Reflections on the open panel of the Performer Training Working Group – ‘Training and Other Disciplines/Practices’ – 1st September 2017

In the whirlwind of PhD study, teaching, and the endlessness of admin tasks associated with these activities one can forget that there is very exciting research happening within the performer training world. It is only when you have the opportunity to attend a conference with the diversity of program that is included in the TaPRA ‘Performer Training’ working group, which took place at the University of Salford August 30th-September 1st, that you fully understand that there are others thinking and working fruitfully on this topic in research terms.

I came to wonder if others in the working group felt, as I sometimes do, that in my day to day activities working in a university context that performer training research is sometimes undervalued despite it being prolific in its contribution to the wider performance studies canon. It was interesting to hear Jonathan Pitches note, in the final reflective session of the conference, the frustrations of applying for research funding under the label of ‘training’ as compared with the relative ease of other research areas within performance studies. The question of the legitimacy of research into performer training comes and reers its head. Obviously, it isn’t a question for those of us within the field of research but what Pitches highlighted is that out there in the world of funding and with all the restraints and limitations that come with that, performer training research is perhaps fighting an unfair battle for its legitimacy.

This, of course, must not lead to a chip on the shoulder of those in the performer training research field nor should it dampen our drive to carry out such work. Rather it should act as a catalyst to a) question why this may be happening and what can we do? One suggestion from Pitches was to perhaps present this question as a topic for the working group ourselves by examining potential assumptions made around what ‘training’ and performer training research means to those funding decision makers. And b) to be brave and stand up for the work where it is being delegitimised without justification, whether it is within conferences, our institutions, or in the context of applying for funding.

As I’ve alluded to already you only have to attend a conference like TaPRA that allows for such diversity in program to realise the great work being produced, as was evident with the performer training working group open panel on August 31st entitled ‘Training and Other Disciplines/Practices’ responding to the working group’s overall theme of ‘End of Training’.

The open panel consisted of three speakers/presenters all of who, in their own way, potentially question/disrupt notions of ‘performer training’ and the nature of ‘an end to performer training’.  Dr Jennifer Willet spoke about and showcased her work around performance in a ‘closed laboratory setting’ (Willet, 2017). Her previously disseminated paper (to the working group before the conference) discussed the ‘transferability of training amongst non-performers and how the approach can be explored outside of the immediate training environment, whilst resisting notions of performance’ (Willet, 2017). Willet explains that her laboratory, which she created as part of her PhD, involved performers carrying out tasks in a closed setting – there were dividing mirrors so the audience could see the performers but the performers could not see the audience. Audience members had the ability to affect the performance by sending messages to the performers, in various forms such tweets, post-it’s on papers aeroplanes, speaking into a pre-set microphone etc. Willet’s idea of ‘resisting notions of performance’ raised several interesting questions for me, which include but are not limited to:

– How far can resistance of notions of performance go when the performers or non-performers know there is an audience behind a 2-sided mirror?

– How can we disrupt assumptions of what a performance should or should not be beyond what has already been tested? (I am thinking of Boal’s invisible theatre and Kaprow’s Happenings amongst others here)

– What happens to performance when you take the ‘encounter’ between audience and performer away?

Willet’s engaging presentation went a long way to answering these within the context she was presenting and left me asking the same questions of other practices and disciplines.

I have never once thought about mountain training in any kind of deep way, I have no reference point other than having been on a mountain before. This was the great thing about Prof Jonathan Pitches’ paper ‘A Climber Prepares’ – his starting point was similar to my reference point, for him it was his experience of being on a mountain before with his family (although it is evident he has far more experience than I). With his title, Pitches is clearly evoking Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares (2015) and the paper goes on to explore connections between performer training and climbing. Pitches puts forward an exciting prospect of examining mountain training through the lens of ‘performance-based ideas and theories’ (2017), and provokes ideas of mountains as art objects and art subjects, and at the very least he invites us to think of mountains beyond their geographical or even storytelling contexts rather to also experiment with them for the sake of training. Like Willet’s contribution, Pitches brings me to consider various things within and beyond his paper. Questions going around my head since include:

– Is a mountain ‘trained’ body different from a performer ‘trained’ body?

– What stories could training performers on mountains create?

– What are the implications for the voice within the mountain/performer training context?

– How do we convince management to let teach our students on top of mountains?

As with all mountains, I am sure these considerations inevitably bring daunting challenges and great beauty.

Dr Dick McCaw’s paper Understanding the Actor’s Body, too, gives us pause to think on, quite firmly, the theme that the working group have all started with: the end of performer training. For McCaw, thoughts on this subject naturally occur through thinking about the body. He brings our attentions to our ageing and changing bodies and how our bodies must renegotiate again and again with the external world in order reaffirm and reassess our skills as performers in a physical way.

All three speakers invite us to reconsider performer training in different contexts than we are perhaps used to. A fascinating panel which left some wonderfully burning questions.


Denis Cryer-Lennon has been working in performing arts for the past seventeen years at all levels, community to professional in Ireland and Wales where I have worked as an actor, director, and writer.

Since January 2015 Denis has been a PhD researcher at University of South Wales, where he is also a lecturer in Theatre and Drama. He also reviews theatre for Arts Scene in Wales (author’s page: and since 2015 he sits on the short list judging panel for Wales Theatre Awards.

One thought on “Reflections on the open panel of the Performer Training Working Group – ‘Training and Other Disciplines/Practices’ – 1st September 2017

  1. Thanks for the really helpful summary Denis. I like your point that the Working Group first and foremost helps one ‘understand that there are others thinking and working fruitfully on this topic in research terms’. Very true! And on the Mountains paper some great questions for me to think about, perhaps particularly the one on voice training and mountains. Konstantinos Thomaidis has coincidentally just sent me details of Pansori trainees. He says “‘mountain training’ […] was traditionally practised, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, by pansori trainees to strengthen (and/or lose) their voices and to develop their unique style of sung narration.” So I will definitely be following that thread! Many thanks for sharing your summary.

Comments are closed.