“Without the liberal arts there is no good theater.”
Michael Dixon believes students learn by participating. He calls the classroom a “partici-patorium” and students who don’t participate “partici-potatoes.”
But Dixon makes participation easy for students, incorporating conversation, performance, and debate in his classes. And if you dread writing essays—don’t worry. Dixon likes to assign his students proposals instead.
To write a proposal, Dixon explains that students do the same research as they would for an essay. However, in addition to creating an argument around research, students must propose a festival that includes forums and activities to explore the argument further.
Dixon believes proposal writing is more practical than essay writing and gives students a jumpstart to a career in theater.
“In the world of theater, the ability to make up your own projects rather than rely on outside sources is critical,” Dixon says.
Focusing his courses on practical skills and participation is central to Dixon’s teaching philosophy. “Applying what you’re learning while you’re learning helps you learn.”
It’s also a perfect reflection of how the theater works. “If students never commit to learning their lines, they will never come up with an interesting interpretation of them. Students can’t play with what they know unless they have committed it to memorization.”
Dixon seeks a balance between learning and playing in the classroom that creates a culture of enthusiasm. “It’s going to be much more difficult to learn if students feel they are being dragged through material. The opposite of play is not work—it’s depression, a life with no creative freedom.”
The classroom culture of enthusiasm begins with Dixon. “I’m excited to have an opportunity to share what I have experienced in my profession.”
Dixon brings 30 years of professional theater experience to Transylvania. He has held positions as literary manager for Actors Theatre of Louisville, resident director at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and literary director at The Guthrie Theater.
Dixon believes that, like liberal arts education, the theater is all about the human experience. “You can understand the human experience in various contexts: biographically, philosophically, sociologically, historically,” Dixon says.
It’s inside the theater that these different ways of expressing the human experience come together. “If you don’t bring the power of the liberal arts to dramatic texts you can’t present the material very interestingly,” Dixon says.
And when it comes to drawing on multiple disciplines in theater, Dixon looks straight to his students. For him, teaching is a two-way street. While he teaches his students, his students also teach him.
“The classroom is a laboratory. Often people are most creative at the beginning of their profession. Students are not as burdened by conventions and traditions. If they don’t know the ‘right’ answer, they may find a better one.”
Michael Bigelow Dixon joins the Transylvania University theater faculty after three years at Goucher College in Baltimore. He has also been the Dayton-Hudson Distinguished Professor in the Theatre Department at Carleton College.
As a director, Dixon’s productions of classical and contemporary works have been seen at The Guthrie Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Magic Theatre, and Florida Stage.
In the area of new play development, Dixon supervised the commissioning, development, and production of more than 800 new plays, including plays by Tony Kushner, Joyce Carol Oates, David Henry Hwang, and William F. Buckley.
In April 2013, Dixon will direct Today Is History, a drama
written and performed by Transylvania students.
Dixon has co-edited 35 volumes of plays, criticism, and social history, including The Moscow Art Theatre: Past, Present, Future; Anne Bogart: Viewpoints; and Second Lives: The Immigrant and Refugee Experience in Orange County.
Want to know more about Transylvania's theater program?
- M.F.A., L.D.A., Playwriting and Dramatic Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1977, 1979
- A.B., Theater Arts, Brown University, 1975
- Introduction to Theater
- Classical Drama and Theater
- Comedy and Laughter: Theory and Practice
- Today Is History: Docudrama and Performance
- Currently writing a series of articles, four of which were published in 2011–12, outlining ways that playwriting students can be encouraged to break with the conventions of Realism to better reflect on stage the realities of the twenty-first century
- "The Play Detectives: Dramaturgy," Teaching Theatre Journal, spring 2013
- Feature article on Tyrone Guthrie, Dramatics, 2012
- “Laughter is a Funny Thing: Some Stuff You Should Know About Comedy Before You Step On The Stage,” Dramatics, 2011
- “How to Read a Script: 30 Ways to Understand a Play,” Dramatics, 2010
- Crosby Course Development Grants (2) from Goucher College to enhance the playwriting program by transforming dramatic texts into graphic plays with the guidance of an art professor
- Goucher Innovation Grant, which culminated in March 2012 with the world premiere of a multimedia performance, Attack of the Monster Crabs, which was interpreted for a deaf audience in American Sign Language
- With Goucher College political science professor Nina Kasniunas, created and published an educational program that helps students examine Supreme Court opinions on important cases through theatrical re-enactments of the Justices' oral arguments
- Established a creative retreat center in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota while co-director of Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp (2007–10)
- Board Member of Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro, Minn., which is the largest professional rural theater company in America
- Consultant to the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida