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EnRAPTORed with J. E. Johnson and Karen Maness

Thursday, November 30, 2017

By Brittany Worthington, Marketing Student Assistant

Neon Enron Raptor HeadWhen the UT Department of Theatre and Dance selected Lucy Prebble’s play, Enron, for the 2017-2018 season, they were presented with a unique production challenge. The play, which chronicles the energy behemoth’s downfall from “America’s Most Innovative Company” to the most implicated, uses velociraptors to represent debt hidden behind special-purpose entities.

To bring these cretaceous financial metaphors to life would be very resource intensive and beyond the capacity of the Department of Theatre and Dance to produce on top of an already ambitious production. The raptors would either have to be purchased or outsourced to a third party.

That is, until TPA Scenic Studio Supervisor J. E. Johnson and TPA Scenic Art Supervisor Karen Maness heard about the project and saw a rare opportunity for classroom innovation. Johnson and Maness designed an independent study that would bring together sixteen students of varying backgrounds to build three light-up raptor suits to be worn and operated live on-stage.

What follows is a conversation about the successes, stumbles, and surprises of bringing these dinosaurs—and a new learning process—to life.

What is the purpose of this class and the raptors?

J. E.: First, it’s to solve a production problem for the Department of Theatre and Dance. But outside of solving that production problem, it’s to demonstrate a way of teaching that is pretty rare on campus in that, as instructors, we’re trying to sit in the back of the class as much as possible and encourage students to seek out their own research rather than to depend on our expertise and direction.

Karen: Just like they would in a professional job. We’re trying to recreate that here. We’re supporting them, in terms of our facilities, guidance, and keeping them from going too far down the wrong road. We are going to let them fail quickly and address those failures.

J. E.: We’re working on how to make people comfortable with that environment of uncertainty and making sure that they have the agency to solve problems on their own.

Karen: A big part of our plan is to connect them to as many professionals [as possible]. We are encouraging them in their research to dive deeply into the internet to find the best people in the world who have solved these same problems, learn from them, and engage them as collaborators. We’ve been bringing in guest artists, from architecture, film, theatre, and marketing to talk about project management, marketing strategies, how to brand yourself, how to share your message, and how to position yourself as one of makers and creators of this world. We have a special effects artist coming in from Hollywood shortly, and we have a master prop artist for TV and Broadway coming in from New York.

J. E.: And the great thing about depending on experts besides ourselves, is that students hear all kinds of voices in different ways saying similar things. It’s not just us lecturing every morning. All the guest artists we’ve had in have said so many great things, some things that I never would have thought of, but a lot of times they reinforce what we’ve talked about in class. And since it’s coming from another voice, especially one outside of the university, they have—on some level for students—a bit more credibility. It’s hard to get away from this university world/real world thing—and it is a thing—but we’re trying to break down that barrier. And I think that’s good for the university and our students.

Karen: I think we are a unique position in that we are technologists and artists and designers. We intentionally created this class as an independent study and the 16 people in it are from multiple disciplines, so we are looking outside the College of Fine Arts students to build bridges between other departments. Our guest artist Ben Bays from the Radio Television and Film department was excited to join in our collaborative process, replying, “this sounds like a class from the future!”

J. E.: We’ve been really encouraged by the enthusiasm all of our guest artists have. People are so excited to see students working on this stuff.

Karen: And we’ve been actively engaging in social media throughout this course and we’re asking our students to blog. Actually, one of their assignments is to create experience documentation like small videos about their investigations and put them out into the world.  J. E. built a Facebook page, and now, from all our mutual connections, we have scenic shops in New York looking at us, fabricators of themed attractions in Orlando looking at us, the Imagineers at Disney, Hollywood filmmakers. We have eyes on us from coast to coast. It’s huge, all in the space of a week!

J. E.: I want to emphasize that Karen and I are mid-career so we have a good roster of connections. I feel like between our experience and those connections and the resources at UT, that’s how we’re able to really help.

Karen: We’re hitting this really sweet time and place.

J. E.: And I think what the university can do is take advantage of the people we have here, not necessarily our knowledge…we’re seeking knowledge together. The internet has the knowledge and our guest artists have the knowledge. So it’s a different kind of work as an instructor; we’re not preparing a lectures but it’s a lot of working getting those moving parts together and making sure students hear the same message in different ways.

Karen: I just really want to thank J. E. He’s so good at structures and systems. He’s strong at things I am not strong at and vice versa so we’re powerful collaborators in this. It’s been fantastic. He brought the idea of mind mapping and design thinking to help our students be able to go directly into the workforce and be hirable immediately upon graduation.

J. E.: I keep telling people this class would not be possible ten years ago. We’re taking advantage of all these tools that are out there today.

How did the students respond to being given more power in their class?

J. E.: They’re still responding.

Karen: There’s definitely still this imposter syndrome.

J. E.: Yeah, we got out in front of it on the first day, in the first minutes of class and talked about imposter syndrome. And the thing is, it doesn’t go away. Oscar winning actors have imposter syndrome. So we talked about that explicitly… we all will feel that way. But I know from my own research and change initiatives, particularly in higher education, students can be very slow to accept the trust that you’re giving them because they don’t really believe it. Student “initiative” and “agency” is given a lot of lip service in education, but when it comes down to it, the teacher is still in control.

Karen: There is this great exercise that J. E. put out in front of the students with this whole mind mapping activity. He had them do an organizational chart of the class so the students had to self-organize. We’re trying to encourage a flat organization where it’s not so hierarchical and it’s hard for a lot of the students to do.

J. E.: They naturally wanted to elect representatives and create this pyramid and literally in some of these org charts it said, “Karen and J.E. have all the power.” And so that gave us the opportunity to say, “No, YOU guys have all the power.” I try to think of it in terms of coaching. Coaches are not out there running the plays or out catching the football or throwing it. And they can only help a player improve if they want to. They can’t force anyone to play better if they don’t want to.

Karen: And the students are really rising to the occasion. It was exciting on the first prototype day; we didn’t just have pieces of the prototype we had a wearable one on day one of prototypes. It was fantastic. And so we have our first wearable prototype on week five. That’s what the director will see.

How do you let students fail productively?

Karen: It’s hard!

J. E. Like I said, we have a lot of experience but all experience is, is informed decision making. And we just have a lot more information. Because we’re more familiar with some of the materials, it’s easy for us to say, “have you tried, this, this, this, and this,” but then we’re the experts again and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Karen: It shuts down their exploration because they come up with things we never would have and potentially way better ideas. Also J. E. brought in from his research into education and design thinking etc. to bring in those three words: I like, I wish, I wonder, and that’s how we frame our feedback so it’s not shutting anybody down and it enables us to ask really candid questions.

How do you think the lessons/strategies of this class can be applied elsewhere?

J. E.: We all go, “oh I have this project due so I’m going to work on it.” And you feel as long as you’re working on it, you’re doing what you need to be doing even if that work is totally not what is going to get you to your goal. I think our goals here are to be hyperfocused on the goals for the next week and it’s just a loop: What have you accomplished this week? What’s your goal for next week? and What’s going to keep you from achieving that goal? Which I think helps in any endeavor that’s academic.

Karen: And beyond academic. Life, business, strategies, the future, finance. But this is rarely taught in the arts. I never received this education and it’s one of the great failings of art education.

J. E.: On the other side of the coin, it’s like the best kept secret that participating in theater is awesome collaborative training. People graduate and leave from here thinking, “Oh, I just did theater.” They don’t realize much of that training is very valuable to businesses right now. So we’re just trying to be more explicit about that and by the end we really hope one of our top goals is that students can talk about their experience here in such a way that not just theater people understand their accomplishments and the skills that they have gained from it. We’ve been here at UT for a long time [J. E. for 20, Karen for 18] and we know what UT students are capable of. It’s not easy to get into UT, it’s not an opportunity that everyone gets. So once you’re here, we know what you’re capable of.

Karen: And we know what’s possible within the infrastructure that is here. We have an intimate connection with what happens with Texas  Performing Arts, this facility, and the Department of Theatre and Dance because we’ve been collaborators all these years. We have a lot of hope for the future of the college of Fine Arts. There’s such great potential here to build bridges into the film department, to build bridges over to the architecture department because AET (arts and entertainment technologies) is a Bachelor’s of Science so it’s bringing sciences in to marry with these artists.

Can you think of a particular breakthrough on the part of the students that stands out to you?

Karen: I feel like almost every day we’re having those kinds of breakthroughs with individual students.

J. E.: It’s funny, we’re not here for a lot of the breakthroughs. It feels like a lot of the breakthroughs are happening without us there. We’re just trying to cultivate the garden for things to bloom and you can’t always be there when it happens.

How do you hope to continue this class and type of learning environment at UT?

J. E.: We hope what we do here is demonstrate the capabilies of this process, this method, and our students so that the Butler Opera Center or the Department of Theatre and Dance can feel more comfortable taking on these projects that may drive season selection. I don’t know what it may be and I think about it all the time. Maybe next time it won’t be one thing, it will be three different projects we have to accomplish for a production. But I think the key part of it is that it’s not theoretical. It has a hard deadline. That’s what’s great about theatre. They put it on the calendar and there’s an opening night and that opening night never moves.

Enron
February 22­–March 4
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre

Stay up-to-date on the students’ (and velociraptors’) progress at the Texas Applied Arts Facebook page.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.