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ARTS EDUCATION: UTOPIAS & HORRORS


Real thinking in an ideal vein

Keith Gallasch:Theatre/Performance


Andrew Carolane, Annabel Marshall-Roth, Article One devised by Bagryana Popov in collaboration with Acting Company 2012, School of Performing Arts, VCA, University of Melbourne Andrew Carolane, Annabel Marshall-Roth, Article One devised by Bagryana Popov in collaboration with Acting Company 2012, School of Performing Arts, VCA, University of Melbourne
photo Jeff Busby
The university can be a haven for the developing performer, a place to learn, fail, experiment and take risks. It can be a site for safe creative interplay between students, lecturer performance makers and experienced artists seeking postgraduate refuge in which to reflect on their careers and to be challenged.

I asked teachers to share utopian visions for the training of students. It was clear they believed they were already achieving much, above all a sense of community, the transmission of expertise, intergenerational exchange and many ways of thinking and making, above all collaboratively, in an increasing range of forms. The common utopian wish is to make the student experience even more experiential, more immersive and more directly related to the industry in which students hope to be employed or, more importantly, that they will in the long-term create, having been trained to be inventive, flexible and independent.

In this scenario, industry comes to the theatre and performance school, participates in projects and recognizes, as Helen Trenos of the University of Tasmania puts it, that students are in fact emerging artists. As Flinders University’s Julian Meyrick argues, It’s time to get some solidarity back into our profession. To remember, that it is a profession, a lifetime’s commitment, not just a market niche…”

Meyrick urges “real thinking in an ideal vein” rather than ‘utopian,’ while Peta Tait at La Trobe University worries that inconsistencies in the tertiary sector risk making the sustained teaching of performance uncertain, with ramifications for the whole industry.

Melanie Beddie, Robert Walton, VCA Theatre

VCA Theatre Lecturers dramaturg Melanie Beddie and playwright Robert Walton emphasise the opportunity in the BFA (Bachelor Fine Arts, Theatre Practice) for students “to enter a community of extraordinary theatre artists all in the process of learning by doing and making.” The “comprehensively trained actor,” they believe, “will ultimately bring about change and improvement in their art form.” At the same time each will continue “to grow as a performer and theatre maker throughout their working life.”

This optimism is predicated on the belief that “the best makers of theatre have emerged from a context of understanding performance through an experiential immersion in it. In other words an embodied dramaturgy. We focus on enabling each year of actors to work well together. Of key importance is the ability to collaborate. The development and practice of the individual’s agency within the group is paramount.”

Beddie and Walton’s approach extends to a political vision: “When they work well, collaborative ensembles can offer models of alternative society, of sites of resistance, anarchy, radical democracy and inclusion. Staff and students repeatedly ask themselves Brecht’s question “what would you do to make the world a better place?” You can’t wait for some fabled time when you will be ‘ready’ to be an artist: rehearsals are never long enough, you could be more skilled, and there is always greater insight just around the corner. We look to the world and respond with what we have, wherever we are in our training. The practice of being an artist starts now: responding extraordinarily with what you have to hand.”

Rather than offering a ‘personal utopia’ of “becoming famous, becoming ‘someone,’” what Beddie and Walton say the VCA offers “is a set of skills that can allow people to live a life seemingly doing what they enjoy. In Marxist terms, working hard but not toiling. Creating standards of good work for oneself and choosing to live up to them is hard. Shouldn’t utopia be easy?”

Rosalba Clemente, Flinders University

Head of Acting and theatre director Rosalba Clemente declares from the outset, “I am not really into utopian visions but more interested in what is possible—what we can do rather than what we can’t…Students need mostly to work with the absolute best practitioners who have articulated, strong working processes and something to actually teach and know how to teach it—how to help students execute their ideas in three dimensional space—this is a huge task.”

As our surveys of film and media arts education indicate, there is a desire for greater connection between schools and their respective industries. For Clemente that would involve an intensive artists’ residency program: “It would be wonderful to have theorists and practitioners working closely with students in an artistic community—made up of playwrights, devisors, directors, actors, designers—being trained towards the making of new work and how to participate in varied processes, dramaturgical and otherwise. In an ideal world one would then have all the production assistance, including high level digital media etc [required] to realise the work—a way to fully test the ideas.” Clemente wonders if “state and federal agencies could fund a revolving schedule of resident artists to work with schools to make a new work a year, teaching and utilising students throughout.”

On the other hand, Clemente is in no doubt that already “we stimulate our students across our theory and practice units to examine many ways of making work. The Co-Creation unit in the acting course aims to stimulate the actor as dramaturg and creator. It would be great to do more of this work. And more…”

Helen Trenos, University of Tasmania

Helen Trenos is Program Director for Theatre in the Visual and Performing Arts faculty at the University of Tasmania. In an exciting move, analogous to the creation of WAAPA’s graduate dance company LINK, Trenos says, “We are currently working towards the formation of a graduate company comprising our Honours and Postgraduate (MFA and PhD) students…to provide students with the opportunity to showcase their own works as well as enabling professional theatre/performance practitioners to work with students to realise a script or devised work.”

Beyond what one could already regard as a utopian move, Trenos, like Rosalba Clemente, would like “the Australia Council and state funding bodies to establish a grant scheme for professional mentors working in tertiary contexts. Professional mentoring is enormously important for emerging artists and university students should not be exempt from this category. They are emerging artists. Mentoring can be equally enriching for those professional artists sharing their expertise and skills.”

Cath McKinnon, University of Wollongong

Playwright and Lecturer in Performance, Cath McKinnon delineates the approach to training in the University of Wollongong’s School of Creative Arts: “we offer different approaches to the development of new work: creating and workshopping original texts; re-writing classic texts; mashing up texts; collective devising from research. Our push is on students developing skills in several areas so that when they leave they can self-start projects.” The aim is “to teach students how to develop an aesthetic and critical conceptual plan that will frame their mad cultural dreams, desires, passions, interests, so that their audiences can engage with a theatrical or film project in ways that are fun, meaningful, whimsical, real, truly felt, exhilarating. We also want our undergraduate students to connect with our postgraduate students, so that they have the opportunity to influence each other. We aim to create a post-graduate ‘space’ that offers writers and devisors reflective time-out from the industry. A place to regenerate, engage with other artists, ponder where they’ve been and where they want to go.”

As for utopia, McKinnon would like to see “the development of a wider cultural environment where the university is the hub (or one of the hubs) of new theatrical or film work; where the university links those just emerging into the industry (undergraduate) and those coming back to the university for some reflection time (post graduate), with the industry itself.” This, she thinks, would develop an environment of “critical collaboration and celebration” where “critical and aesthetic responses to what is happening around us locally and globally are connected in a way that resonates with audiences…In an ideal world the community and various government bodies would celebrate this emerging stage [for students] and support financially those universities whose major concern is training and mentoring writers and performance-makers...”

Peta Tait, La Trobe University

At a time when mining corporations and their ilk demand ‘certainty’ from governments, the creative arts in universities frequently suffer uncertainty. Writer, playwright and editor Professor Peta Tait writes, “My utopian wish is influenced by recent developments at the National Institute of Circus Arts which threaten the continuation of NICA’s degree course and its unique and irreplaceable training opportunities, and my observations over years of how courses in performance have been threatened or weakened or disappeared overnight.

“I want to see studies and training in the arts in the university sector respectfully and appropriately maintained by all tertiary institution managements so that students continue to receive a high level of teaching and learning across a diverse range of art forms.”

Tait argues that a consistent approach is vital not just for students but for the industries “reliant on the graduates from courses offered in the tertiary sector. Therefore a university cannot be allowed to suddenly change direction and/or reject responsibility for a vital area of cultural activity. There is such a wide variation in the approaches of different university managements to artist training even within a single university, and given how crucial this is for Australian culture as a whole, I want to see study and training in the arts guaranteed reliable specialist decision-making which is transparent and consistent over time. The arts need self managed approaches to study and training that fully recognise what is needed to create an artist.”

Julian Meyrick, Flinders University

Writer, director, theatre scholar and now Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, Julian Meyrick argues,“The ‘new’ in and of itself is not accessible as an intelligible performance result except through new relationships” between processes and product. “Everywhere we see something ‘new’ claimed by an old configuration of order, we find a ‘look’ only. Today’s theatre is very good at looking new when, underneath, it’s nothing of the sort.”

If without indicating what the acceptably ‘new’ might look like, Meyrick turns dialectically to the past: “we also need to step back, to identify axioms and foundations, to draw strength from our history, tradition, and lines of generational transmission…It’s important as part of a living conversation that asks us to interrogate our practice as part of an on-going, collective project. That asks us to be more than just individual producers hawking our wares in a saturated cultural marketplace.”

Like Beddie and Walton, Meyrick believes, “We need to equip students with a sense of what the field is actually like but also with the courage and consideration to effect change within it. Utopian thinking alone is not enough. It just feeds fantasies of personal difference—feeds the cultural marketplace. Another generation of industrial fodder would be a disgrace. It’s time to put a little hope back into the system by fostering the possibility of real transformation.” Meyrick suggests that “This double movement—of forwards into the future and backwards into the past—can only come about through a broad and inclusive conversation.” Such a conversation is vital given that artists “have been played off against each other to general defeat. It’s time to get some solidarity back into our profession. To remember, that it is a profession, a lifetime’s commitment, not just a market niche….”

* * * *

Here is the full text of Julian Meyrick's response.
Historians joke ‘all ages are ages of transition.’ Theatre and performance-making is ephemeral in the strictest sense of that word, so naturally the processes they use, the things that get made and the values linking the two are also in a constant state of flux. What should be our response to this as educators?

It should be two-fold. On the one hand, we should be reaching out to new ideas and possibilities. To new relationships, in other words. The ‘new’ in and of itself is not accessible as an intelligible performance result except through new relationships. Everywhere we see something ‘new’ claimed by an old configuration of order, we find a ‘look’ only. Today’s theatre is very good at looking new when, underneath, it’s nothing of the sort.

On the other hand, we also need to step back, to identify axioms and foundations, to draw strength from our history, tradition, and lines of generational transmission. In the Australia context, this is a revolution of thought, a radical and usually unwelcome insistence that the past matters. And it does, though not in the way its detractors fear. The past is not important in itself. It’s important as part of a living conversation that asks us to interrogate our practice as part of an on-going, collective project. That asks us to be more than just individual producers hocking our wares in a saturated cultural marketplace.

This isn’t the time for ‘ideal thinking’ in my view, but for ‘real thinking in an ideal vein.’ That sounds complicated, but it’s a simple thought. We need to equip students with a sense of what the field is actually like but also with the courage and consideration to effect change within it. Utopian thinking alone is not enough. It just feeds fantasies of personal difference—feeds the cultural marketplace. Another generation of industrial fodder would be a disgrace. It’s time to put a little hope back into the system by fostering the possibility of real transformation.

This double movement—of forwards into the future and backwards into the past—can only come about through a broad and inclusive conversation. I am tired of one kind of creative practice being ranked over another, one kind of artist over another. The proclaimed tolerance for diversity just leads to shorter shelf lives for hard-won aesthetics, a higher churn rate of creative practitioners. We have been played off against each other to general defeat. It’s time to get some solidarity back into our profession. To remember, that it is a profession, a lifetime’s commitment, not just a market niche.

We need to look at the politics of our creative practices, not in the sense of being over-determined by non-creative goals, but in being mindful of the forces of the contemporary world that militate against the true artistic life. And there are many. We need to discover not ‘our individual market difference’ but our collective, professional vision. We need to discover what it is to be artists.

Julian Meyrick is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts, Flinders University

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 14,16

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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