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

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