Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn.
Alan Bennet, The History Boys (2004)
Sarah Davey-Hull (1965-2022) was luminous. When she entered a room, you knew ‘it’ was going to be alright. At the celebration of her life, a huge red balloon was passed between the 200+ guests; floating, bouncing, flying, teasing, playing, challenging. We kept the game alive together.
Sarah’s thirty+ year career as a teacher/director transformed the lives of countless actors, actor trainers and directors. Continuing in the tradition of familial apostology in acting, her knowledge was passed between those who were fortunate to have been taught and/or directed by her: starting at Kensington and Chelsea College in 1995, then at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) on the MA in Actor Training and Coaching and the MA Acting (2005 – 2020) and with her companies Bold and Saucy (1996-2019) and BOLD (2020-). Her teaching has and continues to produce ripples of affect, passed on by the creatives whose practice she has influenced now scattered around the globe, many with leading positions in the field. However, like many practitioners, she never documented her practice and so we, her students, friends and colleagues, have come together to try to document it – to pass it on; a legacy project to celebrate her teaching. In the spirit of collective endeavour and reflecting the fragmented, multi-faceted and layered experience of teaching and learning, we share a pedagogy patchwork of signature exercises, life-changing feedback and observed qualities.
The are some core ingredients which make a standout and memorable teacher: the ability to be inventive, imaginative, and inspirational; to know when to challenge and push students that little bit further, when to nurture and when to balance praise with honest feedback; to be a generous communicator; someone who also learns from their students and continues to challenge and develop themselves; to be student centered, to listen, to give support and guidance but also to be boundaried. Sarah possessed all of these qualities. But there was one particular aspect of her work which made her especially impactful – her focus on collaboration. This was woven into everything she did as a teacher, trainer and director. It is evident in her expertise in the classroom, in the many shows she directed at Central and at her company BOLD where she continued to offer opportunities for her alumni to grow as professionals, making space for them to rehearse, refine their skills and create new and exciting work.
This is an invitation to come together to pass on and archive the work of Sarah Davey-Hull who passed away in June.
Sarah was a teacher, trainer and director. She had a real passion for theatre and over many years developed her own approach creating innovative, sometimes flamboyant, experimental and always exciting work.
As a teacher she inspired many who attended her classes with her own company BOLD, during her 15 years of teaching actors and actor- trainers at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and as a freelancer all over the world.
Her teaching was infused with her own playful spark, an incredible eye for detail and desire to always bring out the best in those she worked with.
Whilst Sarah’s teaching has influenced many it was never documented. This wonderful creative has left us with a body of work which we would like to archive and pass on to other practitioners, actors and teachers. We will gather and curate examples of Sarah’s teaching to share on the Critical Pedagogy Theatre Dance and Performance Training open access blog strand during the months of September and October http://theatredanceperformancetraining.org/category/critical-pedagogy/
To share your experience of working with Sarah you can submit any of the following:
Reflection of her teaching.
Exchanges in the rehearsal room.
Any wise words given as feedback.
The post should be no more than 800 words. It may be useful to follow these guidelines:
Time and place and project/class.
Purpose of the exercise.
Why it was important to you.
Submit to: Lisa Peck at firstname.lastname@example.org who will curate and upload twice a month. Title the email: Sarah Davey-Hull – passing it on. We hope that this sharing might result in a small publication mapping Sarah’s extraordinary ability as a teacher and her contribution to acting pedagogy.
(course leader, MA Acting for Screen, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama)
As our classrooms and studios still recover from social upheavals and the pandemic, and the economic crisis in our sector makes us feel more vulnerable than ever, the 20th of May event at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (co-organised by TaPRA, the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich) felt like a breath of fresh air. The resurgence of the #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movements and the social inequalities that were further highlighted during the pandemic invite actor trainers and scholars to consider how their pedagogies play with and against intersectionality or social equality, diversity and inclusivity. A critical attitude is crucial for tutors working across universities and conservatoires, but also an extra challenge after the shift to online teaching during the pandemic has left everyone exhausted. In this context, the Performer Training event on Critical Pedagogy invited us to ‘hold the space’ for one another, by which I mean to be physically, mentally and emotionally present for colleagues.
The introductory panel drew parallels between the fields of critical pedagogy, language as power and performer training. Rebecca Webb (Senior Lecturer in Education in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex) addressed the negative connotations of the words ‘critical’ and ‘pedagogy’. She invited us to ‘embrace uncertainty’ within our teaching and consider critical pedagogy as ‘not passing down a pre-existing body of knowledge’ but as ‘engaged pedagogy’, which challenges incontestable knowledge, and as ‘fluid’ pedagogies that invite the exploration of ‘knowledges, experiences, identities, politics and values in the teaching’ as relational rather than fixed. Charlotte Taylor (Senior Lecturer in English Language & Linguistics at the University of Sussex) invited us to consider language in pedagogy, particularly how ‘linguistic choices frame thinking and interactions’. Because not every linguistic ‘choice is conscious or deliberate’, a critical approach is necessary to avoid reproducing marginalising and patronising patterns. As the tensions between theory and practice dissolve, Lisa Peck (Senior Lecturer in Theatre Practice at the University of Sussex) invited us to place the ‘actor at the centre of the curriculum’ and asked us to investigate ‘how we teach personal and social knowledge beside technique’ and how love operates as a material within our pedagogies. The panel’s focus on critical pedagogy, and the language associated with it, as a praxis of love inspired insightful group discussions.
The group discussions facilitated a sharing of how participants understand critical pedagogies; the problems they identify in their teaching that can be addressed with critical pedagogies; the role of language in training exchanges; and the importance of acknowledging the emotional responses in the training space. As illustrated in the below image from the produced documentation, the words/themes that stood out involved: love, courage, failure, enabling, shame, defensiveness, orientation, boundaries of love, non-linearity, positionality, vulnerability, holes and frameworks.
The highlight of the day was Niamh Dowling’s (Rose Bruford /incoming Principal at RADA) workshop exploring the language of Systemic Constellations and its intersection with Alexander Technique. Dowling’s generous facilitation allowed the embodied exploration of how critical elements can be investigated in the performer training studio. A set of movement-visualisation exercises invited each participant to observe how their body and the bodies of their peers responded to specific words and images, and how feelings emerged after the bodily fatigue climaxed. The reflective discussion that followed revealed that, perhaps, the workshop’s function as a critical pedagogy peaked in a particular moment: when the participants were asked to stay still with their eyes closed and focus on the artists/teachers that influence their work, taking a step back every time their thoughts travelled to a previous generation. A participant who had not stepped back responded that past generations of artists/teachers did not represent her. I had stepped forward instead because I am primarily inspired by the artists/teachers of the future that I currently teach. Dowling modelled the humility, and courage required to hold a critical space as she facilitated the provocative group reflection.
The day closed with a shift in focus to social justice work and art-making with a talk and open rehearsal for Quarantine’s Brighton Festival show Twelve Last Songs. The durational performance is about the jobs we do; how our labour defines us. As with most of Quarantine’s work the majority of the performers are not ‘trained’, and as we watched the technical rehearsal of a dog groomer from Brighton, it made me wonder how a performer trainer would adapt their approach in a performance like that. Our work primarily involves holding the space for student artists to develop their skills: not only artistic skills but also social skills, for which we need to consider holding critical spaces for our students. Because the task feels hard, especially towards the end of the academic year, days like the one organised by Lisa Peck and the Performer Training Focus Group at TaPRA that invite us to hold the space for one another are invaluable.
A positive thing that the pandemic taught us is that supportive communities can also thrive in virtual spaces. We can keep holding the space for one another through the new strand of the Performer Training blog that is dedicated to Critical Pedagogies and Performer Training. Blog entries (500-2000 words) might identify particular teaching and learning challenges and then offer: a description of an exercise/s that invites a critical engagement; an account of a challenging teaching moment and a successful approach; a lightbulb moment – unexpected discoveries or pivotal moments of performer trainers’ engagement with critical pedagogies. The event welcomed the coming together of a community of practice in performance training pedagogy. Let’s keep holding the space for one another.
bell hooks said, ‘Talking about pedagogy, thinking about it critically, is not something most folks think is hip and cool.’ (1994, 204)
Thankfully hooks was not of this mindset and her engaged pedagogy reveals the complex passing between and production of power and love in the teaching and learning exchange. Like hooks, I am compelled by the alchemy of pedagogy – the dance between teacher and student which unites theory, practice and praxis. Too often pedagogy is implicit in scholarship. What if the extraordinary beauty and complexity of pedagogic training practices became a field of research in its own right? What if at the heart of this was trying to support each other in practicing freedoms within our teaching? At a time when certain pedagogic practices have been called to account it seems vital that we join together to build a community of practice, that repositions and re-thinks what training is.
It’s time to talk about pedagogy – to dive deep into the processes of teaching and learning – What are we teaching? How are we doing it? And why?
The December 2021 edition of TDPT (12:4) reflects a movement towards working with educational research methodologies to interrogate our pedagogies – McNamara’s work with Bloom’s taxonomy (528-540), Aujla’s action research (482-499) and Mircev’s critical pedagogy (540-554). Harnessing this momentum, I propose we make space to think about our work as embodied critical pedagogy or liberatory pedagogy or post-critical pedagogy (more on this later). We know that what we offer students goes far beyond technique. That, at its best, it can open up questions about how to be, how to see, how to feel; to nurture what Anne Bogart describes as ‘civic responsibilities’ through the practice of art (2021). It is a great privilege to share in this deep discovery yet, at the same time, a great responsibility that has become increasingly complex – an entangling that can feel like treading on eggshells, can steal energy and sap joy.
I’d like to talk about pedagogy and mine the potential of embodied knowledge intersecting with educational practice. I’m sure, like me, you have many questions. Let’s work together to find some answers or to ask better questions.
On Freedom and Pedagogy:
Here’s a biggie to start with:
At this cultural moment what does freedom mean in relation to training practices?
In Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint she problematises the word ‘freedom’ whose meaning is not universal or self-evident, citing Foucault’s call for ‘practices of freedom’ as the ongoing work needed to agitate against the mechanisms of Advanced Capitalism (2021,6). The current outcry against systems of oppression and acts of abuse in actor training institutions demands a radical revisioning of what training is, who it is for and how it happens; it is time to look for different ways to navigate, different architectures and different materials. Paulo Freire noted that ‘Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.’ i.e. not by the teacher gifting the student knowledge but by the student taking control of their process of learning (2000,29). Whilst I recognise that you can’t give someone freedom, set someone free, I am driven by the idea that teaching performance practices might enact practices of freedom.
When I use the term critical pedagogy I am drawing on the work developed by Paulo Freire, first in Brazil with oppressed communities, which paved the way for teaching approaches that foreground marginalised groups, including, but not limited to, feminist, queer and race pedagogies. A liberatory pedagogy allows us to critique oppressive power structures in order to activate alternative ways of being. Recognising that any overview can be reductive, certain tenets can be seen to characterise this learning exchange:
Students critique the mechanisms of power at work in language, behaviour and representation to understand how oppressive marginal positions are constructed and to re-imagine the status quo
The negative view of ‘the other’ is challenged to seek empowerment where there is difference
How you teach something is as important as what you teach
There is the aim to flatten power structures
There is a commitment to develop the individual’s political, personal and social awareness
To recognise the complexities of problems as opposed to seeking conclusions
To take notions of difference and particularity as productive sites for resistance
When we shift our focus away from ideas of technique in training and focus on the ‘hidden curriculum’, the personal and social knowledges, or dispositional qualities produced beside technique the developmental learning exchange of performer training can be re-considered as critical pedagogy.
Looking beyond methodologies, pedagogic research offers us ways to re-examine the effect of our co-constitutive praxis. Over the last decade my research has mapped an alternative female genealogy of training, looking at the work of women practitioners through the lens of feminist pedagogies. I want to address the lack of alternatives to the dominant white male lineages in the canon; the lack of visibility of women’s practices; the historical absence of focussed research into pedagogy. My book Act As A Feminist: Towards a Critical Acting Pedagogy interrogates the matter of training, with chapters on women working in voice, movement, acting and directing (2021). My focus is the politicising potential of training, working from Eve Sedgwick’s alternative ‘beside thinking’ (2003,8) to consider the personal and social knowledges of acting learnt beside technique. What, for instance, happens when we consider gender as technique?
Returning to a central idea in critical pedagogy, that how you teach is more important than what you teach, certain tenets of feminist thinking, observed through the pedagogies of women practitioners, shape some alternative architectures which enable practicing freedom in training. For example, working with feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s affirmative position to harness the potential of the ‘positivity of difference’ and ‘vital materialism’ can be seen as a practice of freedom (2011,161). Translating this into what I term the via positiva, an alternative position to learning through play and failure, based on love and support, takes Braidotti’s theory into pedagogic practice. Another possibility is to work with feminist physicist Karen Barad’s concept of ‘agential realism’ (2003,814). This offers a powerful alternative to the fetters of mimesis and representation that have troubled feminist thinking. Guiding students to recognise diffraction as a liberating alternative to reflection, where every interpretive action offers us choice in how to represent multiplicity and changeability, challenges hierarchical thinking and reveals our biases. In the studio or rehearsal room this can explode the possibilities when working with narrative, character and text. These are just a couple of alternative positions that can give momentum to practicing freedom in our pedagogies.
The work of the women practitioners I have had the privilege to observe has opened up exciting possibilities for alternative training curriculums and ways of teaching. What if we did things differently? What if, instead of teaching the same canon the students explored Kristine Landon Smith’s ‘intracultural actor’ or Niamh Dowling’s ‘nomadic actor’ or the late Ali Hodge’s ‘relational actor’ (Peck, 2021). What if movement, voice and acting were taught beside each other to synthesize the knowledges of acting, investigating what ‘readiness’ means for example in each of these domains? I’m excited to be part of a new era in training, with possibilities and opportunities to develop new ways of thinking through our pedagogies as practices of freedom.
In the Comeback section of the Blog, a group of practitioner/scholars responded to the Special Issue (TDPT 11.3) titled: Against the Canon. The editors thought through how studio practice could work with the edition as a stimulus. One statement stood out to me:
Don’t just decolonise the curriculum, decolonise the pedagogy.
We need to make space to talk about how to do this.
Let’s play 20 questions. I’d like to find ways to work through these with others:
(Big umbrella question)
What works? What doesn’t?
What research methods can we use to analyse and evaluate our pedagogies?
How does research in education intersect with training pedagogies?
How do we understand the term critical pedagogy in relation to training?
How can we capture and write about the teaching and learning exchange?
How do we foreground the politics of identity in our work?
How can assessment be decolonised?
What do we mean by a safe space and what do we do to try to create and maintain it?
How do we manage the power dynamic in teacher student relationships?
How is pedagogy about love?
What are the types of language that we use in the teaching/learning exchange?
How has the language we use changed and how might it continue to change?
How can working with time and space affect the learning exchange?
How do we work consciously with choice in the learning exchange?
How do we perform teaching? How does teaching perform us?
What is feedback?
How can peer learning be effective?
What are examples of assignments?
What are learning intentions and how can we make them useful?
Who are the teachers on whose shoulders we stand?
And that’s just for starters. I’m calling on all those who want to talk about pedagogy, who want to build a community of practice that grapples with difficult questions about teaching and learning to gather in. To start with, let me know what questions seem most urgent, intriguing or troubling; what questions I’ve missed. Come and join the TaPRA Performance Training event at the University of Sussex on May 20th, where we will be thinking through how we work with structures of choice in our training practices to enable critical embodied pedagogy. You can view details of this event on the TaPRA website:
Tickets are free to TaPRA members, but numbers are limited. Non-Members of TaPRA will have to obtain membership to attend (£18 standard rate, £10 concessions for postgraduates and non-affiliated researchers). Please book via Eventbrite at: