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Education feature: Scoping Study of the Performing Arts

Talent, vision and miscrecognition

Mark Seton

Mark Seton is doing a PhD in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. He has lectured in the School of Contemporary Arts at the University of Western Sydney and is an InterPlay practitioner.

Professional recognition can be both advantageous and restrictive. Levinas once wrote of the “guardedness” of recognition: “To communicate is indeed to open oneself, but the openness is not complete if it is on watch for recognition. It is complete, not in the opening to the spectacle of or the recognition of the other, but in becoming a responsibility for him.”

In January this year, CREATE (Culture Research Education and Training Enterprise) Australia, released its first “Scoping Study of the Performing Arts” to invigorate discussion about the development of a national training package leading to nationally recognised qualifications.

The study, carried out during 2002, had 4 objectives: to determine the application and scope of an Industry Training Package for the performing arts industry; to identify the vocational education and training opportunities available to performing arts professionals and ways that education and training might help standardise skill and knowledge levels and improve employment and career options; to identify new and emerging employment opportunities, career and training pathways for performing arts professionals and the competencies that will assist them to take advantage of those opportunities or create new ones; to identify a qualifications framework for the sector which will provide flexible pathways for new entrants into the sector.

CREATE, the national industry training advisory body for the cultural industries funded by the Australian National Training Authority, specifically develops and coordinates cultural industries training across Australia. Its training packages apply only to the vocational education and training sector which cover the many occupations not covered by university training. The study identified certain vocational concerns that emerged during State and territory based consultations and a national focus group (consisting of representatives from NICA, Ausdance, Accessible Arts, MEAA, NSW Ministry for the Arts, NIDA, Arts Queensland, Fuel4arts, Actors College of Theatre and Television, Sydney Theatre Company, NAISDA, ATQ, and Terrapin).

Vocational concerns emerging from the study included the growth of casualisation, short-term employment and project-based arrangements, as well as significant changes, both nationally and internationally, in information and knowledge technologies, globalisation, popular culture and the “need to balance commercial and artistic imperatives.” In its recommendations, the study advocated the design and implementation of a National Training Package, particularly to prioritise Indigenous participation, the articulation of the creative process, and “the relationship between artform, genres and techniques.”

It should be acknowledged that, in any form of “curriculum” modelling or workplace context, certain identities, forms of knowledge and professional workers are privileged over others. It may be just more clearly delineated with competency-based training (CBT). Dr Pauline James (University of Melbourne) in an article, The Double Edge of Competency Training: contradictory discourses and lived experience cautions that despite the extensive use of CBT little empirical research has been undertaken in Australia on the consequences for the many stakeholders involved. She notes:

“While CBT seems to be meeting the requirements of its many stakeholders very effectively, there is a shadow the ways in which certain enterprises, workers, worker identities and forms of knowledge appear to be privileged over others. Some of these processes of marginalisation, while apparently helpful to enterprises in the short term, may be detrimental to their long-term interests.”

There is already a privileging of certain ‘categories’ of performance in the various definitions of ‘performing arts’ elicited from stakeholders in the study who commented, “In a general sense, the performing arts is an industry centred around the communication of ideas, with a focus on human performance and interaction with an audience. This clearly distinguishes it from object-based artforms such as the visual arts.”

According to the report, “Performing arts [occurs] when skilled and crafted artists present various forms and fusions of creative expression in a performance to fee paying individuals as audience, spectators or onlookers. Performance [is] a three dimensional representation whereby artists/entertainers seek to engage and stimulate the audience, spectators or onlookers by evoking emotions through use of multiplicity of sensory and cognitive provocations...”

Such attempts to define the performing arts may ‘misrecognise’ that as Bourdieu puts it “...the definition of the writer (or artist, etc) is an issue at stake in struggles in every literary (or artistic, etc) field.” Thus, in spite of appearing to be a unified field, the performing arts ‘industry’ is really a site of struggle over who determines the dominant understanding of necessary activities, abilities and aptitudes.

The study also acknowledged an important debate concerning the suitability of CBT for “‘creative’ performing arts vocations.” While competency standards might be developed for ‘hard’ skills, such as production and technical work, it would be difficult to establish standards for the teaching and assessment of ‘vision’ and creativity. Furthermore, there are characteristics of a performer that are intrinsic and therefore cannot easily be learnt or assessed. Some believed that certain “building block skills could be taught and assessed and that these would assist the development of other ‘more elusive skills’.” In the national forums, researchers argued that judgements on aesthetic performance were always based on criteria whether implicit or explicit, while forum facilitators suggested that standards could assist in describing these more explicitly. Even within the rubric of a competency-based market-response model of training, a kind of ‘excess’ or ‘intangible’ experience or encounter was acknowledged as part of what contributed to valued performance.

Teachers of performance, artistic directors and agents are constantly looking to recognise explicit or implicit ‘signs’ of this intangibility. In the Western Australian submission, stakeholders agreed that,“...there is an element of being a performer that cannot be described and that is the talent or the ‘unknown’ which makes a performer a good performer. Whether you can then describe a performer who doesn’t have this ‘je ne sais quoi’ as competent is debatable as this is what makes a performer able to satisfy audience requirements.”

This illustrates another potential “misrecognition.” ‘Talent’ is predominantly understood as the ‘givenness’ of the performer rather than as experience of something unique ‘generated’ through encounter between performers and audiences. The difficulty is that these experiences and apparent skills are elusive to discuss. There is a sense of everyone making intuitive choices and ambiguous judgements. However, there is a moment when all this is rendered concrete and very real. For example, when ‘acting’ bodies perform for other ‘expectant’ bodies. The actor and audience ‘resolve’ all this ‘in the moment’, through a massive, synthetic, forgetful embodiment. Moreover, this is not simply a matter of an isolated agent ‘solving’ an acting problem, etc. Rather, such artistic practice is fundamentally and irreducibly, inter-actional. It operates across and between people, or more explicitly, between bodies, rather than residing in or emanating exclusively from only one stakeholder, such as the actor.

Opportunities are needed to discuss such misrecognitions. James concludes in her study of CBT that, “locating spaces within the workplace to incorporate and encourage alternative discourses, meanings, knowledges and perspectives on training, in the long-term, as well as the short-term interests of the many stakeholders involved, is important professional work.”

“The Performing Arts Scoping Study” is worthy of much critical reflection and dialogue between practitioners, employers and educators, as CREATE awaits responses to the study from the performing arts communities. The study can be downloaded from the Reports menu on CREATE’s website,

Mark Seton is doing a PhD in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. He has lectured in the School of Contemporary Arts at the University of Western Sydney and is an InterPlay practitioner.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 12

© Mark Seton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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