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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.

The Transistion or The End of the Affair

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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

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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.

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

 

Comeback to the Bench Game

Since the original Bench Game blog we’ve played the game around the UK, again in India with the 2017 ‘Indian Steam’ tour, and elsewhere on our travels. Recently I was in Milan performing one of our Prodigal Theatre shows “The Tragedian Trilogy” at Teatro Della Contraddizione. I also led a three day workshop at TDC’s school. The workshop examined characterisation techniques in connection to our show in which I play multiple characters. Changes of character are played within the action, in front of the (in-the-round) audience. In particular I was looking at character through the lens of Social Learning theory. In discussing social learning theory and communities of practice, Etienne Wenger describes an ongoing process in which learning and identity are inextricably bound: The focus on the social aspect of learning is not a displacement of the person. On the contrary, it is an emphasis on the person as a social participant, as a meaning-making entity for whom the social world is a resource for constituting an identity. (Wenger, E. 2012) I was intrigued to see if we could apply this theory to character creation.

In the context of the workshop, we looked at three processes. First we established what Wenger might describe as a ‘Community of Practice’. This is more usually referred to in dance training as a ‘shared vocabulary’. We agreed a set of normative behaviours, in this case principles of scenic behaviour. I ran an exercise we call ‘The Waiter’s Tray’ which focuses on group movement in a space. The Waiter’s Tray is a core Prodigal Theatre practice that begins with the simple work of evenly distributing a group where everyone is moving constantly, and then adds levels of sophistication to this through numerous additional tasks. Again, using Wenger’s terminology, we are agreeing a level of competence that unifies all the members in our community of practice. Simply put we’re working on the fundamentals of stage craft. Once a general level of competency is achieved and shared we can move on.

So in the second phase of the workshop we looked at individual behaviour as we worked on the physical construction of character. Here we start to build upon the shared, group practices – stagecraft or scenic behaviour – the agreed level of competences that make it possible for us to all be working together and inhabiting the same space together. We add a second layer of individual behaviours and these additional, personal, physical ‘tasks’ are what forms a character. Here we are moving from focusing upon the agreed competence that allows us to be considered a member of the community of practice, and we are focusing on the unique identity of the individual. As Wenger discusses at length, the interplay between the individual and the community is part of what defines identity. A community of practice will regard a particular person within that community as ‘an old master’ and another as ‘an apprentice’ based on their interplay and relationships with those individuals. Wearing a badge that says ‘old master’ does not in itself confer that status upon you, and this is critical when we think about playing characters because it moves the work of conferring status, for example, from the individual to the ensemble. Put simply, and as has been discussed by many practitioners many times, the king is made not by the actor announcing ‘I am the king’ but by the ensemble reacting to the actor as they would (or as their character would) to this particular king, now.

Having worked through the first day establishing a shared language of stage behaviour, and having then worked individually on developing and defining individual physical characters, we then looked at ways of bringing the two together. The participants in the workshop were not all working on the same production, and in choosing characters to work on they had not discussed a common genre or play script. Within the room I had eleven students each representing a character from a different source, and I did not discuss those characters explicitly with them. In a later exercise students spoke the names of their characters indicating to me that some as old as Greek Tragedy might be sharing the space with Brecht’s and Kane’s creations. Our work was focused on a process we term ‘listening’ in the company but which might be better understood here as perceiving or reflecting. The aim is for the actor to discern their relationship with the characters around them by discovering together how these characters can find a balance within a space. This work falls somewhere in between a pre-expressive language of sharing space purely on the principles of how an actor exists upon a stage, and the later dramaturgical work of setting a score of actions. In this stage we’re trying to find a way of interacting which is discovered mutually. It was in this part of the process that I introduced the Bench Game.

Looking around the TDC venue I couldn’t find a bench of the simple stye that we’d used so successfully in India, or the kind of generic block that we often tour with in the UK. Instead I settled on a set of treads – the absolutely generic three step rise that take us from stage to auditorium in theatres all over the world. It proved to be a great asset to the game. For starters, the potential for status games is increased exponentially when you add these few extra levels into the mix. In addition to sitting on the floor, there are three step heights to choose from and the back and sides of the treads offer great ‘leaning’ possibilities. To begin with we played the bench game ‘neutrally’ and as described in the original piece. We explored games of cooperation and non-cooperation, and we played with various numbers of players. We then went back to the characters we had developed and brought them into the game. Now, each player was entering the game both with the tasks that define ‘The Bench Game’ and another set of personal tasks which for them define ‘The Character’. There is of course a whole other set of articles to be written on that process of building characters, but as long as you are working with a defined physical characterisation the exercise should work. Taking one character from our Tragedian show for example, I know that in the character of Mr Elliston my feet and knees are turned in, my weight low, back forward with elbows out and chin tucked. My hands are held in fists with thumbs extended. My motion is sideways, like a crab, moving forward and backward only on the diagonal and my breathing is raspy, up at the top of the chest and in the throat. I don’t want anyone too close to me, but won’t hesitate to invade another’s space and I’ll stand my ground rather than give way. Its a character I’ve been playing for years, so I know this set of behaviours well enough that there is a particular rhythm to all of Mr Elliston’s actions. One of my main purposes in running this exercise was for students to start discerning the particular rhythms of their characters.

Essentially the Bench Game here was used to discover characters through a process framed by reacting, rather than acting. The results were fascinating and bridged us nicely into the third section of the workshop. From looking at group sharing of space, to individual characters, we were now looking at the role of the audience in jointly creating our characters. In the context of the workshop, participants formed audiences to each other as we worked in small groups. One character would enter the space, find a place to sit on the treads, and as they began to settle I’d send in the next. After a few goes I didn’t need to direct this, as the actors became very good at judging their moment to enter.

The bench game demands near constant movement, but with characters in play this becomes too repressive. The character must be given enough time and space to exist, or the demands of the Bench Game will overpower actors who are not yet fully familiar with their characters. So I borrowed from the late, great Torgeir Wethal (Odin Teatret), with whom I was led through a character exercise where, in order to restrain some of the wilder improvisational impulses exhibited by young and adventurous actors, he asked us to remain ‘Within the bounds of anything you might witness in the Doctor’s Waiting Room’. Obviously when we think about such a setting, there is still a huge range of activity, but its enough of a restraint just to slow us down a little and give us the space to observe what is actually happening. I always felt Torgeir used this particular setting in that improvisation because it was ubiquitous for an international group of actors, but also because within that context people tend to restrain themselves somewhat.

I also asked my students to ‘disguise the game’ from the audience. It is not the game we want to see, the game is a language through which we get to discern the characters. And so it went on. Very soon we added a chair set at a right angle to the treads, and raised the numbers from two up to three and four players. The interplay was fascinating. In this context the audience begin to focus on a very fine level of communication. The actors become concerned not with broadcasting their own character – its status, its habits, its behaviours – but in discerning those of the players around them. The layered activity of playing one’s own character, playing the game, and attending to the audience’s reactions requires this extended sense of ‘listening’ which is our object. By focusing on reactions distinct character rhythms also begin to appear.

When the work goes well what follows is something of a revelation. The tiniest stirring of a hand or foot or the smallest turn of the head, the eyes, can shift the whole balance of the space and a relationship between two or more characters can coalesce and disappear in seconds. The audience projects its own stories on to the action, too, and the listening actors perceive this level of reaction in the audience and attune themselves to it. To illustrate this, the final part of the game comes when we share a context not with the performers, but first with the audience. I say to the viewers ‘Let’s now watch these three players and see them in a sauna’. The players, however, have no idea of this. What follows is a bedroom farce of betrayals and secret negotiations. The actors on stage are still concerned only with their own characters, and the game, but the audience is in hysterics and the actors cannot help but be effected by this. When I ask the audience afterwards ‘What did you see them wearing?’ they all shout ‘Nothing!’. So a group of fully clothed actors are convincingly naked without even knowing it. In another round of the game we watch spies engaged in espionage, in a third its Lear dividing his kingdom. When we give the actors this context, the game is changed entirely. They cannot help but try to tell us ‘where they are’ or ‘what they are doing’ and it gets in the way of the purity of action that communicated their characters so clearly when we kept the context a secret for the audience.

This is another aim of the exercise: to illustrate the audience’s creative role in the game. Character, understood through this game, becomes more clearly a social construct. It is an ongoing interplay between the actor, their colleagues, and the audience. The bench game, or now, better, The Treads Game, provides us with a space in which actors can begin to discern their characters through the reactions of their colleagues and their audience. Rather than imposing a pre-existing notion of the character upon the space, they discover their character through a social activity in which the group collectively understands each character and each character changes and effects the group.

‘Showing and Writing Training’ (Special Issue of TDPT 7.2) Audio recordings from Symposium, 30th November 2016 Run by Mary Paterson and Libby Worth with Dick McCaw

Symposium: On Showing and Writing Training                                       

London, 30th November 2016, 2 – 5 pm

This blog post captures in a series of audio files the symposium that launched the special issue  ‘On Showing and Writing Training’ of the Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Journal. It brought together writing, improvisation, experimentation and images to explore how performance is made manifest, represented and reproduced through training.

Image: from ‘I Set My Foot Upon the Air’ by Elke Mark

Next to each of the contributors names in the programme below you can click on the audio file to hear their talk. The talks are mainly around ten minutes, while the introductory responses to the journal special issue by artist Karen Christopher and writer John Hall a little longer. Under each contributor’s name there is also a link to the abstract of the essay they contributed to the special issue.

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Register for the TDPT Symposium: On Showing and Writing Training

 

 

Please join us for an afternoon of discussions and ideas to celebrate the launch of a special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training ‘On Showing and Writing Training’.

  • What is the difference between what you do and how you talk about what you do?
  • What remains unsaid? What remains undone? What gets undone?
  • What is impossible to explain?
  • Who do you think you’re talking to?

The issue brings together writing, improvisation, experimentation and images to explore how performance is made, represented and reproduced through training. In doing so, it addresses wider questions about pedagogy, the live and the remembered in relation to the practices of art.

This symposium will feature an artist’s response from the performer Karen Christopher, as well as talks and provocations from contributors Katrina Brown, Paola Crespi, Franc Chamberlain, Emma Cocker, Ysabel Clare, Joa Hug, Ben Spatz and John Hall.

‘On Showing and Writing Training’ was edited by Dick McCaw and guest-editor Mary Paterson.

 

Wednesday 30th November, 2 to 5 pm

Room 261

University of London, Senate House,
 Malet Street
, London, 
WC1E 7HU

Directions:  http://www.london.ac.uk/map.html

Tickets are free. Reserve them via  ShowingWritingTraining.eventbrite.co.uk

 

Any queries please contact: Libby.Worth@rhul.ac.uk

 

The New Thing (Third Manifesto), A Minor Gesture

[Editors Note: Initially believed to be evidence of an attack on the TDPT website by Russian hackers, it was later translated from the original German, subjected to an electronic jigglebath, and identified as an assemblage of texts and precepts developed in Los Angeles and North Carolina (US) for training in the creation of and performance in devised theatre.  The many hyperlinks take the reader to the “Borrowed Things” of texts, videos, songs, and non-sequiturs.]

 

The New Thing (Third Manifesto)[1]

a Minor Gesture[2]

Tony Perucci

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern (Durham, NC)

The Performance Collective (Chapel Hill, NC)

www.tonyperucci.com

perucci@unc.edu

 For Carlo

In principle, I am against manifestos.

                                                Tristan Tzara

There’s no reason. There’s no reason why you couldn’t.

                                                            Amelia Gray

As a way to try to name an ethic of making work, a mode of collaboration, an animating spirit of contestation, etc., the term The New Thing is borrowed from Free Jazz musicians who knew that jazz had become what Ornette Coleman called a conventional thing, ruined in no small part by white critics. The New Thing names some of Free Jazz’s key characteristics: horizontality of organization (of the ensemble), challenging the primacy of melody, the veneration of improvisation, the valuing of chance and composition, the potentiality of performance as a means of creation not just exhibition, and putting all of these artistic practices in the service of challenging white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.  Just as white folks attempted to, as Amiri Baraka said, change swing from a verb to a noun, The New Thing enacts a continual return from noun to verb.

The New Thing is constituted by (and through) attending to these practices:

  1. BRACKETING OF MEANING
  2. DISTILLATION OF EXPERIENCE
  3. RUPTURE
  4. DREAM LOGIC
  5. FORM AS CONTENT
  6. CONTENT AS FORM

The New Thing is generated by and dependent upon paradoxical principles:

  1. It is alternately minimalist (in its commitment to the phenomenal encounter with materiality) and maximalist (in its production of an excess of things).
  2. Or, another way to put this is that The New Thing is material substance that could not be any other way, even as it haunted and taunted by the many other ways is could be.
  3. It contends that
    1. Performance is most itself when it is completely fake—characterized by theatrical artifice, make-believe, amusing hats.
    2. Performance is most itself when it is really real – characterized by the accident, the error, chance and the unknown.
  4. Real and Fake are categories that are hopelessly (and hopefully) saturated by each other.
  5. The presence of presence must be enacted even as we have no access to anything like pure presence.
  6. The New Thing is beautiful when it is ugly and ugly when it is beautiful.
  7. The New Thing is urgent as it enacts rupture and does the unnecessary.
    1. Ruptural Performances are interruptive, becoming-events, confrontational, confounding, becoming-a-problem, and give rise to the virtuosic multitude.
    2. Doing the Unnecessary is the task of interfering with ordinary, automatic actions.
  8. Doing The New Thing is almost invariably a bad idea. It is goaded into being by Imp of the Perverse.

  • The New Thing asks the audience, “What’s the matter?” because it is the matter of performance (time, space, bodies, etc.) that matters.

  • Working with and being worked on by matter that matters invests in the somatic and the haptic, not just the good idea. In fact, when bad ideas produce a failure, the reveling in (im)possibility that failure as a failure is the matter that matters.

  • Ideas alone are not worth the paper their written on. Including this one. Confronted with The New Thing, Manuscripts (don’t) Burn.  Not satisfied with an ideational concept of the new that emerges from brainstorming with those burning texts, The New Thing requires the corporealizing of sharing and colliding texts through BodyStorming.  The ecology of The New Thing tells us that proliferation and increasingly destructiveness of BodyStorms is attributable to the (revolt against) climate change produced by industrial capitalism.

What is this?

What is it now?

Can you help me construct a better question?

Will you?

  • Even still, in the context of injustice fomented by capital and other practices of exploitation and violence, we may confront the audience with a list of demands. The New Thing presents itself to the public to allow itself to be seen.  But it always and necessarily demands to be reckoned with.

  • The New Thing chases down the frenzied disappearing really really Real real. And it fails every goddamn time.

  • The New Thing is impossible. And we do it anyway.

[1] Long thought to be an elaborate hoax, some contend that the 1st Manifesto and 2nd Manifesto of The New Thing disappeared alongside Scene 4 of Frederico García Lorca’s work of impossible theatre, El Publico. Like that play, the initial versions of the The New Thing Manifesto were partly written on hotel stationary under fascist rule while attempting to produce a Theatre Beneath the Sand.

[2] Larry Grossberg, Branislav Jakovljevic, D. Soyini Madison, Mary Overlie, and Hong-An Truong graciously read versions of this text and told me what I had right and wrong.  Any errors of fact, conceptualization, and/or attribution, however, are entirely theirs, not mine.

A constant and continuous interaction: some personal reflections on the performer training working group session at TaPRA 2016

…the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others’ individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation–more or less creative–of others’ words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness” ….These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate.

I love this quote.

It comes from an essay by the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin whose ideas and concepts formed the foundation for Julia Kristeva’s intertextual theory. At the 2016 annual TaPRA conference, I was addressing Kristeva and Bakhtin’s ideas concerning intertextuality and endeavouring to demonstrate how the theory can be used to deepen our understanding of the ways in which artists intersect with each other, with audiences, with the world, with the past.

I am particularly interested in artistic domains and performance territories. In my research I am exploring how performances act as sites that enable intersections of audience and artists asking: what do these intersections yield? I am looking at the performing artist as a kind of curator who, in creating or participating in a performance, chooses to reveal certain aspects of her individual history, experience, skills, and knowledge to enable dynamic and engaging intersections with audiences. Continue reading

Post-conference reflection on disseminating praxical research in actor training

 

I am an actress (Diploma GNT Drama School, MA East 15 Acting School) [1]

I am an actress, somatic movement educator (Cert IBMT, RSME)[2]

I am an actress, somatic acting-movement educator and researcher (PaR PhD, RCSSD)[3]

I am an actress, somatic acting-movement educator and researcher currently working within three major London-based actor-training institutions (East 15, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, RCSSD)

 

Praxical research in conservatoire actor training

The above schematic identification of my professional background and identity reflects the underlying structure of my short introduction to the brief workshop I gave for the TaPRA Performer Training Working Group on the seventh of September 2016 at University of Bristol.[4] The development of the aforementioned phrases does not aim only at summarizing a personal ongoing journey but also a contemporary phenomenon within modern UK actor-training conservatoire institutions. This phenomenon is the current increasing interest in the dynamic dialogue between academia and practice-based critical engagement, combined with the understanding of how the interrelation between various disciplines informs the shaping of contemporary actor-training pedagogies. In this brief reflection on my participation in TaPRA 2016 conference on the theme ‘Speech and Text in Performer Training’, I intend to communicate aspects of my present understanding of the dynamic integration between theory and practice in actor training through my own praxical research.[5]

I started my engagement with praxis through a practice-as-research (PaR) doctorate thesis on my process of becoming an actor-trainer based on my experience as a conservatoire trained actress and my simultaneous development as somatic movement educator. I grounded my critical awareness as emerging trainer-witness upon the shaping of an original somatic actor-training and creative methodology inspired by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s developmental process of embodiment. I modified Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering® (BMC®) inetsrubjective narrative and principles as I practised them through Linda Hartley’s Integrative Bodywork & Movement Therapy (IBMT) training.[6] The objective of my PhD research was a modern response towards scientifically-informed problematic binaries in actor-training discourses (including mind-body, inner-outer, self-other/s) as well as a common description of actors’ multiple embodied individualities as a single, universal and unchanged existence.[7] I identified dualism and universalism in actor training within the general philosophical problem of logocentrism.

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I Set My Foot Upon the Air – A Thinking-Moving-Reading Practice

The special issue 7.2 of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training was themed on ‘showing and writing training.’ Edited by Mary Paterson (with Training Grounds contributions edited by Dick McCaw), this issue includes contributions that show themselves beyond the realm of the written page.

One of these contributions is Elke Mark’s paper, ‘A Moving-Thinking-Reading Practice.’ Mark describes her performance practice as a type of knowledge production that interweaves sensory experience, the potential for difference, and participatory relationships.  Her practice therefore blurs the lines between academic thought and artistic training, suggesting they are collaborative elements in a holistic process of learning and discovery.

She describes her philosophy as follows:

The more I succeed in understanding plans, ideas and concepts that have been well thought through as a mere framework, in putting them aside when a performance begins, when I start to work intently, and to allow intuition and chance encounter to carry me along from one moment to the next, the closer I feel to unintended actions – a form of working that has scope for the unthought, scope for unfurling processes that evolve unpredictably, processes which I follow and accompany: a knowledge that opens itself up to anyone moving attentively, that finds potential in encounter. My horizons broaden, extend all around me, meet with points of intersection, resistance and centres of attraction in space and in my activities. If I succeed in following the rhythm, in finding the tune, in taking it up and developing it, a powerful coherence unfolds, one that both attracts and includes the viewer unintentionally.

Elke Mark, I Set My Foot Upon The Air Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7.2 pp. 216-230, p. 219

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As part of her artistic and training practices, Mark’s writing expands beyond one medium. Her paper for the printed journal was also an installation, which required audience members to read and move in relation to its words. She describes the work as follows:

These images show part of an installation at the Künstlergut Prösitz in summer 2015, which was developed whilst I was participating in an Artist Residency for female artists with children. The pictures show an essay-installation, in which the essay appeared as one long, paper tape, installed inside the building and in the garden.

In order to read the text, the reader had to start outside, first winding round and round an empty potato sack. Then, she could follow the text line, to be guided step-by-step through the whole installation. The act of reading was therefore also an act of movement, making readers aware of the subtle differentiation in their attention between alertness and passivity, as experienced incidentally within their own bodies and in relation to other people’s moving-reading practice.

An edited version of this essay is printed in the special edition of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, ‘On Showing and Writing Training’ (7.2).

Photos (c) Elke Mark

Theatre and Performance Research Association 2016 Performer Training Working Group: Some Personal Reflections

Just back from the annual three day meeting of the TaPRA Performer Training Group and would like to capture some thoughts and reflections before they evaporate in the maze of the semester that lies ahead.

Before I do so, one note on the very activity of writing a blog post. This year’s executive curated panel was entitled ‘Digital Media and the Future of Theatre and Performance Research’ and set out to examine, amongst other things, whether ‘academic research [is] a rival to these [digital] forms of dissemination – [whether it is] a gold standard to maintain against wikiknowledge’ or whether academic research ‘will and should change to make use of these new technologies’ (TaPRA, Conference Programme 2016, np).

Undoubtedly there is a lot to be said about the different forms of knowledge that different forms of dissemination may produce, in terms of economy, pedagogy, cognition, cultural habits and power relations to say the least, but during the panel I started thinking, or perhaps paused to think, about labour. It is work, I thought to myself, to produce and disseminate research in the standard formats of journal articles and books. For a lot of theatre practitioners and researchers, this work can be understood both in terms of contractual employment (or as a move towards it) as well as in terms of the effort that goes in it (which does not exclude the pleasures of writing). It is also work to write a blog post. But here is an important difference: to write a blog post is work in terms of the effort exerted but not, at least not yet or not explicitly, in terms of contractual obligations.

Granted, this distinction is not clear cut (after all blogging does look good on a CV), but to me it feels important. Perhaps, because of the cultural tropes of playground and play with which the internet is often associated, perhaps because I hope that practices of peer-to-peer production and user-led creation will bring us closer to different paradigms of economic transaction and social relations, on the afternoon of the 6th of September 2016, I discovered, and very inarticulately tried to argue, that it is paramount that within the academy blogging remains a choice and that we actively make sure that it does so. That it remains an activity, a space, a zone that allows me to step out of the imperatives to produce research, and envisage first and foremost you, the readers, with me, around a table drinking wine, in a studio rolling on the floor, in a playground swinging from monkey bars.

For these reasons, I want to start by saying this: I chose to write this blog post.

The theme of the Working Group’s CfP for this year was Speech and Text in Performer Training, whereby ‘“text” is not meant to refer only to words in a printed play-text, but rather to the expansive range of sources in our work’. In particular, we invited delegates ‘to consider the link between the different notions of text and speech. What are the key interventions that are being made in these areas? How do we, from our different and overlapping disciplines, teach, train, and theoretically engage with text and speech in our work?’. Four intersecting areas were proposed as subthemes: The actor and the text; Dance and movement: the physical and verbal body; Text and Aurality; Intersections between text, speech, and technology.

The final programme consisted of a diverse set of papers, provocations, workshops and lecture demonstrations. Its actualisation over three days of panels, formal discussions and informal exchanges foregrounded a set of additional themes/observations, some of which I will try to capture here. In no particular order:

Interdisciplinarity and, after Pauliina Hulkko, multimodality

A lot of the trainings we experienced, heard and talked about this year had a pronounced interdisciplinary character, both in the combination of different performing arts disciplines, as well as in a very conscious, strategic choice of employing other art forms. David Wiles talked about and showed pictures of historical and idiosyncratic practices of scoring text dating from 17th and 18th c European theatre and oratic practice. Bryan Brown and Olya Petrakova examined the development of two frameworks they developed with ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory). ‘Playstorming’ is a framework for working with playtexts through improvisation, whereas ‘Bodystorming’ seeks a way to develop on-the-spot responses to discursive text through movement and sound.  Hannu Tuisku demonstrated an exercise on facial relaxation as an entry point to voice production, and Marie Hay demonstrated the simultaneous production and scoring of movement and speech/text. Debi Wong talked about the creation of operatic-dance-music productions and her aim to develop methods that enable the artists involved to penetrate and allow to be permeated by each other’s practice rather than working alongside one another. Christina Kapadocha shared through a practical workshop her own way of employing Body Mind Centering in movement and voice training/practice.

In the second category of working with practices beyond the performing arts, one could position Petronilla Whitfield’s sharing of her evolving method of working with dyslexic actor-students on Shakespeare’s text through movement, drawing and mark making as well as Goze Saner and Scott Robinson’s interactive installation on an ongoing research project towards the creation of a DIY toolkit that centres around the aural and oral transmission of different versions of an exercise  – for want of better term – through acoustic technologies.

The conscious and strategic combination of art forms as training tools led to a recognition not only of the way other arts forms may deal with pedagogical problems, but also the emergence of new kinds of performers/artists that such trainings may render possible. It also raises questions about the role of the sensory modalities and hierarchies training pedagogies attempt to engage and pointed to a possible re-thinking of such hierarchies, in the light of the cultural, cognitive and embodied experience of individual students (as well as trainers).

It further allows performer trainers to think beyond their expertise and specialism and as Debi Wong remarked employ and ‘curate’ different aspects of their self, rather than remain within the limitations of a specific professional artistic identity.

Diversity

There was no way of escaping the strong connections between voice and notions of being heard and having the right to speak. Diversity emerged as a theme in various ways and was considered from a number of lenses. I have already mentioned Whitfield’s conscious decision to explore ways of training that are better suited to the needs of dyslexic students. In a performative presentation that framed the working group as a new cohort of actor-students that have English as a Second Language, Evi Stamatiou communicated the sense of inadequacy that foreign speakers might be experiencing. By utilising her Greek accent in order to create the persona of a native speaker of imaginary, but canonical. Chesire-cat English, Stamatiou raised questions about who is in fact this ideal speaker and how he/she/the cat exercises power. Carol Fairlamb took us through her own personal journey of becoming aware of traits of ‘dysconscious racism’ in her teaching and received pedagogy as well as the active steps she took towards developing an approach that utilises the heritage of BAME actors in voice and speech training.

Pauliina Hulkko and Tiina Syrja talked about the merits of training actors to work in a language they do not speak and shared a recent project where Hulkko and Syrja travelled with Finnish students to Udmurtia, a Russian Federation, in order to stage a play in Udmurt, an Ungro-Finn endangered language. Their point about the possibility of a foreign language to defamiliarise the actor from her own phonetic and vocal habits was aptly communicated by allowing the group to taste the vowels and consonants of the Udmurt language in a short sentence.  Withholding the meaning of the sentence until the very end of the exercise, also showed how sound and voice can set one free from – or indeed make one anxious about the loss of – meaning.

Breath

By being an inextricable physiological component of voicing, speaking, and generally staying alive, the training of breath offers immense possibilities not only towards the development of voice and speech, but also towards the actor’s relationship to text and character/dramatic situation. Dennis Lennon and Eric Hetzler in their respective ways looked at breath as a way of such training. Lennon brought attention to the position that breath holds within voice and speech training practices of acting and speaking Shakespeare and left us with the tantalising possibility that breath could become a catalyst towards apprehending rather than comprehending the Shakespearean text. Equally, Hetzler complemented a formal paper on the use of Alba Technique in theatre practice with instruction in two exercises that allowed the group to try out two of the breathing patterns.

Logocentrism and Au/Orality

By taking the work of Greek speech trainer Dimitris Vayas as a case in point, Konstantinos Thomaidis brought attention to the danger of treating voice in a logocentric manner, whereby the aim of training is to clear the voice of the cultural manifestations and biological imperfections of dialect, accent and tonality, in order to communicate text in a presumambly pristine way. Thomaidis, however, further problematized the way in which logo-centrism can be detected within a training practice and cautioned against a tendency to regard uncritically and at face value old-school approaches to voice training as logocentric. Complementing Thomaidis’s paper, Jane Boston offered an alternative to subjecting the voice to the service of idealist textual clarity by exploring the work of Alice Oswald, a poet who writes with the intention that her poems are read or recited aloud. Duly, Boston read and briefly cock-a-dooddle-dooed an extract from Oswald’s recent collection of poems.

Resistance to Training?

A resistance to training, a need and an urgency to re-think what training is and what it is for, underpinned a number of papers, but was most emphatically present in Mark Smith’s presentation on the work of Frantic Assembly. Smith reflected on the company’s founding members’ assertion that are ‘untrained’ as well as their conscious exclusion of vocal and speech training from their educational activities. Is it is because work with text could possibly alienate the teenage audience Frantic are trying to reach? Is it because, despite the interconnection of voice and movement, expertise is by definition a careful demarcation of a specific area of knowledge and needs to have identifiable boundaries? Is the exclusion of voice a manifestation of a historical moment during which, arguably, British theatre had enough with the word and concentrated on performance making through movement? And if this is the case, do we witness a new era, whereby word finds its place, as Marie Hay demonstrated, within movement practice?

Post-script: The Group is Open and Training is Ongoing

Delegates of all walks of lives, institutions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultural affiliations, disciplinary expertise, and religious practice are welcome. But a toddler? Two-year old Mercan patiently sat through presentations and discussions, experienced the intermittent dislocation of her mum and dad’s attention away from her and towards the conference, even put up with her occasional removal from the room, and looked at the group and its individual members with eyes wide open. What do they know about training? I would wager that Mercan goes through intensive training the whole day every day. Imagine that she turns eighteen and following her parents’ steps decides to study theatre. She begins to train, whereby discovers that all the training she has been doing all these years not only is left untapped, but in some cases is considered to be out rightly wrong. If anything from the presentations stays with her, Mercan could potentially reply to anyone that tries to ‘correct’ her that yes, she would not mind trying out new ways (of sitting, standing, talking, looking, thinking) but training is also about honouring what she so painstakingly acquired through daily practice for the most part of her life. That her training, past and present, to borrow a metaphor that Carol Fairlamb used, is her home.

 

 

 

The Sensational Facts

In 2014, I wrote an article in which I explored the role of vision in solo, unaccompanied, un-scored improvisational dance performance. The paper proposed and situated a mode of solo ‘direct looking’ that can be practised as a means of training for solo dances which are improvised in performance. This calibration of solo ‘direct looking’ as a pragmatic training tool for the generation of choreographic material was positioned and contextualised through analysis of the aesthetic and socio-cultural values of the global training/performance practice of Contact Improvisation as well as various articulations of ‘direct looking’ that have also developed in post-1960s Western solo/duet/ensemble dance training models (Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 5 (1). pp. 31-44).

This Comeback relates to one small part of my original article – the reflections I made on Contact Improvisation’s inward orientation, which is intricately entwined with the use of vision – and my current interest in approaching the form as a mode of actor training in which an embodied appreciation of the energetic dynamics of give and take and an ability to maintain an open awareness that does not depend on vision may be cultivated. I will briefly relate an experimental teaching session that I ran in February this year, in which year 2 students on our BA (Hons) in Drama were introduced to the pragmatics and socio-cultural valences of Contact Improvisation through a tripartite structure of lecture, practical session and reflective writing.

The session took place in what is traditionally a 3-hour ‘lecture’ slot, but I wanted to challenge this theory-oriented, lecture and discussion format by implementing a more fluid tripartite structure; one that would segue from lecture, to practical experimentation to reflective writing and in doing so embrace and embody different modes of learning and knowing. I wanted the students to appreciate the socio-political dimensions of the form so that they could grasp the link between the desire for social change and questioning of the ideological principles that ruled over social, political and artistic fields that was characteristic of 1970s (and 1960s) American society and the invention of a form of movement that adheres to philosophies of socio-sexual equality and challenges stereotypical behavioural norms. Contact Improvisation was thus introduced as carrying particular socio-political values; this understanding reinforced by showing a clip of a performance which the students were asked to analyse in terms of markers such as the informality of presentation style.

I also needed the students to experience the form from inside; to attune to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges that are at the heart of the doing of it. I wanted to see if the students could make experiential sense of what Steve Paxton meant when he said that contact improvisers should concentrate on ‘the sensational facts’ (Paxton quoted in Novack, 1990, p.82).[1] This statement – pointing to both pragmatic and ideological indices – was introduced in the lecture, and I was interested in then discovering whether any of the students would be able to consciously attune to their ‘sensational facts’ – to the feeling of the body as it gave and received weight, followed a point of contact, rolled, fell or found itself upside down. Once the session moved from lecture into practice, I therefore led the students through a warm-up which began by adopting the idea that the floor is a ‘partner’ so the students could initially work alone, concentrating on rolling, sliding and pushing movements before developing into slow falls into the floor and rolls back to standing. Students then transitioned to working with a partner, learning how to support and take weight, slide and fall through a series of simple structures. Further work on resisting or yielding to one’s partner was explored before the students were invited to improvise a longer duet, drawing on their understanding of the foundational principles of the physical laws of momentum and gravity that govern and generate their movement.

At this point in the session, I drew on Viola Spolin’s technique of ‘sidecoaching’, in which I called out ‘just that word, that phrase, or that sentence’ that would keep the students ‘on focus’ (Spolin, 1986, p.5). Phrases or questions were designed to encourage the students to attune to their ‘sensational facts’ as they improvised (also making an explicit connection between the lecture and practical component of the session). Questions such as ‘which parts of you feel soft or fluid, which hard or dense?’ and statements such as ‘notice your breathing pattern’, ‘sense your weight’ and ‘let your weight settle and accept support’, functioned as prompts for the students to consciously focus attention on the stirrings of somatic, bodily knowing. At times I asked the students to deliberately slow down as a radical shift in speed invites an even more heightened sensitivity to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges. Encouraging the students to move with this kind of conscious attention to the subtleties of what Sondra Fraleigh calls ‘our body-self’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.57) laid the foundations for the reflective writing that was to follow. The students were beginning to register the immediate moment of experience and were operating as active participants in the process.

I was aware of the challenge of the final reflective writing part of the experiment and curious about how the students might capture in words aspects of their experience of encountering Contact Improvisation for the first time. Fraleigh notes that ‘finding the direct and intuitive way to describe movement, affect, and our sensate proximity to others is at first daunting’ and the process of describing one’s immediate experience requires the student ‘to voice what is not initially discursive, but kinesthetic in nature’ (Fraleigh, 2015, p.21). In asking them to reflect on their experience and bring it to language, I encouraged them to write quickly and intuitively, ‘not listening to their internal critics’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.56). The period of reflection also included a more speculative piece of writing, in which the students were asked to note down some initial ideas on how they might transfer what they learnt in the session to their work as actors and directors on other modules. This was to enable me to gauge further whether, and how, this movement form might be appreciated as a mode of actor training. David Zinder notes that the form ‘is one of the best ways…for actors to keep up improvisation/creative skills’ and that the form ‘is a must for anyone interested in any aspect of the physical approach to theater’ (Zinder, 2002, p.95, original italics). The more recent Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being (Ewan and Green, 2015) outlines some of the ways in which Contact Improvisation fosters ‘freedom through movement’ and confidence for the drama student (Ewan and Green, 2015, p.24). The reflective writing component of my experiment would hopefully add the students’ own views on how Contact Improvisation might be able to be applied to their studies in acting and directing.

The tripartite structure is one I would like to pursue further, as there were clearly useful links between aspects of the lecture – including viewing and discussing footage – and the students’ own practical experiments. There was a palpable sense of play, experimentation and enjoyment in the practical work, with a few students choosing to work in quite a dynamic register in following momentum and falling. Given that these students had never encountered Contact Improvisation before, nor had they had any significant grounding in physical training or exposure to touch as a medium of learning, I was impressed by their openness and curiosity. Additionally, the writings have given me some useful insight into the students’ responses to their introductory encounter with this form and the ways in which they were able to begin to transition from bodily to linguistic knowing.

Sample student responses

Calm – a bodily calm rather than my mind, I felt I had to be quite focused mentally

Heavy – I was surprised at how much weight my body could give over to my partner

Relaxed, open, spacious, released

Flowing & fluid – when we came to improvise the duet, I was surprised and impressed by how much myself and my partner flowed into and around each other

I felt very relaxed. Yet physically challenged. Basically it felt like a good workout

From a directing standpoint, I find the idea of experimenting with CI during my rehearsals interesting. I would be intrigued to find out whether it would open up my actors’ physicality and make them more fluid (especially in their interactions with the other actors) as I suspect.

References

Ewan, Vanessa and Green, Debbie. (2015). Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000). ‘Consciousness Matters’. Dance Research Journal. 32 (1), pp. 54-62.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2015). ‘Why Consciousness Matters’. In: Fraleigh, Susan. (Ed.) Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Novack, Cynthia, J. (1990). Sharing The Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Spolin, Viola. (1986). Theater Games For the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Zinder, David. (2002). Body Voice Imagination: A Training For The Actor. Routledge: London and NY.

[1] Contact Improvisation is widely credited as having been ‘invented’ by Steve Paxton in 1972. As part of a residency at Oberlin College in Ohio, America, Paxton did a showing of some work he had been doing in a men’s class. The showing was called ‘Magnesium’ and explored how two bodies could negotiate the sharing of weight around an ongoing point of contact.

Report on Conference at the University of West London: “Making the Impossible Possible”: The Feldenkrais Method in Music, Dance, Movement and the Creative Practice

On 30 April 2016, Marcia Carr and I organised a conference at the University of West London entitled Making the Impossible Possible”: The Feldenkrais Method in Music, Dance, Movement and the Creative Practice. Speakers came from around the world: from North and South America, Australia, Europe as well as some homegrown talent. This in itself was testament to the spread of Feldenkrais’s thought, but what was most pleasing, and what in many ways represents a great continuity of Feldenkraisian thought, was the welcome unorthodoxy of the approaches on show. This I think shows something profoundly potent about Feldenkrais’s thought: it is intellectually malleable, durable and that it is a hinge towards the advancement of thought and practice for the mutual benefit of these arenas.

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Still Pursuing Pleasure

For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1).  It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice.  Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight.  We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome.  Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience.  It is useful to acknowledge that.

When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield.  Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.

The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.

The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive.  This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.

The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre.  The School offers a ten-week intensive training.  It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation.  We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum.  This means fees are as low as we can make them.  Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher.  I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.

As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.

A few thoughts:

1.  Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system.  Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’.  Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.

2.  Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure.  People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices.  Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria.  I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.

3.  The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes.  In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices.  We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to.  In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role.  This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis.  Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training.  Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable.  The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.

4.  Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’.  It ends up feeling twee and reductive.  The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying.  People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’  This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it.  I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’

5.  The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work.  We are not working, we are laughing and playing.  I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others.  This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality.  Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened.  It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.

6.  The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer.  I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important.  Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves.  If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn.  I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.

The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results.  The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’.  Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’.  It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment.  As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure.  I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again.  After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…

The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’.  That’s important.  Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy.  The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research.  The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…

In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure.  Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex.  The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity.  Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler.  The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be.  The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.

 

Variations on a theme: Active Analysis at the “S-Word” symposium

The following post was written by David Jackson but due to IT issues was posted by the current Comeback curator Bryan Brown.

I intended to blog about The S-Word: Stanislavski and the future of Acting symposium soon after the event was held at Rose Bruford College on 18-20 March. I’m shocked to see we are already well into May and I’m only just sitting down to do it. I blame a blizzard of assessments, timetabling problems, teaching commitments and research events at the beginning of the summer term. Clearly, it couldn’t possibly have been my fault. So before memory fades any further, I put fingers to keyboard. At a symposium where three sessions run simultaneously (two panels and one work demonstration) delegates construct their own programme by picking from the menu of papers and workshops. Naturally, we follow a thread according to our own obsessions. So one of the key themes of ‘my’ S-Word was Active Analysis. I was originally taught Active Analysis by the late Albert Filozov, the celebrated Theatre and Film actor who trained under Michael Kedrov at the Moscow Art Theatre School. Filozov led the ‘Russian School of Acting’ summer schools that took place in Birmingham in the mid-90s. If it resonates with you, there is something about Active Analysis that fills practitioners with a missionary zeal, and I certainly went on to make full use of it as a professional actor and subsequently as a teacher in the conservatoire. My first article for Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, published in 2:2 (2011), documents my experiments with the technique in training and rehearsal at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I frequently use it in my current job as an acting tutor at the Birmingham School of Acting (BSA). The symposium was a rare opportunity to gain an insight into how other scholars and practitioners use Active Analysis.

The S-Word attracted an extremely high calibre of scholars in the field. Arguably all the leading Stanislavski experts in the English-speaking world were present, including Sharon Marie Carnicke (University of Southern California), Rose Whyman (University of Birmingham), Jonathan Pitches (Leeds University), Bella Merlin (University of California, Riverside), Maria Shevtsova (Goldsmith’s University) and Sergei Tcherkassky (St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy). Delegates came from all over the world, including Australia, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Canada and the US, in addition to several European countries.

The programme for the first evening consisted of two keynote speeches, the first by Stefan Aquilina and Jonathan Pitches. Their topic was the transmission of Stanislavskian practice, not just to the obvious destinations of Russia itself, the US and Europe, but to additional territories in Australasia, Asia and Africa. They argued that practice is necessarily inflected by the individuals who engage with it and that this process is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Stanislavski ‘system’, since it is not and never was fixed or unitary. They concluded that it is a living thing that will continue to spread and develop in response to local conditions. The second address was delivered by Sharon Marie Carnicke, one of the most influential Stanislavski scholars in the world, a Russian speaker and expert in Active Analysis. She spoke eloquently of the importance of separating the principles of the system from the historical contingencies of the time. In her own practice, she has applied Active Analysis to situations undreamt of in Stanislavski’s era, including a motion-capture experiment designed to generate a digitised method of reading emotional expression and a performance of a post-dramatic text written by contemporary Russian playwright, Ivan Vyrypaev. 

The whole of Saturday and Sunday morning were devoted to a series of papers and practical demonstrations, with two panels and one demonstration running concurrently. The presentations I saw nearly always illuminated some area of the field in a stimulating and useful way. Stephane Poliakov’s paper was devoted to Stanislavski’s rich use of painting and drawing to generate the ‘obrazi’ or images that informed his set designs and ‘inner images’ of characterizations. Maria Kapsali and Sreenath Nair debated the strong influence of yoga on the development of the system. Two of the less obvious perspectives on Stanislavski dealt with the application of acting techniques in the classroom. Tamara Guenoun’s paper dealt with the use of drama therapy with troubled teenagers. Petronilla Whitfiled introduced new strategies for teaching verse-speaking to dyslexic students. My own paper proposed a novel way of understanding acted emotion, by linking the Stanislavski-Vakhtangov concept of ‘affective emotion’ with Antonio Damasio’s hypothesis of the ‘as-if’ body loop.

Active Analysis was addressed in both formal presentations and workshops. Jay Skelton’s work demonstration explored the integration of Active Analysis with Viewpoints. Knowing little or nothing about Viewpoints, I was curious to see how it might merge with a method that is one of my areas of expertise. Skelton’s session bore little resemblance to anything I would recognise as Active Analysis – which I hasten to add is simply an indication of how the same or similar practice can develop in completely different directions. John Gillett’s popular workshop posed the question, is Active Analysis relevant to Shakespeare? Although I couldn’t attend Gillett’s session, I was intrigued by his research question, as I regularly use Active Analysis in the rehearsal of classical text. The final plenary session was introduced by a documentary made at the University of California, Riverside, about Bella Merlin’s use of Active Analysis. After the screening, an informal conversation with Sharon Marie Carnicke made it clear that her use of Active Analysis was different from all of these models. So my closing reflections were dominated by the thought that an apparently simple technique in the hands of a relatively small cross-section of practitioners can generate very diverse practices and performance outcomes. This observation corresponded with some of the themes that emerged during the weekend. Throughout the symposium, three ‘witnesses’ were stationed in each of the three conference spaces and reported back to delegates at the plenary event. The principal issues they identified were:

  • The transmission of practice and its assimilation into a wide range of cultures
  • Separating the durable principles of acting from ephemeral theatre fashion
  • An appreciation of flexibility and diversity rather than a dogmatic view of the Stanislavskian tradition
  • Cognitive perspectives are often interesting, but how will they affect practice?

The system is now well over one hundred years old. If Stanislavskian practice is to continue to survive and develop into the 21st century, it is essential that it is subjected to a continual process of review and renewal, at conferences, in the studio and through the literature. As I post, two new S-Word events have just been announced: “Translating the Art/The Art of Translation” will be held in June in London and a Spring 2017 Conference will be held at DAMU Theatre Academy in Prague. It’s too soon to tell but as the “S Word: Merging Methodologies” Conference grew out of the conversations had at this future of acting symposium, it may just be the future event needed to specifically address variations on the theme of Active Analysis – there’s plenty more debate to be had on that topic.

David Jackson, 26.05.15