Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Beyond Recycling Past Learning

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

Previous posts can be found here.

Zazzali and Klein aim to give a contextual overview of UG theatre education today, but this overview includes a number of generalisations. I would like to focus on the question of technology, responding to the suggestion in Z+K that programme teams ‘recycle what [we] were taught with new infusions of technology’ (261). For this short blog, I am using my own School’s Theatre and Performance Programme as an example of Theatre provision in the UK which has gone significantly beyond recycling.

We have been seriously thinking about the curriculum, the increasing demands of the Cultural Industries (which is also the largest growing sector, at least in UK Economy) and the cuts in the arts provision for under 18-year olds in secondary education. The market which Z&K define as ‘oversaturated’ (262) needs to be more openly interpreted to include the entire umbrella of the Creative and Cultural Industries and not merely ‘acting on stage’.

The University of Leeds’ courses aim to represent and provide for the millenials’ trend to ‘change jobs multiple times before age 30’ (262) and our own programme of Theatre and Performance with a cohort of 210 students (over 3 years) reflects that reality and offers collaboration and interdisciplinarity which allegedly is missing from other (American?) courses. In relation to this, I would like to offer and share some of what we consider to be good practice under the categories of Technology and Social Media, Community and Entrepreneurship, and Student Involvement with Staff-led Research Projects.

Technology and Social Media

One of our main aims is to incorporate technology in the student experience in an organic way. The Blackboard is now using blogs and vlogs to respond to recent social media trends and to encourage students to use the in-house virtual environment. Also, this reflects and complements the student’s commitment and attachment in social media and incorporates social media information (reviews, articles, blogs) in their submission of critical commentaries, contributions to devising work and assessment. The curriculum should always be ‘pitched right’ with a range of strands and optional modules for the students to build their own ‘route’ to their chosen career. We are also developing opportunities for technology to be part of the assessment of practical work via the use of audio-visual materials and a digital portfolio which can be used later in their own professional beginnings. This adds value to the student experience by offering them new ways of incorporating technology in their learning and assessment methods which is a major new initiative at the whole Institution.

Community and Entrepreneurship

As part of our pedagogical ethos in Leeds, one of the largest Theatre and Performance courses in the country, we not only cultivate their ‘innate dramatic instincts’ (262), but aim to develop the students to be cultural activists and entrepreneurs (described in Zazzali and Klein’s article as ‘innovation and initiative’) (267). Within a practical and theoretical exploration, the curriculum aims to offer a political, historical and contextual framework with close link to the community with externally-facing projects with the police and fire service, museums, galleries, schools and prisons. The presence of the students on the cultural life of Leeds, through their off-site performances, workshops and interventions, is vibrant and revitalising. These links develop the student’s skills in producing, marketing, touring and evaluating their work within a real-life scenario.  We also encourage them to create budgets, fill-in applications (Arts Council, etc.) for festival work and create work which will be useful in pitching for real-life projects. For example, the Portfolio for the Theatre Directing second year module is not dissimilar from a Competition Call of an eminent Competition for Young Emerging Directors.  Their practical work is often entered and produced at the NSDF (National Student Drama Festival) and the Festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe and other competitions. This prepares them for dealing with success, but most importantly with failure (some Edinburgh Fringe reviews are much more harshly written than the constructive education feedback they are used to receiving). It is important for students to get hands-on skills which will be useful in their professional life which goes beyond making live theatre, and in addition to work on new work which requires them to create original pieces as opposed to revive existing material. Viewing live theatre is something that is ignored in many curricula (perhaps because of the cost involved) and the focus remains on the students making their own practical work. This, in a way, undervalues the power of live theatre which can function as a masterclass for learning. As a School we require that students view public performances at our theatres, in Leeds and beyond, and also subsidise tickets for first year students in our theatres. In that way, viewing theatre becomes part of the pedagogy and links to modules which require the analysis of performances through a critical perspective.

Student Involvement with Staff-led Research Projects

As a research-led institution, we encourage students to participate in staff-led research projects offering invaluable experience and kudos for their employability by giving them professional credits for their CV. The size and status of the University allows for a range of work which goes beyond the Arts and this is distinctive because of our inter-Faculty collaborations (includes 9 Schools), international contacts and external partners (such as Opera North and the Leeds Playhouse). Using the facilities of our fully-licensed theatres, the students are able to work alongside staff to appreciate and explore explicit research questions, methodologies and fieldwork in, sometimes, exotic locations. Moreover, these projects introduce the students to global concerns, which have further ethical implications. The students must learn to challenge the status quo and offer their own critique and understanding of life experience (on stage and beyond), thus giving our curricula a historical, contextual, political and ethical outlook and relevance. The involvement in the staff-led research projects gives them access to cutting-edge research and also encourages them to think not only as performers, but as ‘all-rounders’. In this way, they are better prepared for an oversaturated market and acquire a more diverse conception of the Creative and Cultural Industries.

Dr George Rodosthenous, Associate Professor in Theatre Directing, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds

Reflections Task 42 and P.S.

Dear Maria,

Thanks for your Task 41, below you can find my reflections. As it will soon be a year since we started and we are both taking some holiday in August, we agreed that this is the final task for this part of the project. There will be no new task to follow but instead a brief Post Script.

Reflections Task 42 – A Lexicon of Experience

I practice my usual yogasana this week with an awareness of my ‘yoga language’. The verbal language enters first in to my awareness:

‘Feel your breath move up through the spine on the inhalation’.

‘Lift your chest forwards and move your shoulders back’.

‘Let the weight drop down through your sit bones and your shoulder fall away from your ears.’

The phrases are numerous. I have an entire language at the forefront of my mind to describe postures and movements and I find it helpful to have a collection of words and phrases to rely on, as I teach a fair few yoga classes every week. They can however be an obstacle, when they percolate in to my awareness as I enter various poses during my own practice and what I really want to do is empty my head.

The ‘linguistic anchor’ has been securely fastened in my mind but with the instructions for this task a silent language that does not appear in coherent words and sentences appear with unexpected imagery. When consciously moving behind the initial verbal language, I uncover (fragments of) a bodily language. Not that I have not noticed bodily sensations or experienced before, but because I have not paid much attention to how these sensations/experiences might ‘speak’. The imagery is fleeting and I quickly try to capture them by drawing a version of how the experience ‘speaks’ to me. Sometimes words accompany the imagery. When the pictures below came to mind they resembled pictograms: a visual guide that describes the bodily sensation.

Image 1: PolyAHHHHH

During deep back bending words usually stop entering my head. It is interesting how this particular bodily movement silences verbal language and is replaced by visualisation of the body. I often expel deep exhales followed my throat sounds of AHHHHs. This day my spine was floating in mid air in an x-ray-like manner.

Image 2: Sensation Feedback

I am entering one of my final Sun Salutations when I become aware of the the dampness on the surface of my skin, the open pores, the capillaries in my lungs and the breath that moves in between them -all at once. The surface of skin and surface of lungs are in touch with the environment and all of it connects simultaneously. It creates a heightened sense of aliveness.

Image 3: AUM (OM)

This image (not surprisingly) appears after I chant ‘OM’ before beginning my practice. With my eyes close I feel the sound travel up from the back of my throat, resonate through my chest in a big open vibration and land on a spot just beyond my body where the sound ends.

Image 4: TransExtractFiltering

I sit down on my mat to tune in to my body before practicing my yogasana and a vivid image enters me, of something solid moving through a filter of breath and body-space and leaving letters dancing and dangling on the opposite side. It is clearly marking a transition and somehow the seated position (and the ritual) removes clusters by extracting a lightness or freedom from a sensation of compression.

Not unexpectedly, when I look back on the pictograms, they describe a relation between time and space expressed between depth and intensity of how the mark is made on paper, between distance and volume of words, between the simplicity of letters next to each other opposite nuances of the black strokes of the marker.

Post Script

Thanks to the editors of the TDPT blog for hosting this experimental project and to those who read and commented on it.

To you Maria: Two Trainers Prepare has created coherence and consistency of creativity for me during a year of transitioning to a different life. I am very grateful for this time we have spend together – apart. I look forward to the next chapter…

Reflections Task 41 and Task 42 – A Lexicon of Experience

Dear Marie,

many thanks for Task 41. Below you can see my response and below that you can find your Task.

Video by Francesco Cochetto

Video editing by video artist, Hannah Baxter-Gale.

Task 42 – A Lexicon of Experience

More and more I find that the vocabulary I have available to me cannot capture my experience of working with the body. I experience sensations I cannot describe in words. They are thus condemned to a tacit/nonverbal realm. This might not be a problem necessarily, but it can be frustrating when I am trying to explain how or what I sense/feel to someone else. Also, it makes it more difficult to find these sensations again, because without a linguistic anchor I have to rely solely on body memory or mere chance.

I am also quite disappointed at the very dry, cause-effect language that marks the Iyengar Yoga approach on the one hand, and the kind of New Age blather than is often used in other approaches (what I mean by this is poetic and comforting words which however again do not capture the here and now of the somatic experience).

So, your task is to first of all find moments/experiences/sensations in your yoga practice that you do not have the words to describe. Then you have to come up with new words that you think might capture what has so far remained unnamed. You can make up new words, create composites, borrow from more than one language, use sounds etc. I hope you enjoy and who knows you make come up with a new verb to capture what we mean by ‘enjoy’ in this project!

Movement Training For Motion Capture Performance Part 3

    

Participants from the In-Character workshop sharing their devised character scenes

This post concludes my current journey of exploration of movement training for Motion Capture performance, specifically for Film and Video Games. In May 2017, I created a workshop series entitled Embodying Your Mocap and began running movement sessions that explored ways for the actor to become more receptive to a Mocap working environment. It would also prepare them for the type of physical awareness and performance work that would be required, based on the needs of the technology. During reflection upon completing The Virtual Body and Space workshop in September, I had discovered that participants were beginning to use their exploration of movement to connect with the psychology of characters that were starting to emerge throughout the session. Through this, I created the third and final In-Character workshop that would consist of exercises particularly focusing on ways to create and access character types and how certain movement tools could be used to help maintain thorough, connected and in-depth performances.

As mentioned in my first blog post, the first workshop was created and based around the movement components that I felt solidified a well-executed Mocap performance. In-Character was structured with the same objective where the workshop consisted of areas that I felt demonstrated a strong and embodied understanding of performance supported by clear knowledge of how it is read and transmitted through the technology. One of the areas explored had a significant focus on the breaking down and close analysis of physical components that would stem from, for instance, an emotion, a physical state or a neutral walk. This particular method was the starting point of the final product and worked backwards, discovering and identifying the working mechanisms of the performing body. This would allow the participant to knowingly highlight certain aspects of their physical work and adapt them accordingly to effect distinct changes to their performances. An example of this was evident in an exercise that explored stance, body shape and positioning. The participants were given a number of adjectives that described an emotion or type of personality and were asked to explore different physicalities drawing attention to their body outline, making an impression in the space and the silhouettes created (as seen in Image A). As they began working in pairs, they were then able to find positions that felt accurate and could then discuss how it looked and why the physical choices were made (as seen in Image B). Through the discussions and exploration, the participants could distinguish what specific physical components could define a type of character. They were also challenged to consider the data being captured from their physicalities, restrictions that may arise from a Mocap suit with protrusive reflective markers and then see how the choices made could be adapted but still have the same effect.

Image A

Image B

As a movement practitioner coming from a dance background, my practice has been deeply shaped by the notion that changes to the external can affect the internal. By this, I mean that I instinctively approach creative work by looking at the exterior body, such as form and shape, and work with its connection with the interior body such as mood and emotion. I thought this might be an interesting relation to work from, as it would enable the participants to experience a highly visceral and organic method that would then begin to produce productive and thorough physical performances. In the workshop, I used this as a basis to help create an exercise that looked at a simple pedestrian movement – the walk. I had dissected the universal sense of the walk into elements and instructed the participants to subjectively analyse their own walk. Once this was established, they then continued to explore different variations of a walk referring to these elements. For example, as seen in Images C and D, they combined weight placement with foot position, discovering what character(s) emerged and how this effected their full movement. They were also encouraged to consider the subtleties of their physical choices to begin to understand the detailed level at which the motion capture technology works from when capturing data from physical action and movement. It was essential for the participants to recognise the importance of how minor subtleties drawn from their performances could be manipulated and altered to transform a character’s physicality and expression. I felt it was also significant for the participants to allow their bodies to work articulately and with creative precision. Through this exploration, we were finding that there were efficient ways to access an organic psychological connection to emerging characters. One of the participants expressed that by focusing on different ways of using her breath, she was discovering that she would experience feelings and internal thoughts connected to the breath. It became clear that this could be useful for Mocap performance as a quick tool for character building effectively engaging with the character’s internal world and letting that manifest physically into the external world.

Image C

Image D

 

The overall intention of this workshop was to provide a space that allowed participants to immerse themselves into the characteristics of their created characters. This could allow them to remain “in character” and maintain the physical components that essentially create the foundation of their characterizations. Once this is established, it would then create a self-initiated process that the participant could further utilize when building more complex characters. This work, in conjunction with the previous workshops with areas explored on space, environment and basic technical knowledge, could be used as a device to help an actor enter Motion Capture work with clarity and basic understanding of how their physical creations work in relation to the technical processes. These workshops have further proven the creative and dynamic benefits of this type of movement practice for Motion Capture. Through the movement training I am developing, I aim to highlight the bodily elements of performance, opening up creative flexibility to invent identities, stories and worlds that can be executed and delivered through the technology and enhanced by the animation.

It is very clear that deeper knowledge of the mechanics of the technology is required in order to completely comprehend how a movement practice could strengthen and support character and overall motion capture performance. Therefore the next steps of my journey would suggest spending significant time in a Motion Capture studio. I believe it would be very informative to explore various levels of nuances within a type of physical performance and discover how this can begin to be translated into film or video game content. I would like to work closely with various environments and virtual settings using technology, such as pre-visualization cameras and screens. I’d use the material explored in the Virtual Body and Space workshop as a stimulus to further develop an understanding of the body’s relationship to space and assisting the actor to creatively maneuver and exist within a digitized world. I would also continue to explore character building techniques and adding context through the use of 360-degree camera awareness, Mocap suits and markers.

In conclusion, it is clear that the curiosity and interest in Motion Capture has considerably increased throughout the years through its expansive use within the arts (theatre, live art, dance, TV dramas). Also through personal experience in the last year, I have discovered a growing interest among artists just through running the Embodying Your Mocap series and teaching independently in institutions. On reflection, I look back on my initial enquiry where I questioned the acknowledgement of the actors’ work in this field. Through this the question arising now is whether the implementation of these types of movement practices will create a wider awareness of the performance work involved in Motion Capture. Consequently, will this affect the way the Motion Capture process is publicly viewed and in turn offer opportunities for the actors’ work to be further recognized, celebrated and awarded?

 


Photo Credit: Sarah Ainslie

Workshop Venue: PQA Studios (formerly The Poor School)