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A problem-based learning approach to stagecraft.

The description for my stagecraft class is probably typical of most introductory courses:

TH-222 Stagecraft: Principles and practices of scenic construction, setting, furnishing, properties and lighting. Practical experience with University Theatre productions emphasized. Organized for those who plan to design, build, paint and light scenery in an educational setting, as well as those who approach theatre as a vocation or an avocation.

Every time I teach this class, I struggle to make it relevant to the students, a majority of whom see it as a check-off box to graduation or, worse, a meaningless requirement. Usually, performance majors who have been told that acquiring the skills in my class will be "good for them" populate three-quarters of the class. It will broaden their perspective, they have been told, and help them appreciate the work of others around them. Some students embrace this notion; most do not. Some have been sullen or openly hostile. The student evaluations at the end of the semester ring with their frustration. "Complete waste of time." "Only took this because I had to." "Useless." Last year, I tried something different.

Project-based learning, or the learning-by-doing method advocated by John Dewey over a century ago, is a mainstay of theatre training. A similarly named pedagogy, called problem-based learning, was developed in the 1960s by Howard Barrows at the medical school of McMaster University in Canada. Combining these two methods, I thought, might engage my stagecraft students in new and meaningful ways.

Problem-based learning works to develop critical thinking, information acquisition and assimilation, and self-reflective skills. "Ill-structured questions," as Barrows phrased it, are at the heart of problem-based learning. We grapple with questions or challenges that cannot be answered simply. These are not objective problems with a pre-determined correct, single, or set of correct choices. Rather, the answers are determined by both objective and subjective choices and the path that the individual or team chooses. An example might be: "Your team must design a bridge of a certain span and weight-bearing capacity." Depending on the complexity of learning intended, the facilitator may specify some materials, fabrication techniques, finishes, weather dynamics, or a whole host of other narrowing parameters that focus the question and limit the range of options.

A new design assignment is a situation in which the problem can be solved in many different ways. But, as a designer, the worst possible direction I can receive in a production meeting is, "Do whatever you want." Without a prompt or leading suggestion or set of goals, the design process is unwieldy and frustrating at best. However, the director who has a highly detailed and specific solution to the design challenge has little need for my services in the first place. Successful problem-based learning situations take into careful account the initial skills, motivation, and interests of the students and tie the results to outcomes that the students will find valuable beyond the classroom.

Below is an account of the shared exploration I had with my Spring 2013 Stagecraft class. I warned them from the start that this was both an experiment in teaching and research for this article. I enlisted their support as willing participants in both their learning and my development.


I started planning the class by reviewing my past syllabi for content. I made a list of the skills and information pieces that I thought essential for anyone working in the entertainment industry. My goals for this class center more on content assimilation and problem solving than skills development, though the basic skills of woodworking and safe shop operations are taught and are essential building blocks for participation. My list included:

dimensional lumber
fabric usage
power tools
safety procedures
metal and plastic
sheet goods
hand tools
work place safety
sound reinforcement
electrical concepts

I then grappled with the challenge of creating a syllabus to incorporate these content areas. Working without a textbook and having decided to lecture as little as possible, I needed to change the course in some meaningful ways. After several weeks of reflection, questioning, and research, I ended up where I started: with a blank page. Of course, my finished syllabus included the required header with section and contact information. The learning goals, university policies, grading scale, and related administrivia were spelled out clearly. Lacking was a calendar and a set of assignments. Most importantly, I had a plan for first explaining and then leading the course. I emailed my class some informational links about problem-based learning and we began.


We met in the theatre's rehearsal space--a large empty room. I think perhaps that metaphor was lost on most, but I enjoyed it. I did the usual introduction processes and then posed this question: What do you want to learn? Some responses were tepid and others bold. We then began an exploration of the idea of problem-based learning. Our conversation transitioned from an exploration of process to the options for outcomes and projects. In the end, we decided that what they wanted to learn was how to create a scenic element or significant prop from a play or musical. Working in project teams, the students would choose their own shows and the pieces they wanted to fabricate. I presented them with a blank sheet of paper without assignments or due dates, and we began a collaborative process of scheduling. We ended with a set of short-term deadlines for team meetings and project selection.

An important element of our discussions was the idea of assessing one's progress and adapting to changing needs and resources. Adaptive assessment is a term used in testing to mean the ability to tailor questions based on answers to previous questions. It's also used in situations like the restoration plan for the Everglades in Florida where changing needs are often unpredictable. Anyone who has called an automated phone system has been adaptively assessed. For our purposes, I defined adaptive assessment as the ability to perceive the surrounding stage environment and adapt one's skills, decision making, information acquisition, and contributions to the group effort appropriately. In our work, it meant creating a plan and then adapting it over time to better meet needs, use resources, and find success.


We started by watching a very entertaining video of a TED talk by the sculptor Arthur Granson who creates complex mechanical creations from found and adapted objects. ( watch?v=bPfn01Ndc1g&list=PL2xUPuXWEWMBGWvDmW5Z5wAjtNP32hnua&index=1) I included his work as an example of designing while doing and how artifacts can be created based on both an intention and availability. We talked about theatre technology as parasite culture, and about how our discipline rarely creates new materials, tools, or processes. I showed examples of how theatre people have always borrowed and adapted products and technologies for their own purposes. This led us to our conversation about scope and scale.

How big should their projects be? How ambitious? How inclusive? Should we do a few small and then a big one or focus our efforts on a longer, complete work? Should all teams do the same project or choose individually? We ended with a commitment to come back with team names, some project ideas, and a decision about scope and scale.


They came back with team names that exhibited real collective creative collaboration: The Indigo Jaguars; Team Awesome; The Catnip Villains; The Oligarchs; and GoGo Lash Blasters. The teams had quick presentations of their project ideas, which ranged from small and specific to gangly and obtuse. For example, the crocodile from Peter Pan eating Captain Hook; the middle Audrey II plant; a functional life-sized Hungry Hungry Hippos game; a stage setting for an adaptation of the children's book Everybody Poops; and a Blue's Clues transforming set piece. The proposed projects far exceeded my expectations.

Now was the time to spring my next question. "So," I said, "what information or skills do you need to be successful with your projects?" The answers came in a rush: paint application, general principles of welding, what hardware to use, how to find lumber.... The requests went on and on. It was the most fun I've had in class for a very long time. The students were eager to ask and ambitious in their demands. It was great. In the end, this list of specifics not only mirrored my own earlier list of essential skills and information pieces, but it extended into project management issues I'd never worked with in previous classes.

We talked about milestones and "deliverables." We shared an expectation that the projects would adapt over time and the path travelled would zigzag. We laid out some calendar suggestions. We went to work. Through three days of class discussion, we had flipped the acquisition of information from lecture/delivery to self-reflective research. My role inverted from an arbitrary assigner to a valued information resource. The attainment of skills competency was now a desire, not an enforced curricular element. It was very exciting.


We agreed that all the projects would include certain components. For instance, the groups would provide visual and verbal descriptions of their initial plans, they would discuss their uses of adaptive assessment, and they would provide an explanation of the project in its final form. These explanations would include discussions of the following:

* Materials, fasteners, and finishes

Were they new to you?

How did your use change over the course of the project?

Why did you choose these materials, fasteners, and finishes?

How did each team member contribute to selecting and using these elements?

* Tools

What tools did you use?

Who took the lead in using them?

* Group assessment

What was successful and what would you do differently?

What information from the project would each of you anticipate using again?

What would you do next time to make the project process stronger?

How would you make the research component stronger?

What other suggestions do you have as a group?

* What grade would you assign to your group's final project? Provide at least three reasons in support of your choice. Consider the following:

How well did you research and learn new information?

How well did you solve problems as a group?

How well did your group accomplish its task of building a prop or scenic piece?

Could the finished project be used in a production, or was it an accurate representation (in a smaller form) of the thing to be used?

For the next several weeks we began each class with an observation related to the work. We talked about how to do research on materials. We explored the notion of hydraulic verses pneumatic systems. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of wood-based versus metal-based engineering. We investigated how projects are documented and at what stages these works are completed. I assigned collage projects for visual research and reference and scale drawings to begin to grapple with project communication. We looked at materials lists, and we matched process and fasteners with construction needs. In every class, we revisited the path of the project, the core elements required, and the challenges their work raised, and we made adaptations based on their ongoing assessments..

Most of the class time was spent actually building the projects. I had the opportunity to both instruct on specific issues while also observing the working dynamic within the teams. I could gauge the progress and make suggestions without intruding on their collaboration. I spent most of my time helping negotiate the small turns that all projects take, while letting the teams set their own pace, direction, and priorities. In almost every instance, the teams recognized mistakes or poor decisions and were open to ideas or had already devised alternatives. It was always a rich discussion. As the semester wore on, the teams came into the shop more and more often to work. Then they started working in the evenings. And over the weekends. Their desire to finish was impressive, though not always uniform.

Throughout, the projects were evaluated and refined or expanded. For example, the Hungry Hippo game scaled down to just a hippo and its operating mechanism. The Audrey plant, on the other hand, scaled up to include the pot, a puppet control system, lighting, sound, a trick table, and other elements. The backdrop turning system for Everybody Poops utilized a mower recoil starting device that dogged their progress until the end. It was a great found object but cast aside on the last day. In every class there were questions: "How do I cut PVC pipe safely?" "What glue do I use to attach this fabric?" "How does a trap door work?" For most questions I gave them the same maddening answers: "What does your research show you?" "Where else can you look?" "I'll show you what we have, you tell me if it is the best solution."


The final presentations were energetic and exciting. To start, it took a great deal of effort to quell the conversations and focus the class on their presentations. The festive atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the students were electric. We had created specific guidelines to document team members' contributions and the process of developing and implementing their work. Their proposals included listing individual and team contributions.

The presenters were unstinting in their analysis of themselves and their team. They shared struggles of which I was unaware. They outlined their failures in detail and explored how each moved them forward and what insights into the thinking and doing they gleaned. I was unawarOf the five groups, only one advocated that the team members deserved an A. Most teams felt that they had fallen short in some meaningful way. Their honesty was impressive. Their excitement in sharing their work was palpable. The final products they presented varied significantly from their original concept sketches--a desired outcome on my part that I never shared with them.


When asked to discuss their adaptive assessment, team comments included:

"We realized that some earlier ideas such as moving the eyes were not going to work..."

"We were worried about using foam at first but then we made it work."

"(We) fixed problems as we went."

"We [started out] with a hot glue gun, but switched to screws."

"We had great difficulty trying to synchronize the crocodile's 'CHOMP' with the seat falling, so we decided to do it manually instead of trying to have one cause the other."

The teams also described their final project components:

"The seat lowers by a pulley system using a small rope, and a wheel mechanism mounted under the seat. When the string is pulled, it pulls a latch that releases the seat."

"He is a very hungry plant and he loves to eat blood and body parts."

"KC troubleshot, directed, and used physics in planning."

The teams considered what information from the experience they would use again:

"Basic use of tools and safety."

"Hot gluing techniques."

"When to leave ideas behind."

"Problem solving and team building."

The teams suggested ideas to make the process stronger:

"More basic information and input from instructor"

"More structured deadlines"

"Limiting project options"

"Hands-on instruction from the start"

"Help with understanding what are good ways to research"

Overall assessment and grades for their work:

"For me, the grade would be a B+. We spent time researching, problem solving, and constructing it. The project can be used, but I feel it could definitely be improved upon."

"We would give our group an A. We worked well together and communicated well. We spent time to find alternate solutions. Our project was professional grade work and could be used on the stage today."

"I would give us a B+. We all worked very hard on achieving our goals. We researched several of our problem spots and used trial and error to help us figure things out too!"


In the future, I will change a great deal of what we did. I'll create more intermediate milestones. I'll implement the training program for safe shop work very early. I'll have sign-in sheets for workshop time. I'll develop a structure for the student's presentations. I'll offer extra credit. I'll reduce the class size from twenty-four to twelve. I'll create more kit projects for the first few class sessions to push the self-evaluation and skills attainment processes. While I discovered lots of problems and things I will change, the simple fact that the class ended with a room full of smiles tells me that this year's stagecraft class was more meaningful and engaging for the students.

As I reflect back through the semester's work, I appreciate the weaknesses and strengths of this process. The path for each student was unique, but the elements of that journey were similar. There are times of confidence and times of concern. There is a commitment to find success. The process is one of trial and error, of learning by doing. An experienced leader can model and offer encouragement, but each learner must master skills and develop personal understanding.


* Start at the end: what do the outcomes need to be in terms of content, process, and skills?

* Consider class size and project teams: One project for all, one project per team, or combination of class, team, and individual projects?

* Consider how the engineering of the projects happens.

* Consider the range of materials, fasteners, and products available.

* Develop a safety plan,

* Develop guidelines for out-of-class work,

* Develop guidelines and assessment tools for individual work within the groups.

* Develop quantitative and qualitative measures for participation.

* Encourage assessment of work by peers to foster accountability.

* Ground your project selections in the real world.

* Develop pedagogical tools to foster student research skills.

* Partner with campus resources for instructional competencies outside your comfort zone.

* Foster adaptive thinking through the group exploration of alternatives.

* Be supportive and patient with failure as the work progresses.

* Develop a budget for the class materials,

* Consider developing smaller "kit" projects that focus on skills attainment and the introduction of safe working practices early in the class.

* Make the final presentation a celebration,

* Constantly remind the class about the essential nature of out-of-class work. Use your school's Learning Management Service (LMS) features to promote discussions that can be moderated and assessed.

* If possible, tie the projects to an actual production or need (for example, shop storage, specific production needs for a late semester show).


The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, 2nd ed. by David J. Boud and Grahame Felletti, eds. London: Routledge. 1997.

Though centered on the implementation work done in the context of medical educational systems, this work offers a thorough discussion of the cultural and pedagogical opportunities in problem-based learning.

"Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator" by Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver and Howard S. Barrows in Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1:1 (2006). Accessed at

Key point: "Problem-based learning is an active learning method based on the use of ill-structured problems as a stimulus for learning (Barrows, 2000). Ill-structured problems are complex problems that cannot be solved by a simple algorithm. Such problems do not necessarily have a single correct answer but require learners to consider alternatives and to provide a reasoned argument to support the solution that they generate."

Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework by John R. Savery and Thomas M. Duffy. Bloomington, IN: Center for Research on Learning and Technology. 2001.

Key Point: "We prefer to talk about the learner's 'puzzlement' as being the stimulus and organizer for learning since this more readily suggests both intellectual and pragmatic goals for learning. The important point, however, is that it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned."

Jeffrey M. Gress is an assistant professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where he is the faculty designer. He also works professionally as a freelance lighting designer. He received the 2011 Herbert D. Greggs Award for his TD&T article, "Pushing Back the Darkness: The Entertainment Industry at Ground Zero on 9/11" (Summer 2011).
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Author:Gress, Jeffrey M.
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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