We emailed a small group of established artists working in performance seeking their attitudes to recent graduates, what role the university has to play in this complex interdisciplinary field, and what sustains performance practice. It quickly became clear that they saw the university as only one step in the process of making the artist and as not always in touch with performance’s interdisciplinary character. Key words like ‘community’, ‘ensemble’ and ‘apprenticeship’ recur, with a strong emphasis on physical rigour and embodiment. It’s interesting that most of these artists also teach through workshops, training young artists to work with them. Opportunities are few, but where they exist they are vital for the continued development of a field that provides the most innovative work coming out of Australia.
For David Pledger, Artistic Director of Melbourne’s NYID, “the bone of contention is the real distance between curriculum and contemporary arts practice.” He thinks the educational adherence to discrete artform practice constitutes a failure to understand what it means to develop an interdisciplinary, intermedia approach. He sees this as a refusal to acknowledge that the contemporary world is intertextual. It is time, he says, that mission statements for training in tertiary education should commit to interdisciplinary practice. Pledger suspects that the university is not the best model for teaching performance. He’s impressed by the Giessen School of Arts, Germany “with its fantastic combination of theory and practice, a balance thrashed out in the creating of the work. Its graduates move out into arts centres across Europe.”
Training is not about skills alone. Pledger describes contemporary culture as “elusive and less and less prescriptive. Artists have to learn the dramaturgy of the ephemeral—how to meet and read the world on a daily basis and how to incorporate that into the way they work. In pre-rehearsal meetings we talk about the politics of the everyday...the landscape is articulated, made known and added to by everybody and parts of the work are then made on the floor.”
NYID runs its own training programs in the form of an annual workshop which attracts performers, videomakers, choreographers and dancers. The focus is on working with the body and voice “as well as developing a vocabulary through discussion for mediating performance.” Does the prior education of workshop participants inhibit their response? Not at all, says Pledger, “they know our work, they’ve made the commitment to come and they’re curious.”
As for the future of performance, Pledger is not anxious about any shortage of graduates eager to engage with performance. He is critical of the focus on the growing ‘star’ system in the major schools but is nonetheless impressed with WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts) graduates. “They seek you out and want to know how things get done...they want to make art and they believe there are many ways of expressing themselves, not just one way, which is almost impossible to unpack.”
Tess de Quincey
Performer and choreographer Tess de Quincey also focuses on the value of the training that happens outside the university, although she sees the academy as having a vital supporting role to play, if, sadly, a declining one. She reflects, “When I look back over my own practice and its development, I realise that I’ve absorbed knowledge and experience and been brought up by a series of families via a system of apprenticeship. Like anyone’s, it’s a wonky history filled with crooked turns, winding paths and strange niches. I have no tertiary education qualifications or certificates and have learned instead in the field within a variety of schools of discipline (dance, visual arts, theatre, music and martial arts) and, after a crisis of belief, found myself becoming more ensconced in eastern performance practices.” Min Tanaka’s Body Weather training in Japan gave De Quincey “the depth of philosophical cohesion and lucidity which has provided for me the pivotal base with which to act, with which to embrace instability, allowing an exploration of multiplicities and of exchange.” Like David Pledger, De Quincey sees a role for performance in dealing with contemporary ephemerality.
Detecting a change in attitude towards creativity in Australia, De Quincey writes, “In 1988 when I first came to work in Australia there seemed to be a flourishing environment, a lively bank of quirky suspects investigating arts practices...through a mixture of both institutionalised learning [and] a wide range of workshops and other methods of exchange. There’s been a drastic shift since then. From my position, I see a dominant, sanitised and politically correct march of institutionalisation...” There are havens of support. De Quincey is full of praise for Sydney University’s Department of Performance Studies for many years—“I couldn’t have done it without them.” She says of Performance Space that “against all odds, this amazing and vibrant community is continuing to provide a home and a framework for new generations...I was embraced [by that community]. That was the pivotal point that enabled me to develop a practice.”
Ira Hal Seidenstein & Frank Theatre
Performer and director Ira Hal Seidenstein, who is writing a PhD thesis on “creativity’s impact on professional learning in acting” responded to our survey with Jacqui Carroll and John Nobbs of Frank Productions, a Brisbane company inspired by the methodology of Suzuki Tadashi. They acknowledge that graduating students are often skilled, but question, “What is beyond and underneath the skills?...Perhaps the learner/actor in a university course...is not focused on the phenomenon of what they are actually doing, in real time, in their body, in physical action including vocal action, which is also a physical phenomenon. If the actor, novice or experienced, is not fully physically engaged in body, voice and mind then the possibility of ‘ensemble’ is ethereal and not grounded in technique and shared training, and therefore not a realistic goal.”
They write, “...it is rare to see a commitment in curriculum or teaching that addresses embodied acting, in an embodied way. The university education lacks training. That is, specific, daily, learning of one or several techniques over three-years of study.” They suggest that most courses are samplers rather than focused training. The Suzuki Actor Training Method is their ideal because “it supersedes the liminal gap between teaching and embodiment. “
Goddard, Artistic Director of Hobart’s is theatre ltd, recalls a time in Tasmania when “performers used to be developed through regular employment—this is increasingly rare.” As well he feels that, “The relationship between (arts training) schools and the field seems exceptionally weak. Where students of technical theatre spend their last year in secondments, forging relationships and experiencing a range of workplaces, performance courses tend to actively discourage people learning or making work outside of their institutional framework.” University courses, Goddard thinks, are good for helping with career choices and theoretical underpinning. “They are ‘jumping off’ places but do not provide depth or practice.”
In Tasmania training and performance opportunities, says Goddard, are few, and they are dependent on a handful of companies like IHOS Opera, Terrapin and is theatre ltd who run their own training programs. “Consequently, when we make work, we have access to experienced, practising local artists to draw on. If you want to do any kind of show here, you have to be the trainer as well as the producer. The people developed through these processes are now making their own work for festivals and fringes and returning value to the community which developed them.” Goddard says of these process that “they are more like apprenticeships than tertiary trainings.”
Performance director Nikki Heywood discussed a range of graduates including Benjamin Winspear and James Brennan, describing them as “extraordinary artists who would stand out” in any teaching institution. Winspear, ex-NIDA, is directing for the Sydney Theatre Company’s Blueprints program and performed impressively in Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer and Kate Champion’s Same, same But Different. Brennan, ex-VCA, is the creator of the award-winning Piglet and The Glass Garden (see page 45). Heywood says of these artists that they have “unique talent”, “wild imaginations.”
James Brennan wrote to Heywood after he saw her Burn Sonata and let her know he was graduating. Now she’s working with him and with Agatha Goethe-Snape on a new show, and as dramaturg with Karen Therese (VCA) and Karina Stammell (UNSW) who both have works in this year’s Carnivale. In the past, she’s worked with David Williams (UWS) and Matthew Whittet (NIDA). All of them, she says, have a “proactive attitude” and most have approached her to work with them. Heywood is also impressed by their flexibility and openness and the way they can switch performance styles on demand. She’s not sure how they manage it and knows that some have found it challenging. She thinks that the VCA’s Animateuring course has shown some interesting results. “I also can’t speak highly enough of companies like PACT Youth Theatre and the great start they give with the training they offer. Costa Latsos who’s currently at UNSW I first met there.” Also, the expertise of teachers with backgrounds in contemporary performance like Clare Grant (UNSW) and Yana Taylor (UWS) is invaluable.
Heywood’s main gripe is that in general tertiary education courses “lack the rigorous physical training that gives people tools to make new works.” She has also encountered a lack of passion in students and is surprised that they don’t get out and see what’s happening in the artworld they aspire to. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell why they’re studying contemporary performance.” Others, she senses, are eagerly looking around for methodologies they can work with. She points out, however, that experienced artists can sometimes be reluctant to share too freely the skills that are their bread and butter. There are exceptions, for example, she notes the “incredible generosity” of Margaret Cameron in her workshops with writers.
* * *
The relationship between universities and performance will continue to be a challenging one when it comes to the issue of training. The kind of commitment to rigorous physical programs sought by the artists in this survey would not fit easily into current curricula. However, there is no doubt that the growth of performance studies has been invaluable, not only for the theoretical support it has provided and, sometimes, the practical space, documentation and room for experiment offered.
RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 14
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org