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.