Teaching with the special issue: ‘Against the Canon’

A collaborative document, with contributions from: Mark Evans, Cass Fleming, Rebecca Loukes, Sara Reed and Amy Russell.

This piece of writing aims to offer reflection and provocation on the ways that the TDPT Special Issue ‘Against the Canon’ might be used as part of teaching and learning activities within theatre, dance and performance courses and training programmes. We write this as academics and artists, aware of our position as white and privileged – and we invite critique, challenge and debate.

For work ‘against the canon’ to have continuing impact, it needs to reach out beyond the page of academic journals and start to affect the ways in which pedagogy operates and the ways in which teachers and students engage with canonical forms of training and canonical content. Editing the special issue has brought to the fore for us so many questions about deep assumptions underpinning much practice in Universities and conservatoires. The changes being wrought by #MeToo and by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign also offer profound challenges to the ways in which training for performance is structured, taught, assessed and perceived. The suggestions and provocations outlined below are offered only as a number of possible starting points and are in no way definitive – they should themselves be open to challenge and critique. We suggest that those interested in this work should approach it collaboratively, as befits the subject matter, working in partnership with students, colleagues, industry partners and interested communities.

We post this in the midst of a global pandemic, which will hit hardest those who are traditionally marginalised. We acknowledge that in the context of this unprecedented situation, the start of a new academic year is difficult timing for people to engage with this blog, so we invite continuing debate and discussion when time and work allows.

Before beginning…

Consider your own identity, where does it sit in the hierarchies of inclusion/exclusion, and the systems of power, privilege and ownership in the wider world, the cultural and arts sector and educational organisations – and perhaps self-assess and take a moment to dialogue with yourself (Daron Oram) – can you foreground and celebrate aspects of your identity (Kristine Landon-Smith), can you identify gaps in your knowledge about the lives and cultures of others (Kaja Dunn et al.), can you invite yourself to be curious and provocative?

Make an honest inventory of your objectives and motives on the one hand, and your hesitations, fears, and resistances if you experience any. For example, are you afraid of getting it wrong, or of letting something go that is important to you? Imagine having a conversation with one of your ancestors about this project of working against the canon. Are they for or against it? In what ways do you agree or disagree? Can you be curious about your own resistance if you experience any? Can you feel the excitement of change and enthusiasm at being part of it? If there is ambivalence or fear, how can you work with it?

Assess your own practices and the methodologies you draw on for your practice, teaching, scholarship and/or research.  What are the implicit assumptions in those methods and whom do they exclude or marginalise?  Do you feel empowered or disempowered by the methods you employ – why is this so? What techniques, terms and language do you use that require an element of transformation or critique – neutral, natural, trust, ideal, truth, authentic, cultural assumptions about ‘naturalistic’ acting, for example – and how might you adapt and/or critically situate them in your practice?  Do you have aspects of your own cultural heritage and/or identity (in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, age, disability) that may be marginalised in theatre, dance and performance training – and can these be brought to the fore, celebrated and shared?

Consider the context within which your course(s) takes place: the diversity of those teaching and studying in terms of race, age, gender, sexuality, class and disability. How does this composition reflect the diversity of the wider community? Does it reflect the wider societal need to recognise the achievements of those who have been marginalised, oppressed or ignored in the past? It is important and valuable to name the issues that are in the room – they are not things that anyone should be afraid of dealing with. The starting point however has to be acknowledging that they are there.  In order to challenge white, heterosexual, non-disabled male privilege, consider the importance of pushing against the canon even if your students happen to be all white/male/straight! 

Do you share any of your students’ fears? If you share some of their concerns and fears, can this compassion provide insight into how to address what students may not be willing to reveal about themselves unless they feel safe?

Take critical note of the texts, workshops and performances that are recommended for reading or identified as essential for students to read to complete your module or course. Make sure that authorship is diverse – that may mean extra work to identify scholarship that is less well known. Can all your students see themselves in enough of the documents that they read, the plays they study or perform, and the performances that they watch? Is disability arts and performance included in your curriculum? Where diverse examples are not available ensure that teachers and students recognise that omission (and at times exclusion) and critique the reasons for it. Where canonical works are used, ensure that they are critiqued through study and through practice. How much do we rely on the legacy of the written word?  Whose words remain and for whom do they speak? Remember the value of oral histories – where books and articles don’t exist for contemporary practice, there will be people’s memories and experiences. If you access these, how might they be shared in order to encourage others?

Don’t just decolonise the curriculum, decolonise the pedagogy.

Using the journal in the classroom:

As provocation – how does each contribution represent a provocation to question and challenge existing canons? What is the nature of each provocation? Is the form of each piece significant – why might a postcard, a conversation, diagram or a manifesto be provocative as a contribution to an academic journal? What is the purpose of provocation?

Look at the postcard pieces. Who would you ask to write a postcard and why? How might you curate such postcards? How can an image and a short piece of text work together – one counterpointing the other, one illustrating the other? Can an image work on its own? How might a series of postcards work – as a linear narrative, as a constellation of related ideas?

Create a board game that represents the ways in which privilege operates within the performing arts (historically and/or in the present) – a snakes and ladders or monopoly of opportunities and rejections. Could your students then create an alternative model or structure?

As model – Consider canonical practice not directly addressed in this special issue (Stanislavsky, Duncan, Graham, Brecht, Meyerhold, Cunningham, Brook, Grotowski, somatics etc.) – how might students use the journal contributions to construct challenges to such practice? What would they focus on? What models might they use – postcards and conversations are used in the special issue, are there other models (interviews, hot seating, letters/emails, cartoons, graffiti, vlogs, etc.)? Use images as the starting point for a critique of who is seen doing what – how is power preserved through images? Construct images that challenge this.

As dialogue – take an issue raised in ‘Against the Canon’ through one or more of the contributions, ask the students to formulate questions related to the issue and construct a formal debate around it. Ask students to construct arguments for and against, drawing on evidence they can find. Debate highlights difference and enables a multiplicity of viewpoints; various positions can be set up and defended – no position is established as definitive although it often creates a strong motivation for determining and arguing for what is ‘right’. In Russell et al. different views are expressed on whether there is such a thing as essential femininity and essential masculinity. The neutral mask used in Lecoq teaching is often gender binary. Your students could discuss this essentialism or debate it.  If you can obtain even one neutral mask, you might consider using it “against the canon” as a way of eliciting conversation and awareness of gender performance. If this provokes a parodied use of the mask, refining the performance might raise interesting questions about gender fluidity and might serve to destabilize the reification of gender identities.

Photo: Gender carnival at Embodied Poetics, © Amy Russell.

Encourage students to dialogue with practising artists – who should they contact (whose work is typically marginalised or under-recognised)? What contact might they have with them – perhaps via postcards they construct around themes, issues, questions? Would the artists be willing to construct postcards for the students? Ask students to construct dialogues between canonical figures and those who were marginalised within their practice – Brecht and his female collaborators, Stanislavski and his female students, Brook and theatre-makers from India and Africa – what would they say to each other? Where would they disagree and where might they agree? Consider ways in which conversations can be sexualised encounters – how might you queer a conversation? Use dialogue to question how and why terms such as energy, presence and character can become gendered and/or sexualised.

When using debate, discussion and role-playing consider how to create an open and supported space for students (for example, you can acknowledge that those who are asked to take an unpopular role or defend an unpopular position are doing something valuable for the overall debate). Ask students to play a role they don’t agree with, but are willing to give that role their best effort. If the dialogue or debate seems to veer at some point to students ‘calling each other out’, can you help to instil a culture of ‘calling in’ – where relationships are built rather than sacrificed, helping people to find their compassion for each other? This should not be about allowing people to hold on to prejudiced views, but about creating and sustaining a level of empathy with others that enables change to happen. With colleagues and students discuss how best to deal with problematic attitudes and difficult incidents (your institution may – or in some cases sadly may not – have useful guidance).

Challenge the sanctity of the clean document – take canonical text(s) and allow students to annotate and comment on them, encourage them to use images and illustrations to counterpoint text, making the unseen or unacknowledged visible.

How might a student construct a dialogue with themselves regarding their practice (Daron Oram) – what would they want to address in doing so? How could they record/document or share such a dialogue, and what would be the benefit of doing so?

Also consider this unique historical moment when institutions are moving from live teaching to online learning at lightning speed.  What structures of power, inequality and accessibility need to be considered? In what ways might the shift to online pedagogies offer new opportunities in themselves to democratize or radically question existing methods?

Using the journal with online learning:

The web resources available are not neutral, and search engine algorithms prioritise what is established and popular. Task students with searching around key words, figures, training regimes and topics and ask them to review what comes up, what doesn’t and how difficult or easy it is to find alternatives. They might take one of the articles from the special issue and examine what results internet searches produce for different key people, practices and approaches within the article – how easy is it to find out about marginalised practitioners and practices? What does this tell students about internet resources and about the marginalisation of artists?

Task students with reviewing well-established online resources: Getty Images, Digital Theatre, Drama Online, Routledge Performance Archive, National Theatre’s online video resources and NTLive (UK), Frantic Assembly Digital (UK), Independent Dance (UK), National Resource Centre for Dance (UK), Candoco (UK) and the performance work made available through live stream during the Covid-19 lockdown period. How are key practitioners and practices profiled? Who presents the work – what gender, class or ethnicity/race are they? Is ownership and collaboration examined in any detail? How are women and global majorities profiled within the work? Where is good practice and how easy is it to find?

How might students create their own online resource for training? What materials and resources would they pull together? How would they operate together to realise collaboration as a way of working? What training exercises might they design and how might they present and share them?

Using the journal in the studio:

How might a student or group of students construct a series of postcards to represent their practice? How might image and text in this format work together? Who would the postcards be for – who would they be designed to be sent to (either living or dead)?

Use one of the contributions to provoke changes in how the students learn or how teachers teach. Make one issue a focus for a lesson and consider how teacher and student might reflect on a session (or sessions) in the light of these issues. Points of focus might include: the experience of disabled students, the experience of students from global majority backgrounds, the experience of privileged students, the experience of working-class students, the experience of older students, the experience of female students, the experience of transgendered students, the expectations teachers have of students, the possibility of meaningful failure. What assumptions are made within studio work: around acceptable forms of behaviour, around the limits and assumptions of touch and the direction of gaze, around the use of language, accent, body language, gesture and dialect? Who feels that they are allowed to ‘be themselves’ within the studio space – and what does that mean? What assumptions about wealth and privilege underpin most of our training intuitions and how do we make space for working class realities (Cornford).

How can students dialogue about their practice – talking to themselves (Oram), talking with others (Russell, Dunn), creating fictional dialogue (Cornford)? How about tasking students to construct a proposal for a blog entry for the TDPT blog – what would they write about? It could be a response to one of the articles in the special issue, or a proposal for a new contribution? What skills would they learn in doing this? Then encourage the students to post their blog on TDPT – their voices need to be heard!

Journal issues only ever include an edited selection of contributions. Ask students to consider what other issues might have been good to include in this special issue and how they might have tackled such issues. What might be hard about writing such pieces and why – where might obstacles, resistances or difficulties come from and how be overcome?

How might students create new representations of historical practice that deconstructs and challenges the narrative of the genius, the white male guru?

How might some of the content of the special issue work as provocations in relation to students practice? Who is their work for – who is able to engage with it? What do they want to say in their work? What training conventions are they taking for granted? Who takes responsibility for what within their group work – how is work apportioned, who leads, what voices are heard (or not)? What are the politics and ethics of these structures and relationships?

How might the practices of Bing, Boal, Brecht, Candoco, Gindler, Graeae, Henricks, Landon-Smith, Newson, Phoenix Dance, Talawa, Tamasha, WAC or others create models within which canonical practice and performance might be challenged, interrupted, disrupted, deconstructed, commented on and reveal those that the practice has historically marginalised or ignored? How do the practices themselves resist or activate resistance in the participants? What examples of such practices are available for students?

What does touch mean post #MeToo and the killing of George Floyd? Who owns space, how do we negotiate touch, what might touching signify, what can we learn from/through touch? Where are our embodied borders and what do they mean now for us and for others? How do assumptions around touch, weight and space play in to assumptions around gender, sexuality, disability and race/ethnicity?

The Language of the studio/practical class – discuss with students the impact of words and how choice of words can subtly delineated who is or isn’t included. What is implied by references to ‘guys and girls’ or ‘OK guys’? What is the effect of mispronouncing someone’s name?  Work with students to be alert to assumptions within language about gender, class, disability and race/ethnicity. When asking students to write about practice, discuss with them the relevance of using alternative pronouns – he/she, s/he, they, she. Consider with all your students how being within the LGBTQI+ community may involve having very different impulses to those recognised by dominant heterosexist cultures and how this may/could/should impact on training performers (Lazlo Pearlman and Deirdre McLaughlin). Reviewing reading and resource lists for their course – encourage them to examine how often the actor is assumed as white, male, straight and/or non-disabled. Ask the students for suggestions and ideas.

Consider Landon-Smith’s article and discuss with students the ways in which they might bring their own cultures into the studio – through games, dances, songs, exercises, storytelling, patois/accent/dialect, postures and ways of sitting/standing, gestures and movements. Recognise that all cultures have these and be sure to reveal how these exist in straight, white, non-disabled culture even when they are ‘invisible’ in their ubiquity and dominance.

How can practical sessions be used to challenge canonical training practice? Change should not just be about making accommodation for difference, but about transformation and radical change. Be clear that inclusion is not just about ‘fitting in’ disabled, global majority or queer students, it is about celebrating their presence – what might that mean in terms of changes to studio practice, your work ideas and strategies?

Reflect on the practice that does not make it into the studio – why is it absent or excluded? Whose responsibility is it to find ways of including it? What ideas and approaches have our students contributed and how can we take this further in the future?

Open up discussions between staff and students around canonical practice and equality issues. This should not be threatening, but should enable multiple perspectives to enrich mutual understanding of the role and purpose of training and the ethical dimensions surrounding training practice.

Reject…

White colleagues – Reject the assumption that you have to know everything about marginalised artists in order to teach about their practice. There is not time to wait for those books to be written. Invite the artists to be part of constructing the curriculum. Invite students to help create/curate the materials for learning. Don’t be afraid to start from a position of ignorance and learn with the students.

Reject the assumption that students have to learn about the canon in order to ‘really’ know their subject. The subject is the centre of the learning, the canonical figures are only a set of examples.

Reject the assumption that the canonical figures are all individual geniuses. What kind of mythologies, misunderstanding and ideologies are created by this assumption? Each one’s career involves multiple collaborations with forgotten or marginalised others. Recognising these others need not diminish the achievements of all involved, but does given recognition where it is due but not always given. It does no harm at all to recognise the value and success of collaboration and the ways in which artists work together. It does great harm to assume that the work of many can be understood as the achievements of only one.

Reject the assumption that marginalised work is somehow lower in quality, that it therefore deserves to be marginalised. Such an assumption does not recognise the ways in which value systems are socially and politically constructed and managed by those who hold power.

Reject the marginalisation of yourself or others in the field of work, study and practice because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, age, class or disability. Reject being the token representative. Don’t allow that to happen to students either.

Celebrate…

The diversity of your students – allow them to be themselves.

Your own identity, culture, history and experiences – they should inform your teaching without you being seen as exotic or a token member of staff. If that happens, complain.

Your own learning journey as a teacher and a person and those who you collaborated with within that journey.

The wonderful ways in which theatre, dance and performance enable us all to realise and challenge the ways in which our identities are created, policed and presented.

Reading/watching to help reflection and action – this list is not definitive!

An open letter to UK Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies

Feminist canon

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1HwAHAwU83bW_jSzxbMrqWyyuAYmsOWtqK-7HxKA9yek/edit

Discuss with colleagues and students how to construct an inclusive and radical canon.

Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An introduction by Petra Kuppers https://www.macmillanihe.com/page/detail/studying-disability-arts-and-culture-petra-kuppers/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137413437

Suggested reading on disability, arts and education.

For white people considering anti-racism, when your Black friends and colleagues have had enough by Alanah Nichole

White Academia: Do Better by Jasmine Roberts

Contacting-Improvising by Adesola-Akinleye

https://www.independentdance.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Essay-by-Dr-Adesola-Akinleye-contacting-improvising.pdf

Dancing, dance training and race.

Decolonising the Curriculum by Advance HE

https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/decolonisation-curriculum-conversation

Being Black by Jane Elliott

How would white academics and students feel about being black?

We Shall Not Be Removed

Josette Bushell-Mingo

White supremacy culture characteristics

https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html

Consider the extent to which any of these are relevant to classroom situations and teaching strategies, and if so how they might be addressed.

Taking up space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi (Merky books). https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117762/taking-up-space/9781529118544.html

Theatre and Class

https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-fringe/theatre/is-theatre-accessible-to-working-class-artists

‘Power has to be grasped’: British theatre is battling its class problem – Catherine Love

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/mar/13/british-theatre-class-problem

Examine ways in which class discrimination operates within theatre – how does that impact on training?

Tonic Theatre Company (UK)

A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre by Lucy Kerbel

Also, Empower project: https://www.tonictheatre.co.uk/work/empower/

How can we combat sexism and gender discrimination with the performing arts?

Deborah Dean No Human Resource is an Island: Gendered, Racialized Access to Work as a Performer First published: 31 January 2008. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1468-0432.2007.00389.x

Look at work within the performing arts as an area of inequality and exclusion.

DV8 The Cost of Living (extracts)

Examine and explore representations of disability.

Calling In: A Quick Guide to When and How by Sian Ferguson

Reflect with students on when to call out and when to call in.

Remember…

  • Change comes from action – so what will you do differently?
  • At Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, UK, the institution has set in motion a project to address issues of institutional racism through institutional review. You can see details at: https://www.cssd.ac.uk/repairing-curriculum. How might such a project relate to your own practice? What might you take from this at an individual level? What might you change, challenge or adapt? Should such a project be replicated in order to make provision for tackling issues around gender, sexuality, disability, age, class, etc.?
  • And then we have to make our intuitions follow through on agreed changes, actions and re-structures. What institutional support do you need in order to challenge the canon? What allies can help with this change – both from within and outside your institution?

  • You are not alone – who else can support you, share with you, join in conversations with you? What networks do you have or should you seek to establish that will support change? Who can you engage with as visiting professors, hourly paid lecturers, local/national/global professional contacts, audience/community members, students, campaigners and activists? How can you maintain pressure on your institution to recruit more diverse staff members as permanent members of staff and to remove the powerful glass ceilings to promotion that prevail in our sector?

TDPT 11.3 Against the Canon

We are delighted to announce the publication of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 11.3, “Against the Canon, guest edited by Mark Evans (Coventry University) and Cass Fleming (Goldsmiths University), with Training Grounds section edited by Sara Reed (Coventry University)

This special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performer Training addresses the forgotten and marginalised contributions made by various collaborative artists and practitioners to the development of performer training during the twentieth and twenty first centuries. 

Many previous publications on training have tended to focus on canonical figures and the dominant historical performer-training narratives. Less attention has been paid to collaboration as an important characteristic of avant-garde performance training, and to the complex exchanges through which pedagogy and work has been developed and disseminated.  This journal issue intentionally centralises these acts of cross-fertilisation and collaborative exchanges, thereby shifting the focus away from canonical individual figures and towards frequently overlooked or under-recognised practitioners and pedagogues. In doing so, we are aware that this special issue is not alone in advocating for such a shift of focus. In many respects we see this issue as one particular marking point in a turn away from a linear, white and patriarchal history of theatre, dance and performance training.

Our contributing authors challenge the manner in which traditional performer training histories often still seek to capture the ‘purity’ of established methods and to identify individual (often white male) owners of successful techniques.  This issue will seek to challenge the ways in which practitioners such as Stanislavsky, Craig, Copeau, Laban, Lecoq, Chekhov and Meisner are often uncritically revered as ‘Master Teachers’ and the ways in which this obscures or negates the existence of wider networks of artists who contributed to the development of these training practices, many of whom were women. To this extent our authors are not looking simply to critique existing canonical figures, but to bring forward the work of those who are usually ignored.

Contents

Editorial

Mark Evans, Cass Fleming & Sara Reed

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