world of drama, thespians, and play-acting. What are you possibly going to read about drama? It’s only acting. And anyone can write, it’s only a matter of being creative. Why not do a real degree, if you must; like Biology or History? Well for starters half my family are already hypochondriacs so biology would simply serve to complicate things, and as for History – it’s as speculative a subject as, say, English Literature (the other half of my degree.)

The last paragraph, you may have noted contained a handy little phrase which I believe lies at the heart of the stigma attached to all forms of study related to drama and the performing arts: it’s only a matter of being creative. Indeed it is.

But from where may your inspiration come? In writing a journal article, how do you structure arguments, remain objective, learn to see both sides? In plotting a play, is it going to be naturalistic, didactic, surrealist, absurdist, gothic, post-modern? What qualifies these terms? Will it be more Stanislavski or Brecht? How about the theory through practice of Mamet? Surely his technique of abandoning technique could prove problematic? Then of course, there’s Grotowski or Artaud? Checkov and Brook? Youre going to perform it promenade are you? Why? Is this to make a statement or you just felt like it?

You’re writing a musical are you? Great. Integrated? Revue? Which tradition does it fit in? Who is your inspiration? Why? What’s your intention in having the lead character die? How will the audience react to this? Why do they laugh where you never intended? Be sure not to internalise the action; lets not have that fourth wall there, the audience wont like it. It’s all to do with cultural conditioning, expectation and social acceptability. That’s why Jerry Springer was so controversial; and its operatic structure surely signals cynicism and a sure fire comment about class.

All of the above and more have been questions I have either asked, had to answer, or heard my colleagues discussing in the past three years of studying for a combined degree in Creative Arts. Note that the other half of my degree mentioned above is English Literature; and for any hardened readers who are sceptical that this article may simply be written as a grudge manifesto, then I hope the academic respectability of studying great literary heritage will satiate your distrust.

As for anyone reading this who is somewhat shell-shocked by the above cavalcade of imponderables, I urge you to review your perception of the dramatic arts and related academic study. Where History students have a three hour exam and an essay; drama students have an essay, and a creative/critical/theoretical journal kept throughout the (well over) 100+ hours spent devising, rehearsing and producing of a performance. Oh, and this of course also includes the act of getting up in front of anywhere between fifty and five-hundred people and actually performing the thing. We don’t sit exams with a pen, paper and silent hall. We act exams with spotlight, sweat and an audience. Of course, for me, and countless others sat in their rooms, studying whichever degree they chose - most are now worrying about the 10,000 word dissertation, due for submission in a few months time after weeks of gruelling, independent, self disciplined and detailed research; and that includes drama students studying Mickey Mouse.
It’s wet outside - apparently.
© Ben Macpherson Sept 2006

Ben graduated with a First from the University of Portsmouth this year.

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