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

 

 

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?

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

 

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

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.

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

Contact Improvisation and actor training

 

My article “Contact Improvisation to Scene Study: Authenticity in Word and Deed” (2012) explored the use of C.I. (contact improvisation) in actor training. The following one minute video shows an example of a CI session between actors Jacob Dresch and Claire Edmunds during a training session concentrating on the use of counter balance.

Drawing on mime, modern dance and dance/theater explorations and expanding through 30 years of studio work with actors, this use of C.I. in actor training releases the physical/emotional honesty of actors. This is a training of energy and weight exchange in which the ultimate goal is kinetic and intimate responsiveness to a partner. The playful, dynamic and exhilarating shifts of counter-balance that characterize this work are reached through the practice of contact improvisation. Basic tumbling, energy exchange exercises and partnering dance lifts are its fundamental building blocks. Text may also be used in a contact session and this allows the spontaneous physical language of the actors’ bodies to parallel the spoken dialogue. Without consciously imposing objectives actors inter-relate spontaneously, dynamically and elegantly; and the outcome is an imprinted ability to deliver emotional and physical honesty in a scene. Counter-balance Theater (my physical theater company) uses this technique to train performers within the company, in classes at UCI, and in workshops for the wider public. The physical techniques in leveraging, complicit interchange and trajectory of motion, are used to create the imagery scored in the Counter-Balance scripts.

 

 

‘Crisis’ Revisited: Re-entering Dark Voices in Revolt

In 2013, an article that I wrote called Dark Voices in Revolt was published in the TDPT Journal (vol. 4(3), 2013, 360-380). The article discussed the application of existing Oriental and Occidental voice and movement methods (the term Physio-Vocal, to me, captures the exact essence of voice/movement integration practice and theory) in order to ‘discover’ an alternate to the multifaceted area of the voice in performance pertaining to the notion of ‘crisis’. Simply put, ‘crisis’ may be defined as an emotionally significant event (which possibly has negative connotations attached to it), an unstable situation, and so on. Throughout our investigations, training, performance practice and research, we came to the conclusion our work was categorised into three forms of ‘crisis’: physical crisis, conceptual crisis and vocal crisis.

Physical crisis is a situation where the body is engaged in a challenging position, for example, it may be off balance in a moving or static state, moving dynamically through the space or placed in a position where the abdominal muscles are engaged to keep the body upright or in a stable position. Through these physical states, the performer must engage in various voice work. Conceptual crisis is a term (and practice) that is largely influenced by  the philosophies and practice of Butoh dance, for example, exploring the illogical, absurd with the underpinning notion of ‘revolting’ against the convention. Of course, Butoh means one thing to one practitioner, and another thing to the other. It is not a method, which makes it quite difficult to pin down. Vocal crisis is a term given to when the use and semantics of the voice is extended, amplified, enlarged beyond recognition to depict the primordial, preverbal and representational significance of the inner contained energies expressed through sound.

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Comfort: The first step towards an intercultural and bespoke training regime

In my article ‘Dance training in Bali: intercultural and globalised encounters’ [5 ( 3), pp. 291-303] I discussed the changing approaches to the traditional world of Balinese topeng, which refers to the masked, dance –drama of Bali that is performed within a ceremonial context. (My short film gives a degree of context to the genre).

In contrast to a purely ethnographic documentation of this training which the article fully details, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond and ‘come back’ with a more personal and embodied perspective which centers on the challenges, obstacles and difficulties that I have faced in learning topeng and how I have overcome them by devising a more bespoke training suitable to my body, cultural understanding and abilities.

Whilst I can technically ‘do it’ however much I can theoretically understand and appreciate the qualities of energy in the dance, as articulated by the Balinese, as a non-Balinese person I am unlikely to realise the potential of full embodiment and achieve something akin to taksu, the divine charisma that artists aspire to.

On a less culturally ambitious level I am unlikely to achieve great success as I am following a training regime designed for a younger, nubile, pre-teen boy body which is somewhat difficult to follow.

The challenge is to configure an appropriate training that can re-situate a specific performance technique within a wider intercultural analysis. This integrated training may enable a richer, deeper, more comfortable approach to dancing the traditional choreography of topeng. By seeking comfort in the gesture, being ‘in dialogue’ with the choreography means I can actively visualise the (dis)comfort, stop –pause- change and reassess as necessary. In this discussion of comfort, there is a paradox because Balinese dance is by nature difficult and virtuosity is the aim. Therefore comfort is never to be replaced or confused by making the gesture ‘easy’, however easefulness can be sought so that the dance ceases to be painful. Seeking comfort during training may compromise one’s gestural or expressive potential in performance, but it does promote actual enjoyment of the choreography, which in turn expels delight in the dance. I therefore experience on occasion what Fraleigh calls ‘intrinsic dance’ which she describes as a state of ‘pleasure we feel in our bodies when we are in our own flow of being, moving for the dance and not to please others’ (Fraleigh 2000: 58).  Enjoyment and delight, is indicative and closer to the higher qualities of ceremonial performance as described by the various Balinese levels of attainment (Ruben and Sedana 2007: 125-126).

This one, simple change in perspective has developed into a far more process driven approach to my topeng training which is based on somatics; and beyond the scope of what I have space to write here. All I can say is that this has enabled a shift from the Balinese pre-occupation with the spirit of the mask with a renewed interest into the potential ‘life force’ of my body.

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

Rubin, Leon and Sedana, I Nyoman. (2007) Performance in Bali. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.