By Sarah Weston
“The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible in a way that is connected and full of conviction” Max Hafler.
On Wednesday 24th April 2019 I organised a symposium at the University of Leeds called Training, Citizenship and Performance. Hosted by two research groups, Political Communication (Media and Communication) and Performance Training, Preparation and Pedagogy (Performance and Cultural Industries), the event was an interdisciplinary exploration of whether we can train citizenship, and more specifically, whether performance is the tool for this training. The day was composed of four parts: two talks, from Professor Stephen Coleman presenting an overview of citizenship and Miranda Duffy discussing her work promoting democratic values with primary school children through theatre; and two workshops, Proper Job Theatre taking us through their Lab Project workshop process and Max Hafler immersing us in voice technique inspired by Michael Chekhov. Curating these very different approaches into a one-day event perhaps was a bit of a risk, maybe even a bizarre decision. But underneath it was my own conviction that theatre and performance practitioners possess skills that can be utilised in the political sphere. These are both the skills that are more traditionally associated with socially engaged performance practices and the skills of acting and performance more associated with professional theatre, such as voice training. This symposium in essence then, was an experiment in whether bringing together these two spheres – political communication and performance training – could be a way of demonstrating the importance of sharing these skills.
I will briefly give an overview of the content of the day before reflecting on this relationship between performance training and political communication. These reflections have been supported by attendees of the event, either from the final discussion, or from those who have generously sent me their thoughts subsequently.
Stephen Coleman started the event with his own thoughts on citizenship, voice and performance, providing us a framework for the day. He proposed three points of discussion:
- That you can’t be a citizen on your own.
- That there is no formal training for citizenship.
- That citizenship has an affective dimension.
These ideas stayed with us as we moved through rest of the day, beginning with Proper Job Theatre. Proper Job are a theatre company who both produce professional work and run a participatory project called The Lab. The Lab works with unemployed citizens in Huddersfield and Manchester, teaching skills in theatre facilitation where their participants learn to run their own drama workshop for primary school children. Proper Job took us through this workshop, an exact version of the practice that their participants run at schools. The workshop was a gradual progression through games and exercises to a form of participants-in-role drama, where we as citizens of a mythical and fairytale-like country had to confront the High Priestess to try and convince her to change policy. Underpinning this were questions of power, authority and participation, and through bringing us into playing the “role” of citizens in this make-believe world, we were entreated to confront our role within society, and invent ways to collectively challenge and change law. Miranda Duffy’s presentation worked from similar themes, where she reported on her own practice-based research exploring the use of a theatre performance as a tool of citizenship and democratic education in primary schools. Duffy demonstrated how dramatic performance implicated the pupils into considering their own democratic deliberation, emphasising the significance of citizenship and affective identification. In the final component, we were suddenly in a very different place with a voice workshop led by Max Hafler. Drawing on Michael Chekhov’s qualities of radiating and receiving, Hafler engaged us in a series of vocal exercises connecting body, voice and imagination as an approach towards training the voice.
To reflect on this day, I will use the framework offered by Coleman at the very start.
ONE: You can’t be a citizen on your own.
In both workshops there was a sense of collectivity, communality and partnership. In Proper Job’s process, a citizenship is created through play. We have a sense of our relationship to each other and of the power relations inside the workshop. A deliberate power hierarchy is created as we move from being shown a story about an imaginary world where children have to take and leave their elderly relatives to a mountain in order to preserve the kingdom’s resources, to becoming citizens of that kingdom who are given the opportunity to intervene. In groups we are instructed to come up with a way to address the High Priestess if we wish to challenge this law. In our groups, we speak together to the authority and begin to test our relationship to power and test our own citizen agency. The question, as Jonathan Pitches noted, is what would be needed to change the conditions so that people do not need to be sent to the mountain? And the question is, how can we help do that? We, as the significant word.
Proper Job’s workshop provided the opportunity to practice a collective form of citizenship, of both discussion and deliberation of a political problem and a collective address of authority. Max Hafler’s workshop provided another approach to this provocation from Coleman, of the interdependency of citizens. His workshop drew heavily on the principles of theatre director Michael Chekhov, particularly the qualities of radiating and receiving (2002, p.19). This is a sense in performance practice of either radiating energy out to others or receiving the energy of others. Hafler reflected after the workshop on positioning radiating and receiving as political acts: fundamental to community, political action and also theatre. We practiced radiating and receiving an imaginary ball across the space before this ball became our voices, sending our voice to someone across the space and then receiving their voice back. In these interactions we need the other for our voice to matter, to allude to the phrase of political theorist Nick Couldry who describes how in democratic society voices need to matter (2010, p.1). Equally then, we understand our duty in receiving the voice of the other for their voice to matter. In training the voice then, either for the theatre – as with Hafler’s work – or for political intervention – with my own – we are made entirely aware of citizen interdependency for voice to be heard.
TWO: There is no formal training in citizenship.
Coleman described how there is not much training, or incentive, to be a ‘good’ citizen.
In both workshops we were in training, acquiring a new skills-set that we can apply outside of the workshop space. Yet this, as described by Fe Uhuru (an Arts, Health and Wellbeing Activist), happened by stealth. We were not instructed to act politically, nor did we feel like we were directly being political. Yet, as Fe reflects, there was a gradual sense that we were becoming active and aware. In this sense, the skills we learnt were not formal political skills, but skills that still engaged us politically. Both workshops then where examples of a training process, but in very different ways. Proper Job’s workshop was an experiential training in skills of negotiation, collaboration and innovation. We learnt by playing the role of a citizen, taking on responsibility, finding out what we would do in an imaginary high-stakes situation. We were given an incentive and given permission to intervene, to practice our citizenship. Participant Emma Gee described this as “unlearning acquiescence”. Practicing standing-up to authority, confronting authority and trying to change things. Training in this workshop therefore seemed to be premised on part of Augusto Boal’s practice: that we can rehearse revolution.
Hafler’s process of training I believe can also be related to Boal and furthermore to unlearning acquiescence. This is a less quoted aspect of Boal that explores how training the body can be connected to unlearning the alienating impacts of work – of unlearning how physical work marks the body. Voice training can be direct intervention to counter the alienating affects of society upon our voices, which I have previously written about on this blog here. Engaging with training the physical voice is a way to distribute skills needed for citizenship that many lack. This includes explicit skills of public speaking such as vocal support, power, volume and clarity, as well as more symbolic skills of feeling like you have a voice, feeling connected to others, and feeling supported or listened to.
In reflection, many participants commented on the need for these specific voice skills and how the absence of such skills is a political question itself. Youth Theatre Practitioner Steph Green remarked how these skills are already being utilised by business and corporations, appropriated as forms of leadership or management training. Theatre Director Kate Treadell discussed how this is a question of class, that the absence of political voice skills is largely related to social class, which in turn perpetuates existing class relations. Kate talked about how if young people did training, both celebrating their voice and using it as a tool, it could feel like way less of a big deal to then have an opinion. But, access to this training is limited by class – for example, being able to go to drama school or do a drama degree. In this sense, training is a political issue as it is a question of distribution. Who has a voice in society, who can enact citizenship, can be understood as who has access to the skills of voice. Training then can be a tool of intervention, a potential way to equalise this unfair distribution.
THREE – Citizenship has an affective dimension.
Both of these acts of training worked on the principles of experiential learning – of affect and feeling. If citizenship has an affective dimension, then it makes sense that training citizenship does too. In Hafler’s workshop we focused on the Michael Chekhov principles of radiating and receiving. That through the act of voicing we both radiate and receive energy with another. This, as Jonathan Pitches noted in his reflections on the day, has a political element because you are sharing your response in relation to the other, or as Hafler said in sharing an “understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation”. This affective approach to citizenship then perhaps is about training and tuning ourselves into feeling aspects of citizenship both intellectually and bodily.
As we threw a pretend ball to our partner across the space we radiated, as we caught the ball we received. In that moment there was an opportunity to pause and hold the connection with the partner. Holding in space, with eye contact, that precise moment when radiating and receiving came together. Having the opportunity to take this time and space seemed to me a gift, something that we so rarely get the opportunity to do. Feeling that moment was a brief feeling of political entitlement: feeling entitled to take this time and space. Having the right to take time and space.
Connecting these three aspects, the body is the link between training and citizenship. Focusing on the body means approaching citizenship in an affective way. It also provides a groundwork for training that links the individual to the social, and it necessitates training in acknowledgement of other bodies. Theatre and performance therefore offers a form of training where we can consider citizenship in an embodied and collective way. This has significant implications for both theatre and performance and political communication discourses interested in political engagement and voice and provides us with some ideas for how we might discuss and train citizenship.
Chekhov, M (2002). To the Actor. London, Routledge.
Couldry, Nick (2010), Why Voice Matters, London: Sage.
Hafler, M (2019). ‘Radiating and Receiving / A political act’. Available at: https://maxhafler.wordpress.com/2019/04/26/radiating-and-receiving-a-political-act/
Weston, S (2019). ‘Voicing Resistance: Training as a tool of political voice’. Available at: http://theatredanceperformancetraining.org/2019/03/voicing-resistance-training-as-a-tool-of-political-voice/