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.