TDPT 10.3: What is new in voice training?

We are delighted to share that the latest Theatre, Dance and Performance Training special issue, ‘What is New in Voice Training?’, is out.

The issue, guest edited by Konstantinos Thomaidis, proposes a timely re-examination of voice in performer training. The literature on voice, theatre and pedagogy is, of course, vast. In the case of singing, it is largely dominated by paradigms appropriate for operatic and musical theatre performance. In the case of speech training, areas that have been systematically explored include the pedagogies developed by an influential generation of mid-twentieth-century, UK- and US-based speech trainers – and, to a lesser extent, the voice practices pertaining to (post)Grotowskian lineages or the integration of first-wave somatics into voice work. While drawing impetus from these significant insights, the purpose of this special issue has been to lend an attentive ear to the transformations such established pedagogies are currently undergoing as well as to less widely circulated and emergent methodologies.

In other words, the issue asks: What is new in voice training?

Contributors to the issue shared their practice and research in a variety of formats (peer-reviewed articles, essais, visual essays, postcards, ATQs, blogs, reviews) and engaged with topics and sets of questions such as:

  • Renewing voice training: How are existing systems, exercises and practices reconfigured in new settings? How can we re-evaluate the foundational premises of voice training through recent discoveries in physiology and advances in critical theory? In what ways are such methods adapted, hybridised, repurposed, recycled, rethought?
  • New practices: Which are the new approaches to voice, speech and singing training currently in the making? How do they depart from or extend current conceptualisations of voicing? What performance contexts are they designed for? How are they taught, recorded, written about and transmitted?
  • New documents: Which practices of voice training have not been systematically documented and disseminated? Which practices have received less critical attention and how can new archives engage us in dialogue with them? What is the place of the ‘document’ in practice-as-research approaches to voice pedagogy?
  • The new voice coach: Which are the new exigencies placed on coaches today? What challenges do they face? Which methodologies have been developed in response? How is voice training conducted beyond the conservatoire studio?
  • New contexts: How is voice training taking into consideration gender, class and ethnic diversity? How is the pedagogy of speech and song responding to neurodiverse trainees? How are interdisciplinary performers trained in voice work? How is training originally developed for artistic performance adapted in other contexts and circumstances?
  • New criticalities: Which emergent critical methodologies can we deploy to critique voice training or to generate new approaches? How can voice training embrace ecocritical or new materialist strategies? What is the place of the expanding corpus of vocal philosophy in the studio?
  • New histories, new lineages: What does new archival research reveal about the lineages and historic practices of voice training? How is the history of voice training rewritten? How are premodern forms of voice training revitalised in contemporary performer training?

CONTENTS

Editorial: What is new in voice training?

by Konstantinos Thomaidis

https://doi.org/10.1080/19443927.2019.1677384

Answer the question: How are voice trainings adapted, recycled, transplanted and repurposed?

Rockford Sansom: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667179

Abimbola Adetola Stephen-Adesina: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667180

Luis Aros: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667181

Oliver Mannel: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667182

Sarah Weston: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667183

Article

Vocal Empowerment Curriculum for young Maya Guatemalan women

by Beth Osnes, Chelsea Hackett, Jen Walentas Lewon, Norma Baján & Christine Brennan

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1637371

Essay

Pitch and gender in voice training: new methodological directions

by Jane Boston

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660523

Essay

The act of listening: Gardzienice’s mutuality practice and the ACTing voice

by Anna-Helena McLean (collaborating academic advisor Demetris Zavros)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660524

Article

Singing bodies: reconsidering and retraining the corporeal voice

by Gavin Thatcher & Daniel Galbreath

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1637370

Postcards

J. Ariadne Calvano: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660530

Rachel K. Carter: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660531

Essay

Support: birthing the voice

by Leah Lovett

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660525

Article

Speech-language pathologists with a vocal music background: exploring impact on the training of the transgender voice

by Danielle Cozart Steele

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1640781

Postcards

Ben Macpherson: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1677387

Annie Sanger-Davies: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1677386

Article

Devisers in the dark: reconfiguring a material voice practice

by Electa W. Behrens

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1637372

Essay

Approaching Italian gorgie through Karnatik brigha: an essai on intercultural vocal transmission

by Charulatha Mani

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1677385

Article

Between preservation and renewal: reconsidering technology in contemporary pansori training

by Konstnatinos Thomaidis

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1645040

Visual Essay

Becoming robot through voice: training in artificial voices

by Francesco Bentivegna

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1634639

Essay

‘Next year’s words await another voice’: British Sign Language and voice work with D/deaf actors at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

by Mel Drake

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1677388

Obituary (Cicely Berry)

Stephen Kemble: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660538

Postcards to the future of voice

Kate Godfrey: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660532

Margaret Pikes: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660533

Darryl Taylor: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1667178

Subhashini Parthasarathy: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660534

Theodoros Terzopoulos: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660535

Jaroslaw Fret: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660536

Anne Bogart: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1660537

Reviews

Marcus Cheng Chye Tan: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1640782

Sarah Holden-Boyd: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19443927.2019.1640783

For colleagues without institutional access, the editorial, the obituary and the article by Cozart Steele are freely available.

Further, the special issue is accompanied by a series of entries posted on the journal’s blog: http://theatredanceperformancetraining.org/category/comebacks/what-is-new-in-voice-training/

Special thanks to all contributors, the TDPT team and the community of artists, trainers, trainees, practitioner-scholars, peer reviewers and interviewees that the special issue represents.

With all best wishes,

Konstantinos Thomaidis

Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre & Performance

University of Exeter

Where is the vocal training for ageing female musical theatre performers?

During my observation of the rehearsals of a new country-music MT (musical theatre) production in May 2019, I was fortunate to witness the two female leads (a performer in her late 50s and a performer in her early 20s) working on their singing parts. The younger lead appeared to approach her character’s songs with ease whereas the older lead had to try different vocal placements multiple times without apparent success. Since the two leads shared many duets together on stage, the reviews of the performances, perhaps unavoidably, reflected this discrepancy: ‘Although [younger lead] tries her best to rescue the harmonies this has very little effect […] [and] vocally the experience is at points unpleasant. [Older performer] playing the lead breathes a neurotic and very believable air into Sandra and this is to be commended, but vocally within a musical a lot hangs on the lead’s vocal ability, and this just isn’t up to scratch’ (Wilding, 2019).

While I was reflecting on the making of this particular musical, and taking under consideration musical theatre’s preference for young(er) over old(er) performers, a crucial question arose: what happens to the ageing female voice when that voice no longer fulfils the expectations of this musical theatre?1

The notable shift of musical theatre to CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) styles during the last two decades resulted in an important remoulding of the industry’s vocal casting needs, with the largest percentage of postings requiring female performers to sound like rock/pop singers. Phrases such as ‘must belt to C’ or ‘must mix to D’ or descriptions such as ‘must be power rocker’ appear in the majority of professional casting notices for Broadway and West End musical theatre productions (Lovetri, 2013). This increase of CCM writing in musicals has proved to be ‘a highly sophisticated and technically demanding art form which has […] created a need for its own pedagogy’ (Edwin 2007, p. 215). Musical theatre programmes offered by theatre academies nowadays aim to meet the needs of this new vocal pedagogy recruiting, among other techniques, spectrographic software for formant tuning and visual support for the understanding of different singing techniques.

Nevertheless, previous generations of female performers in musical theatre come from different vocal training(s) and/or no formal singing training at all. The performers then were, usually, cross-over actors, singers and dancers working in musicals. David Craig, a master teacher and creator of performing techniques for singing in musical theatre, remarked: ‘After World War II, I was teaching [in musical theatre] […] actors and dancers; some of them rather well known on Broadway but not one of them was a singer’ (On Singing Onstage). Rebecca Caine, the originator of the role of Cosette in Les Misérables highlights in her interview for The Stage (2019): ‘A lot of people in my generation weren’t technically as well-founded as the kids coming out of training today’.

Despite the lack of technical training in musical theatre singing, these performers were ‘the raison d’être for the original productions. […]: [a] virtual pantheon of composers and lyricists willingly wrote for them […] [and] their singing [was not] considered second-class’ (Craig 2014, p.94). ‘Old school’ performers now have difficulties shifting to the ‘fashionable’ belting rock and pop styles, and as they are not considered anymore, due to their older age, for roles of ingénues or young soubrettes, they turn to cabaret or concerts ‘where you can still sing the “I’m gonna” songs’ (DeMaio 2013, p.69).

So, where is the training that will help older performers remain in, or return to, the MT business?

One might argue that the biological ageing of the voice, which affects women due to menopause (approximately at the age of fifty, but can begin earlier, whereas men’s voices are affected by biological ageing around sixty), might render an ageing female performer vocally ‘inadequate’ for industry standards and audience expectations. Dryness of the throat, a loss of brilliance in the voice, a decreased ability to reach high notes and, in some occasions, difficulty to maintain pitch and unclear diction may be some of the effects related to menopause.

However, when Ann Emery performed between the age of 75 and the age of 84 the role of Grandma in Billie Elliot the Musical (Elton John and Lee Hall, 2005), a CCM rock/pop musical, she used all the above ‘symptoms of age’ to deliver her song in a contemporary belt with breathy, raspy and growly vocal distortions – characteristics of a technique that defines rock and pop power singing. Was this very successful delivery the distillation of her invaluable experience of singing onstage?

DeMaio (2013), in her PhD research on strategies used by postmenopausal elite singers in order to maintain vocal quality and range, concluded that ageing female professionals on Broadway usually follow the same steps as ageing opera singers: hormonal replacement, continuous daily singing as part of the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy, exercises that help to keep head-mix voice, general SOVT (semi-occluded vocal tract) exercises which mainly help the vocal folds to vibrate with less effort (such as Titze’s straw exercise), and general VFE (vocal function exercises), such as Stemple’s exercises, which aim to strengthen laryngeal musculature. However, opera singers train towards vocal requirements almost opposite to those for contemporary MT performers: classical voice training and operatic delivery with consistent vibrato is associated with the ‘golden age’ musicals and the ‘old fashioned’ legit singing.

Yet, if the perceived ‘fault’ of physiovocal ageing is exploited by the musical theatre industry as a justification for the fact that there is, indeed, a lack of further training for ageing female performers, then how will these performers be able to meet present-time expectations and, consequently, be given equal opportunities for roles? Is this ‘fault’ treated, perhaps, as an indistinguishable ‘disturbance’2 across all values in performers’ individual variances? In other words, is the lack of training justified on the basis of a ‘what-this-voice-can-do-because-of-the-performer’s-gender-and-age’ presupposition and thus uncritically and sweepingly imposed on all ageing female performers, no matter their individual potential, expertise and skills?

Where do we go from here? How do we develop appropriate trainings, exercises or pedagogies suited both to the aesthetic demands of contemporary musical theatre repertoire and the needs of ageing female vocalists?

Brief Bio:

Faye Rigopoulou is a PhD candidate in Drama at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on ageing female vocality in musical theatre. Faye has a long service in musical theatre as a director, music director and performer and has taught musical theatre courses since 2004. She has trained at the National Conservatoire of Athens (voice, composition, and piano virtuosity), the Academy of Russian Ballet in Greece (dance), and has received training in Stanislavski’s system.

Notes:

  1. Drawing from Gough and Nakajima (2019) ‘When the dancer and the dance are inseparable, where does the dance go when that ageing body no longer does that dance?’ (p.1)
  2. In statistics, ‘disturbance’ or ‘error term’ reflects all variables that separate a model from the actual observed reality; the term is used here metaphorically.

References:

Craig, D., (2014). ‘On Performing Sondheim. A Little Night Music Revisited’ in: J. Gordon (ed) Stephen Sondheim, A Casebook Routledge. pp.93-106.

DeMaio Fox, B., (2013). ‘The Effect of Menopause on the Elite Singing Voice: Singing Through the Storm’. PhD. Shenandoah Conservatory.

Edwin, R., (2007). ‘Popular Song and Music Theater: Belt Is Legit’. Journal of Singing. 64(2), p.215.

Gough, R., and Nakajima, N., (2019). ‘On Ageing (&Beyond)’. Performance Research, 24(3), pp.1-8.

Hemley, M., (2019). ‘Rebecca Caine: Trend for belting in musical theatre has created a more generic sound’. The Stage [online]. Available at: https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2019/rebecca-caine-trend-for-belting-in-musical-theatre-has-created-a-more-generic-sound/ [Accessed: 20.11.2019]

LoVetri, J., & Weekly – Means, E., (2003). ‘Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Survey: Who’s Teaching What in Nonclassical Music,’ Journal of Voice. 17(2), pp.207-215.

Wilding, G., (2019). ‘Review: Hot Flushes Camden People’s Theatre’. A Younger Theatre [online]. Available at: https://www.ayoungertheatre.com/review-hot-flushes-camden-peoples-theatre/ [Accessed: 19.06.2019].

 

Computers, Humans and ‘Daisies’: Becoming Machine through Voice.

This post commences with a brief video extract taken from the photo-essay that I wrote for the special issue of the TDPT journal (10.3: ‘What is New in Voice Training?’). I decided to share on the blog a different audio-visual standpoint on my work. In contemporary academia, the so-called ‘practice turn’ allows scholars to find new and creative ways to share their research. In this sense, Voice Studies has necessitated a vocal approach to dissemination, and performance training needs to be addressed inclusively. I felt the urge to ‘vocalise’ my project, therefore my blog-entry aims to embed voices in the discussion and to offer a different way of listening to it.

What if a computer, or a machine, could teach us to sing or talk? As part of my practice-as-research Ph.D., I tried to train myself to ‘sound’ as an artificial voice, with an unusual coach: the computer itself. From November 2017-April 2018, I worked on an experimental training of voice re-production, with the specific aim of inverting conventional approaches to the loop of vocal mimicry: normally, we shape artificial voices on the basis of ‘natural’ voices, making computers mimic humans. My idea was to reverse the process and investigate how humans could mimic computers. I decided to develop a training approach that started from artificial voices, exploring human-machine communication, as well as approaching performance training differently. This blog entry contains audio-visual documentation of this process and, further, it is designed to accompany the self-reflexive and contextual account that can be found in the photo-essay. With these documents, I explore the work undertaken, explain the pitfalls and frustrations involved in the process, and outline future possibilities for performing machines differently.

Becoming Machine – a brief collection of my screen recorded exercises

Screen-recorded, the first video shows the process of editing and recording through the DAWs – Digital Audio Workstations – Praat and Ableton Live. The plug-in Chipspeech was the primary tool for this research: it allowed me to digitally recreate the original IBM 704’ speech synthesis that sung ‘Daisy Bell’ in 1964. In the first part, I have included one of the exercises that I created. My wish was to mix digital and real-life training, so I devised mixed-sources exercises. In this case, I present my attempt to ‘be taught by the computer how to vocalise vowels. It is possible to see how I created the vowels on Chipspeech, how I tried to replicate them, and then how I filed my recordings on the computer and sorted them by frequency and in alphabetical order. Praat, the sound analysis DAW, was fundamental to investigate the files phonetically. At 01.45 the video shows the analysis and comparison between audio files – the letter ‘I’ for example – and the difference in frequencies.

The second part – starting at 03.13 – introduces the other approach I developed for my project. Ableton Live is on vertical mode; the top left column has a speech synthesis version of ‘Daisy Bell’, in each cell. The second column is empty, as well as the third, the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth columns. On the top right, the seventh column, in every cell, has my human-voice-produced version of ‘Daisy Bell’. As the video continues, I filled the empty cells in the empty columns with ‘new’ recordings that attempted to increase the ‘robot-ness’ feel in my voice. First by copying the speech synthesis, listening to it. Secondly, by adding ‘robot-ness’ to my voice as I was listening to my human recording. On the left, you can find recordings based on me trying to replicate the speech synthesis; on the right, recordings based on myself trying to emit a robotic version of ‘Daisy Bell’, while listening to the human version. The central columns are meant to be filled by ‘re-worked’ and improved versions of the recordings, after a close listening to the ones in the second and the sixth columns.

The second video is recorded with the front camera of my laptop. After a brief introduction of the work that I am about to do, I start vocalising what I understand as ‘human speech-synthesis’. I decided to upload this part to the blog to help the reader engage with my struggle of trying and failing. My intention was to show the numerous attempts through which I realised how hard—impossible, even—the project was, and to invite the viewer/listener to think how a human could look and feel while ‘becoming a machine’ through newly devised voice pedagogy. This video documents my training on two separate days: one at the beginning of the project, the other towards the end – and allows me and the reader (or viewer/listener) to notice the differences in my voice.

The three audio files that I have chosen among more than a hundred represent my two best attempts in recreating the speech synthesis version of the song – included here under the name Robot.

Robot

The file Struggle is probably the most important: in less than 2 seconds, it embodies the struggle of months repeating the first two syllabi of ‘Daisy Bell’.

Struggle

The third file, Robot-Human, is a comparison between me and the computer voice.

Robot-Human

This work invites and cultivates a different point of listening, and hopefully, provokes a discussion on how human practitioners might engage with computers, speech synthesis and robots. I hope that other practitioners are inspired to engage in a similar attempt, and share these attempts in vocally becoming a machine (perhaps as comments below). Will their struggle be the same as mine?

About the author: I was born in Italy in 1990. I am a Ph. D. student, a musician, a trained actor, a DJ, and a comedian. My field of interest moves between voice, artificial voice, voice training, hauntology, posthumanism, HRI and HAAI. I am currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on a project on analysing the Posthuman Condition through voice, looking at the differences between artificial voices and natural voices in Performance Practices. My work with voices echoes in my musical project called Mr Everett, where we investigate human and machine communication through voice, comedy, and dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiyrp4qXTdc

Practise, process, and preach: An intercultural embodied approach to understanding ornamentation

Dr Charulatha Mani

As a performing vocalist, my primary lens to review, analyse and contribute to any field of musical activity has been my vocal practice. However, reconsidering my embedded practice of Karnatik vocal music of South India and its culturally contingent qualities in the light of global voice literatureburgeoning theories, and other lateral practices of colleagues, across historical and current contexts, has always proven to be one way through which I have acquired a considered view of the situatedness of my practice in the broader global domain of music-making and music education.

In my essai titled ‘Approaching Italian gorgie through Karnatik brigha: an essaion intercultural vocal transmission’ published as part of the TDPT special issue ‘What is New in Voice Training?’ I have adopted a similar strategy in weaving a narrative that factors-in a broad spectrum of subject matters; however, my intention was to funnel them into the receptacle of intercultural vocal pedagogy for the present. The unique strand of Italian vocal ornamentation of the 16th and 17th centuries, the gorgie; a typical style of vocal ornamentation that draws heavily on diminutions, brigha;theories of embodied cognition and physiovocal empathy; and the current global landscape of music education that is fast-embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, all find place in this essai.I have drawn on and reflected upon the views of students in describing the ways in which I taught strategies to unleash the gorgie on a group of student-performers of Early Opera, by adopting an imitative reconstruction of the Karnatik brigha. A lost vocal tradition from the Early Modern period is regarded in the essai through the lens of a currently alive, yet ancient, tradition from South Asia, Karnatik vocal music. This approach to pedagogy draws heavily on my doctoral research, ‘Hybridising Karnatik Music and Early Opera: A journey through voice, word, and gesture,’ wherein I have established the commonalities between vocal styles of early music and Karnatik music, from both physiognomic and technical perspectives. I expect that the outcome of this teaching exercise might legitimise non-traditional ways of approaching Western classical music training, while also decolonising music education by challenging established premises from a position of diversity and agency in voicing.

The media, ‘Researching ornamentation in Monteverdi’s Possente Spirto through reflective practice’ is shared above and is an excerpt from my practice-based exploration of gorgie from a brigha perspective. It derives from cross-modal approaches to music cognition and transmission, including an acknowledgement of the affective states induced in the body during vocalisation, musically contingent and cultural-semiotic gestures, visually rich historical scores, and my own reflections. Through practice, I demonstrate that the vocalising body processes visual, gestural, kinaesthetic parameters conveyed by music by directly correlating these sensorial experiences to the vocal practice that it is familiar with, thereby establishing a linkage – between techniques across styles and times. It was this personal experience that I used as evidence to transmit gorgie training in a way that is useful to the Early Opera students, using Karnatik brigha as a conduit. Practitioners and educators may engage with this media by acknowledging their own vocal experiences as they behold the visual, gestural, and aural parameters that unfold before them. Such acknowledgement would be the first step to then engage with students across these very parameters. In doing so, newer modalities and approaches to voice training could experientially unfold.

The contributor Dr Charulatha Mani is a well-established vocal performer / researcher / educator with primary expertise in Karnatik music of South India. She recently received her PhD on intercultural intersections between 17th century Italian Opera and Karnatik Music from Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. She loves to challenge convention and is an active scholar in the fields of voice studies, artistic research in music, historical and comparative musicology, and critical cultural studies. She currently manages the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Brisbane, Australia.

The act of listening: Gardzienice’s mutuality practice and The ACTing Voice – a multimodal presentation

The following audiovisual documentation was taken during the ACT International Voice and Performance Residency in Centro Anidra, Italy (10-27 September 2018), directed by Anna-Helena McLean. Designed as a complement and integral partner to the essai ‘The act of listening: Gardzienice’s mutuality practice and The ACTing Voice,’ this multi-modal publication is an experiment, working within the form afforded by the TDPT special issue 10:3 ‘What is new in voice training?’ to seek new approaches to practice-based research.

You are invited to witness a series of brief encounters, spanning exercises in progress, actors in rehearsal and interviews with international workshop participants as well as McLean. The films on their own offer practice-based insights, and together with the essai gain epistemological contextualisation from McLean’s experiential standpoint as a musician, actor and researcher. The enquiry is centred around the way McLean has been evolving the practice she discovered as a principal member in Gardzienice (2000-2007). Now director of her own approach to music theatre and devising, called the ACT (Actor – Chorus – Text) Ensemble Practice, McLean’s text and film trace the development of the practice and its relevance to voice work, embodied voice and vocal extension through a ‘physiovocal’ approach (see Thomaidis 2014), based on McLean’s re-imagining of the core Gardzienice principles of mutuality and musicality. The films allude to new physiovocal exercises including the musicality of the spine, harmonics, interval modulation, body resonators and the physiovocal alphabet in the director’s drive to ‘listen to’, navigate and address the actors’ process in order to extend vocal possibilities and enable more nuance and sensitivity to text.

Clip 1 (Leading with) Mutuality

Clip 2 The act of listening

Clip 3 Extending the voice

Clip 4 Physiovocality

Clip 5 Body resonators

Clip 6 The acting voice

Clip 7 Physiovocal scoring

Credits

Research advisor/support: Demetris Zavros

Film: Federico Torre

Media editors: Jesse Embury and Sid Sawant

Collaborating actors and participants: Robert Schein Bogdanovic, Rosie Clark, Eleanor Debreu, Kaeridwyn Eftelya, Andrea Foa, Ola Forman, Caroline Gatt, Amelia Gibbs, Emily Jane Grant, Wanning Jen, Louise Parr, Dylan-Donovan Sebaoun, Susanna Wilson.

Location: Centro Anidra, Borzonasca, Genova, Italy.

Reference

Thomaidis, K. 2014 Singing from stones: physiovocality and Gardzienice’s theatre of musicality. In: D. Symonds and M. Taylor, eds. Gestures of music theater: the performativity of song and dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 242-258.

Finding one’s teaching identity through change and innovation in Voice Training

Many voice teachers might consider developing new teaching practices and methods in voice training in actor training environments as a daunting prospect. In my own training, both as an actor and as a voice teacher, the received practices and philosophies of renowned voice and speech practitioners were passed on to me by my teachers, studied carefully through their books, and then embedded and repeated through my physical practice as an actor, and in my MA Voice Studies Teacher Training. Their specialist technical approaches and philosophies remained unquestioned in their efficacy in serving the needs or abilities of all (including those who may not fit within an assumed normative model of cognitive style). These specialist practitioners’ voice training methods are formed through years of experience in teaching the subject, with extensive knowledge of vocal anatomy, voice production and acting approaches, and are commonly Anglo-Western in origin. Some individuals’ methods have emerged over time to be singled out and followed by others, requiring further learning and practice in becoming expert in their particular techniques. For example, many voice teachers in the US, UK and Australia identify themselves as Linklater, Fitzmaurice or Lessac Practitioners (and are certified as such through specialised training). Alternatively, there are those who choose to follow the Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenburg, Barbara Houseman, Clifford Turner, or David Carey methods (amongst others); all are commonly endorsed and practised in Western actor training.

Speaking from my own experience as a voice teacher, for some years my ownership of the work was demonstrated through my study of the exercises and range of these voice experts’ methods and repeating them slavishly in my own teaching. (In my case, voice teaching includes vocal development, speech, articulation, reading of the written text, expression of the self, and an ability to transform through voice and speech/accent characterisation). However, in frequently encountering acting students with dyslexia, I have observed that some of the commonly taught methods (although highly effective with many students) do not allow or facilitate a flexible response to the mixed learning styles and needs of individuals with Specific Learning Differences/Disabilities met within a student cohort. My esteem for the renowned practitioners and acceptance of their knowledge and expertise had restricted me from thinking for myself within the circumstances of my own teaching, and my noting of the struggles of some of the SpLD, neurodiverse students. As Carr and Kemmis point out, ‘much teacher action is the product of custom, habit […] which constrain action in ways that the teachers themselves do not recognise’ (1986, p. 189). In my copying of ‘good teaching’ and aligning my teaching identity with others’ practice, I did not ask myself: what kind of teacher am I? What knowledge do I value? Why do I teach this way? How might I break away from teaching methods that reinforce the dominant perspectives privileging some ableist groups over others? How can I ensure my teaching practice does not disable those who process differently?

In attempting to meet the needs of those students with dyslexia, through a close observation, I utilised the methodology of case study, in capturing the lived experience of individuals with dyslexia. The requirement of a fluent ability to read aloud in the acting of a complex text is a key component of many text-centred units of study within the curriculum of actor training in both conservatoires and universities (especially in the study of Shakespeare and the acting of classical texts). Crucially, through the methodology of action research, through trials of experimental practice with my dyslexic acting students, and through discussion and reflection on the outcomes, I began to discover my own teaching identity and construct my own methods of enabling and freeing the students’ vocal expression, building their accuracy of word, while nurturing their latent talents. The nature of action research, wherein a problem is identified, and possible solutions imagined and action taken with an evaluation of outcomes (McNiff 2013) provided an opportunity to explore practical changes in my teaching with my dyslexic students. As any mistakes are regarded as valuable findings for reflection and prompts for future changes, action research removes the fear of failure, thereby allowing tentative steps of confidence in devising new practices and a self-authorship, for both student and teacher.

My book ‘Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training: Sensing Shakespeare’ (2019) has set out six new teaching strategies. Through my explorations, aiming to support individuals with dyslexia, I also discovered my authentic voice as a teacher in furthering the development of adaptable acting, voice and speech training strategies. In a brief dissemination of content, I present two pivotal statements made by two of my acting students assessed as dyslexic:

‘For me, as a dyslexic, Shakespeare is very accommodating. It has taken me eleven years of struggle to come to realize, because of my dyslexia, I understand things through image and metaphor. Shakespeare’s writing clicks in my head the way numbers click for a mathematician’. (Fred, acting student with dyslexia)

‘As soon as a text is presented to me, my guard instantly levers up due to fear and lack of confidence. I am instantly terrified I am going to embarrass myself because of my reading ability and because I cannot analyse what I have read afterwards’. (Phoebe, acting student with dyslexia)

These statements encapsulate many of the issues explored within my book and, for those who teach, they generate questions, opening channels for discussion, reflection and action amongst teaching communities. These questions include:

• What do we need to do to understand the specific needs of individuals, (such as Fred and Phoebe quoted above) so we might free and enhance their capabilities?

• How might we scrutinize our own teaching practice, ensuring that our values and pedagogical choices are ethical and socially just, while fostering the abilities of every individual?

These are the kinds of questions that interest me and that I have engaged with in the book and still form the core of my practice. In particular, I have investigated how the building of visual and kinaesthetic constructs can facilitate some acting students with dyslexia in their reading, speaking, comprehension and acting of Shakespeare’s text, and how such epistemic tools can be utilized in voice and acting classes. The questions I have explored include:

• How might the articulation of acting students with dyslexia, (related to clarity of thought and the words), be assisted through drawing, artwork, and the physicalisation of symbols associated with the meaning of the written text?

• What is the role of embodied cognition and multi-sensory processing in accessing the written text, and retaining the information for those with dyslexia?

• How does imagery act as a mnemonic device and expressive interpreter for those with dyslexia?

• How can Stanislavski’s physical actions support neurodiverse approaches to text?

• How might interpretive mnemonics and distributed cognition lead to a voiced autonomy in those with dyslexia?

In practice, these are complex questions, which require research, time, and practical study in teaching and working with individual students as co-researchers. The nature of dyslexia is indeed slippery when trying to define and address its characteristics (Elliot & Grigorenko 2014). Its impact on the voice, communication, self- confidence, working memory and emotions produces enduring challenges in tackling these factors effectively when teaching individuals with dyslexia. Such challenges and questions influence my approaches in voice and actor training, and I continue to endeavour to answer them through conscious observations, trials of practice and responsive changes.

References

Carr. W. & Kemmis, S. (1986).Becoming Critical. London: RoutledgeFarmer.

Elliott, J. C. & Grigorenko, E. (2014). The Dyslexia Debate. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research, 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

Whitfield, P. (2019). Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training. New York: Routledge.

Biography Dr Petronilla Whitfield is Associate Professor in Voice and Acting on the Acting (Hons) degree at the Arts University  Bournemouth. She holds a PhD in Arts Pedagogy from Warwick University and an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Trained originally as an actor at Arts Educational Schools, she was a professional actor for twenty years. A teacher of voice and acting at leading British training institutions and universities, Petronilla has presented her research and work with dyslexic acting students at conferences in the UK and in the USA, and her work has been published in several peer reviewed journals, including TDPT (2017), Research in Drama Education (RiDE 2016), and The Voice and Speech Trainers’ Review (2015 & 2009). Other writing includes a chapter in ‘Using Art as Research in Learning and Teaching’ (ed. R. Prior, 2018) and a monograph ‘Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training: Sensing Shakespeare’ (Routledge 2019).

‘Moritz to Fritz’ A Response to Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-Psychophysical Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century by Frank Camilleri

This blog post is based on a presentation for the Asian book launch of Performer Training Reconfigured, organised by the School of Dance and Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, 28 August 2019.

When I, Maiya, a performer-trainer-researcher focused on movement- and body-based approaches to theatre, started reading Frank Camilleri’s book, Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-Psychophysical Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century, I felt thrilled: ‘what comes next in this world of performer training?’ This is the first thing that the ‘post’ in the title suggested for me.

But then as I continued reading, I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat, ‘am I being asked to give up my commitment to embodiment as a primary point of departure both creatively and theoretically?’ The chair suddenly felt too hard, the back rest at the wrong angle, the air conditioning too low, my breath shallow.

Camilleri assured me, the Lecoq-based creator, trainer, and writer, that his work is indeed a development of the psychophysical commitment in performer training. And then, instead of just being uncomfortable in my seat, I took up Camilleri’s challenge and thought ‘well, if I am uncomfortable here it is only because there is a chair to shift in, there is a floor for my chair to stand on, and there is an air conditioning unit to control the temperature which is high because I live near the equator’. Quickly I started understanding myself not as confined within the border of Maiya’s embodiment but as one of Camilleri’s assemblages, which he takes up from Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda. An assemblage is a network of dynamic relations and connections which encompasses physical embodiment but extend outwards. Where this network ends, I can’t quite see… And it keeps changing …

Camilleri’s post-psychophysical approach moves forward and outward theoretically speaking, using a variety of disciplines and voices to point toward an ever-expanding notion of what exactly is being trained in 21st century performer training. Indeed as Camilleri notes, for a long time performer trainers have expressed how training tools and environments are essential to the training process. Masks, sticks, suitable studios are all important details for the training process. Any trainer or trainee has also experienced it. When you have to ‘make do’ with non-optimal spaces or tools you know the line between when you can make a plastic Friday-the-Thirteenth-Horror-Movie Mask work in actor training, and when it just simply won’t do what a Sartori leather neutral mask can do. Camilleri addresses this, but he is even more bold and goes beyond what other trainers have articulated: he looks to broader training conditions and the factors that make those conditions possible, he takes note of the affectivity in the process that is constantly moving through, from, and around objects, people, spaces, and relations, and he anchors this web of relations in a recognition that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in psycho- physical- affective or social- isolation. This is how he argues for a necessary turn to assemblage theory.

I find a deep kinship between this book and my own interests in intersections of body-based actor training and cognitive scientific approaches. Camilleri engages some of these, including the enactive approach, which I use to consider the cognitive dimensions of the Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy in my book Enacting Lecoq (2019). Through enaction, I argue how Lecoq pedagogy – and by extension, many performer training practices – are processes that transform our bodymindworlds to fundamentally cognitive ends. In this instance, I also see ‘cognition’ as a capacious category in line with enaction.

In my own journey to take seriously Lecoq’s commitment to movement, along with the enactive approach’s commitment to cognition as fully embodied, extended, embedded and affective, I had to drill down into many discourses and theories of embodiment. While the enactive view takes embodiment as a core tenet, scholars disagree over whether it should be a ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ embodiment. Matthew Bower and Shaun Gallagher[i] (whom Camilleri references) argue that a weak embodiment sees the body in an outdated conception of cognition, where corporeal software of the ‘body’, however important and active, fundamentally responds to the mental hardware of the ‘brain’. In this sense, even an active interest in foregrounding embodiment can bear the ghosts of Cartesian dualist bodies and minds. When they advocate for a strong embodiment, the body is the mind – the entire psychophysical unity makes cognition and makes mind. As someone who generally argues for a strong embodiment, I’ve realized that taking such a strong approach to embodiment opens up unexpected avenues.

If cognition is fully embodied, and knowing, doing, understanding, imagining, and learning are deeply related activities in an expansive holistic psychophysical process, then I would have to agree with scholars who suggest that reading is also an embodied practice, just as is training in so-called physical theatre practices. Indeed, if you follow the strong conception as far as it goes, humans can never escape embodiment. It is the only way of existing. If a strong embodiment is the human way of being in the world, then it cannot be limited to large physical movements, it must also include the fine-grained ways that we are bodies in the world – when we are still, when we are sitting at our uncomfortable chairs, when we are sleeping, when we are watching, when we are reading Deleuze and Guattari, when we are pondering even the most theoretical of theoretical physics. Or, most importantly to Camilleri’s discussion, when, like Fritz, we are writing in complement to studio work. The character of Fritz is Camilleri’s nod to Clark and Chalmers’s explanation of extended cognition.[ii] This explanation recounts a story about a man named Otto in comparison to a woman named Inga who both want to go to the museum. Inga simply remembers the way, where Otto must write down directions on a notepad because he has Alzheimer’s. According to the extended cognition hypothesis, the effect is the same because Otto has simply extended his cognition into the notepad. Camilleri playfully introduces this character named Fritz who is a practitioner and regularly writes journal-style about his practice. (Now, I don’t know about those of you others who have read this book, but I think Fritz and Frank have quite a lot in common…) He uses Fritz to argue that the studio work is extended into Fritz’s writing practice and should be understood as such. While Fritz purposefully handwrites with a fountain pen for a specific manual engagement with paper, even if he wrote on a keyboard, or like Stephen Hawking, used cheek movements to designate every letter, he is involved in an embodied activity. I’m not sure that we have found any living examples of escaping a strongly embodied condition, even if we are in some sort of fully technologically sustained state of extended cognition.

Camilleri is clear that the ‘post’ in ‘post-psychophysical’ refers to moving through and beyond the psychophysical tradition and discourse, rather than rejecting it. I do sense, however, that in the need to define and distinguish the ‘post’ part of the term, more attention is paid to how and why, ‘post-psychophysicality’ is different than ‘psychophysicality’. This is logical. What I wonder about in Camilleri’s turn, however, which I would be curious to hear more about, is just how the post-psychophysical exists because of and builds upon the psychophysical: how the ‘post’ comes into being through the ‘psychophysical’. Perhaps I am making Camilleri’s point about folks who are so committed to the psychophysical that we cannot see outside of it (me?). But as a person who has been trained, trains others, and continues to train myself, so far, I have experienced how we must address the complexity of performing by first circumscribing small tasks and issues, and then gradually collaging them together. This takes time. Activities to match breath and simple movement are not the whole picture, but it gives the performer a point of departure from which to develop. Of course there are countless other points of departure. To face the vast complexities of our interconnectedness may be overwhelming in practice – and there may be constraints on the human bodymind that keep us anchored in a kind of first-person perspective when initiating action. What if our profound interconnectedness and extension into the environment can only be experienced and made use of in bite-bite sized pieces? In other words, the psychophysical as a point of departure for action and for deploying agency has been extremely useful. In some philosophy of cognitive science, the question remains: is the human psychophysical body somehow the only agential point of departure for humans?[iii] 

I see one possible aspect of the post-psychophysical as a development of the mere psychophysical in this idea of taking a strong embodiment seriously, at least through an enactive perspective, with its grounding in embodied biological and cognitive processes. If you take a strong embodied cognition toward its limit, it actually goes beyond the limits of the flesh – it has to – the enactive holisitic bodymind’s cognitive apparatus emerges only from and through the entity’s interaction in the world – the extended space marked by Camilleri’s term ‘bodyworld’. Some enactivists like to quote philosopher Hans Jonas who suggests that life is in a constant state of ‘needful freedom’ where the entity only exists (it is free as a distinct entity) through taking what it needs to exist from its externality (the environment that sustains it).[iv] In a sense, I might suggest that finding yourself plop in the middle of assemblage theory is an inevitable consequence of the strongest commitment to embodiment there is – embodiment in inextricable entwinement with the environment. I’d like to know more about how Camilleri might trace this path.

This book is one of those rare animals that simultaneously engages with highly theoretical material – or ‘Theory with a capital “T”’ as I like to call it – while still retaining the in-the-trenches gravity that comes from an author steeped in lifelong practice. This is important to our fields of theatre and performance as many of us still fight to resist binaries of thinker and doer, scholar and maker, objective analyzer and subjective practitioner. One of the ways Camilleri accomplishes this is by providing a recurring feature: ‘tips for practice analysis’, or small practical exercises that engage a participant in the issues addressed in that chapter. It’s a way to remind the reader – you also have to ‘do’ to understand. This points to another aspect of the book that makes me hungry for more. On the one hand, Camilleri shows how training-as-assemblage may be considered to have always existed. On that view, we have just been slow to theorize it. On the other hand, it also feels like Camilleri is positing his post-psychophysical as a clarion call ‘Assemble!’ In other words, it feels like he is suggesting that by overtly acknowledging training as an assemblage that moves from, through, and beyond the psychophysical, we can envision and make something new together in the realm of performer training. Camilleri’s discussion on ethical approaches to performer training points in this direction. While this book is sweeping and attentive to the practical dimension, I want to know more – what is it like, or what has it been like for Camilleri to overtly develop a training system as assemblage? Does it look like anything beyond acknowledging what is already there and giving value to it? Or does that act of acknowledgment then transform the practice, transform the way practitioners think/move/act and train? In other words, at this moment, is the post-psychophysical descriptive or activist? I suspect both, and I am curious to know more about those details and their consequences. So if moving from bodyminds to bodyworlds, how, on the ground, in the studio, do we find purchase in an expansive new network way beyond the borders of our bodyminds? What does it create? Are practitioners overwhelmed by the new, expansive vista? How do we, in the act of performer training, take action in this new web of relations?

But I leave you with a short hand-written letter that I wrote I found from a fellow practitioner-researcher who makes theatre, trains performers, and writes about the process. I found it on 28 August 2019 when I was presenting this response to Camilleri’s book at LASALLE College of the Arts:

Dear Fritz,

Thank you for showing me how to assemble. I am enjoying it very much.

Now I have a new question: my training bodyworld is so vast that I feel paralyzed. What do I do?

Sincerely,

Your friend in post-psychophysical futures,

Moritz

PS: Here is a map from LASALLE College of the Arts to the National Gallery Singapore. I have the path memorized since I live here. You might need a map since you are new to the city. I’ll meet you there?


[i] Bower, Matthew, and Shaun Gallagher. 2013. ‘Bodily affects as prenoetic elements in enactive perception’, Phenomenology and Mind 4, no. 1:108–131.

[ii] Clark, Andy and David Chalmers. 1998. ‘The extended mind’, analysis 58, no.1: 7-19.

[iii] See Varela, F.J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E., 2017. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press and Stewart, J., Stewart, J.R., Gapenne, O. and Di Paolo, E.A. eds., 2010. Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. MIT Press.

[iv] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The phenomenon of life: Toward a philosophical biology. Evanston: Northwestern UP.

New processes for digital encounters with wild, green spaces by Jo Scott

This digital postcard, comprised of audio and video material alongside the print version published in the journal, evokes an emergent set of practices and training prompts that arise from my wanderings with a digital mobile device in urban ‘wildscapes’ – environments in cities where ‘natural as opposed to human agency appears to be shaping the land’ (Jorgensen 2012, p.1).  In the past year, I have attempted to train myself to use my device differently, intersecting playfully with its capacities to capture, record and ‘sample’ the spaces I move through. I have challenged myself to think through and re-position the computational processes of the mobile device in relation to my encounter with the processes of nature happening in such spaces. This practice has been led by an interest in wildness as present in nature, the digital device and within me too.

What has emerged so far is a set of prompts and provocations that I have been using as part of this training process, alongside practices that have arisen from the implementation of these. They are shared below in a couple of different forms, which have proliferated from my initial idea that this would be disseminated through a single video. Firstly, there is an audio track, mixing text and sound with prompts to engage the device you carry into a wild green space in new ways – it is designed to be activated in situ. In addition, there is a video representing the encounters between a device, a space and I, as experienced through the reflections and prompts shared in the audio track. It combines video, panned and glitched images (as referenced in the postcard within the journal), song, text and sound. I suggest that you watch this video after completing the activities proposed by the audio track, as it echoes and responds to some of the prompts and reflections there. 

For ease of reference, the training prompts are also included separately from their interweaving in the sound and text of the audio track, as a text-based document, alongside a transcript of all the text included in the audio. I would love to hear any responses you have to engaging with these materials or receive results of your explorations in urban wildscapes. Please get in touch with me to share these at joanneemmascott@gmail.com.

References

Jorgensen, A. (2012). Introduction. In: A. Jorgensen and R. Keenan, eds. Urban Wildscapes. London: Routledge, 1-14.


Audio Track

The full reference list for the audio track is included in the transcript below. All music on the audio track and video below is composed, performed and recorded by Jo in Salford, apart from the excerpt of a Beatles track at the end of the audio, which is referenced in the transcript.

Emotion-Action/Musiciality as a practical tool for investigate and creating the invisible space.

Bred In The Bone is a multilingual and culturally diverse company of theatre creators. Musiciality, physical practise and development of the body, ear and voice as an eternal ever-inspired instrument, are at the core of our training.


The idea that there should be a practice of ‘scales’ for the actor is arguably an ancient endeavour, and it remains the best description of what we developing, both in our rehearsal work and in what we implement in our training and our teaching.

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Launching the Special Issue

On 3 November 2018, the special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training “Training Places: Dartington College of Arts” was launched at Dartington. As an editor of the special issue it feels odd to write about the event in any depth or with any modicum of critical distance, so I won’t attempt it. However, given the reach of DCA, and the particular placement of Dartington in the rural southwest of England, it seems appropriate to mark the launch with this post and provide some traces of the event for those unable to attend, or for those attendees that may in the future wish to revisit.

The day encapsulated the spirit of the special issue: reflective and celebratory, with a pinch of mourning and a dash of optimism. After a few introductory remarks by the editors (some of which are available here),

 

Karen Christopher (Haranczak/Navarre Performance Projects) performed a heartfelt response to the issue, incorporating various approaches to performance and textual interplay the Drama and Dance fields at Dartington College of Arts promoted and challenged. Her dripping and disappearing ink and the audience singalong simply and poignantly evoked the lifeblood and ethos of the College for me. [Note: this is a long clip, as it is her response in full, nearly 50 minutes.]

 

Following Karen’s response, the audience was split in two. One section following walking artist and a core member of Wrights & Sites, Simon Persighetti as he guided us through a variety of “Thresholds” in a multisensory and multihistories stomp of the former DCA grounds.

The other section, in groups of three, shared their own reconnaissance of Remembering for the future in an activity organised by Simon Murray.  Given advance warning, attendees were asked to share moments of their time (or imagined) at DCA with each other that either was a/ troubling, disquieting, problematic, counter-productive and harmful, or b/ productive, positive generative and affirmative. This experience was then discussed for its power to stay with the person down the years, and why and how it might inform creative and pedagogical practices today and in the future.

I compiled this visual essay from various social media posts after the event to capture some of the feelings and experiences of these walks and the day itself.

DCA Launch Visual Essay

With walks concluded, Rhodri Samuels (CEO Dartington Hall Trust) spoke at length about the loss of the College for Dartingon today, the renewed Trust and a future for Dartington that hopes to reclaim the holistic mission of its founders, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. While the devastation caused by the previous Trust remains, many former staff and students agreed that Dartington finally appears to be in good hands. We look forward to new blooms from painful compost, some of which I am sure will come from the work of Alan Boldon and Tracey Warr (both former DCA staff) who have recently been hired to rebuild the educational priorities and opportunities of Dartington by developing the Learning Lab programme.

The afternoon concluded with four brief responses to the day by David Williams, Sue Palmer, Tracey Warr and Jonathan Pitches. These very different comebacks captured the range of discussions, emotions, and ghostings the day conjured.

 

While a number of attendees imparted to me over drinks and dinner that the day had provided a sense of coming (perhaps not full, but at least positively) towards a sense of circle in their experience of DCA, the launch was just that: a moment to celebrate the release of this issue. Its ability to now be something in the world is up to those who use it.

There are currently a few free articles available for download on the TDPT website. If you like what you are reading and would like your own copy of the special issue, we have a limited number of hard copies still available for £5 + postage. Please contact me at B.Brown@exeter.ac.uk to purchase a copy or three today.

Walking to Dartington

Donna Shilling walking to Dartington College of ArtsIn September 2008, I walked from London to Dartington, reverse-tracing the route I’d taken as a third year theatre student, to physically mark the departure of the College, shortly after the announcement of its forthcoming merger with Falmouth University.

Conversations were recorded along the way with former tutors and students who each walked for a day, sharing thoughts on what was important about the college, its pedagogy, and approach to art making and performance.

A decade later in September 2018, I returned to Dartington’s first alumni STREAM festival to present documentation from the walk.

In the following recording of that talk, audio excerpts of these meandering dialogues are presented alongside photographs and maps re-presenting the shared daily journeys as we navigated the landscape between London and Dartington.

Overlay map of shared journeys to Dartington College of Arts

Fellow walkers in order of appearance are: Alan Read, Gary Winters, Emilyn Claid, Dan Gretton, Augusto Corrieri, Sue Palmer, Jerome Fletcher, Joe Richards, John Hall, Simon Persighetti, Misha Myers, David Williams, Josie Sutcliffe, Peter Kiddle and Simon Murray, with additional text from Ric Allsopp. These personal reflections present a multivocal account of Dartington’s influence.

Extracts of dialogues included in this presentation discuss: histories and evolution of the courses; ideas of community, collaboration, contextual practice; staff engagement and dialogue with students and connections to the broader contemporary arts scene; ways of being, questioning, exploring, presencing, opening; pedagogy, cultural theory, the project system, site work, contemporary and experimental ethos; psychogeography; intensity, passion, bureaucracy, homogeneity; challenging dominant paradigms and the complexity of becoming artists.

This presentation accompanies an article of the same name published in the Special Issue of TDPT (9.3) “Training Places: Dartington College of Arts”.

With special thanks to; Daisy Robertson, Tim Vize-Martin, Augusto Corrieri and Pete Harrison for filming and co-ordination. Joe Richards and David Williams for encouragement, support with contacting contributors and David’s spoken words at the walk’s ending. Alan Read, Sue Palmer and David Williams for sharing photographs and to Simon Persighetti for the scones.

 

Peter Hulton on Dartington College of Arts

Theatre Papers: The First Series. Number 4 was Steve Paxton.

In February of 2018, Peter Hulton generously came into my office at the University of Exeter to provide an interview on Dartington and the College of Arts. In true style, this was not so much an interview as a well-planned riff by Peter on three primary themes: training, the Dartington project, and the Drama and Dance field. Having been a key member of staff since the inception of the three originally certified degree programs at the College, Head of Department and Principal of the College, Peter offers a unique context and perspective on the pedagogy and structure of DCA. Moreover as creator of Theatre Papers and Arts Archives, Peter Hulton has influenced the entire discipline and methodologies of practice research and he touches upon these projects in the second half of this recording.

A succinct version of this interview can be found in the Special Issue of TDPT (9.3) “Training Places: Dartington College of Arts”.

The Transistion or The End of the Affair

Image

By Emma Louvelle, Student DCA 2009-2013

For an artist, change – pursued, required or met by accident – can be invigorating and liberating, creative compost. The artists at Dartington in 2010 (who under the binary signifiers of most educational settings become the ‘teachers’ and ‘students’) experienced an enforced change,

My first year as a ‘student’ at Dartington coincided with Dartington’s last year in Totnes. Just one year, but the concept of time as a measurement is often lacking for there are many forces at work outside such a simple perception. In my last week on the Estate I marked out with a stick ‘Dartington College of Arts’ in the pristine Zen garden and hid in the gardens a stone carving I had made; I wanted to leave a piece of myself within that landscape. Into hamstone I sculpted a long face, hair sweeping diagonally away from its forehead, its eyes open but sad and lips large but closed. Intrusion via art was not what I sought, but a representation of the acceptance and peace I had found at Dartington alongside the sadness I felt with leaving; it was a gift of gratitude. Once finished I searched the estate for the right place to leave my offering, I looked for a choreography of equilibrium between the landscape and the sculpture. The whole process was an intimate performance blending artistic disciplines, moving geographically back and forth from outside to inside. It was to be a performance that acknowledged what I had received, the ‘space’ to express my need to roam, geographically, within my mind and throughout my artistic practice and a physical ‘place’ where I finally felt safe. Geographically I had danced in a river, a library, the woods, a stage, a studio, on a gravel path, in a field, a toilet and many more locations, shifting in varying patterns, from rapid to pause. My mind could play outside the straight line in the open formula awarded to documentation, boxes, wool, notebooks, drawings, collage and numerous other meanders. In the Winter Dance Gathering that year I danced in various formats but also produced an art installation about my love affair with Louise Bourgeois. At the last Dartington festival I painted and danced at the same time on a large sheet spread out in a courtyard. The two aspects of my life that had always been constant, even in ill health were finally given the freedom to meld together. The existence of all these openings of ‘space’ combined with the artists I was surrounded with gave me the ‘place’ that had until that point been missing from my life: my heart had found a home.

The heart is a powerful organ but at the same time its non-physical presence can be exceedingly fragile and the move from Dartington to Falmouth broke mine. This heartbreak manifested itself by a second year marred by ill health that resulted in me dropping out and having to repeat the year. This journey during the transition from Dartington to Falmouth I now consider as an overwhelming understanding of loss, both external and internal. A reaction in accord with the perspective of the German economist and environmentalist E.F Schumacher, who states in his book A Guide for the Perplexed that “The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions” (1973: 57).

Education that becomes a love affair sounds dramatic and wrong but Dartington was not just an educational facility. Words ultimately fail to describe Dartington; there was an interweaving between every single element. A constant allowance of blending and meetings, the physical and metaphysical, landscape and people, artistic disciplines, teaching and studying, friendship and discovery, an ethos like the universe inside a human body where breath and blood flow. The labels of ‘place’, such as ‘Arts College’ and descriptive language that follows the idea of a ‘place’ of arts education fail to capture the constant movement that existed. A map might show location and with arrival the buildings visually reference such holdings, but alongside and overshadowing these material representations of Dartington was its abstract nature. For the geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan ‘place’ occurs in ‘space’ and, “space is more abstract than place”. Tuan describes ‘place’ as, “a special kind of object. It is a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily: it is an object in which one can dwell” (1977: 6). Dartington physically had a ‘place’ to dwell, but it did not occur in ‘space’ as a process of reduction and containment for human understanding and control. The ideas underpinning its existence allowed for ‘space’ and ‘place’ to occur simultaneously the concepts of inside and outside became predominantly redundant. If we approach this simultaneous occurrence via Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari theories, Dartington was an educational scenario that actively acknowledged and sought the process of ‘assemblage’ (1987). An acceptance of a flow of agency encompassing more than just objects, practices and signs, but also qualities, touch, motion and mass; an opening where ‘space’ became ‘place’ and ‘place’ became ‘space’ all at once.

My place at Dartington on the choreography degree was organised and secured for me by my social worker and Graham Greene the disability officer at Dartington. I had requested Dartington after looking through numerous prospectuses; Dartington’s prospectus was the only one that I could not put down. All the other prospectuses contained pictures of dancers on stage and in studios; where as the main photo for the choreography degree at Dartington were dancers in a pit outside covered in mud. Before applying for degrees, I had only one formal year of dance training, training gifted to me by my local community mental health team. I had danced on my own every day of my life since a small child and when I was placed under home treatment it was the only thing I had any motivation for; not eating or washing, but dancing. The dancing I had undertaken on my own had no resemblance to any formal dance discipline. Within me was this constant need to express with my body for here I found the ‘space’ to roam and breathe. This background was not prime candidacy for many educational or conservatoire institutions, but Dartington, the only place I really wanted to go, accepted me. Acceptance as you are is integral to anyone’s psychological development and when encountered for the first time it is potent and poignant. Dartington with its existence as both an abstract ‘space’, and the physical reality of being an actual ‘place’ allowed room for many of us who fell outside of the general prescribed guidelines and confines of our educational system. The breath it held created the possibility of moving beyond such structures as grading and the ‘normal’ routes into higher education; Dartington, with its simultaneous existence as both ‘space’ and ‘place’ had the ability to see the potential in ‘something else’.

This allowance for simultaneous existence is a scarcity in our western world and when encountered by those of us who flourished there, a disconnection when outside of it developed. Frequent comments I remember from myself and numerous others would express how we forgot what the world was like outside of Dartington, a sense of not belonging and a longing to return to Dartington after periods of absence. With the transition to Falmouth for many, there was an escalation of these sentiments, verbally and inside of us, a refusal to accept the change of our circumstances combined with a sensation of being outsiders. To become an outsider after a long time in an environment where outside and inside melt together, eradicating their binary existence so they become redundant labels is uncomfortable, a pair of shoes you thought you would never have to wear again. Many of us felt Falmouth had bought Dartington not brought Dartington to Falmouth. The legacy of a predecessor imbued with knowledge and a unique ethos was unacknowledged, a legacy of law, of financial gain and property had transpired in its place, ‘place’ minus ‘space’. The transition became an economically motivated selective inheritance. Dartington became a selling point for a new capital adventure, Falmouth’s brand new Performance Art Centre. There were fewer studios and more students. A separation from the rest of the University and its other courses existed in sharp contrast to the fluidity of interaction between disciplines at Dartington. Layers of bureaucratic rules not encountered at Dartington that felt like strait jackets. For example, I was part of a group of students who arrived early, as we were part of a dance commission for the Performing Arts Centre opening ceremony. During rehearsals with our Dartington innocence, we tried to dance in Falmouth’s library, and they herded us up and escorted us from the building. I remember one of the disgruntled librarians saying ‘you are not at Dartington now, your behaviour is unacceptable’ and internally I cried. Several years later at another ceremony at the Performance Centre, the opening ceremony for our graduating year’s festival, I realised Dartington was no longer present within its walls. The opening performance was to a musical number with girls in fishnets and hot pants straddling chairs followed by a display from the cheerleading squad. Exiting afterwards many of us shared knowing looks of grief and dismay. That year was the last year where this event held any resemblance to the Dartington end of year festival, the following year the festival became combined with assessment; celebration replaced with evaluation.

In hindsight, there was a sensation that our previous reality was transitioning to a ‘poetic image’ or ‘daydream’, something I like others fought with our refusal to embrace this unwanted change. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard when discussing the concept of ‘the poetic image’ says that it is “a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.” This emergence defies explanation and process, to try to tie down and cement ‘the poetic image’, detracts from its “essential psychic actuality” (1958: I). That through the ‘poetic image’ and ‘the daydream’ we can find ‘space’ and the seeds of the creative. “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for” (1958:8). When I moved to Falmouth, my mind refused this transition for I felt as if I had lost the acceptance I had found and a great love affair had ended. What I now understand is that is via the change to the ‘poetic image’ or ‘daydream’, the simultaneously ‘space’ and ‘place’ of Dartington now exists inside me and resonates throughout my artistic practice. I can never lose Dartington and its welcoming of me and all I gained there for it now resides resolutely in my psyche. The grief however is still there, a grief for those I do not know who will now not receive Dartington and its gifts.

References
Bachelard, G. 1958. The Poetics of Space. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon.
Deleuze, G. 1995. Negotiations. New York, USA: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, G. & Guttari, F. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. (translated by Massumi, B) Minneapolis, USA: University Minnesota Press.
Schumacher, E. F. 1977. A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Vintage.
Tuan, Y. 1977. Space & Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press.

And the Moon Waxed and Waned

Image

by Emma Louvelle, Student DCA 2009-2013

And the Moon Waxed and Waned

Ed. Note: This artistic capturing of her time at Dartington College of Arts grew out of a conversation between the artist and the co-editors of the Special Issue on Training Places: DCA. This piece and its companion writing explore how DCA allowed people who identify as neuro-divergent and/or with mental health disabilities to find their own ways into performance training and academia. This is only a beginning to a much larger conversation on performance training and neurodiversity that we would very much welcome on this blog or indeed as a Special Issue of the journal.

 

Reflections on TaPRA 2018 Performing Training Open Panel: Training Across Cultures: Connections, Community and Cultural Cannibalism

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. Continue reading

Visual Performance: a way of being

Sally J Morgan, Jess Richards, Mark Jeffery, Rona Lee, Roger Bourke, Emma Butchart, Gillian Wylde.

This is a composite article, prompted by Mark Jeffery in a callout to past staff and students of the Dartington College of Arts Visual Performance degree (VP). Mark provided a set of questions that contributors could choose to respond to.[1] The resulting commentaries have been edited by Jess Richards and Sally J Morgan and constructed into a single text that attempts to combine the memories of many. What we have here is by no means the whole story of Visual Performance at Dartington. Many later voices are not present, so this is only half a story. This is the tale of intentions and impacts, one that can, and should, be added to. If you would like to add your part of the story through word, images, or other audio-visual content, please contact Bryan Brown at B.Brown@exeter.ac.uk

(Sally J Morgan and Jess Richards)

“Broken Bits of Time” handmade slate clocks (2014) by Jess Richards

0.      How to do it

(Gillian Wylde, VP student 1997- 99, VP Lecturer 2000 – 2010)

#Feel the fear and do it anyway. Eliminate all forms of self-expression. Make un-training your instruction and don’t make any art. Take up post-colonial theory and fuck up imperialist narratives and colonial impulses. Take up queer theory it’s your job, and opt for alternative world making activities, anti-fascist counter culture desires. Tune in to voices of all women.  Seek out low budget mysticism in everything.  Try a new position for example: read more Gertrude Stein. The rules are that there are no rules. We are thinking about thinking. Do it more wrong. Make it worse.

1.       Beginning

(Sally J Morgan, Lecturer, Art and Social Context 1984-1990, foundational Head of Visual Performance 1990 -1992)

Very good things sometimes come out of very bad things. The bad thing in this case was when Dartington College of Arts decided to close its cutting-edge art degree, Art and Social Context in response to a financial crisis. The good thing was that the continuation of a unique approach to creative arts education was enabled at Dartington College of Arts when Visual Performance came into existence.

Laced through Dartington’s DNA was the conviction that the arts had a function beyond the ‘self-criticism’ that the modernist critic, Clement Greenberg propounded in the 1960’s (Greenberg 1961)[2].

There is a symbolic moment that sums up the turn of the tide that became the wave that Dartington surfed like no other. In 1966, British artist John Latham held an event at St Martins College of Art, London, in which he and his students ripped up a copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture. Chewing it page by page until it became liquid, they spat it into glass vials to produce the artwork Chew and Spit: Art and Culture. During the same year, Barbara Steveni, then married to Latham, set up the Artist Placement Group (APG), with the aim of placing artists in ‘non-art locations’ to make art in response to them. In contrast to Greenberg’s position, the motto of the APG was the context is half the work, and its major tenet was, to quote Graham Stevens, that ‘an artwork changes fundamentally in where, who with, and how it is made’.

These two events were powerful markers of change. Chew and Spit might be seen as the symbolic moment of rebellion; a visceral spurning of Greenberg’s modernism and an embracing of the things it forbade: those being politics, the ephemeral, transdisciplinarity, the theatrical, the ‘now’. The Artist Placement Group was the practical response, the ‘blue-print’ for a different way of understanding art; for no longer seeing it as a product or commodity, but as a process in which anything might be possible. Political and socially engaged art was emerging in this period as a form of art-world revolution. For British visual artists in the late sixties, such as Albert Hunt, John Fox and Stuart Brisley, the line between art and political action was mutable. New, process-orientated works became a possibility. Variously described as Happenings, Environments, Actions and Performances, and typified by Joseph Beuys’s Social Sculpture projects, these are artworks in a constant state of process. They cannot find, and do not desire, stasis. They emphasise the lived-experience of the perceiver and emphasise affect over form and materiality.

This then is the place from which Visual Performance developed; moulded by a particular historical moment in which traditional boundaries were dissolved and new boundaries established. The legacy of that time, for me, is that like Vito Acconci artists like me saw art as ‘doing’. Like Stuart Brisley we allowed that art may be political and social. Like John Latham we saw art as being a ‘state of radiant energy’. Like Yoko Ono we believed that art may exist as an experience in the mind of the participant. Like all those artists, our approach at Dartington was open-minded and curious. We were not confined to form or medium, our practices were unified by a conceptual approach and a search for affectivity at the point of connection with an audience, where there is, as Julia Kristeva noted in relation to the visual works of the sculptor and theatre-maker, Robert Wilson, ‘an intrication of the roles of the artist and the spectator, erasing the borders between the self and the other’ where ‘the traditional categories – painting, sculpture, stagecraft, etc. – no longer correspond to reality’ (Kristeva 1994, 64-65).

The timing for the inception of Visual Performance is an important part of this story. The College’s financial crisis of 1990 was the catalyst, and Sam Richards has covered this very well in his book Dartington College of Arts, Learning by Doing: A Biography of a College (Richards 2015). However, there were other important factors that made this the right initiative in the right place and time, and I’d like to expand on that a little here. As one of the annual DCA prospectuses stated, Art and Social Context staff and students had, ‘persistently chosen to make performance and installation art … and to collaborate with specialists in music or theatre’ (Dartington College of Arts 1992, 8).

This was certainly the case during my time there. I had arrived in 1984 to be a lecturer in painting on the Art and Social Context course, and I was particularly interested in political community action and cross-media collaboration. I had done a lot of this on the streets of Newcastle, Salford and London. I was used to working with theatre-makers and musicians and trying to find the hybrid spaces in-between.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited by this approach. There was a lot of two-way traffic between the Art and Theatre departments in particular. My colleague Rose Garrard ran fine art-based performance art projects in which she introduced gallery-based performance approaches to art and theatre students alike. Rose was an established art-based performance artist with an international profile. She came from an art school background and, like most artists of her ilk, she saw performance art and theatre as different disciplines. Whilst there isn’t enough space in this article to fully explain the distinctions between the two art-forms, they are important to this discussion, so I’ll try to convey the facts succinctly. Performance art, as understood in the art world at that time, vehemently disassociated itself from theatre. The form developed from a position best explained by the art critic, Lucy Lippard in her influential book ‘Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object’ (Lippard, 1973), in which she observed that visual art had moved away from objects as its end, and towards the enactment of concepts. The manifestation of this was that, beginning in the 1960s, Events, Happenings and Environments took the place of sculptures and paintings, and the active body of the artist became a vehicle of artistic expression. Early exponents included Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Joseph Beuys and, in Britain, Stuart Brisley.

Brisley was particularly opposed to the ‘theatrical’ in performance art. He defined performance art as real-time action. This term was a signpost to what differentiated performance art from theatre: that being the enactment of actual risk through an unscripted process of what I would describe as ‘controlled unpredictability’. A performance art work of this kind might be described as an event for which resolution must be found, but cannot be fully anticipated. In this scenario, no performance could ever be repeated, was normally shown in an art world context, and was to be judged as ‘art’ rather than ‘theatre’. Most of what I would describe as ‘hard-core’ performance artists of the time would have agreed with Northern Irish artist, Nick Stewart, when he complained that too many people conflated performance art with theatre, saying, ‘there is a difference (…) theatrical-based work tends to undermine the philosophical basis of visual arts ideas’ (Stewart 1995, 166).

Rose Garrard was certainly of the same view as Stewart, and she had a great influence on the development of art-based performance at Dartington. She was well-established in this field, with a practice going back to the mid-seventies. At that time, she was considered the UK’s leading female performance artist, and if Stuart Brisley was the Godfather of British performance art, then Garrard was certainly its Godmother. She had been a visiting lecturer at many of Britain’s leading art schools and had taught many of its practitioners. Her approach was intense and challenging, and I learned a lot from it.

I too ran cross-departmental projects in that period. After having been invited by theatre students to run ‘installation for performance’ projects, I began to work more closely with some of them who were interested in taking a visual approach to their work. I had been ‘outside-eye’ or examiner for a number of them, including Christine Malloy and Jo Lawlor who went on to be successful theatre and film-makers as Desperate Optimists (their name being based on my one-time description of them). I had also collaborated on a huge outdoor project with Theatre of Public Works Director, Pete Kiddle. I worked with art students Jules Dorey, Lizzie Coleman and Margie Fortune and with theatre students who included Andrea Phillips, Dave Izod and David Richmond. The collaborative partnership that had the biggest impact on me, however, was with Melanie Thompson.

Thompson was a Dartington graduate who had specialised in dance and had gone on to form the company Intimate Strangers. Her show Chine was described as having ‘a kind of irresistible logic and fascination yet remains inexplicable’ (Performance Magazine 1988). We started to work together when the then Head of Theatre, Roger Sell, teamed us up to run a cross-departmental project in Utrecht. The two of us went on to have a series of collaborations. The most significant of these for me, was a 1989 site-specific work entitled Frontiers. The participants were a group of second year students drawn from the theatre and art departments. The site was a decayed, brick cattle-shed in a paddock full of waist-high grass, lost in the woods on the Dartington Estate.  I began by walking the site with the students looking at its visual and spatial possibilities. We decided that the audience would be drawn from point to point by encountering incidents on the way to the Cattle Shed. The students constructed installations, from which they developed the performance element. This was exciting to me because it was the first time that I had experienced the possibilities of performance that began from the visual rather than the dramatic, and I completely fell in love with it as a form that fell between fine art and theatre.

On the evening of the performance, the audience were met at dusk by a solitary guide and led through a gap in a dense hedge, down an overgrown bank, into a series of ‘accidental’ encounters with the student performers. At this point the separation of audience from performer dissolved. No longer safe in the seats of a theatre, the viewer had the sensation of accidentally witnessing a partial narrative for which they had to provide their own conclusions. It was akin to coming across a fleeting incident in the street, where you must imagine where the story has been and where it will go based on this moment in front of you.

Like Alice, they had slipped through a hole into a magical dimension. Here installation art and performance transformed the ‘now’ and the ‘real’ to produce Freud’s unheimlich. Literally translated as the un-home-like, the audience was offered the chance to experience Freud’s ‘uncanny’, where what we thought we knew was transformed in subtle and disquieting ways. This is where spillage from dreams, fears or longings, infects us, calling all reality into question.

The extraordinary and beautiful sensation of the unstitching of perception that this project produced in me was to turn into a passion for this way of working through discipline-hybridity. Students who did that project with us included Kirsten Lavers, John Bunker and Diana Collins. They, together with theatre students such as Christine Malloy, Jo Lawlor and others, formed a cross-departmental cohort exploring this uncharted state between art and theatre in remarkable and breath-taking ways, thus laying the foundations for what was to come.

Of course, this approach had not sprung up at the College out of nowhere. It built on a history of experimentation across artforms at Dartington. In 1964 John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg’s interdisciplinary collaboration Story was presented on the Estate. Painter and experimental artist, Robert Rauschenberg recognised something familiar in Dartington’s ambience, noticing that the people there had ‘that Black Mountain beatnik kind of look’ (Kostelanetz 1970, 81).

The comparison was not unfounded, like Black Mountain, the Dartington experience was intense, incestuous and tumultuous. There was nothing there other than studios, a bar, acres of woodland, and a river that people drowned in. You could get as obsessed as you wanted and make weird stuff in ruined outhouses half-hidden in the woods. Frankly, there was nothing else to do but make art. The community was no more than three hundred people. In this environment where there was no boundary between art-life, social-life and home-life, interdisciplinary experimentation in wild and undisciplined ways was an almost inevitable outcome. The College was an isolated artistic hothouse. The Theatre Department brought the most current alternative theatre and dance companies, such as Forced Entertainment, Goat Island and Theatre de Complicite, to Dartington. Most of the students and staff attended these events. Practicing artists were invited to run intensive projects, including Dartington alumna Debra Levy (who was later short-listed for the Man Booker prize twice for her novels Swimming Home [2012] and Hot Milk [2016]) and Irish performance artist Nick Stewart. New York Wooster Group member, Nancy Reilly ran a cross-departmental project with first year students using the unconventional theatre methods she’d developed when working with Wooster Group. Influential avant-garde dancer/choreographers were also a part of our experience. Mary Fulkerson worked with students to use ‘real’ movements drawn from the banal moments of their own lives. These were repeated, condensed, exaggerated and minimised with an intensity that made the work seem auto-ethnographic.

As intimated earlier, this way of being an artist exploring the edges across disciplines and between art and life, had found its time. Live Art was coming into being in Britain, and it was a way of working that chimed with the Dartington approach. Originally coined by RoseLee Goldberg, the term was reclaimed and redefined by the Arts Council’s Performance Art Advisory Group under the leadership of Lois Keidan[3] (Heddon and Klein 2012). Keidan was, and still remains, a very active and generous supporter of Live Art as an ‘area of practice that cuts across and subverts traditional art form boundaries’ (Keidan 1991, i). She twice commissioned works of mine to be shown at the ICA in London, and she had a passionate vision for the building of an inclusive, cross-artform approach to performance works. Along with Nikki Milican, the Director of the National Review of Live Art, she facilitated a range of practices that might otherwise have died in the UK for want of care. In a 1991 Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) discussion paper, she reported that the ACGB had effectively renamed performance art by proposing ‘that we in Britain change our terminology from the “restrictive practice” of Performance Art to the flexibility and responsiveness of the term Live Art’ (Keidan 1991, 2). Her position was that, ‘Performance/Live Art … came from across a range of disciplines, producing ‘works based on image and concept that are not bound by traditional contexts’ (Keidan 1991, 2).

All of these factors primed the environment for the establishment of Visual Performance, but as I intimated earlier, the catalyst for its inception was the cataclysmic effect of the financial crisis that hit the College in 1990. The senseless closure of Art and Social Context annoyed me immensely, and I joined the small group that had been put together to design a ‘performance oriented’ curriculum, bringing with me the none-too-secret intention of ensuring that a visual approach to performance would be firmly knitted into all future offerings. Ric Allsopp suggested the name ‘Visual Performance’ and I proposed that we should capitalise on Dartington’s long history of experimental collaboration.

Once I got the curriculum-design group and the College management, in the person of the Principal, Dr Janet Ritterman, to agree that Visual Performance was going to be a ‘thing’, I set about constructing a course that would span art-based performance art through to performance design and scenography. I turned to Rose Garrard to help me develop the performance art modules, and Roger Bourke to work on the scenography elements. Garrard was the perfect person to do this with. As noted earlier, Rose was well-established in this field, with a record of performance art practice going back to the mid-seventies. She was a charismatic artist who had a great influence on the development of performance art as a subject in the Art Department. Her approach was intense and challenging, and I learned a lot from it. Roger Bourke had a background in experimental performance design and installation. Like me, he had trained as a painter and he had an intensely visual approach to experimental theatre-making. Later he turned to complex, beautifully performative installation, which threw up the kinds of questions that became a hallmark of his approach. In 2018, he wrote of his practice:

In conceiving installed and performative spaces as ‘intermediary spaces for the spectator’s intrusion’, the question becomes – how to make this space manifest the materiality of its own construction and thus draw the  spectator into processing their own act of ‘spectation’? Both artist and spectator have to live with, and within, the knowledge that ‘somebody began it’ – in the ‘in-between’ – in the middle of their own production as agent – in the interstices of intention and interpretation. A Polish artist once asked me “what my problem was.” Temporarily a little put out, I finally realised that, for him, defining “the problem” was the key to developing an artwork. Specific strategies, procedures, exercises, etc., must derive from ‘knowing the problem’.  In this case, strategies and procedures might include: exploring tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive experiencing of defined spaces; testing the proximal, distal and panoptic; exploiting presence and absence in physical (hard) material and in the fluid materialities of light and sonic resonance; and construction that reveals construction. It might also include: working in the liminal through perceptual changes of orientation – strategies of detachment/ disorientation – what Husserl called ‘epoche’; building dialogues between the immediacy of the experienced moment and the past and future horizons of memory and speculation. Finally, it might engage in an exploration of ‘slippage’ – conflating perception and knowledge creation by, what I might call, ‘frame dragging’ imagery through processes of association and displacement.

We were all three different, but all three of us had worked on cross-departmental projects before. It all made sense to us.

Would there have been Visual Performance at Dartington if they hadn’t closed Art and Social Context? Yes, I think there would have been, because it was already there, but it wouldn’t have been a different degree, it wouldn’t have had that name, and it might not have attracted the kind of student who chose Visual Performance as a specialist degree. It would simply have been another way that we did things across and between the existing departments. As it was, the need to save the things I loved about Dartington, in some way or other, gave me an imperative to make a place for the things we’d been doing: a space for a way of being. The word ‘training’ was an anathema to us. The only training we imagined was the ‘un-picking’ of training. We were training them to be.

I was always surprised when people said they didn’t know what Visual Performance was. I never understood why they seemed to want it to be a thing – one thing – a penned-animal-of-a-thing, a neat answer that you could pin on the wall. The vision we had was for an inclusive approach to all things visual in performance. We imagined it producing performance designers, performance artists, video-makers, costume-designers and lighting designers as well as hard-core performance artists. It was meant for people who thought in images, and wanted to make them concrete through performance, whatever form that performance took (and we had a very fluid notion of what that might be). It would be a way of being, not a defined form. The thought of its first graduates becoming, as they did, highly successful stand-up comics (Chris Dangerfield), live-artists (Mark Jeffery), novelists (Jess Richards), production managers (Dave Baxter), video-artists (Karolyn Hatton), costume designers for film (Julie Butterworth) or community artists (Emma Butchart), as well as art-based performance artists (Francesca Goldsworthy), was a joyful prospect.

In the spring of 1991 we were ready to recruit our first students. I was the course leader and Roger Bourke my deputy, Rose Garrard was employed half-time, and ex-Art and Social Context student Diana Collins was offered part-time work. Later that academic year we appointed Tim Brennan and Gillian Dyson to the team. All of us were ‘out there doing it’. All of us made performance works that were witnessed by our students. The sense of an artist’s colony was very real. We were all in this together.

On a warm day as spring turned towards summer, I waited for my first interviewees, Jess Richards and Dave Baxter to arrive. Jess didn’t like to talk, but she had a portfolio of beautiful drawings and screeds of writing. She frowned at me in a young and serious way. She wanted to be somewhere where people were interested she told me. Dave wanted to build things like sets and installations, and he was political like the Art and Social Context students I’d had before. I liked them both and accepted them on the spot. The next interview was with a slender young man with ginger hair and loads of nervous intensity, Mark Jeffery. When I told him that he was ‘in’, he leapt up and down squealing and hugged me, apologising immediately afterwards. Later a blonde girl from Sunderland, who knew what to do with the colour red, looked surprised when we said we liked her work. Her name was Emma Bluett (later Emma Butchart).

2.      Student

(Jess Richards, first recruit to Visual Performance)

I was the first student to be offered a place on the Visual Performance course at Dartington. I was very silent when I was there, preferring to ‘speak’ by ‘writing’. This method of communicating was encouraged there, just as those who spoke visually or musically or through the movements of bodies were also encouraged. We were young artists working within and across creative disciplines who were being trained (and constantly questioning that ‘training’) to express ourselves in wild, noisy, silent, still, dangerous, simple and complex ways. The materials we worked with were as varied as fire, liquid, power tools, photocopiers, glass, gravy, razorblades, white fabric, light…

My song is a spell, and is something I learned. Not what to sing, but how to sing. The risk and magic of words, written on clothing, pegged on lines or caught by the spine of a book. A song can be spoken or heard or sung. Shouted or chanted or told as a story. It can create a picture. It can be completely silent. Each iteration takes a risk as small as an egg or as wild as an illusion of flight.

Can you hear the song of your body, all blood, bones and heartbeat? There’s a song inside you, the one that tells you the sky will fall or the oceans will rise or the whole world is fighting or it’s just you who’s fighting. If it is, fight well.

Consider the height and the breadth of the sky between this light and dark forest, and that place of the past: a tilt-yard with no horses, a ploughed field under rain. Remember silently shouting that anger is evil and anger is good, and let the sky fall, if it dares.

The whole ethos of Visual Performance was experimental – partly because of how the course had been designed, and partly because it was new and passionately led, and we were new and passionately driven. It was all right ‘not to know’ what we were doing, as long as we were actively ‘not doing’ or ‘doing’ something. We learned from mistakes, discomfort and problems as much as we learned from breakthroughs. Learning by creative practice intermingled with learning by observing, participating, developing skills, discussing theories and methods. Objects and text, sound, light and bodies ‘performed’ as we imbued all things ‘visual’ with meanings or opinions and ideas – all tested out on critical audiences of other students and faculty members within muddy fields, up trees, in derelict buildings, domestic environments, music rooms, rooftops, rivers, corridors and studio spaces.

On the Visual Performance course, any notion of ‘training’ could also be argued as a process of ‘untraining.’ As students, we unlearned what we believed that we knew – a process which often resulted in the realisation that in life as much as in ‘art’ no one really ‘knows’ anything at all. From this place of ‘not-knowing’, we discovered what we cared about, as artists. These passions drove us to individually and collectively, find our ‘voices’.

Twenty seven years later, I still prefer to ‘talk’ by ‘writing’. I am the author of three literary fiction novels which are published by Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton. These novels were written in response to questions which I explored within the content of each narrative, and I still use artistic and performative processes within my creative writing practice.

What if… there was an undiscovered island, just off the edge of a map? (Snake Ropes, 2012)

What if… an old woman was several people and not just one? (Cooking with Bones, 2014)

What if… love was a substance? (City of Circles, 2017)

I can trace this ‘questioning’ or ‘speculating’ – asking ‘what if…’ and the use of artistic and performative processes within creative writing back to my early experiments with written, printed, spoken and recorded texts which were used within durational performances and installations at Dartington. My education in Visual Performance trained me to ‘learn’ or ‘explore’ by ‘doing’ – to write texts using performative methods, and constantly ask the ‘art’ or ‘writing’ object that was emerging as a ‘product’ what it wants to become. Unlike most ‘creative writing’ training, where ‘product’ (e.g. the short story, the poem, the novel, etc) is more important than the ‘process’, in my creative practice, both ‘process’ and ‘product’ are of equal importance.

3.      Student

(Mark Jeffery, first cohort Visual Performance)

I now write this at the dining room table, 27 years later, in my Chicago home. When I till and turn over my art making as if it’s a field, the roots and soil from the Dartington Estate are still present, still present in how I remember and connect my making now, to my making then.

Over the three years on the Visual Performance course, and being part of the first cohort to go through the degree, you embody your teachers: Sally Morgan, Roger Bourke, Rona Lee, Tim Brennan, Sally Tallant, Nancy Reilly and Rose Garrard. In moments of ghosts that pass through you, practice is present, practice is allowing the anxiety of making to run through and past you in ways of multiple accidents and towards the unexpected.

I frequently think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice who would often take over my young queer body. In my Alice-self I would grow large and small. Heartbeats that take over a working-class farm labourer’s body. What was I doing in this art school? How were the instructions, the lectures, the workshops alerting each day my performing body? How was I taking on the instructions I was given, how now as an associate professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago do I understand the instructions I give from my training with my performing visual performance, Dartington body?

Back then, I would look at myself in the mirror and see an artist often unsure, not knowing what I was doing or why I was doing the things I did. A young adult would shake his hands in shivering and my hands would turn themselves as if they were birds trying to escape and fly from my performing body.

As a 19 year old queer artist, I tilled the field in the studio by looking at the words fear and control that my life-long mentor, Lin Hixson (Director at that time of Goat Island Performance Company from Chicago) told me to explore when I first met her. Sally Tallant told me to take a workshop in Bristol with Lin and fellow co-founder of Goat Island, Matthew Goulish in 1993 when I was a second-year student.

If this Chicago field had not been tilled, if this Alice hole had not been opened up, if this meeting of jumping high from the ground with my knees to my chest, shaking my hands and falling onto concrete had not happened, where would I be today?

I remember what it felt like, back then…

On the ground, in your studio you learnt to pick up concrete cinder blocks and turn them over, drill holes in them and ask people to enter your studio and take a sip of wine, spit into another glass and mix this wine with the blood from your hands, from cuts and sores from your sissy hands, mixing it with milk and taking a sip insert the fluid from your mouth into the hole you had drilled into the cement block. Lick and kiss the hole with your mouth and tongue. Lick and kiss the concrete blocks over and over. Blood and scars around your lips, your nose, your cheek bones, until the blocks form a makeshift pool, that you fill with powered calves’ milk and it becomes a resting place you slowly let your performing body enter into. Your performing body, queer, red hair, entering the cold of the milk and scar and blood and kisses and fear. Parts of your body submerged, parts of your body remembering the loss of your mother when she left you at 3 years old, parts of your body recalling and hovering over the milking parlour where your father milked the cows morning and night.

The young adult performing body quivers and shakes not knowing the visual, not knowing the ground he is performing on, not knowing what he is learning and learnt, not knowing 27 years and tears later that the ground was also shaking and that the ground of Visual Performance would last. On a Visual Performance field, the training is in always asking questions, of always moving forwards, of always finding what is new, current, what happened before you, what happens now and what strikes you as questions, as research. What is the performing body you left behind, submerged in milk, but forever seeing the milk drip, the blood drip, keeping the head now upwards, asking, always trying and never quite completing what needs to be asked.

4.      Student

(Emma Butchart, first cohort Visual Performance)

Throughout my time at Dartington, undertaking the newly formed Visual Performance course, I think I carried all the ghosts of my grandparents, but more particularly, the Nanas: the women of the family with me.[4] Not consciously at first perhaps, but they were there, as protection, comfort, guides.

An early group activity in the first few days, performed to the new cohort found me clinging to my ghosts for fear of losing who I was, forgetting myself. Being pulled along by strangely dressed and dyed creatures into some kind of self-expression, that could take any form, there were no specific rules. What if I got sucked into some alternative sphere or realm and misplaced my increasingly important identity?

I could hear my ghosts asking, ‘What are these kids doing?’

‘Where do you think this will get you?’

My vocal contribution to the performance was something along the lines of, ‘Why will they like me? I’m from Sunderland.’

Never before had I been so acutely aware of my voice, my North-Eastern English accent setting me apart from the more softly spoken southerners around me. It seemed so loud, so harsh, it felt like it ran around the room, looking for somewhere to hide… muttering, ‘stop listening to me!’

The ghosts just laughed, that’s ‘laugh’ with a flat, Sunderland ‘a’ sound! ‘Don’t be so bloody daft!’

Later… ‘Why is your work always about, well, you… stuff about you?’

At the time this comment from another student stung. It felt dismissive and critical. I suppose my Dartington world continued to feel alien to me with my background in the industrial North, all green, countryside, cows, sheep and farms and so I looked inside myself, asked the ghosts for inspiration, for their stories.

Finding out about them, asking questions, listening to the tales, collecting images. Exploring and celebrating the everyday, repetitive actions, the tasks and daily rituals performed by these women in my past. Why shouldn’t the work be about them, about me?

New ghosts, Nancy Reilly, Rose Garrard, Alison Marchant, Cindy Sherman joined my noisy crowd, often arguing, pulling, dancing, questioning and laughing with the Nanas. Bold, inventive, committed, imaginative, challenging ghosts that helped me see things differently.

Some keep asking, ‘Why are you doing that?’

Others reply, ‘Why not?’ in that great, big flat-vowelled voice.

 

“I’m Wearing my Dead Father’s clothes’. Excerpt: ‘A Life in Diagrams 1” (1993, Dartington) Sally J Morgan

 

5.      Change

(Sally J Morgan)

In the midst of all this my father died. My grief was a flood that broke everything in front of it and my life fell apart. I felt badly treated by the College management in this period, and I left, not because I’d lost any faith or excitement about Visual Performance, but because the Principal had called me in to discuss the amount of time I was spending with my father who was rapidly dying from a brain tumour. Roger Bourke took over the leadership of the course, and Rona Lee joined the team along with Sally Tallant.

6.      Continuation

(Rona Lee, core team-member Visual Performance 1993-2000)

It is interesting to consider ideas of training and legacy with respect to Visual Performance, as these are concepts that are in some ways at odds with the fluidity and discursivity that was key to its success. I remember talking with other staff once about the idea that the course should be deliberately disbanded every seven years to sustain a sense of immediacy and avoid institutionalisation; we imagined of course that reinvention would follow. Little did we anticipate the corporatisation of higher education that would follow and the pressures of resource rationalisation, auditing and bureaucracy to which the sector would be subject.

I joined the teaching team for Visual Performance in 1993, at a point where several of the staff that had piloted the course were moving on, and left in 2000.  A period during which the identity and ethos of the course was subject to constant energetic, antagonistic, creative and intellectual debate, generating a climate of discussion and experimentation, in which students and staff alike participated.

Identity politics and ideas of performativity formed a central tenant within many of those exchanges: gender, sexuality, race and the body operating as both informing discourses and areas of study in themselves:

The body as sign, the body as material, the abject body, the hybrid body, the queer body, the female body, the uncanny, post-colonialism, feminism, queer theory, the carnivalesque, homovestism, gender trespass, subject / object, binaries, self / other / otherness, presence / absence, performativity, live presence, task-based action, duration, voyeurism, the gaze, the phallus, psychoanalysis…

Another important area of enquiry was site and context based work, along with related forms of participatory, situated and socially engaged practices; seeded through staff-led, local, offsite work in the first year and culminating in a semester long period off campus in the third year, where students pursued self-designed and directed projects (the assessment of which was based on their capacity to reflect on the experience and find appropriate forms to represent it). Activities which along with the teaching that supported them gave rise to ways of working, which understood art making as a social practice, audiences as constituted around different subjectivities and the artwork as a permeable entity. Fostering in turn work with objects and materials, technology, space and time working with ideas of immersion, the haptic and the sensory:

Audience as reader, performance/artwork as text, view and viewed, spectator / collaborator / participant / witness, absorption, locus, palimpsest, dialogic, the everyday, art / life, place, phenomenology, space, object / objecthood, time, immersive experience, materials, metonymy, inter-action/ activity, event…

Common to all of these different enquiries was a pedagogic approach that encouraged independence of thought along with reflexive interrogation of form, content and process.

Strategies, juxtaposition, deconstruction, pastiche, authorship, montage, collage, text/textual, inter / cross / disciplinarity, modern / post-modern, rules, logic, rogue element, agency…

Another dimension of this nexus was something that might be termed an ethos of practice, rooted in questions of social change, power and community which for some became a lived politics of making, teaching and working together. Dartington was, in my experience, unique in terms of the amount of work that staff, faculty and visiting, made and showed there, using it as a production and testing space in collaboration with and alongside students; sharing resources, giving assistance, exchanging skills, attending to the work and each other.

Messy, bloody, milky, muddy, funny, sexy, loud, dangerous, obscene, gentle, careful, tender, quiet, ugly, fractious, rhythmic, atonal, macho, ritualistic, empowered, queer, feminist, intimate, kitsch, green, detailed, subversive, disruptive, uncanny.  

“Anteroom” (2005) by Mark Jeffrey, Judith Leemann and Judd Morrissey.

Contributors:

Sally J Morgan is Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at Massey University, New Zealand. She has a long career as a conceptual artist who has shown internationally in galleries such as the ICA, Arnolfini, and venues across the USA, Germany, France and Japan.

Jess Richards is a writer, whose three literary fiction novels are published by Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton. She is a Senior Tutor in Creative Writing at Massey University, New Zealand. Since 2015, she has performed in collaboration with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards in galleries/venues in the USA, New Zealand and Ireland.

Gillian Wylde was a student on the Visual Performance course at Dartington between 1997 and 1999 and went on to teach on that course from 2000 to 2010. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Falmouth University. Her work has been shown at the ICA and Glasgow Film Festival and at international venues in Baltimore, Hong Kong, Lithuania, and Norway.

Roger Bourke spent many years at Dartington in the role of Field Director for Visual Performance and then Fine Art – Time Based Practices. His installation, video and sonic media works have been exhibited in the UK, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, France, Romania, Canada, China, Japan and Ireland.

Mark Jeffery is a Chicago based performance/installation artist, curator of the biannual In>Time Performance series and Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. He was a member of the internationally renowned Goat Island Performance group from 1996-2008.

Emma Butchart worked in Community Arts in the north east of England after graduating from Dartington, then from 2004-2015 she worked in pre-school and primary school education. She now works at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park as the Grounds Learning Programmer, developing engagement with a wide range of audiences.

Rona Lee is Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, UK. Her performative work has been widely exhibited in national and international organisations, including the Amsterdam Light Festival, Gallerie Nord, Cerritos Art Gallery, and many venues across Europe and in the USA and Canada.

 

Examples of Sally J Morgan’s work can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/sallyjmorgan
Jess Richards’s website can be found here: http://jessrichards.com/
Gillian Wylde’s work can be viewed here https://www.instagram.com/gillianwylde/ and here: http://15minuteswithyou.org.uk
Roger Bourke’s website can be found here: https://rogerbourke.org.uk/work
Mark Jeffery’s website can be found here: http://www.markjefferyartist.org/
The organisation Emma Butchart works for can be found here: http://www.comptonverney.org.uk/art/
Rona Lee’s work can be found here: http://www.ronalee.org/ and http://florencetrust.org/

 

Works Cited

Greenberg, Clement. 1961. “Modernist Painting.” The Arts Yearbook.

Heddon, Dierdre and Jennie Klein. 2012. Histories and Practices of Live Art. London: Palgrave McMillan.

Keidan, Lois. 1991. Discussion Document on Live Art. Discussion Paper, London:    ACGB.

Kostelanetz, Richard. 1970. The Theatre of Mixed Means. London: Pitman.

Kristeva, Julia. 1994. “Robert Wilson.” Art Press 64-65.

Lippard, Lucy R. 1973. Six Years: the dematerialisation of the art object from 1966  to 1972. New York: Praeger.

Richards, Sam. 2015. Dartington College of Arts, Learning by Doing: A Biography  of a College. Totnes: Longmarsh.

Stewart, Nicholas. 1995. “Live Head Legacy.” In Live Art, by Malcolm Dickson, 166.  Sunderland: AN Publications.

Dartington College of Arts Prospectus. 1992.

Intimate Strangers ‘Chine’Review. 1988. “Performance News.” Performance Magazine. London. Feb/March. 6.

 

[1] As part of the Dartington ethos, the spirit of questioning was central to the VP degree and arguably a core aspect of its “training”. For more on how the spirit of questioning underpinned the entire Dartington project and a provocative counterbalance to the role of interdisciplinary work this post argues was essential to Visual Performance, see/listen to Peter Hulton’s interview elsewhere on this blog. Mark Jeffrey’s initial set of questions were:

What is an instruction you remember giving?

Who is the ghost you carry with you?

How did you practice or carry out an action?

What is a future imagined practice and discipline?

What is learned and knowing?

What is tilled and turned over?

How do you reiterate what you learnt?

How do you reach, kneel and pay attention to your past?

How do you rake, harrow, rip and tear into your practice?

[2] This was originally a broadcast-lecture for the radio program Voice of America, February 1961.

[3] Keidan went on to be Director of Live Art at the ICA, and later the Live Art Development Agency in London.

[4] In this entry, Emma Butchart is directly responding to the question “Who is the ghost you carry with you?” from Mark Jeffrey’s original set above.

Call for Blog Content

Call for Contributions to Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Blog

Training Places: Dartington College of Arts

This Autumn will see the publication of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training’s Special Issue “Training Places: Dartington College of Arts” (9.3). Due to the multi-faceted nature of Dartington College of Arts, the Special Issue has, since its conception, operated with the journal’s blog as a space that allows for more complex content than a traditional academic journal. We have been working with some authors for over a year on blog content to be posted in the run up to the Special Issue’s publication, but we are well aware that there are still many voices we have not heard from. We would very much like to hear from any former DCA staff or student, or anyone connected to the College in other ways that would like to create blog content around the issue of DCA and training (in its broadest sense). This might be a critically reflective piece on a particular aspect of DCA, a reflection on how DCA continues to operate in performance spheres – how DCA and its notions of ‘training’ might be informing performance making or training today? for instance – or a response to the Special Issue (once published).

If you are interested in developing content for the blog around DCA, please contact Bryan Brown.

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

Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Lighting, training and collaboration

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

Previous posts can be found here.

In their article “Toward Revising Undergraduate Theatre Education”, Peter Zazzali and Jeanne Klein (2015) maintain that theatre pedagogy and curricula have remained largely unchanged for over forty years. They write, “[T]heatre professors seem to merely recycle what they were taught, albeit with new infusions of technology” (p.261). It is worth noting, first of all, that Zazzali and Klein are both based in the United States, and therefore presumably this is a criticism of the prevailing American pedagogy. Indeed, this is an observation that seems to be echoed by others in the US, particularly those working in the teaching of theatre design. Raynette Halverson Smith notes that “the scenic design process has become frozen, steeped in tradition […] at its core it has remained unchanged since the practices outlined early in the [twentieth] century by Craig, Appia, and Robert Edmond Jones” (quoted in Isackes, 2008, p.41). In the same article, Richard M. Isackes confesses that his teaching of theatre design “was largely based on an unquestioned replication of the training I had received as a student [and] there was a major disconnect between my practice as a designer and the theoretical methodology I was advancing in the classroom” (p.41), a realisation that led him to examine his own pedagogical practices.

Much of contemporary lighting design training can trace its roots to the techniques of Stanley McCandless, whose A Method for Lighting the Stage (1932) was the first formalised method for lighting a production. While knowledge of McCandless’ method can be useful for lighting design students, it is limiting in both scope and potential for creativity; it belongs, as Linda Essig (2007) maintains, in “the lighting history curriculum” (p.66, emphasis in original). Paradoxically, however, McCandless’ techniques form the basis of contemporary pedagogy. In the UK, Richard Pilbrow’s (1997/2000) Stage Lighting Design is often the “go-to” handbook for novice, amateur or student lighting designers. Pilbrow’s method draws heavily on McCandless; while acknowledging that McCandless’ “formula should be loosely and freely interpreted” (p.13), he also states that lighting designers “would be foolish to forget the basic precepts of the [McCandless] Method” (ibid.). In the US, the McCandless method has given rise to another in recent years, the so-called “jewel” method of lighting, which builds on McCandless’ but takes into account not only the availability of new technology but also the expectations to use it.

As Zazzali and Klein argue, “We are selling our students short if we strictly focus on their job placement and prospective careers in the conventional sectors of the entertainment industry” (p.262). They note that employment statistics and the ability of an undergraduate programme to prepare students for a “conventional” and “stable” job in the arts upon graduation are often the measure of “success”, presumably as these are easily quantifiable measures. In the United States, “approximately 900 undergraduate programs mimic an estimated 1,773 regional theatres for which they are presumably training students for employment” (p.262). However, according to German director and theatre educator Heiner Goebbels (2013), many fail to recognise that theatre education is “the end of a very long chain” that is “not conceived to renew or revise the aesthetic, much less consider questioning the structures and institutions, for which they are educating young aspirants” (p.43). Goebbels maintains that educators should be facilitators whose aim is to encourage students to develop their own aesthetic. They should further be encouraged to challenge the existing structures and hierarchies that exist within established institutions, and he cites in particular the case of teaching theatre design. There is therefore a tension in education between the need to prepare students for employment and the need for students to explore and develop their own aesthetic. In the UK, there is a further tension between those courses that provide very specialised training (for example, in lighting design or lighting programming, usually at drama schools rather than universities) and the types of companies in which recent graduates will most likely find themselves working. A recent review of the UK’s offstage workforce noted this discrepancy in training versus the reality of employment. One focus group participant stated: “As a generalisation, there’s an awful lot of students that I’ve spoken to recently that are really focused on lighting design. And I think ‘good luck with that one’, because there are thousands of lighting designers out there. It might be great to do that, but you need to get the basics, because on your first day in the theatre you’re not going to be doing the lighting design. Not enough are getting the basics” (Nordicity, 2017). More and more work is happening outside theatre buildings, in environments with flatter hierarchies (or even heterarchies), including tandem directing teams and collectives who devise productions together (as demonstrated by the case studies in Mermikides and Smart (2010)). Duška Radosavljević (2013) refers to “deprofessionalisation” – an unwillingness of company members to adhere to “traditional” roles, instead taking an interdisciplinary approach to collaboration in which they might fulfil multiple roles, at least initially, though specialisms may start to emerge at later stages in the process (see Mermikides’ chapter on Shunt in Mermikides and Smart (2010), for example).

Therefore, it seems that the aim of theatre education should be to prepare students to be excellent collaborators and to allow them the time and space to, as Goebbels (2013) advocates, “renew or revise [their] aesthetic” (p.43). More attention could be paid to these areas, particularly by UK drama schools, which are producing graduates with very specialised skills, rather than an overall knowledge of contemporary theatre-making practices; with this comes empathy for their fellow collaborators and an understanding of the process as a whole – all of which make for more competent collaborators.

Kelli Zezulka, Postgraduate researcher, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds

References
Essig, Linda. 2007. “Stanley McCandless, lighting history, and me”. Theatre Topics, 17(1), pp.61–67.

Goebbels, Heiner. 2013. “Research or craft?: Nine theses on educating future performing artists”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 35(1), pp.43–48.

Isackes, Richard M. 2008. “On the pedagogy of theatre stage design: A critique of practice”, Theatre Topics, 18(1), pp. 41–53.

Mermikides, Alex and Jackie Smart. 2010. Devising in Process. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nordicity. 2017. Workforce Review of the UK Offstage Theatre and Performing Arts Sector. Available at http://www.nordicity.com/media/2017622ddqyvkkek.pdf [accessed 30 December 2017].

Pilbrow, Richard. 1997/2000. Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life. London: Nick Hern Books.

Radosavljević, Duška. 2013. Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zazzali, Peter and Jeanne Klein. 2015. “Toward revising undergraduate theatre education”. Theatre Topics, 25(3), pp. 261–276.

Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Technology in Learning and Creative Contexts

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

Previous posts can be found here.

Technology in Learning and Creative Contexts

Let me start by saluting Zazzali and Klein’s chief aim to ‘offer initiatives for revising an undergraduate theatre curriculum’. Indeed, such an aim resonates with ongoing discussions taking place in the UK, both across the Higher Education sector, for example at the TaPRA Performer Training WG, as well as specific institutions, such as the PTPP Research Group at the University of Leeds, which frames the set of the responses this post is part of. I also support the authors’ decision to position theatre training in relation to the pressures academic institutions are facing on both sides of the Atlantic. However, despite this solid set of aims, I find the positions argued by Zazzali and Klein problematic on a number of fronts. The focus of this blog post is on the way technology is presented in their article. Specifically my aim is to foreground the contradictions apparent in Zazzali and Klein’s view of technology.

First some caveats: I am aware that the use of digital technology and especially investment in digital technological infrastructure in schools and universities has often been related to a neoliberal agenda and a concomitant drive not only to privatise and instrumentalise education but also prevent students from developing their identity as citizens (McCafferty 2010; Monahan 2004). My aim here is neither to apologise for the use of various technologies in academic institutions nor suggest that technology is in and of itself a bonus in learning. Rather, my intention is to problematise the implicit assumptions that seem to underpin Zazzali and Klein’s view.

A general overview of the article demonstrates that Zazzali and Klein oscillate between a rather uncritical repetition of negative, and often alarmist in tone, accounts of technology on the one hand, and a kind of reserved acceptance of the possibilities offered by digital technologies, especially social media, on the other. Adjunct to these predispositions, is a fairly obvious dislike for Blackboard, an online platform for distant and blended forms of learning often used in undergraduate degree programmes.

Let me start with the negative position, which also appears first in their article. Drawing on Giedd (2012), Junko and Cotten (2012), Zazzali and Klein suggest a cause and effect relationship between the use of social media and a decline in academic performance. They make the explicit claim that ‘multitasking with social media […] further harms the ongoing physical maturation of their [students’] brains’ (2015: 262). Later on in the article they repeat Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that current college students are ‘“the dumbest generation” while depicting troubling declines in their skills relative to what employers require’ (2015: 263). Zazzali and Klein are concerned, in other words, not only with the long term cognitive effects that use of digital technologies may have, but also with the way these effects may jeopardise even further the already restricted employment opportunities of theatre graduates.

In accordance with the negative impacts of technology on the brains and lives of young people, Zazzali and Klein are also concerned with the role that live theatre can play in a technologized world. They ask: ‘What can our field offer a society in which technology outpaces the more natural rhythms of daily living? (2015: 263). A similar tension is evident in the dichotomy they draw between ‘“off stage” activities’, like the ones taking place on the Blackboard platform, and ‘“onstage” classroom time cultivating students’ imaginations and creative skills by researching, developing, and producing live performances […]’ (2015: 264). It seems to me that Zazzali and Klein situate theatre, both as product and training process, as an antidote to the ills of technologized life. They are not alone in supporting this view. Theatre director Mike Alfreds goes as far as equating the use of technology with junk food and accordingly positions the genre of theatre storytelling as a form of detox (2013: 33-34). A similar position is repeated by Kathryn Hunter, who in an interview on her collaboration with Peter Brook in The Valley of Astonishment argues that ‘there will be a time when people will wake up because they will have grown bored with the isolation that technology has brought on to our lives. […] In the future, theatre will be even more popular, because people need it’ (Hunter in Loverdou 2014: 3, my translation). We might do well to remember, that despite their negative tone, these articulations are expressed against a background of technological infrastructure in theatre buildings, including University theatre spaces that is taken for granted, for example, central heating, house and theatrical lights, sound systems and illuminated exit signs. I will return to this point, but let’s first have a look at the positive effects Zazzalli and Klein identify in technological use.

This is expressed in relation to social media, especially when the latter are used to foster interdisciplinary learning communities. Drawing on several examples of theatre projects across various institutions, Zazzali and Klein argue that ‘a selective and strategic use of the internet and social media, for instance, could help reframe theatre courses by empowering students to connect to one another and have greater ownership of their work’ (2015: 264). Social media and blogs then can help both students and educators to transcend ‘disciplinary and geographical divides toward creating learning communities that are as diverse as they are distant’ (2015: 266). As long as, of course, that the use of such media is limited to the educational and creative purposes it is supposed to serve.

Let us pause for a moment to take stock of the evaluations of technology presented in the article: on one hand, technology renders students ‘dumb’ and even less prepared for employment; on the other hand technology – once harnessed – can serve ‘desired learning outcomes’. In addition to these two positions, Zazzali and Klein purport that ‘students are wasting valuable time using inflexible learning-management systems (e.g. Blackboard) […]’ (2015: 262). I have no wish to argue for the existing or imaginary benefits of virtual learning environments. (The interested reader can look at Selwyn’s 2016 article who pays attention to the language in which these systems are often described and calls for an evaluation of the actual benefits they are having.)

What I wish to point out is that Zazzali and Klein’s thesis is underpinned by the implicit assumption that technological devices are ‘neutral’ tools, the use and impact of which can be dictated by (intelligent) human agents. Put simply, the good or bad use of technological artefacts is a matter of human decision, if not will. According to such conception then, when social media use becomes a source of distraction and impedes academic performance, this is seen as a failing of the students to be disciplined enough and impose their will on the technological device. It is in this way, also, that Zazzali and Klein resolve the apparent contradiction of their argument. By suggesting that social media use within a theatre project needs to be ‘selective and strategic’, Zazzali and Klein can both accept the position that social media render students ‘dumb’ and advocate for the very same technology to be used in the classroom.

We could assume that the way this pronouncement would translate in an actual project would be that a student would be expected to ignore notifications coming on the social media feed that are irrelevant to the project and only engage with the relevant ones. Similarly to the binary between a destructive/distracting technology and a beneficial theatre expressed by Mike Alfreds and Kathryn Hunter respectively, such a position fails to acknowledge that western societies are technologised to such an extent that a great number of devices and functions have been rendered invisible. And even if we take into account those technological devices that are not yet transparent, there is no consensus which of these devices or cultures of use should be permissible and which should be banned and under which circumstances. If for example, our imaginary student, let’s call her Sarah, receives a notification that has not been posted by the project team, but is relevant to the project, should she ignore it or engage with it? Who or what is going to guide Sarah in making this decision? Should this guidance be part of the kind of broad theatre education, Zazzali and Klein are arguing for?

Alongside this lack of normative criteria and established protocols, a more immediate concern is that Zazzali and Klein’s ‘strategic selectivity’ position fails to account for the intentionality of the technological artefact. This is not a shade of technological determinism. It rather aims to elucidate two important aspects of technology. One is that technological devices may not determine, but ‘inflect’ the way we use them (Ihde 1990: 102-3). The other is that our relations to technology are not only informed by the actual functions a device might offer, but also by the potential actions we know are available to us (Kiran 2012). Let’s return for a moment to Sarah. Even if Sarah is determined to use social media ‘selectively and strategically’ and even if she is really clear about what a selective and strategic use amounts to, an educational project would need to take into account that a) social media feeds are optimally designed to attract the user’s attention; and b) that the user has already been conditioned to expect frequent notifications. I do not mean to let Sarah off the hook. But I do wish to argue that ‘selective and strategic use’ is not a solid pedagogical recommendation either.

Finally, another assumption that underpins Zazzali and Klein’s approach to technology relates to the issue of attention. The studies that Zazzali and Klein cite early on in their article are often premised on an understanding of attention that is based on an economic model. Drawing on such studies, Tiziana Terranova notes that ‘statements about the attention economy and the crisis of attention point to the reconfiguration of the attentive capacities of the subject in ways which constitute attention at the same time as scarce, and hence a valuable resource, while also producing an impoverished subject’ (2012: 7, emphasis original).

Echoing Terranova’s challenge to such a model, Katherine Hayles (2007; 2010; 2012) argues that theses on the effect of digital technologies on cognitive abilities are often steeped in specific assumptions about the nature of attention and specifically the kind of attention that is required/expected by Humanities. Hayles (2012) challenges these assumptions – including Bauerlein’s work, whom Zazzali and Klein cite – by pointing out that modes of ‘hyper’ and ‘machine’ reading cultivated by the use of the internet may enable the development of a different set of skills, which might also be useful in Humanities. In other words, both Terranova and Hayles emphasise that a valorisation of deep attention and a pathologisation of hyper or scarce attention are no longer adequate explanatory frameworks. More to the point, Hayles further suggests that in Humanities we often grapple with texts that would benefit from a ‘hyper’ mode of reading, now associated with the internet, rather than the deep one associated with the novel.

I propose that this is a fruitful question to ask in relation to theatre education. Are there aspects of theatre practice that would benefit from the fragmented mode of attention apparently demonstrated by the Millennials? Can theatre education become a ground where students and tutors can rehearse alternative relations to technology? Can theatre education enable students to think/use existing domestic technologies in new (unexpected) ways? This is not intended to cultivate some kind of ‘edge’ that certain graduates may have over others. It is rather proposed as a contributing factor towards developing performing arts pedagogies that have at their centre notions of citizenship, activism and public engagement. And this brings us full circle to the key aim of Zazzali and Klein’s rationale for a revised undergraduate curriculum, which, as I said already, I heartily celebrate.

– Dr Maria Kapsali, Lecturer in Physical Performance, University of Leeds, School of Performance and Cultural Industries

References:

Alfreds, M. 2013. Then What Happens?: Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, London: Nick Hern Books.
Giedd, J. 2012. ‘The Digital Revolution and Adolescent Brain Evolution’, Journal of Adolescent Health, 51 (2), pp. 101-5.
Hayles, K. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
________ 2010. How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine. ADE bulletin, 150, pp 62-79.
________ 2007. ‘Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes’, Profession, 13, pp 187- 199.
Junko, R and Cotton, S. 2012. ‘No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and Academic performance’, Computers sand Education, 59 (2), pp. 505-14.
Ihde, D. 1990. Technology and the Lifeworld, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Kiran, A. 2012. ‘Technological Presence: Actuality and Potentiality in Subject Constitution’, Human Studies, 35, pp. 77-93.
Loverdou, M., 2014. Interview with Kathryn Hunter, To Vima, 24th April 2014 (translation mine).
McCafferty, P. 2010. ‘Forging a “neoliberal pedagogy”: the “enterprising education” agenda in schools, Critical Social Policy, 30 (4), pp. 541-563.
Monahan, T. 2004. ‘Just Another Tool? IT pedagogy and the commodification of education, The Urban Review, 36 (4), pp 271-292.
Selwyn, N. 2016. ‘Minding our Language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit…and what might be done about it’, Learning, Media and Technology, 41(3), pp 437-443.
Terranova, T. 2012. ‘Attention Economy and the Brain’, Culture Machine, 13, pp 1-19.

Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Action Research and the Integration of Theory and Practice

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

Previous posts can be found here.

Action Research and the Integration of Theory and Practice

Zazzali and Klein raise several issues about the contemporary teaching of theatre and performance at university level. They seem especially preoccupied with two points. The first is the articulation of a link between theoretical and practical teaching components as ‘[w]e still educate our undergraduates through separate theoretical and practical courses to ostensibly prepare them for careers in entertainment industries’ (p. 271).  The second is a concern for interdisciplinarity which they see as an ideal that is however hard to implement in practice, given ‘the ethos of neoliberal individualism in higher education [which] forces students and faculty to pursue singular agendas at the expense of collaboration and interdisciplinarity’ (p. 262).

While I might not agree with a number of Zazzali and Klein’s assumptions, like for example that we still teach in the same ways that we were taught as undergraduate students, I do share in the point that the interdisciplinary integration of theory and practice is an important consideration in contemporary teaching methods, an objective in other words to be striven for. My overarching question in this entry therefore will be: how do we facilitate the integration of theory and practice in our teaching? I have personally tackled this question a number of times, aided by what in Educational Theory are called Action Research strategies. These are reflective strategies where the tutor sets up a research exercise revolving around a clear research question that relates to his or her pedagogical performance in class. The term was first used by Kurt Lewin, a German-American social psychologist, as far back as the 1940s, even though the basic principles which he suggested, involving ‘fact finding, planning, action, evaluation’ (Efron and Ravid 2013: 6), are still in use.

Action Research gives educators an opportunity to improve or refine their teaching skills. Education theorists Sara Efrat Efron and Ruth Ravid define it as follows:

 

Action research is usually defined as an inquiry conducted by educators in their own settings in order to advance their practice and improve their students’ learning. […] [It serves] as a vehicle model for modifying, changing, and improving the teaching-learning process. [Educators] feel that action research enhances their ability to grow professionally, become self-evaluative, and take responsibility for their own practice. (2013: 2)

 

Therefore, during Action Research exercises, the transmission of knowledge in the class or the studio is allied to a critique of the teaching methods involved.  For the educator, it focusses attention on issues that relate to how s/he teaches. The process typically involves: (i) the identification of a difficulty or obstacle to effective teaching/learning (ii) the collection of data related to the problem (iii) the evaluation of the data collected (iv) the development and application of a plan that addresses the problem (v) evaluation of the results emerging from the study (vi) repetition as necessary.

I have personally used Action Research in the past to problematize how practical workshops can complement conventional lecture-based approaches to teaching theatre theory and history. I am keen to experience and understand how lecture- and studio-based pedagogies can be fused together. As a case-study I have used a module that I teach at the University of Malta titled ‘Tradition and Transmission in Performance’, which uses Stanislavsky to discuss how transmission processes facilitate the formation of theatre traditions. The following Action Research questions were asked:

  • How much practical work should be used? What is its ratio to the lecturing component?
  • What strategies can be adopted to ensure complementarity and balance?
  • Does the practical work overshadow the theoretical and/or historical material?
  • Do students fail to create links between the lecturing and practical components?
  • Does the reduction in lecturing lead to a loss of material covered? If yes, what strategies can be adopted to counter such a loss?

Action Research has suggested that a fusion of practice- and lecture-based pedagogies helps the educator to develop a learning atmosphere in which the material is initially elicited from the students but then refined by the lecturer. For example, in one exercise students were asked to create a simple physical routine and to transmit this to each other through (i) direct, one-to-one transmission, (ii) a written-down description, and/or (iii) a video-reproduction. (This exercise is an adaptation of the Reconstruction activity found in Pitches 2003: 149.) The students were subsequently encouraged to reflect and comment on their process, which I then substantiated through a more formal presentation about transmission processes and channels. The class therefore featured a constant move between practical exercises, reflection from the students, and more formal lecturing-components, making students participants rather than simply observers to knowledge-creation processes.

Other contributors to these blog responses have opted to draw parallels with the undergraduate teaching carried out at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. During the first half of 2017 I was a visitor to the School, where amongst other things I had the chance to look at their undergraduate programme and the promise it makes to expose its students to ‘real-world experience and the wider context of the cultural industries’. While I far from received, in such a short period of time, a holistic understanding of its working, I did find myself in a position of someone who could look at the programme as an outsider. Integral to the programme is the commitment to research-led teaching, where ‘students [are engaged] at the cutting edge of knowledge as it is developed’. This is, of course, not unique to Leeds – at the University of Malta where I work the commitment to research-led teaching is equally strong – but I was certainly surprised to see this element downplayed in Zazzali and Klein. In a way, a commitment or otherwise to research-led teaching – whether taking the form of Action Research exercises, research projects involving students with professional researchers, interdisciplinary projects between departments, etc. – informs the very aims and objectives of tertiary education, considering that universities traditionally aim not only to transmit knowledge but also to create it.

Dr Stefan Aquilina, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, School of Performing Arts, University of Malta

 

References

Efron, S. E. and R. Ravid (2013) Action Research in Education: A Practical Guide. New York and London: The Guilford Press

 Pitches, J. (2003) Vsevolod Meyerhold. London and New York: Routledge.

 

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.

Challenging the challenges facing C21st Theatre Training

A response to Zazzali and Klein’s ‘Toward Revising Undergraduate Theatre Education’ (2015).

 

Framing Statement

Despite its focus on US Higher Education, Peter Zazzali and Jeanne Klein’s 2015 article for Theater Topics, ‘Toward Revising Undergraduate Theatre Education’ has provoked several discussions within our UK-based Research Group. The following series of reflections are an attempt to capture some of our discussions and to draw out some urgent, if familiar, themes.

In their introduction, Zazzali and Klein make two clear statements of intent:

First, we address several interdependent challenges facing undergraduate theatre training and the changing characteristics of today’s students. We then offer initiatives for revising an undergraduate theatre curriculum. (2015: 261)

As a Research Group, with a range of distinct teaching and research areas (including performer training, directing, applied theatre and technical theatre), we offer here, in a series of blog essays, a set of critical responses to the context sketched out in Zazzali & Klein’s essay.  With diverse teaching experience and from backgrounds in Greece, Cyprus, South Africa, Malta, the US and England, the group has used the essay to provoke consideration of both parts of Zazzali and Klein’s remit: current challenges and future actions for C21st Theatre Training. In necessarily individual, sometimes strident position statements, we consider an alternative landscape of pedagogical challenge and curriculum revision.  Our first essays cover the following themes: employability challenges in the neoliberal context of Higher Education and the means by which they might be countered; technology and pedagogy; interdisciplinarity and research-led teaching; lighting, training and collaboration.

Contributions are by members of the Performance Training, Preparation and Pedagogy Research Group, University of Leeds. 

Performance Training, Preparation and Pedagogy

 

 

Reflections on the IPPT Ghent 2018

The International Platform for Performer Training (IPPT) provides a safe and supportive space for performer trainers and academics to share their research and pedagogical practices. It is organised annually and each year hosted by a different institution. The IPPT 2018 took place in Ghent, and was hosted by the KASK/School of Arts Ghent (Belgium). The theme for this year was Movement, with particular interest in the exploration of movement that does not directly relate to or derive from the European physical theatre tradition. Attempting to widen our understanding of movement and its use in performer training, we gathered to ask questions such as: ‘how does movement stand to dance or choreography’ or ‘how does movement stand to (spoken) language’.

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Michael Chekhov: New Pathways, Research Project Report

In 2013, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training published a special issue (4.2) on the work of Michael Chekhov, edited by Franc Chamberlain and Andrei Kirillov with Jonathan Pitches. It included interviews, conducted by Cass Fleming, Sinéad Rushe and me, with prominent UK-based Chekhov practitioners Graham Dixon, Sarah Kane and Martin Sharp (‘Interview: the MCCUK Past, Present and Future’). Between them, Dixon, Kane and Sharp had been in responsible, in 1995, for setting up the Michael Chekhov Centre UK, now reconfigured slightly as Michael Chekhov UK, a network of artists ‘who are inspired by and working in a variety of ways with the ideas of the Russian actor, director and teacher, Michael Chekhov.’ (http://www.michaelchekhov.org.uk/).

The interviews grew out of a series of conversations between us, as two generations of practitioners working with Chekhov’s technique, at what felt to us to be a transitional moment in the history of Michael Chekhov’s work in this country (for an account of that history, see Jerri Daboo’s chapter in Jonathan Pitches (ed.), Russians in Britain: British Theatre and the Russian Tradition of Actor Training (Routledge, 2011)). Following the publication of these interviews we decided that there was a compelling case for research that built upon historical analyses of Chekhov’s ideas and explorations of his legacy in contemporary actor training towards a consideration of the future of his technique.

To this end, in 2013 we began a project asking, ‘How can Chekhov’s techniques be used in the 21st century in contexts other than actor training designed for the interpretation of existing dramatic literature?’ We undertook practice research into the use of Chekhov’s technique as part of theatre-making processes that blur conventional distinctions between writers, actors and directors, and took his work into areas of theatre practice he had not taught himself: voice, movement, dance, design, applied theatre and therapeutic practices. We also initiated conversations with Chekhov practitioners in other parts of the world.

That project came to an end in September 2016 with an event at Goldsmith’s featuring over 120 participants and the production of an edited collection: Michael Chekhov Technique in the Twenty First Century: New Pathways (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama), edited by Dr Cass Fleming and Dr Tom Cornford, which will be published in 2018. The attached report offers an overview of the research undertaken to date and of our future plans. We hope that you will find it stimulating and encourage you to engage either with us directly or with Michael Chekhov UK here.

Please click here to download a copy of the New Pathways, Research Project Report.

Dr Tom Cornford

Lecturer in Theatre and Performance, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

 

Reflections on the open panel of the Performer Training Working Group – ‘Training and Other Disciplines/Practices’ – 1st September 2017

In the whirlwind of PhD study, teaching, and the endlessness of admin tasks associated with these activities one can forget that there is very exciting research happening within the performer training world. It is only when you have the opportunity to attend a conference with the diversity of program that is included in the TaPRA ‘Performer Training’ working group, which took place at the University of Salford August 30th-September 1st, that you fully understand that there are others thinking and working fruitfully on this topic in research terms. Continue reading

TaPRA Conference 2017 — Performer Training Working Group — Training Comedy and Transgression

 

This session began Day Two of TaPRA. The three papers in the sessions all drew upon the personal experiences of the presenters as artists and performers. The papers questioned and reconsidered traditional paradigms of performer training for comedy and theatre. Continue reading

On Modes of Sharing: Blog Report on Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training Session at TaPRA Conference 2017

The Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training session of the Performer Training Working Group at TaPRA Annual Conference 2017, included three different modes of sharing new knowledge and new practice. The session started with the group’s reflective discussion about the blog “Tuning: Preparing to Perform Gaudete with OBRA Theatre Co.”, compiled and edited by Eilon Morris with contributions from Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi and Fabian Wixe. The session continued with the presentation of Jane Turner’s and Patrick Campbell’s paper “The End(s) of Training: Three Case Studies from the Third Theatre”. The session ended with the workshop “The Ends of Your Training Revisited—A Timeline Experience”, designed and delivered by Ysabel Clare.

After two long days of paper presentations, attending a session that involved three different modes of sharing findings, brings attention not only to the overall theme of how specific actor-training practices affect the individual/ensemble but also about the complications and challenges of the sharing mode itself.

Eilon Morris, Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi and Fabian Wixe are all members of an ensemble that creates work under the direction of the core members of OBRA Theatre Co., Kate Papi and Oliviero Papi. Inspired by Peter Brook’s use of the term ‘tuning’ for ensemble work, OBRA Theatre Co. members give an insight into specific exercises that they use for the purpose of pre-performance preparation.  The three exercises of this first sharing mode— ‘Bouncing’, ‘Balls’ and ‘Tuning’—are described in the Theatre, Dance and Performance Blog in a ‘workbook’ format. The sharing structure of each exercise includes basic description, how each exercise was deposited to the training capital of the performer who introduced the exercise to the group and the main objectives of the exercise.

Carlos Simioni, Mia Theil Have and Carolina Pizarro are three actors who have a training relationship with Eugenio Barba’s Odin Theatre. Turner and Campbell share the actors’ training experiences, through a critical analytical account of the actors’ testimonies. Turner and Campbell’s critical analysis is driven by Barba’s writings, but they also draw on Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s philosophical concepts in order to elucidate their investigation. This second sharing mode uses a ‘case studies’ format: the three actors’ testimonies are used as a basis for offering different perspectives in which a specific practice may affect different individuals who embody different cultural and actor-training backgrounds.

The last sharing mode of the session was a practical workshop, which, under Clare’s facilitation, invited the participants to revisit memories of their own training life. The participants were invited to explore how this new embodied experience resonates through their prior training capital. The practical process inspired each participant to generate their own findings about how their past and future training work with and against each other.

Closing my report for the Training and the Ensemble/Training Beyond Training session, I would observe how the challenge of ‘curating’ innovative sharing modes in academic conferences speaks to contemporary challenges not only of participatory performance but also of practice research. I will summarise my point in a series of broader and more focused questions:

How much interaction is enough to keep a participant interested?

When does interaction distract from the new knowledge?

What is the most appropriate way of disseminating specific forms of new knowledge?

What are the expectations of specific audiences?

What is a ‘taster’/brief description of a practice and how can it be framed differently for academic and other environments?

How do different modes of sharing new knowledge to actor trainers reveal common assumptions about how an actor trainer should behave, like willingness to actively participate (thou shalt not refuse peers’ invitations to participate) and ability to use technology (thou shalt not live anymore without blogging and microblogging)?

Evi Stamatiou is an actor, director and writer who works across stage and screen with 14 years of international experience. She is currently finishing a PhD in Actor Training and Direction at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She trains actors in conservatoires and universities and is currently the Programme Coordinator for the BA (Hons) Acting at the University of Chichester. She specialises in comedy and in using a variety of text-based and devising practices that tackle under-representation and misrepresentation issues in the acting industry. Parts of her academic work are in preparation or have been published by Intellect Books, Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama and McFarland & Co. She also specialises in the development of new work, having workshopped new writing for various platforms, including Lincoln Centre Theatre Directors Lab. She is an Associate Artist to New Theatre Royal. She is represented by RD Casting in all aspects of her creative work. You can see more about her work at www.evistamatiou.com.

 

Tabula Rasa, Neutrality and the Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education.

In 2015, I published “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” within the pages of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training (6:3). I interviewed the students of the programme of acting studies of the University of Tampere, and the University of the Arts Helsinki, and some of their teachers, in order to investigate the impact of prior experience of acting in the youth theatres and in youth theatre education to acting studies in higher education. In the article I wondered how the students saw the role of the youth theatre movement in their personal growth, and what the teachers thought about the ways of acting and thinking about acting the students had at the beginning of their studies; and the myth of tabula rasa.

In this post I come back to the themes of the article, with a little help from Mikko Kanninen, University Lecturer in Acting at the University of Tampere, and his current BA student, Sofia Smeds, both of whom I know as practitioners with special interest in current developments in the field, and who were able to answer on short notice. I asked both of them to read the article and comment freely on it. What follows is their reply.

Mikko Kanninen:

In his essay “The Youth Theatre Movement as Part of Actors’ Education: A Finnish Perspective” Hannu Tuisku wrestles with the complex relationship between the youth theatre movement and the everyday problems in professional performer training pedagogy: Where does the training begin? Should the student first unlearn everything “wrong” he has learned or should the pedagogy build something on top of something already learned?

Tuisku describes very thoughtfully the complexity of the situation, methods and recent history of Finnish actor training in higher education. In doing so, Tuisku also brings out one of the core problems in the Finnish educational system: drama education does not have the same kind of established status as a school subject as music and fine arts do. This status has no relation to the fact that theatre is more popular in Finland than going to movies or Lutheran church. Theatre is THE national art form in Finland but it is not recognized in our state school curriculum.

The question of neutrality or tabula rasa versus the habitual, lived body is an issue we face almost every day in our work in acting studies in higher education. The article is certainly of use for us! It is also worth noticing that the phenomena the article is about has always been a significant part of the Finnish higher theatre education and the Finnish theatre “scene” but nobody before Tuisku has made any serious research about it.  

Sofia Smeds:  

I think that these questions about acting studies in higher education and actor training in the youth theatres are very important and interesting. In my opinion, the education of professional actors should always be based on thorough studies rather than opinions or interests of certain theatre professionals.

I think, what has helped me a lot in the first year of my acting studies in higher education, is my previous experience of studying in the university. A sort of experimental way of thinking, not seeking to know what is right or wrong, an ability to look at things in a critical way and accept the complexity of human experience and communication. I feel like these abilities have given me the opportunity to really focus my energy in all of the specific exercises that we explore.

I don’t think my previous experience in youth theatre or adult education college has left any bad mannerisms in me. I believe people gain mannerisms from their everyday life anyway, mannerisms that affect their acting, had they participated in youth theaters or not. In my case, I believe participating in both youth theatre and adult education college made it possible for me to be accepted into the programme of acting studies in higher education in the first place.

I have discovered that in our education at the programme of acting studies at the University of Tampere the focus is on exploring one’s own body as an organism that thinks, communicates and creates. And I feel that it’s very productive. In my opinion, the purpose of professional actors’ physical training is to provide different exercises, methods or tools to become aware of your somatic reactions, to explore what’s happening in your body, and finally, to be able to choose and use these reactions and physical changes to create any kind of theater art. The teacher, then, is not telling the student to use certain qualities of expression, but rather the teacher is providing the student the opportunity to find the millions of qualities and movements in his or her own body, so that he or she can make the choices and be the artist.

The pedagogy in adult education colleges (and in youth theatres), however, I think should be different from the one in the university. Usually, the aim in adult education colleges is to get accepted into a programme of acting studies in higher education, so the pedagogy should be adjusted to that aim, as in the university, the aim is to educate independent theatre artists.

For further consideration, I think the applying process of acting studies in higher education should be opened up, discussed and studied thoroughly.

Reflections on these two comments:

It seems the topic of the article is of interest, and despite being written a few years ago, something still deserving further discussion.

I think the idea expressed by Sofia Smeds, the need for accepting ”the complexity of human experience and communication” is indeed crucial in performer training, and in life. This attitude rejects the mystification of artistic creation in a way that easily leads to distorted power relations, situations where the teacher/director (or anyone) knows better but keeps it to him/herself. Or, in fact, he or she thinks s/he knows better but actually s/he only has an opinion, perhaps to be appreciated because it draws upon the experience of a long career, but there are other opinions. We could simply ask: What do you think? How do you feel? Or: How do I feel? All it takes is confidence on the shared journey of exploration, and a reasonable amount of self-confidence that needs no back-up from mystification or intentional blurring of things, to cover one’s back.

Also, the comment by Mikko Kanninen, on the fact that the questions posed in the article are all too familiar in the Finnish context but there has been no ”serious research” on them, is interesting. We could consider this question in the British, or any context, not only Finnish: Are there issues in a given context that are commonly met but sparsely investigated? If there are, why is this the case? What kind of shifts in power relations would it mean if we brought the issues in question into bright day light? It seems apparent that the applying process into acting studies in higher education is, at least, something to be ”opened up, discussed, and studied thoroughly”, as Sofia Smeds suggests.

A couple of questions come to mind that readers might want to comment on:

  1. Historically, in Finland, there has been tension between drama teachers in the general education system, and theatre professionals. Theatre professionals have suspected drama teachers teach “wrong things” that create mannerisms that are difficult to erase within acting studies in higher education. In its extreme, some of these professionals have suggested that it is better NOT to have theatre as a subject in the general school curriculum. Maybe this is due to the fact that, historically, school teachers in music and in fine arts have studied at academies of their art form but drama teachers have not, and are not assumed as representatives of the art form (which I think is an unjustified prejudice). Is this kind of tension only to be found in Finland, or is it also met in other countries?
  2. In the article, much is said about controversial opinions of the impact of prior experiences in the youth theatres to acting studies in higher education. The interviewed student actors think their experience in the youth theatres has mostly been an advantage in their studies in higher education while some of their teachers stress the difficulties in unlearning former ways of acting and thinking about acting. At the end of the article I concluded that prior experience may indeed create unfavorable ways of thinking about acting at least, but they contribute to personal growth in such a way that makes them utterly important. How do actor/performer trainers of today see the problem of mannerisms, or the habitus of everyday life, versus the ideal of neutrality or tabula rasa? Is the habitus of everyday life a solid starting point for training, or is there a need to change or modify it? Does the ideal of neutrality (despite its apparent impossibility) still persist?

Interview with Edward Braun

Below is a transcription and the audio files of the interview I conducted with Edward Braun in March 2015 at his home, as the new edition of the enormously influential Meyerhold on Theatre was being prepared.  Ted died a few days ago and this is posted with his wife Sarah’s blessing, to celebrate his brilliance as an academic and his generosity as a human being.

Below is the pdf of the transcribed interview and the audio files. Please share this widely and feel free to use any of the material if it is of use to your research.

Ted_Braun_Edited_Interview_4-3-15 corrected

 

Part 1: How was Meyerhold on Theatre conceived and put together?

 

Part 2: What binds the writings of Meyerhold on Theatre together?

 

Part 3: What are  Edward Braun’s favourite, or most significant, sections?

 

Thanks for listening

Jonathan Pitches