Teaching business can be a pretty rigorous discipline, and sometimes a bit dry. But Fairfield University’s Dolan School of Business has embraced an unconventional teaching tool - one that involves its professors taking to the stage. WNPR’s J Holt has this report.
In the black box theater at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Performing arts, the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross is taking their places backstage as a sold out crowd assembles in the lobby, and after a final check of the lights,
Alistair Highet “And, I guess that’s it.”
Jerylin Johnson “OK”
The doors open, the preshow music begins, and the audience files in to see a production that is unlike any of the others that take place here through the year. For starters, instead of finding theater students among the cast, you’ll find university professors including the dean of the Dolan School of Business, along side members of a local theater company.
Johnson- “This started last year. We launched this project with a contemporary Spanish play that I translated that had never been performed in the states before.”
That’s Jerilyn Johnson, a Spanish literature and language professor at Fairfield, and co-producer of this project. From the start, her vision was to use a theatrical production to bring a classroom text to life, and make it accessible to a broader student audience. Four classes in the humanities department studied that first play, and required their students to attend a performance. She worked with Director Alistair Highet, who is also Fairfield’s Director of Communications, and his Actor’s Nucleus theater company to bring the piece to the stage.
Highet- “It was so successful that at the party following that we began to talk about what we would do next.”
He says they wanted to pick a play that could connect to an even wider student audience, specifically those in the business school. Highet says Glengarry Glen Ross, a Pulitzer winning play by David Mamet set in a high stress, ethically challenging real estate office, rose quickly to the top of the list.
Highet- “I mean, David Mamet said, I’m Paraphrasing, ‘I wanted to write a play about how work changes people.’ We prepare students to go out into the world and work, but we don’t really spend a lot of time reflecting on what work is, and how it changes us, and how it will change our students when they go out into the world. To me that’s the most pressing reason to do this play, to begin to have that conversation.”
---30 sec clip of show, featuring Dennis Keenan and Don Gibson---
This year’s production is being studied in 12 different classes across six departments, ranging from economics, to ethics, to philosophy. In order to help draw the conversation out of the classroom, each performance was followed by a post-show discussion led by professors teaching the material.
Kevin Cassidy- “…acquisition, individual wealth, power, that there’s no alternative to that.
Highet- “They have to be this way.”
Highet- “To survive.”
Highet- “Kathy, your thoughts.”
Kathy Nantz- “Yeah, thank you. I’ll just build on what Kevin was saying a little bit, and then try to work it into what I’m doing in my course. I’m a labor economist…”
The formal discussion delved into the commodification of workers, gendered relationships within the workplace, a Marxist take on the play and workplace dynamics, and how to take skills learned in business school beyond standard career paths like financial services and accounting. Dolan school student, Tony Ponte, who raised that last point in the discussion, thought the format worked well.
Tony Ponte- “I thought it was great. I mean, depends on what you take away from it, everyone’s going to take away something else. But, for those people who it really hits home with, you know, it’s a great production. And it was nice to see my teachers. I’ve had Professor Drake, I have Schmidt right now, so it was great. I really enjoyed it. I just hope they keep doing stuff like this. It’s good.”
Here’s Jerilyn Johnson again.
Johnson- “What I just love seeing in these post performance discussions is the excitement and the engagement of the entire audience in whatever we’ve chosen to discuss. And luckily, when we plan this, we don’t know, we don’t know how people will take it and how the discussions will go, but I think it went well.”
Along with the academic benefits and larger conversation, Dean of the Business school Don Gibson hopes there is another simple lesson students will take from this production.
Don Gibson- “Here we have a play with two philosophy professors, a professor of ethics, I’m a professor of management. So I just think that’s, you should do interesting things. So I want our students to see, “He’s taking a challenge, something you wouldn’t expect him to do.” And so, that’s part of the fabric, too. I’d like students to do interesting things, try things, take a risk.”
By all accounts, the producers are hitting their marks, and are looking forward to continuing this new theatrical tradition next year.