Activating the Space: Memories and Metaphors
One of the greatest things about going to a conference where you are to discuss, reflect on and explore performer training is that at some stage you are likely to revert to/experience being a drama student. For our performer training working group at TaPRA 2018 we were based in the R Gerallt Jones Studio at the Parry-Williams building, Aberystwyth University, which coincidentally was the same room I had my undergraduate voice and acting classes with Joan Mills. So, when Kate Craddock (co-convener, with Maria Kapsali and Tom Cantrell) said we were going to ‘activate the space’ it was a particularly surreal moment.
This is how Day 2 of the conference began. Our instructions from Kate: Do not speak during the exercise; if you notice something in the room go to it and explore it; if you notice someone else noticing something, and you are compelled, go to it.
Kate says something to the effect of, “you may find you end up moving as a collective, let’s see what happens”.
At the end of the exercise – Kate turns to us and asks, “do we need to talk about it?” We all collectively and quietly agreed that we do not. So, having the task to review this panel I wondered whether I should review this bit, after all it was impromptu with Kate filling the space when Gareth Somers sadly couldn’t make it. Is it even fair to review it? And, should I not honour the ‘not talking about it’ position we immediately came to after the exercise?
I do have penchant for rebelling…. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll write a poem about how I experienced the exercise.
None the wiser!
Tight-knit huddle looking out and about
All eyes scan the space looking for a catch
Apprehension rises and falls before
A lead emerges, leads us to a patch
We explore: touching, looking, no speaking
Another breaks away, herd follows suit
No rebels emerge, going it alone
For fear, for panic, it will bear no fruit
Finally, resistance comes, two groups now
One goes one way and one goes another
Though a connection remaining somehow
Bonds having formed when close to each other
We start to break away in smaller groups
Some pairing up, some braving it alone
Then I find myself staring at a wall
Some duct tape adorns it and I am thrown
I have seen this tape holding up this wall,
A long time ago, right here, in this place
Fear now, feared then, the metaphor crumbling
Taking everything down, this fragile space
These bricks, this mortar, the pipes and water
This verse, this stanza, the iambic pentameter
Where this poem started.
This student, this teacher, this trainee, this trainer
I rip the tape away; all hell breaks loose and we are none the wiser.
So there’s that – the reminder of being an undergraduate, and how the experience or feeling might not be so different to being a performer trainer or teacher in 2018.
In the performer training working group we are asking what I see as very urgent questions, ‘Who are we training for?’ as was this year’s theme, which leads us to questions like ‘Who are we training?’, ‘What are we training?’ and ‘To what end?’
Where is the place of art, creativity and expression within the training environment? Who has authority in the performer training studio? Where does performer training sit within the theatre, performance, dance, and drama canon and how comfortable is that seat? So, as we moved about the space I wondered if this exercise is a metaphor for all that we are questioning within the three days here at TaPRA and the fragility of our wider contexts – institutions and their hierarchies, schools of thought, and walls. For now, I am embracing the fragility.
Dana Blackstone: ‘What I see in you, that I see in me is…’ compassionate practices for communication, community, and potential sustainability in ensemble actor training
Another theme that emerges time and again in the performer training working group, and within wider performer training research, is that of the trainer/trainee relationship, and power dynamics within the training space.
In her paper, Dana Blackstone describes and takes us through the thinking behind her ‘compassionate practices for communication, community, and potential sustainability in ensemble actor training’.
The title of the presentation strikes the tone straight away, denoting this compassionate mode of practice – ‘What I see in you, that I see in me is…’. What struck me throughout the presentation was that though Blackstone was telling us of an exercise she sets for her students, the ‘I’ and ‘me’ included the facilitator, making way for a democratic space, an open space and indeed a truly compassionate space. In other words, the exercise didn’t just stop with the students – it encapsulated everyone in the space and therefore the space took on an identity of compassion in its own right.
In her presentation, Blackstone spoke of the Gauntlet exercise she facilitates with the students – the students are sat facing each other, knees touching and they have a moment to connect with eye contact. The exercise uses three key phrases:
1) ‘What I see in you, that I see in me is…’
2) ‘I suggest…’
3) ‘What I love about you is…’
Blackstone tells us that the first phrase is ‘of similarity’, which one could argue opens the conversation with what connects the students. The second is ‘of constructive critique’, which potentially allows for honest and safe critique. The third denotes ‘loved qualities’, ending on a positive. Blackstone makes it clear to the students that the constructive critique, often a tricky task for students to do face-to-face, should be bold and not reinforce a loved quality. The example Blackstone uses when showing what not to do is, “I suggest you keep your pretty smile.” Blackstone also has advice for those that may not like what they hear: ‘Take a breath. See if it fits for you or not and take it in or not – and then let it go. When it is your turn to speak, it is not the time to ‘get even’. Let it go.’
Though one could foresee initial difficulties students may have in critiquing their friends or other students they may want to make friends with, the framing of this exercise is what makes it work. It is a challenge that, once overcome, could promote a safe and honest space for creativity, collaboration and risk taking. It would be great if we could have this compassionate mode of practice in as many other walks of life as possible.
Flavia Domingues D’Avila: From Theatre Anthropology to Theatre Anthropophagy
The idea of cultural cannibalism is not something I expected to emerge from the performer training working group at TaPRA but now I can’t get the notion out of my head. In the context of performer training are we trainers not all taking part in cultural cannibalism by using/assimilating the work/practices/ideas of others – not to say that it is a bad thing (all the time at least). This flooding of my brain with these thoughts is thanks to Flavia Domingues D’Avila’s presentation ‘From Theatre Anthropology to Theatre Anthropophagy’.
Domingues D’Avila tells us that she has, ‘been investigating the extent to which cultural cannibalism can be useful as part of a toolkit to adequately represent diverse cultures in professional theatre.’ This paper presented some, ‘initial reflections on methods used in a syncretic theatre laboratory with three actors from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.’
It was interesting to hear about Domingues D’Avila’s background, having grown up on the border of Brazil and Uruguay, and how this ultimately led to the origins of this project. You only need to read her PhD blog – https://syncretictheatre.wordpress.com/, and her theatre company website – https://fronteirastheatrelab.com/ to understand how some of the themes and considerations came to be a part of this research. For example, the term syncretic is one, as her blog tells us is, ‘a term borrowed from Religious Studies (also found in Translation Studies) and defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.”’
It seems that Domingues D’Avila here is interested in the in-between spaces, in the cross sections and the clashes that can sometimes exist, both in cultural landscapes and in performance/performative traditions. As someone interested in performer training, and as someone who has spent going on a third of my life away from the country where I grew up, many questions are raised for me listening to this presentation and when I think of these in-between places.
- How much of me is still cultural Irish, and how much is British? (Some of these considerations may arguably become more potent in someone that may have moved continents and/or experienced greater cultural shifts)
- How do we identify these spaces and by what/whose parameters and terms?
- What happens, notionally at least, when we take these parameters away?
- What affect might existing in these cultural crossovers have on one’s personal/national identity?
- And in view of all these questions; what do we disrupt, move, challenge when we ‘train’ the performer?
A lot of these questions are asked from the perspective of my own interests and scholarship, however, Domingues D’Avila offered such interesting reflections in her paper that endless questions can emerge from a multitude of perspectives as diverse as performer training to applied performance to cultural theory.
An excellent panel all round.
Denis Cryer-Lennon is a lecturer of theatre and drama, and research assistant, at the University of South Wales. He has been working as a theatre actor, director and writer for the last 17 years in Ireland and Wales. His key research interests include voice studies, actor and performer training, autobiographical performance, and storytelling. He is in the mid to late stages of his PhD entitled A Breath Pedagogy for Speaking Shakespeare: The Role of Breathing Work in Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Actor Training for Shakespeare’s Text.