Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Neoliberalism and Participation

The following post is part of a series of responses that are framed by Jonathan Pitches here.

Neoliberalism and Participation

Peter Zazzali and Jeanne Klein’s article on revising an undergraduate education in the US context have incited a series of responses that are particular to the context in the UK. Although Zazzali & Klein begin by outlining the ‘politically conservative’ and ‘market-driven’ (2015: 261) challenges of US higher education, their article does little to move beyond a limiting, somewhat epistemologically conservative paradigm of what theatre and performance are, and what studies in theatre and performance can be, at an undergraduate level.

In probably the most obvious move, their article aligns graduate ‘success’ with employment in the creative industries, citing statistics about employment destinations in the professions. This is counterposed by the ethical question they cite by Marvin Carlson about the thousands of graduates released into an oversaturated job market (2015: 262). Of course, liberal arts education and pathways into tertiary education and outwards into job markets are complex. Yet, this narrow sense of training in theatre misinterprets the role of university education, which, in the UK in particular, is distinct from conservatoire training, in which students are ostensibly trained ‘for industry’. Instructors and lecturers teaching university courses, on the contrary, may be deeply enmeshed with industry in different capacities (many instructors maintain healthy links with professional practice, including maintaining profiles as practitioners). However, given the different demands, aims and outcomes of a university degree in the UK, which is usually a single subject or a double major, rather than discrete courses; the rhetoric of HE must lie beyond simple mechanistic assumptions that align instruction with employment; or curriculum design with market trends.

Jan Cohen-Cruz (2010; 2015) as director of Imagining America puts forward a compelling set of arguments for how and why the undergraduate curricula in the USA are already engaged in public scholarship. In a national programme with extensive reach that has been operational since 1999, Imagining America is a project which engages with the UG curriculum to consider how the public good, graduate career trajectories and socially engaged teaching and learning can be a feature of curricula. Since Imagining America is a national network there are numerous publicly engaged scholars, artists, designers, students, and community members working toward the democratic transformation of higher education and civic life under its aegis.

Cruz and the project (including Public – the journal associated with Imagining America) have made a significant difference to public scholarship that is about engaging students in real, cross-sectoral collaborative projects that can have impact beyond institutions. It is thus odd to note that in their article related to the state of UG education in theatre and performance in the USA, Zazzali and Klein (2015) appear to have overlooked this systemic, nationwide, significant project that has been embedded in many institutions from Michigan to New York City and more.

Cohen-Cruz proposes a name for the kinds of projects that may occur in cross sectoral partnerships – uncommon partnerships – that situate learning in amongst the direct problems that are particular to the local community. In her brief introduction to the UK context in Cohen Cruz’ book Remapping Performance, Helen Nicholson states that cross sector collaboration ‘throws values and beliefs into relief, raising questions about how the expectations of artists, participants, funders, and others involved in the process converge’ (2015: 24). What Nicholson goes on to demonstrate is that sectors in participatory arts, development and socially engaged practice are already aware of the tensions between ‘use’ and ornament (also discussed by Belfiore and Bennett, 2008 as well as Matarasso, 1997). When these factors are folded into the context of higher education, this can raise problems of emphasis, in which pedagogies, training and preparation need to attend to the contexts graduates will face having undertaken the course. At present, in the UK, this context is one in which students may face increasing precarity and thus be inclined to expect a curriculum that is industry-aligned.

Another entry point for my response to the article concerns the place and value of theatre and performance in the context of austerity, precarity and the neoliberal context of higher education in the UK. I take as the core provocation the consternation about ‘unstable and constantly changing worlds, and what it means to accept adult responsibilities as self-sufficient and financially secure people’ (Zazzali & Klein, 2015: 262). In the article, Zazzali & Klein position the curriculum as responsive to the market – needing to teach undergraduate students how to thrive in a mainstream cultural industry. While no doubt a desire for many students of theatre and performance to enter the cultural industries, the ever-increasing student fees in the UK and the cuts and austerity measures that threaten the vitality of the arts industries, there is the need to see beyond the immediate value of skills and techniques of the theatre and the virtuosic performing artist (discussed by Garoian, 2013: and Gaorian & Gaudelius, 2008) to a wider understanding of cultural industries.

Instead, following Jill Dolan’s important contribution to theatre studies as rehearsing democracy (2001), my thoughts correlate with how the curriculum might work through theatre to develop students’ agency, to consider the relations between theatre and the public sphere; to construct a curriculum and pedagogy that is socially engaged, and about widening access, and to see the arts and education as mutually informing, generative, and iterative.

Whereas the Zazzali & Klein essay (2015) proposes some of the strategies that make studying theatre & performance engaging, kinaesthetic, embodied and collaborative, these intrinsic qualities of the performing arts are not, in themselves, significant in the context of an increasingly marginalised arts economy and a precarious social and economic context for graduates. This suggests curricula that braid together skills and training in theatre technique and its application (widely taught in the UK as applied theatre or socially

engaged practice). At the core of many UK Theatre programmes at HE level, including our own at the School of PCI at Leeds, there is a strong external focus – not merely to instrumentalise students for the world of work, but to begin training students in engaged, creative entrepreneurship. Ostensibly then, the approach is one that seeks to engender skills in moving beyond creative ideas, towards application; beyond inspiration to action that is viable in practice.

Dolan’s core argument is for the commitment of theatre & performance to pedagogies of social and political impact. She draws on Janelle Reinelt, who offers that theatres are:

patronized by a consensual community of citizen-spectators who come together at stagings of the social imaginary in order to consider and experience affirmation, contestation, and reworking of various material and discursive practices pertinent to the constitution of a democratic society’ (Reinelt, 1998: 286). It’s only our history of denigrating artistic practice as nonideological and ahistorical that sets it (and other cultural representations) outside the public sphere. (Dolan, 2001: 10)

This, and Dolan’s other work on geographies of learning, suggests the importance of work with students that is informed by, and informs, local contexts and practices. Partly, this needs to be driven by faculty research interests, local opportunities and needs identified by willing partners. Crucially, however, these must maintain criticality and not be subsumed into the kinds of aesthetic economies critiqued by Jen Harvie in Fair Play (2013) – whereby participation and the claim for radical democratic practices in performance cover over the marketization and depoliticisation of issues related to social welfare. In other words, we are not attempting to instrumentalise the curriculum because of marketization of Higher Education, but to give real world applications, experiences and opportunities to students as they are developing as artists/ practitioners. What needs to be clarified in this kind of engaged, dual-focus curriculum is the set of core values that drives the work so that projects and outcomes are not merely co-opted by market related whims. Economist David Harvey says that academics have a ‘crucial role to play in trying to resist the neoliberalization of the academy, which is largely about organizing within the academy … creating spaces within the academy, where things could be said, written, discussed and ideas promulgated. Right now those spaces are more under threat then they have been in many years’ (in Pender, 2007: 14).

The collective Critical Art Ensemble (2012) explores the need for radical revision of artistic resistance to the creep of neoliberal values. For them, instead of operating as individual artists in pursuit of secure future, performance interventions can offer tactics of alliance, resistance and consolidate networks of social solidarity. Similarly, I would suggest that what is needed in the UG curriculum in the UK is a sense of how schools in theatre and performance can promote pedagogies of engagement, politicised conscientisation, and external partnerships. In our School, as in many across

the UK, partnerships are flourishing. But this moves beyond a somewhat cynical sense of manufacturing collaborations where funding opportunities might follow. Instead, what I would hope to promote across the UG curriculum are the values of socially engaged practice. There is the necessity to develop reciprocal, generous, and sustainable partnerships in community based contexts including with schools, galleries, museums and other cultural institutions, but also more widely in areas that would not be obvious graduate employment destinations, but that correspond with aims for socially engaged pedagogies, including criminal justice settings, mental health contexts and hospitals.

North American educationalist Henry Giroux states:

The demise of democracy is now matched by the disappearance of vital public spheres and the exhaustion of intellectuals. Instead of critical and public intellectuals, faculty are increasingly defined less as intellectuals than as technicians, specialist and grant writers. Nor is there any attempt to legitimate higher education as a fundamental sphere for creating the agents necessary for an aspiring democracy. (Giroux, 2010: online).

To close, Giroux’s perspective signals the value of university courses as locations for ideologically engaged artist-scholars to promote the kind of engaged outward facing pedagogies I have offered as counterpoints to the models in Zazzali & Klein.

— Dr Aylwyn Walsh, Lecturer in Applied Theatre and Intervention, University of Leeds, School of Performance and Cultural Industries

References:

Belfiore, E. & Bennett, O. (2008) The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Brown, M.C. (2011) Inciting the Social Imagination: Education Research for the Public Good. Imagining America. Paper 21.
 Available at: http://surface.syr.edu/ia/21.

Cohen-Cruz, J. (2015) Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cohen-Cruz, J. (2010) Engaging Performance: Theater as Call and Response. New York: Routledge.

Critical Art Ensemble (2012) Reinventing Precarity. TDR: The Drama review. 56(4): pp. 49 – 61.

Dolan, J. (2001). Rehearsing democracy: Advocacy, public intellectuals, and civic engagement in theatre and performance studies. Theatre Topics, 11(1): pp. 1-17.

Garoian, C.R. & Gaudelius, Y. (2008) Spectacle Pedagogy: Art, Politics, and Visual Culture. State University of New York Press: New York.

Garoian, C.R. (2013) The Prosthetic Pedagogy of Art: Embodied Research and Practice. State University of New York Press: New York.

Giroux, H.A. (2010) The Disappearing Intellectual in the Age of Economic Darwinism, in Truthout [online] Available at http://www.truth-out.org/archive/item/90639:henry-agiroux–the-disappearing-intellectual-in-the-age-ofeconomic-darwinism.

Harvie, J. (2013) Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Matarasso, F. (1997) ‘Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts’. London: Comedia.

Nicholson. H. (2015) The Silence within the Noise: Reflections from the UK on “A Vibrant Hybridity”. In J. Cohen-Cruz, Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners. pp. 22 – 26.

Orphan, C., Eatman, T., and Bush, A. (2011) “What is the Future of Civic Engagement in Higher Education? Next Generation Engagement: Undergraduates, Graduate Students and Early Career Faculty” Imagining America. Paper 22. http://surface.syr.edu/ia/22

Pender, S. (2007) “In Interview with David Harvey,” Studies in Social Justice 4(1).

Reinelt, J. (1998) Notes for a Radical Democratic Theater: Productive Crises and the Challenge of Indeterminacy. Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theatre. Eds. Jeanne Colleran and Jenny S. Spencer. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, pp. 283-300.

2 thoughts on “Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Neoliberalism and Participation

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