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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 24, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 31
Course Catalog: Contemporary Theatre and Film: An Insider's View

In his recurring role as a visiting professor, actor/director John Astin teaches both in the classroom (here, in the Bloomberg Center) and on stage in the Merrick Barn.

By Amy Lunday

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's eight academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: Offered by the Theatre Arts and Studies Program in the Krieger School. 3 credits.

Meeting time: Fridays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., spring 2006. (Also scheduled for the same day and time for fall 2006.)

The instructor: Beloved for his portrayal of a variety characters, from the zany Addams Family patriarch Gomez Addams to the renowned poet of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, Hopkins alumnus John Astin has spent much of the past five years in a recurring role as a visiting professor on the Homewood campus. During that time, Astin has expanded the university's academic theater offerings into a full complement of courses in acting, directing, playwriting and production through the Theatre Arts and Studies Program, which he directs. Students can now earn a minor in Theatre Arts, with courses cross-listed by the Humanities Center and the Writing Seminars, where the Astin-led theater revival is housed and where Astin earned his undergraduate degree decades ago when it was known as the Department of Writing, Speech and Drama. Astin spends many hours each week working closely with students, both in the classroom and on the Merrick Barn stage, where his Johns Hopkins University Theatre troupe performs to sold-out crowds.

Syllabus and coursework: As junior Anthony Blaha, Astin's work-study assistant, puts it, "This class offers a detailed and often humorous look at the foundations of modern theater, exploring the history of acting and dramatic form up through present day techniques and practices. The course also emphasizes the idea of 'value' when watching and experiencing performance art." The course's subtitle, An Insider's View, hints at the rich subtext found in every lecture. As Hopkins' in-house insider, the journeyman actor peppers his lectures with his unique behind-the-scenes view, stories of his life on the stage and screen, and his personal experience with the works the class is studying. While leading a recent class discussion of Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting for Godot, which the students were required to read and write a short paper about, Astin recalled first performing the role of Vladimir years ago while working in the Actors' Colony in Baltimore. "Four or five pages into reading it, I literally threw it across the room. I didn't like it at the time. I thought it was phony. But what I didn't know then is that it's a play that can have an impact and move the audience."

Astin says: "Life is unpredictable, which is why theater is perhaps the greatest medium of all. If it's done right, theater is a living presence in front of us. Are you a little bored sometimes when you go to the theater? Are you going just so you can say that you go to the theater? Why is it boring? Because they aren't doing it right. If you do it right, it can be a real kick in the butt. If you do it right, it's better than Six Flags. But if it isn't done right, it's what we call 'deadly theater.' "

Students say: "I think the class is great. It's a fun performance to watch in itself, behind which lies a really cogent philosophy. John is a great advocate for art in its various forms and speaks with great authority on film and theater. The assignments are also good. The close reading of Waiting for Godot was an object lesson in Aristotelian value creation — which makes me sound like a philosophy kid, but really I just mean it showed us what makes a good play good."
— Mitchell Frank, sophomore, Writing Seminars major, Shaker Heights, Ohio.

"John Astin has a genuine investment and commitment to his students. He will take any available, or necessary, approach to make sure that his points are clear and thoroughly understood. Professor Astin has been involved in virtually every capacity of professional theater and film, and his insight is both personal and inspirational. As a theater student, it has been important for me to look at the methods that paved the way for modern acting practices. At the same time, it has been helpful to me as an audience member to have a basis with which to look at performances. The professor's real-life experience and insight are informative and very enjoyable to listen to. We've also viewed a number of films that have been no less than powerful."
— Anthony Blaha, junior, Writing Seminars major and theater minor, Atglen, Pa.


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