Training Citizenship and Performance – Reflections

By Sarah Weston

“The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible in a way that is connected and full of conviction” Max Hafler.

On Wednesday 24th April 2019 I organised a symposium at the University of Leeds called Training, Citizenship and Performance. Hosted by two research groups, Political Communication (Media and Communication) and Performance Training, Preparation and Pedagogy (Performance and Cultural Industries), the event was an interdisciplinary exploration of whether we can train citizenship, and more specifically, whether performance is the tool for this training. The day was composed of four parts: two talks, from Professor Stephen Coleman presenting an overview of citizenship and Miranda Duffy discussing her work promoting democratic values with primary school children through theatre; and two workshops, Proper Job Theatre taking us through their Lab Project workshop process and Max Hafler immersing us in voice technique inspired by Michael Chekhov. Curating these very different approaches into a one-day event perhaps was a bit of a risk, maybe even a bizarre decision. But underneath it was my own conviction that theatre and performance practitioners possess skills that can be utilised in the political sphere. These are both the skills that are more traditionally associated with socially engaged performance practices and the skills of acting and performance more associated with professional theatre, such as voice training. This symposium in essence then, was an experiment in whether bringing together these two spheres – political communication and performance training – could be a way of demonstrating the importance of sharing these skills.

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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

NEW PLATFORMS FOR SHARING RESEARCH ON VOICE

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to draw your attention to the new publication initiatives spearheaded by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Voice Studies:

Voice Studies Journal Cover

 

1) With the publication of its second issue, the Centre of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies is currently celebrating the first year of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies. You can find more information about the journal, including guidelines for submission and subscription, here. The first issue is freely available online while 1.2 is our first themed issue on the topic of ‘Voice and/as Devising.’

We would also like to draw your attention to the Call for Papers for issue 2.1 (Spring 2017):

Special Issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies

‘Voicing Belonging: Traditional Singing in a Globalized World’

Editors: Konstantinos Thomaidis and Virginie Magnat

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Verbatim practices, the acoustics of training, and giving voice: a voice studies afterthought

Coming out of the 2016 TaPRA Interim Event of the Performer Training Working Group, ‘Training to Give Evidence,’ gracefully organised by Kate Craddock and hosted by Northumbria University, certain provocations around the ethics of verbatim, documentary, and auto/biographical performance still resonate with me. To navigate such a rich landscape, I would briefly like to outline some thoughts in relation to voice.

Voice and vocal practices were, implicitly or explicitly, a recurrent trope in many of the papers and practical demonstrations. As part of his opening provocation on mimicry and impersonation in verbatim theatre, Tom Cantrell shared interviews with actors that have engaged with the genre. Ken Drury, in an attempt to distance his approach to acting from impersonation and the creation of exact copies, stated that he was mainly interested in the (real-life) person’s behaviour. By contrast, Jason Watkins started accessing his character through locating the accent and was mainly preoccupied with rhythm – not necessarily of words, he hastened to footnote, but rhythm of thinking. There is an intriguing underlying assumption perhaps emerging here; acting has to do with behaviours, actions, feelings and thoughts, but the role of vocality in training and performance is at best acknowledged when recast in the shadow of the above, or, at worst, implicitly equated with mimicry.

As a voice studies practitioner-scholar, I constantly come across deeply embedded assumptions about voice, and, when interacting with scholarly environments more closely affiliated with performance studies, sometimes these assumptions transform into a certain type of polemics. Bodies speak the truth; voices can hide it. Actors are trained into speaking classical/mainstream/canonical texts; performers/artists honour their own voice or prefer to work with the untrained or the amateur. Body-first approaches to text are (ideologically) valued more, and the trained actor as a ‘talking head’ has been criticised consistently by a lineage of influential practitioners and makers in the UK.[1]

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