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?

Walking to Dartington

Donna Shilling walking to Dartington College of ArtsIn September 2008, I walked from London to Dartington, reverse-tracing the route I’d taken as a third year theatre student, to physically mark the departure of the College, shortly after the announcement of its forthcoming merger with Falmouth University.

Conversations were recorded along the way with former tutors and students who each walked for a day, sharing thoughts on what was important about the college, its pedagogy, and approach to art making and performance.

A decade later in September 2018, I returned to Dartington’s first alumni STREAM festival to present documentation from the walk.

In the following recording of that talk, audio excerpts of these meandering dialogues are presented alongside photographs and maps re-presenting the shared daily journeys as we navigated the landscape between London and Dartington.

Overlay map of shared journeys to Dartington College of Arts

Fellow walkers in order of appearance are: Alan Read, Gary Winters, Emilyn Claid, Dan Gretton, Augusto Corrieri, Sue Palmer, Jerome Fletcher, Joe Richards, John Hall, Simon Persighetti, Misha Myers, David Williams, Josie Sutcliffe, Peter Kiddle and Simon Murray, with additional text from Ric Allsopp. These personal reflections present a multivocal account of Dartington’s influence.

Extracts of dialogues included in this presentation discuss: histories and evolution of the courses; ideas of community, collaboration, contextual practice; staff engagement and dialogue with students and connections to the broader contemporary arts scene; ways of being, questioning, exploring, presencing, opening; pedagogy, cultural theory, the project system, site work, contemporary and experimental ethos; psychogeography; intensity, passion, bureaucracy, homogeneity; challenging dominant paradigms and the complexity of becoming artists.

This presentation accompanies an article of the same name published in the Special Issue of TDPT (9.3) “Training Places: Dartington College of Arts”.

With special thanks to; Daisy Robertson, Tim Vize-Martin, Augusto Corrieri and Pete Harrison for filming and co-ordination. Joe Richards and David Williams for encouragement, support with contacting contributors and David’s spoken words at the walk’s ending. Alan Read, Sue Palmer and David Williams for sharing photographs and to Simon Persighetti for the scones.

 

Two Trainers Prepare – for what? Status after 14 tasks

As one would expect when embarking on a (for us) untried project, the focus and intentions shift and questions come up. In late December 2017 Maria and I met in person – speaking for the first time since starting the project in September 2017– to talk about the collaboration and to check in with each other. How are we getting on with tasks? How do we manage time? Should any of the rules for tasks or reflections be tweaked?

In our meeting, these are some of the questions and thoughts that came up:

What is a Task?

Is it necessary for a task to have a clear outcome?

We discussed the difference between a task that asks for a specific type of response and one that is completely open. We both agreed that reading reflections that divert from the task they respond to are more exciting and inspiring to read. Can we be aware of not turning expected or desired responses into tasks?

How do you give a task? 

Does a task need to be written with clear intentions? Could a task simply be a few words, a Koan, a conundrum? How can we explore the widest spectrum of task-giving from very detailed instructions to abstract ideas?

How do you capture the process? 

An  blog related to an academic invites a particular way of responding. Both of us spend time writing and re-writing reflections in order to be clear about what we want to say. Could a response be more intuitive, more personal, less coherent? Could a reflection also be capturing the process of thinking about how to respond to the task and thereby making decision-making and choices more transparent? Could a reflection simply be quoting or rendering thoughts, images or ideas from someone else?

What is the role of time between reading and carrying out the task?

What happens in the gap from reading a task to carrying out the task? We both experience the challenge of not planning how to respond to a task between the moment when the task is read Monday evening till the point when one finds time to try the task out. If an immediate response to a task is essential, perhaps the beginning of task can specify that only when the person has time to carry it out, can the full ‘instructions’ of the task be read.

How does environment and space influence how the tasks are carried out and what part do they play when we construct tasks?

How does furniture, trees, people and busy streets obstruct or liberate tasks? How does one carry out a task, say about sprinting, if one has only 5 x 5 sf to move in? How is use of space and environment when carrying out the task reflected in the responses we give on the blog?

How can we question or challenge the tone and phrasing of reflections and tasks to push our habits of working?

What are our individual habits of setting tasks and responding? What is the tone of writing? How do we make sure not to fall into a ‘groove’ of responding in a customary way or to anticipate that the other will do so and perhaps therefore interpret their task accordingly?

Is the project moving in the same direction as we set out to do? Are we still working towards a pedagogy of training or are we moving into an artistic practice? What is the difference between the two? 

In the initial post, we described the project ‘as a preparation towards integrating different styles of yoga and other art forms in an interdisciplinary pedagogy’. The project has certainly taken a more creative course than the original idea intended. So, what are we as Two Trainers preparing for?

As we are based in different countries (Maria in UK and me in Denmark) the gap between us feels like an added dimension to the project: What does it mean to work on practical tasks with someone every week when we never meet in person or hear the other’s voice? Does the physical distance have an impact on how we read each other’s tasks and reflections and how we ‘sense’ each other? Not having the opportunity to talk and ‘perceive’ the other allows the question of ‘which direction the project is going’ to remain open.

Limits of Training: The Songwork Catalogue

I have previously argued that ‘the concept of training is limiting insofar as it emphasizes the transmission of knowledge over its creation, discovery, or production’ (What a Body Can Do, p. 117) and suggested that we need to go beyond performer ‘training’ if we are to adequately represent the depth and complexity of what takes place in our studios and embodied practices. Here I would like to share a document — actually a catalogue of documents — that for me illustrates both the power and the limits of training as a concept around which to organize sustained embodied practice.

The Songwork Catalogue is a set of nearly two hundred short videos documenting embodied studio practice. Its focus is the various kinds of work — especially psychophysical, interpersonal, and cultural/political — that can be done around and through songs and singing. About half of the videos (‘Songwork II’) were generated during the Judaica project core laboratory phase using a narrowly focused methodology with three practitioners alternative between the roles of practitioner, director, and videographer. In addition to this core set of videos there is an older set of selections from materials dating back to 2010 (‘Songwork I’) and a more recent set of videos produced through an expanded methodology involving the presence of additional guest artists in the laboratory space (‘Songwork III’).

Do these videos document training?

I am certain that the kind of work documented in these videos is precisely what we aim to address when we talk about actor and performing training; and also that the people reading this blog are the most qualified to understand and assess this practice and this archive. At the same time, I am certain that the Songwork Catalogue is not a catalogue of training but of research.

A crucial point of difference is in the method of producing the videos. As seen in the image above, each video has a title. These titles did not exist at the time the recording was made. They do not name the tasks we set for ourselves in the studio. Rather, they name what happened as articulated from a later perspective. Additionally, these short clips were selected from many hours of footage. We did not set up a video ‘shoot’ and choose from one or two ‘takes’. Rather, we thoroughly integrated video into the studio process and then made selections from a large corpus of material, sharing via the Catalogue perhaps only ten or fifteen percent of what was recorded. This reversal of standard videographic practice is crucial in shifting the focus of the Catalogue from performances or demonstrations of established exercises (training) to unexpected outcomes of dynamic improvisational and interactive processes (research).

I know what it means to render songwork pedagogical in a training context and that is not what we have done. I therefore notice a tension between concept and community: Our community is gathered around the idea of training, but on its own this idea undervalues and underserves what we actually do. In emphasizing the pedagogical and transmissive dimension of embodied practice, we risk being complicit with the dominant reductive view of embodied practice today: namely that it is an optimization of the body rather than a mode of knowledge, discovery and thought.

I am not suggesting a simple shift from training to research. Although I am committed to exploring the possibilities opened by an explicit focus on embodied research, there is a risk here too: Without training, research disintegrates and becomes a free-for-all of unstructured voicings. Rather, as I argue in my most recent article, we ought to put more attention on the phenomenotechnical research edge between the technical (known) and the epistemic (unknown); between embodied training and embodied research.

Concretely:

1) All research involves training. We need to acknowledge this, for example by more clearly specifying and articulating the bases and lineages of the embodied training that underpins any given PaR research project.

2) All training involves research. We need to acknowledge this, for example by expanding the kinds of epistemic claims we make for what we do and continually tracking the points at which repetition is interwoven with difference.

How do you trace the edge of training and research in your practice?


Six selections from the Songwork Catalogue:

partner contact through shared associations (J017)
Practitioners: Ben Spatz, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 11 May 2017

perezhivanie or structured delirium (J029)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel
Director: Ben Spatz
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 17 May 2017

structure with songs and movement qualities (J032)
Practitioner: Ben Spatz
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Agnieszka Mendel
Date: 18 May 2017

five songs, five associations (J043)
Practitioner: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 23 May 2017

following through voice (J049)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 24 May 2017

kaleidoscope (J095)
Practitioners: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, Ben Spatz
Director: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 15 June 2017

Developing a Risky Practice: Teaching and Facilitating – Reflections of a Creative English Trainer

‘This notion that the leader needs to be ‘in charge’ and ‘know all the answers’ is both dated and destructive… Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.’  Peter Sheahan in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.

In my first few weeks as a teacher in a private English language school in Italy, the Assistant Director of Studies ushered the first-timers into an empty classroom, and gave us some advice.

‘Never, ever respond to a question from your students with the words ‘I don’t know.’ Never tell them you don’t know something, and never tell them that you’re new to this. I know. It’s not fair. Everyone has to start somewhere right? But if they doubt their teacher, then they doubt the school. In their eyes at least, you must know everything.’

At the time, I took this as sound advice from a far more senior and experienced colleague who wanted the best for both us and the school. I mean…it makes sense, right? No student wants their teacher standing in front of them lamely doing a goldfish impression when there’s an important exam looming. What I see now, though, is that this ‘advice’ potentially killed a lot of the creativity and spontaneity I may have started to cultivate in my early teaching career, and instead cultivated an aversion to risk in my teaching practice that would prove very difficult to shake off. I quickly gained a reputation for my results-focused meticulousness and for always having a ready explanation. Continue reading

Phillip Zarrilli: Pre-Performative Psychophysical Training of the Actor/Performer

Inspired by Jerzy Grotowski but seeking his own pathway as a young theatre director working in Minneapolis, over forty years ago Phillip Zarrilli began a life-long project of exploring an alternative approach to the pre-performative training and preparation of the actor/performer using the techniques and underlying principles of Asian martial arts (taiqiquan/kalarippayattu) and yoga which would move actor training beyond Stanislavsky.

Over the years, Zarrilli developed a rigorous, in-depth, immersive process of training and preparing the actor’s bodymind for performance through the in-depth use of these traditional exercises—applied specifically to acting/performance problems. Continue reading

Epistemic Objects: Four Channels

I have been showing versions of this edited montage for the past five years. These four videos document not just highly skilled embodied practice but more precisely embodied research: practices that produce new technique. The ‘objects’ in question are modern postural yoga, aikido, dance/movement therapy, and the plastiques. These epistemic objects did not predate the practices and practitioners shown here, but they have lasted beyond them: Of these four pioneering embodied researchers, only Adler is alive today, but the technique they invented/discovered is still available and taught more or less widely.

Continue reading

Futures (and pasts) of Performer Training: by Murray, Evans and Pitches

Anyone attending the Future of Performer Training conference at Coventry on November 4th and 5th 2016, might want to take a look at this joint paper by Simon Murray, Mark Evans and Jonathan Pitches.

And if you’re not coming, then we’d love some feedback. It’s a layered vision, imagining the pasts and possible futures of performer training.

Download it here: theatre_training_beyond_theatre_ideas_ch

 

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

Some Pedagogical Provocations

Jen Harvie argues in Fair Play: “social, economic and political contexts, in England in particular but also more widely in the United Kingdom, are radically reconfiguring what an artist is expected to be and, in so doing, putting the value of being an artist at serious ideological risk” (Harvie, 2013:62). How can learning experiences which focus on creativity, community, and social engagement exist within a culture that “obliges art relentlessly to pursue productivity, permanent growth and profit”? (Harvie, 2013:63).

I am beginning to co-write an article about performance pedagogy and am interested in hearing from other arts educators about the following:

  • How do you “teach” creative practices within your institution?
  • What are the limits or challenges facing practitioners and academics who deliver performance training?
  • How do the wider institutional aims and objectives relate to the pedagogical approach of specific performance programmes?
  • Do you feel the “value of being an artist is at serious ideological risk”?
  • Do “growth and profit” models affect pedagogical approaches towards the training of artists?
  • Are academic structures “creatively constraining” or limiting?

As the TDPT blog editor I am also keen for this site to generate discussion and debate over some of the issues facing practitioners and academics working in the field of theatre, dance and performance training so please do “reply” to share your responses.