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Dear Graduate Scholar: Becoming a Pracademic

by Tom Pacio, MFA

When I was at Pitt, I was the only MFA in the program at the time. Other than giving myself the nickname, “The MFA” (which I briefly considered as a tattoo, but thankfully saw the limited benefit in doing so), I also started jokingly throwing around a term with my peers. I would identify myself as a “pracademic.” Looking back I imagine most of the drive in creating this term was based in the fear and anxiety I couldn’t live up to the intellect of my fellow graduate students, who were  some of the best and brightest minds I had ever met. I recently learned some of my former classmates began using this term after I left and I came to realize it was a more accurate description for me than I originally thought. 

As the Web site currently reads, the MFA in Performance Pedagogy program at Pitt is geared towards practicing artists, “…based on the premise that the professional actor has already gained a level of craft and broad experience that can become the foundation for solid teaching skills.” I learned that, for myself, I needed to broaden the word “scholar” to include my identity as a maker, as opposed to the researcher/writer pictured in my mind for many years. I value the theories and other lessons I learned in my graduate studies so very much, but I am certainly an individual who is centered in practice and who also believes I have a seat at the academic table. As a performer and in the work pursuing my master's degree I recognized the challenge of translating my “studio knowledge” to an audience of students who may not want to become artists or makers.

So how does one become a pracademic, or to recognize, as I did, that this is what I was becoming? I think it extends beyond identifying as a maker who teaches. I was taught in my undergraduate conservatory by professional actors, many of whom were performing on Broadway in the evenings after teaching during the day. These individuals are masters of their craft: whether trained in formal programs, or having learned in “apprentice-style” environments through their experiences, they are first and foremost craftsmen. Their expertise is a different brand than that of a pracademic. In my opinion, their main objective is to train the next generation of makers, drawing mainly from their first-hand knowledge of the industry.  Please don’t misunderstand, I believe many master teachers are well read, articulate, artists who appreciate many areas of study. One doesn’t have to look much further than Uta Hagen to recognize the value in an artist developing her craft to be well educated and well-rounded. Master teachers should be considered specialists in their expertise, much like a conventional scholar who has deeply studied one topic. I began to identify as a pracademic when I saw that the strengths in my learning and teaching came from the intersections I saw between traditional scholarship and practice. I found extreme value in taking a step towards history, literature, and criticism. This made it easier to create a different lens for myself that would guide my learning as a graduate student and new teacher.

It was my experience  as “the MFA” that lead me to discover and develop myself as a pracademic. I would look at every lesson in history class from the perspective of the actor during the time being studied. In studying the mudras of Indian culture, I was reminded of similar hand gestures in the training of Elizabethan actors, as well as the ties to the extremely influential American choreographer, Jack Cole, who had spent a lot of time in India. I was reunited with gestures I had learned in my undergraduate dance classes, but now I understood their history and how they related to performance training in India. I also understood more deeply their  inspiration for Cole and how they wound up in the warm-up crafted by my former instructor: context can be a powerful instructor.  I found myself returning many times to my old copy of The History of Acting (Cole and Chinoy) to discover pedagogical  practices of the time we were examining in theater history. This helped me understand better the different theories that were being discussed in conjunction with both practices and dramatic literature. Looking again at Bulwer’s Chironomia and Chirologia gave me a new understanding of the acting style present at the time of Shakespeare, specifically in context with the humours. Understanding these cultural and historical elements reshaped my reading of these plays.

As I began to teach, I had to recognize that in the Liberal Arts, not every student wants to become a professional performer. This meant I had to take a step in their direction and bring the lessons of awareness and connection I find intrinsic to performing to their experiences. I found pre-med students who struggled to make eye contact, undeclared freshmen who may have never felt the rumble of their voices in their chests, and English majors who could only talk about plays as works of literature, as opposed to the “maps for action” they had become for me over time. I learned so much from my students about how they were experiencing academia and what the time they chose to spend in my classroom meant to them. This motivated me to invent ways to meet them in the middle.  I am very passionate about teaching and finding different ways to engage students from various backgrounds to benefit from making or practice, specifically in theater. 

In the beginning I used Facebook profiles (this was 2008 when Facebook still felt new and edgy) to teach character development to my Intro to Performance students. In a curriculum that doesn’t leave a lot of time for script analysis, asking students to create fake profiles for their characters would help them create full human beings. I also worked to find methods that brought studying the theatre of Greece and Rome to them by asking them to create modern versions of ancient texts. There was a group of young men who chose to create a “boyband” version of a chorus from Medea that opened up a great conversation about performance methods of then and now. Both examples helped students take a contemporary reference and use it to make something  that represented their understanding of the subject being studied. From them I learned that, as a teacher, it is my job to create opportunities for students to take a step towards materials and lessons which may seem distant and also to find ways to bring the material to the students in a way that helps put it in context with their everyday lives. 

Pracademic, in my opinion, is at best a term used to recognize someone who may not be comfortable choosing sides in what can seem, at times, to be a choice between “maker vs. scholar.” I know that I would not have developed some of my most valued skills as a teacher if it weren’t for the lectures and discussions I struggled to find a way to work for me. I know that I came to value theory and history in ways that I may not have if the program had been designed to shape me solely into an instructor for the conservatory student experience. I can say with confidence that it gave me the opportunity to sit at the table with some of the best thinkers I have ever known, who will likely shape the future of theatre arts in academia. I hope that what began as a joke can help others navigate their own balance of scholarship and practice. 

Tom Pacio graduated in 2010 with his Master's of Fine Arts in Performance Pedagogy from Pitt. He is an educator, administrator, and theater-maker who has worked in many aspects of the entertainment industry. He currently serves as the Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative at Vassar College. You can find out more about him at tompacio.com.

 

Series Editor: Esther J. Terry