Don’t ask me how I feel: how ambiguous language is a learning barrier in actor training.

By Klara Hricik (She/they)

Klara is pursuing an MFA in Actor Training and Coaching at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

How do you feel right now?

What does that question elicit for you? Do you want to answer? If so, what might your response be? Would you consider physical sensations, your emotional state, or any present thoughts? Would you give a genuine, insightful response or a casual polite non-answer as a means to move on with the conversation?

Throughout my theatrical training, I have heard acting instructors use the word feel when leading exercises. I have heard it utilised as a check-in: “How did that make you feel?” and “Did that feel okay to you?”, and as a direction: “Connect to the feeling”, “You just have to feel it”, and “You’ll know it when you feel it”.

I have never been able to figure out what is meant by feel. The word has always been very overwhelming for me, which makes sense as there are almost twenty definitions across different parts of speech (Merriam Webster, 2023). I’m sure I’ve heard just about every application of feel throughout my acting training across various practices; however, it was rarely specified which one my instructor intended. I believe that I may have struggled more than some of my peers due to being a neurodivergent learner. Many people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Dyslexia struggle with interpreting indirect language (Chahubon et al., 2021). As someone with ADHD, I have found the ambiguous language used in actor training to be a barrier not only to my understanding of various acting practices, but also to my success as a student. In my insecurity, I could not navigate how I was being assessed, whether I was ‘succeeding,’ and if I would be marked well by my instructor.

As I reflect on my experiences, I aim to answer the following questions:

  • “How has ambiguous language impacted my acting training?”
  • “What are the different definitions of feel?”
  • “How is feel used in different actor training methodologies?”
  • “How can I sharpen my pedagogical vocabulary to promote clarity in my approach to actor training?”

How has ambiguous language impacted my acting training?

Throughout my acting training, I was often chastised for being too logical, asking too many questions, and being too ‘in my head’. The reality was that I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing or why. I didn’t get why I couldn’t ask why. Why were we moving through the space without speaking for hours? Why did it matter what water feature I saw myself as that day? Why was my homework to study a tortoise’s movements? Why were we throwing a ball in the air repeatedly for twenty minutes? Why was I doing this at 9 am and paying obscene amounts of money to do so? Why was this crucial to me becoming a better actor?

My requests for clarity and structure were often perceived as combative, uncooperative, and unprofessional, despite my genuine desire to do the work and learn from it. In acting and movement classes from secondary school to professional workshops, I would often hear comments such as “No questions”, “There is no right or wrong”, or “Don’t think about it or judge it, just feel it. We will discuss later”. I will highlight for you my thought process in moments like these:

Feel what? What is ‘it’? How can I not judge ‘it’ if I don’t know what ‘it’ is? How do I find ‘it’ without thinking about ‘it’? How am I supposed to notice my feelings without thinking about my feelings? Obviously, I am doing this exercise wrong, I don’t feel ‘it’. Well, I don’t think I feel it, but I’m not supposed to think! Okay, what am I going to say when we discuss? This exercise made me feel…. confused. Can I say that? I feel like… my head kind of hurts and I’m hungry. That’s an honest answer. No, I’m sure that’s not what they want to hear.

Okay, let’s take a look around the room… Everyone else looks so focused. I better put on an intense face, too, so they think I’ve got ‘it’. Everyone else seems to feel ‘it’ and know what ‘it’ is. How do they know? How do they get ‘it’ and I don’t? Was ‘it’ obvious and I’m just dumb? Am I a terrible actor?

As I was often unable to make sense of what I had experienced in my acting training, I had no way of gaining the intended knowledge. I was, instead, forced to resort to pretending to understand what occurred, for fear of embarrassment in discussions and, ultimately, being marked poorly by my tutor.

I now know that my inability to succeed in this setting was not due to my inability as an actor or lack of effort as a student. Philosopher and researcher Alva Noë says that learners must ‘… experience sensations sufficiently that [they] make a certain sort of sense to [them], i.e., [they] understand that the sensations [they] experience are constitutive in some way’ (Noë, 2004, p.3 in Zarrilli, 2012, p. 47). As the purpose of the work was unclear and my requests to make sense of it were often denied, I was not able to fully learn or experience these activities in a way that encouraged my growth as an actor.

This also had consequences for my experience as a student, as I didn’t know how I was being marked. In an educational setting, giving students open-ended guidance when they are being assessed can not only result in insecurity and stress for the student, but a lack of trust in the educator and effort towards the work. In Aligning Teaching for Constructive Learning, JohnBiggs, referring to the broader field of higher education, explains ‘The assessment is the curriculum, as far as the students are concerned. They will learn what they think they will be assessed on, not what is in the curriculum’ (2003, p2). While actor training is largely experiential in nature, the confines of educational settings require measurable marking criteria. Though ambiguous language may aid the creative freedom of an exercise for some students, that does not negate the fact that in an institutional setting, actors are being evaluated. It is important for actor trainers to be clear about what the intended learning outcomes are and create specific, measurable criteria that students can work towards for assessments (Biggs, 2003). Whilst there are evident barriers for neurodivergent students that have legal ramifications under the Equality Act (, 2010), ambiguous language and grading guidelines can negatively impact the education of all students, as we will explore through various definitions of feel and the ways they are often conflated.

What are the different definitions of feel?

When looking at the word itself, feel has many meanings across different parts of speech as a transitive verb, intransitive verb, and noun (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.). Here are all of Merriam Webster’s definitions of feel, which we will explore more deeply in the next section (2023, n.p.).

Feel – Transitive verb

  1. a: to handle or touch in order to examine, test, or explore some quality
    b: to perceive by a physical sensation coming from discrete end organs (as of the skin or muscles)
  2. a: to undergo passive experience
    b: to have one’s sensibilities markedly affected by
  3. to ascertain by cautious trial (usually used with out)
  4. a: to be aware of by instinct or interference
    b: believe, think
  5. (US slang): to understand (someone): to know how (someone) feels

Feel – Intransitive verb

  1. a: to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation
    b: to search for something by using the sense of touch
  2. a: to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition
    b: to have a marked sentiment or opinion
  3. seem
  4. to have sympathy or pity

Feel – Noun

  1. sensation, feeling
  2. the sense of touch
  3. a: the quality of a thing as imparted through or as if through touch
    b: typical or peculiar quality or atmosphere, an awareness of such a quality or atmosphere
  4. intuitive knowledge or ability.

Across these definitions, we see references to the physical, cognitive, and experiential applications of feel. Let’s explore these different definitions and moments when they may be applied in the context of actor training.

How is feel used in different actor training methodologies?”

I want to begin by isolating the definitions of feel that reference physical sensations (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Transitive verb

  • to handle or touch in order to examine, test, or explore some quality
  • to perceive by a physical sensation coming from discrete end organs (as of the skin or muscles)

Intransitive verb

  • to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation
  • to search for something by using the sense of touch


  • sensation, feeling
  • the sense of touch
  • a quality of a thing as imparted through or as if through touch

When asked how I feel, the first thing I do is consider physical sensations, which may be the intended application in various acting methods focused on actors’ physicality. Artaud believed that theatre is primarily physical(Hodge, 2010, p. 285) and many acting methodologies agree with this notion. Practices, such as Meyerhold, Suzuki, and Grotowski, do not focus on the cognitive processes of other acting techniques, but on the ‘materiality of the actor’s body and what can be done with it as a medium’ (Allain, n.d., n.p.). Beyond physical theatre, we see the prioritisation’ of the actor’s body in many popular acting practices. Physical experiences may be encouraged practically, with practitioners using objects, such as sticks in Meyerhold’s biomechanics (Hodge, 2010, p.33) or in Stanislavsky’s exercises in concentration, which rely on the senses to explore an object (Hodge, 2010, p. 9). Many practices also rely on the physical bodies in the space, such as in Stanislavsky’s interest in Yoga (Carnickie, 2008), and Grotowski’s corporal exercises and focus on ‘extreme physicality’ (Wolford in Hodge, 2021, p. 208).

Methodologies such as Chekhov and Linklater encourage students to imagine physical experiences rather than engage with real physical items, often relying on imagery. Affective memory, as created by Stanislavsky and further developed by Lee Strasberg, promotes that ‘the ability to recall senses stimulates the body rather than the mind, giving the actor greater visceral awareness and experience’ (Krasner in Hodge, p. 148). In every facet of my training thus far, I have encountered some form of physical work, often engaging with the five senses.

Most actor training methodologies also value some sort of awareness, which we also see exemplified through the word feel (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Transitive verb

  • to be aware of by instinct or interference
  • believe, think
  • (US slang): to understand (someone): to know how (someone) feel

Intransitive verb

  • to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition
  • to have a marked sentiment or opinion
  • seem
  • to have sympathy or pity


  • typical or peculiar quality of atmosphere, an awareness of such a quality or atmosphere
  • intuitive knowledge or ability 

In these definitions, I see the words ‘aware’, ‘awareness’, ‘conscious’ and ‘intuitive’ come up across various meanings. This directly relates to actor training as awareness is largely encouraged across acting practices, including Chekov’s ‘body-awareness into and through psychophysical composition’ (Zarilli, 2012, p.20), Suzuki training, which David Climenhaga says ‘is as much about awareness and placement as it is about exertion’ (in Hodge, 2021, p. 294) (which, if you’ve done any Suzuki, you will know that that is a very high bar to set), and in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, where ‘… the actor needs to be extremely sensitive to what his body, his gestures his movements are connoting. He needs a kind of built in mirror’ (Leach in Hodge, 2021, p. 32).

Often, actor training is concerned with going beyond the physical and connecting different aspects of awareness, such as emotional or mental. Stanislavsky scholar Sharon Marie Carnicke says that ‘In the realm of “feelings” the System’s actor works on all levels- physical, emotional, and intellectual – at once’ (2008, p. 218). Kristen Linklater’s work explores the connection of the mental and physical as ‘whole-body-mind awareness’ (Linklater, 2006, n.p.). Clearly, awareness is a key component of many prominent actor training methodologies, which may pose a barrier for some actors.

There are many people that struggle with physical and/or emotional awareness, with a significant prevalence in neurodivergent individuals. It has been found that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may have ‘difficulty with sensing internal states,’ including body awareness, in comparison to those without a diagnosis (Fiene and Brownlow, 2015, n.p.). Alexithymia is ‘characterised by difficulties in recognizing emotions from internal body sensations’ (Shah et al., 2016, n.p.). Although separate diagnoses, alexithymia is ‘highly prevalent’ in autistic individuals (Poquérusse et al, 2018). In their research drawing on their experience as an autistic actor and actor trainer, Zoë Glen claims that ‘the autistic actor’s own emotion memory may not be available to draw on. Asking us to remember a time we felt sad, excited or angry, […] is not an effective route to emotional activation for many of us’ (2023, n.p.). I would like to invite actor trainers to be awareof any barriers that may exist in their practices and consider what they will do when they have individuals who find this awareness inaccessible.

With all of these, often conflicting, definitions of feel across acting practices, how is an actor supposed to know what is being asked of them? Why, in a field that is so focused on specificity in acting choices, are we using such general vocabulary?

Well, for Stanislavsky, the ambiguity was somewhat intentional.

In his original Russian texts, Stanislavsky often uses the word ‘chuvstva, which refers simultaneously to  ‘feelings’ and the five ‘senses’’ (Carnicike, 2008, p. 157). He wanted to evoke that well-rounded psycho-physical actor we talked about previously. When Stanislavsky’s texts were translated by Elizabeth Hapgood, she translated the Russian words for feelings, experiences and sensations interchangeably (Carnicke, 2008, p. 132). We can see this multiplicity in the English definitions of feel as well. The utilisation of the different meanings and connections of feel that is prioritised in many acting practices may improve some acting performances; however, I believe that, especially early in training, it is crucial to use specific language clarifying what elements are being focused on in the work, be it physical sensations, different aspects of awareness, or an intended experience. And I do believe Stanislavsky would agree with this notion. In his later work, Stanislavsky added this specificity into his own practice, limiting the word ‘sensations’ to refer only to physical feelings (Carnicke, 2008, p. 218). I would encourage this clarity from actor trainers and suggest using an alternative to feel when referring to what they want actors to experience.

Aside from the definitions we have already categorised, feel can also be used to describe the way in which one engages with an experience. Feel in reference to experiences can be classified into two applications, being either active or passive (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Feel as active experience:

Transitive verb

  • to ascertain by cautious trial (usually used with out)

Feel as passive experience:

Transitive verb           

  • to undergo passive experience

Intransitive verb

  • to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation

I was confused both by the inherent opposition in these applications and by the notion that one could “passively” experience something. Upon reflection, I recalled how often I was asked to ‘receive’ or ‘undergo’ experiences without any sort of critical engagement or personal autonomy of the work. I believe that this request has caused the most contention throughout my acting training journey. I was resistant to experiences where I was expected to be impacted without any information on what we were doing and why. I was often encouraged to ‘let it happen’, ‘trust the process’ and ‘jump in’ rather than to proceed cautiously, to ask questions, or to seek clarity in moments when I would have benefited from further guidance. I would advocate for a shift away from this passivity in actor training in favour of a more engaging pedagogical framework.

In his later work, Stanislavsky began advancing Active Analysis as a means to give actors more autonomy over their work and perhaps to challenge directors who ‘threatened to treat actors like pawns’ (Carnicke, 2008, p. 202). This began to shift away from the passivity required in Stanislavsky’s earlier hierarchical pedagogy to more of a dialogic style (Alexander, 2019). I believe that this shift should be noted and embraced when considering the application of the earlier definitions of feel. I would like to suggest using what Alva Noë refers to as ‘perceptual experience’ (Noë, 2006) in place of the passivity and level of obedience that was often asked of me in my training. Perceptual experience encourages learners to be ‘intrinsically thoughtful’ and notes that it is through their ‘skillful activity’ that they will understand the material (Noë, 2006, p.2). Rather than passively watching or replicating the practitioner, actors are encouraged to actively engage in their learning experience, asking questions, forming opinions, and working to develop their skills rather than letting someone tell them what to do and how it should impact them. I propose that we use this mindset when considering all facets of feeling in order to remove any ambiguity from the work and support actors to make sense of the work and have the best opportunity to grow as artists.

How can I sharpen my pedagogical vocabulary to promote clarity in my approach to actor training?

So, what do we do?

Elaborate and get specific.

My freshman year of Acting during my undergraduate degree, we were encouraged to purchase Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams’ Actions: An Actor’s Thesaurus (2004). When analysing a script, we were to refer to this text to differentiate and specify the intentions of our acting choices. 

Actor trainers: I invite you to do the same. If you are inclined to use the word feel, notice that. Consider the nuances behind what you are actually asking of your students. Assess what may be the most effective way to communicate the intended outcome. Maybe you could elaborate on your use of the word or find a new word altogether. Below is a table I created that proposes some alternatives to feel in different actor training scenarios.

Alternative vocabulary to feel
Feel pertaining to the physical

Isolate the use of the word ‘sensations’ exclusively for this application (a la Stanislavsky)
Notice any sensations occurring in your body. Explore the physical experience of doing this activity. Consider what temperatures, textures, muscular tension, etc. you or your character may be physically sensing.
Feel pertaining to mental thoughtsNotice any thoughts that arise from doing this exercise. What does this make you think of? Engage the character’s mentality as you respond to this moment.
Feel pertaining to emotionsNotice any emotional reactions that may come up for you or your character.What emotions might your character be experiencing? Consider the different emotional reactions your character might have in response to this moment.
Feel pertaining to ‘perceptual experience’ (Noë, 2006)Explore any impulses that arise from this activity. Receive these instructions and see what sensations, thoughts, or emotions you experience. If nothing arises, engage with the material in whatever way you are able to.
Feel pertaining to analysisConsider what is effective in this practice and what might be a barrier for you.Explore the limitations of this activity.Engage with this exercise through a critical lens.Notice any reservations you might have. Feel free to address them in whatever way you deem fit before engaging with the activity.

These are some examples that could potentially specify intention, but the possibilities are by no means limited to this table. It is also possible practitioners will have to communicate in different ways for different students. By using specific language and being flexible in their methods, actor trainers can enhance clarity and inclusion in their teaching. In my practices, I hope to deepen students’ understanding of acting by continuing to clarify ambiguous language and, in doing so, prevent alienation and insecurity amongst my actor-students.

Klara Hricik,
Septmeber 2023.


Alexander, R. (2019). Dialogic Teaching: A dialogic teaching framework. Available at:

Allain, P. (n.d.). ‘What is Physical Acting?’. Physical Actor Training: an online a-z. Drama Online Library. Available at:

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy, 1(4), pp.1-4. London: Routledge.

Calderone, M. and Lloyd-Williams, M. (2004). Actions: The Actor’s Thesauraus. Nick Hern Books.

Carnicke, S. M. (2020). Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the Twenty-First Century. 2nd edn. London: Routledge. pp. 132-218.

Chahboun, S., Kvello, Ø., and Page, A. G. (2021). Extending the Field of Extended Language: A Literature Review on Figurative Language Processing in Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Frontiers in Communication, 6.

The Equality Act of 2010. [Online]. Available at:

Fiene, L. and Brownlow, C. (2015). ‘Investigating interoception and body awareness in adults with and without autism spectrum disorder’. Wiley Online Library. Available at:

Glen, Z. (2023). ‘Access for autistic student-actors: interrogating the role of empathy within actor-training methods’. Theater Dance and Performance Training. Volume 14 Issue 1. Available at:

Hodge, A. (2010). Actor Training.  2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2nd edition. pp. 9-296.

Linklater, K. (2006). Freeing the natural voice: Imagery and art in the practice of voice and language (2nd Revised Edition). London: Nick Hern Books.

Merriam-Webster (2023a) Feel definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Available at:

Noë, A. (2006). ‘Précis of Action in Perception’. Psyche: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Consciousness 12(1). Available at:

Poquérusse et al (2018). ‘Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A complex relationship’. Front Psychol. 9(1196). Available at:

Shah, P. et al (2016). ‘Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception’. Cortex. 81, pp. 215-220. Available at:

Zarrilli, P. (2012). Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavsky. London: Routledge. pp. 20-47

Sarah Davey-Hull: Passing It On

Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn.

Alan Bennet, The History Boys (2004)

Sarah Davey-Hull (1965-2022) was luminous. When she entered a room, you knew ‘it’ was going to be alright. At the celebration of her life, a huge red balloon was passed between the 200+ guests; floating, bouncing, flying, teasing, playing, challenging. We kept the game alive together.

Sarah’s thirty+ year career as a teacher/director transformed the lives of countless actors, actor trainers and directors. Continuing in the tradition of familial apostology in acting, her knowledge was passed between those who were fortunate to have been taught and/or directed by her: starting at Kensington and Chelsea College in 1995, then at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) on the MA in Actor Training and Coaching and the MA Acting (2005 – 2020) and with her companies Bold and Saucy (1996-2019) and BOLD (2020-). Her teaching has and continues to produce ripples of affect, passed on by the creatives whose practice she has influenced now scattered around the globe, many with leading positions in the field. However, like many practitioners, she never documented her practice and so we, her students, friends and colleagues, have come together to try to document it – to pass it on; a legacy project to celebrate her teaching. In the spirit of collective endeavour and reflecting the fragmented, multi-faceted and layered experience of teaching and learning, we share a pedagogy patchwork of signature exercises, life-changing feedback and observed qualities. 

Lisa Peck

Core ingredients

The are some core ingredients which make a standout and memorable teacher: the ability to be inventive, imaginative, and inspirational; to know when to challenge and push students that little bit further, when to nurture and when to balance praise with honest feedback; to be a generous communicator; someone who also learns from their students and continues to challenge and develop themselves; to be student centered, to listen, to give support and guidance but also to be boundaried. Sarah possessed all of these qualities. But there was one particular aspect of her work which made her especially impactful – her focus on collaboration. This was woven into everything she did as a teacher, trainer and director. It is evident in her expertise in the classroom, in the many shows she directed at Central and at her company BOLD where she continued to offer opportunities for her alumni to grow as professionals, making space for them to rehearse, refine their skills and create new and exciting work.

Continue reading

Call for contributions about the work of Sarah Davey-Hull

This is an invitation to come together to pass on and archive the work of Sarah Davey-Hull who passed away in June.

Image courtesy of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Sarah was a teacher, trainer and director. She had a real passion for theatre and over many years developed her own approach creating innovative, sometimes flamboyant, experimental and always exciting work. 

As a teacher she inspired many who attended her classes with her own company BOLD, during her 15 years of teaching actors and actor- trainers at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and as a freelancer all over the world.

Her teaching was infused with her own playful spark, an incredible eye for detail and desire to always bring out the best in those she worked with.

Whilst Sarah’s teaching has influenced many it was never documented. This wonderful creative has left us with a body of work which we would like to archive and pass on to other practitioners, actors and teachers. We will gather and curate examples of Sarah’s teaching to share on the Critical Pedagogy Theatre Dance and Performance Training open access blog strand during the months of September and October

To  share your experience of working with Sarah you can submit any of the following:

  • An exercise.
  • Reflection of her teaching.
  • Exchanges in the rehearsal room.
  • Any wise words given as feedback.

The post should be no more than 800 words. It may be useful to follow these guidelines:

  • Time and place and project/class.
  • Purpose of the exercise.
  • What happened.
  • Why it was important to you.

Submit to: Lisa Peck at [email protected] who will curate and upload twice a month. Title the email: Sarah Davey-Hull – passing it on. We hope that this sharing might result in a small publication mapping Sarah’s extraordinary ability as a teacher and her contribution to acting pedagogy.

Amanda Brennan

(course leader, MA Acting for Screen, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama)

Lisa Peck

(University of Sussex)

Critical Pedagogy and Performer Training: Let’s hold the space for one another

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.

Documentation from the participants’ group discussions.

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.

Talking about Pedagogy

bell hooks said, ‘Talking about pedagogy, thinking about it critically, is not something most folks think is hip and cool.’ (1994, 204)

Thankfully hooks was not of this mindset and her engaged pedagogy reveals the complex passing between and production of power and love in the teaching and learning exchange. Like hooks, I am compelled by the alchemy of pedagogy – the dance between teacher and student which unites theory, practice and praxis. Too often pedagogy is implicit in scholarship. What if the extraordinary beauty and complexity of pedagogic training practices became a field of research in its own right? What if at the heart of this was trying to support each other in practicing freedoms within our teaching? At a time when certain pedagogic practices have been called to account it seems vital that we join together to build a community of practice, that repositions and re-thinks what training is.

It’s time to talk about pedagogy – to dive deep into the processes of teaching and learning – What are we teaching? How are we doing it? And why?

The December 2021 edition of TDPT (12:4) reflects a movement towards working with educational research methodologies to interrogate our pedagogies – McNamara’s work with Bloom’s taxonomy (528-540), Aujla’s action research (482-499) and Mircev’s critical pedagogy (540-554). Harnessing this momentum, I propose we make space to think about our work as embodied critical pedagogy or liberatory pedagogy or post-critical pedagogy (more on this later). We know that what we offer students goes far beyond technique. That, at its best, it can open up questions about how to be, how to see, how to feel; to nurture what Anne Bogart describes as ‘civic responsibilities’ through the practice of art (2021). It is a great privilege to share in this deep discovery yet, at the same time, a great responsibility that has become increasingly complex – an entangling that can feel like treading on eggshells, can steal energy and sap joy.

I’d like to talk about pedagogy and mine the potential of embodied knowledge intersecting with educational practice. I’m sure, like me, you have many questions.  Let’s work together to find some answers or to ask better questions.

On Freedom and Pedagogy:

Here’s a biggie to start with:

At this cultural moment what does freedom mean in relation to training practices?

In Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint she problematises the word ‘freedom’ whose meaning is not universal or self-evident, citing Foucault’s call for ‘practices of freedom’ as the ongoing work needed to agitate against the mechanisms of Advanced Capitalism (2021,6). The current outcry against systems of oppression and acts of abuse in actor training institutions demands a radical revisioning of what training is, who it is for and how it happens; it is time to look for different ways to navigate, different architectures and different materials. Paulo Freire noted that ‘Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.’ i.e. not by the teacher gifting the student knowledge but by the student taking control of their process of learning (2000,29). Whilst I recognise that you can’t give someone freedom, set someone free, I am driven by the idea that teaching performance practices might enact practices of freedom.

When I use the term critical pedagogy I am drawing on the work developed by Paulo Freire, first in Brazil with oppressed communities, which paved the way for teaching approaches that foreground marginalised groups, including, but not limited to, feminist, queer and race pedagogies. A liberatory pedagogy allows us to critique oppressive power structures in order to activate alternative ways of being. Recognising that any overview can be reductive, certain tenets can be seen to characterise this learning exchange:

  • Students critique the mechanisms of power at work in language, behaviour and representation to understand how oppressive marginal positions are constructed and to re-imagine the status quo
  • The negative view of ‘the other’ is challenged to seek empowerment where there is difference
  • How you teach something is as important as what you teach
  • There is the aim to flatten power structures
  • There is a commitment to develop the individual’s political, personal and social awareness
  • To recognise the complexities of problems as opposed to seeking conclusions
  • To take notions of difference and particularity as productive sites for resistance  

When we shift our focus away from ideas of technique in training and focus on the ‘hidden curriculum’, the personal and social knowledges, or dispositional qualities produced beside technique the developmental learning exchange of performer training can be re-considered as critical pedagogy.

Looking beyond methodologies, pedagogic research offers us ways to re-examine the effect of our co-constitutive praxis. Over the last decade my research has mapped an alternative female genealogy of training, looking at the work of women practitioners through the lens of feminist pedagogies. I want to address the lack of alternatives to the dominant white male lineages in the canon; the lack of visibility of women’s practices; the historical absence of focussed research into pedagogy.  My book Act As A Feminist: Towards a Critical Acting Pedagogy interrogates the matter of training, with chapters on women working in voice, movement, acting and directing (2021). My focus is the politicising potential of training, working from Eve Sedgwick’s alternative ‘beside thinking’ (2003,8) to consider the personal and social knowledges of acting learnt beside technique. What, for instance, happens when we consider gender as technique?

Returning to a central idea in critical pedagogy, that how you teach is more important than what you teach, certain tenets of feminist thinking, observed through the pedagogies of women practitioners, shape some alternative architectures which enable practicing freedom in training. For example, working with feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s affirmative position to harness the potential of the ‘positivity of difference’ and ‘vital materialism’ can be seen as a practice of freedom (2011,161). Translating this into what I term the via positiva, an alternative position to learning through play and failure, based on love and support, takes Braidotti’s theory into pedagogic practice. Another possibility is to work with feminist physicist Karen Barad’s concept of ‘agential realism’ (2003,814). This offers a powerful alternative to the fetters of mimesis and representation that have troubled feminist thinking. Guiding students to recognise diffraction as a liberating alternative to reflection, where every interpretive action offers us choice in how to represent multiplicity and changeability, challenges hierarchical thinking and reveals our biases. In the studio or rehearsal room this can explode the possibilities when working with narrative, character and text. These are just a couple of alternative positions that can give momentum to practicing freedom in our pedagogies.  

The work of the women practitioners I have had the privilege to observe has opened up exciting possibilities for alternative training curriculums and ways of teaching. What if we did things differently? What if, instead of teaching the same canon the students explored Kristine Landon Smith’s ‘intracultural actor’ or Niamh Dowling’s ‘nomadic actor’ or the late  Ali Hodge’s ‘relational actor’ (Peck, 2021). What if movement, voice and acting were taught beside each other to synthesize the knowledges of acting, investigating what ‘readiness’ means for example in each of these domains? I’m excited to be part of a new era in training, with possibilities and opportunities to develop new ways of thinking through our pedagogies as practices of freedom.

20 Questions:

In the Comeback section of the Blog, a group of practitioner/scholars responded to the Special Issue (TDPT 11.3) titled: Against the Canon. The editors thought through how studio practice could work with the edition as a stimulus. One statement stood out to me:

Don’t just decolonise the curriculum, decolonise the pedagogy.

We need to make space to talk about how to do this.

Let’s play 20 questions. I’d like to find ways to work through these with others:

(Big umbrella question)

What works? What doesn’t?

What research methods can we use to analyse and evaluate our pedagogies?

How does research in education intersect with training pedagogies?

How do we understand the term critical pedagogy in relation to training?

How can we capture and write about the teaching and learning exchange?

How do we foreground the politics of identity in our work?

How can assessment be decolonised?

What do we mean by a safe space and what do we do to try to create and maintain it?

How do we manage the power dynamic in teacher student relationships?

How is pedagogy about love?

What are the types of language that we use in the teaching/learning exchange?

How has the language we use changed and how might it continue to change?

How can working with time and space affect the learning exchange?

How do we work consciously with choice in the learning exchange?

How do we perform teaching? How does teaching perform us?

What is feedback?

How can peer learning be effective?

What are examples of assignments?

What are learning intentions and how can we make them useful?

Who are the teachers on whose shoulders we stand?

And that’s just for starters. I’m calling on all those who want to talk about pedagogy, who want to build a community of practice that grapples with difficult questions about teaching and learning to gather in. To start with, let me know what questions seem most urgent, intriguing or troubling; what questions I’ve missed. Come and join the TaPRA Performance Training event at the University of Sussex on May 20th, where we will be thinking through how we work with structures of choice in our training practices to enable critical embodied pedagogy. You can view details of this event on the TaPRA website:

Tickets are free to TaPRA members, but numbers are limited. Non-Members of TaPRA will have to obtain membership to attend (£18 standard rate, £10 concessions for postgraduates and non-affiliated researchers).  Please book via Eventbrite at: