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Two lives in one: theatre making & teaching

Mary Rose Cuskelly

Mary Rose Cuskelly is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She has a background in the performing arts.

Einstein on the Beach Part 1 & 2, (Leigh Warren) design Mary Moore Einstein on the Beach Part 1 & 2, (Leigh Warren) design Mary Moore
photo Tony Lewis
There’s a sour adage coined by George Bernard Shaw many educators would be familiar with: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

It’s a nasty jibe and one that is roundly repudiated by the professional lives of theatre practitioners currently teaching in Australia’s tertiary education sector who retain a commitment to working in the performing arts while mentoring the next wave of directors, actors, animateurs and designers.

Richard Murphet, VCA

For almost all his working life, Richard Murphet, Head of the Theatre Making Department at the Victorian College of the Arts, has combined his work as director and writer with teaching. He has reached a point where, while a permanent employee of the VCA, he can negotiate regular time off in blocks to work on his own projects. This is necessary, he says, because “I’m pretty obsessive, so if I’ve got a group of students, I get completely involved with their work. So it’s not just time, it’s emotional time as well—just getting your head clear.”

He won’t be taking time off from the VCA this year, but he’ll be relieved from teaching duties to act as artistic director and mentor for a project with DasArts, the Dutch performing arts training academy (RT68, p42). The scale of the work is daunting: 24 young artists from VCA and DasArts will travel to North Queensland where, 400 years ago, the Dutch first made landfall in Australia. The students and their mentors will stay with 3 Aboriginal communities in Cape York, before returning to Melbourne. The task is then to create a work based on their research and experiences to be performed as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Murphet likens the process to the Dutch explorers’ voyage all those years ago: crossing vast expanses of unknown seas, not knowing what awaits at journey’s end.

It’s the type of undertaking that being part of an educational institution can sometimes provide. Initiated by the VCA, the project, according to Murphet, demonstrates the commitment the institution has to educators who not only teach the arts, but do the arts. Teaching has provided Murphet with other networks and opportunities. In 1996 he received a National Teaching Fellowship allowing him to travel and establish enduring connections with fellow practitioners in Belgium and Holland. It was also through his work at VCA that he met one of his most crucial collaborators, Lisa Shelton, who was formerly head of movement there.

Mary Moore, Flinders University

Mary Moore, an established theatre designer who teaches in the directing course at Flinders University Drama Centre, has also found herself working on large projects with her institution’s support. Commissioned to produce Memory Museum (RT46, p37), for the Centenary of Federation, she asked the Drama Centre to be a partner in the project. Moore believes the project wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the university. Because of the “immense educational value” of the project due to its experimental nature, the university was willing to allow staff and students to participate.

Moore finds little conflict between her roles as teacher and artist; in fact they complement each other. “I always try and find ways in which [students] can access the industry.” If there are clashes between classes and a rehearsal she has to attend, she will often invite her students along to observe. This provides a definite benefit for her students she believes, giving them an insight into the industry from an insider’s perspective.

Tim Maddock, University of Wollongong

Tim Maddock is busy. He’s formerly from Adelaide where he played a key role in the 1990s theatre scene with Brink (including co-directing a wonderful account of Howard Barker’s The Ecstatic Bible for the 2000 Adelaide Festival). While a relatively new appointment to the position of Performance Coordinator at the University of Wollongong’s School of Music and Drama, he’s also currently immersed in pre-production for The Hanging of Jean Lee (RT 73, p34), a new music theatre work by Andrée Greenwell for The Studio, Sydney Opera House. “It’s proving to be a challenge to manage the time,” he admits, “and I suppose I’m reliant on the university having a flexible enough structure and valuing the notion that I maintain a professional identity in order to be able to continue working as a professional practitioner.”

His involvement in Greenwell’s project came as a result of his role at the university. Greenwell delivered a lecture and had gone on to mentor on a project in the Music and Drama School. Their discussions led to Greenwell inviting Maddock to direct The Hanging of Jean Lee.

Maddock came to teaching through a change in his personal circumstances—he’d had a child and could no longer be quite so casual about earning money. However, a regular income was only part of the attraction: “The proportion of my work being done in universities was increasing...I was supervising productions of plays by Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp and all this interesting stuff and thinking this scope of work and experimentation and creativity going on in the universities feels more alive and more engaged than a lot of the professional practice.”

Helmut Bakaitis, NIDA

Big projects outside the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) aren’t possible for Helmut Bakaitis, Head of the directing school there. Although impressive in Max Lyandvert’s production of My Head was a Sledgehammer in 2001, his commitments mostly limit him to “fairly small cameo roles in the odd movie and television series.” This has meant that his work as a writer has suffered. His drawer, he says, is full of unfinished scripts that he is determined to complete. “My dream is to retire one day quite soon and put down all the ideas in my head on paper or on the computer.” Not that he would want to give up teaching completely. Bakaitis has had a long involvement in youth theatre and continues to be inspired and invigorated by contact with young artists.

Teaching, he says, has helped him develop his skills, particularly as a director and a writer: “I think I was a bit of a touchy-feely type of person and now I’m much more able to be diagnostic and clear in what I want to achieve in conjunction with the artist, which is a skill that I’ve honed through teaching here...Dramaturgy was one of the skills I came with and I’ve continued to develop that through the playwrights’ studio.”

Angela Punch-McGregor, WAAPA

Angela Punch-McGregor was appointed to the role of lecturer in acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at the beginning of this year. She has also taught at most of the other major performing arts institutions in Australia. While well known for her acting work in film and theatre, teaching and directing are her primary focus these days.

She values the support she has from WAAPA, who have a commitment to providing their students with educators who have a profile and standing in the industry. Punch-McGregor describes the interaction with her students as “joyous.” She is also looking forward to the connections and networking that will be available to her as part of what she sees as a global network of institutions teaching the performing arts. South-east Asia, especially, she believes, will provide opportunities for teachers and artists alike given the establishment of European-style performing arts schools in cities such as Hong Kong.

Interplay of roles

For all the interviewees, there was a significant interplay between their dual roles of artist and educator. For Maddock, teaching has made him more “compassionate” as a director as well as forcing him to clarify his communication methods. This is echoed by both Bakaitis and Moore, who, unprompted, also voice the view that teaching has clarified not only the way they communicate, but also their ideas. Bakaitis and Moore also derive tremendous inspiration from contact with their students.

Punch-McGregor finds the roles of teaching and directing are intertwined. As a director she is concerned with “what is going be to visually and audibly most effective...At the same time, if I’m not getting what I want, I have to instruct in order to get that from the performer.”

For Murphet, teaching and creating his own work provide a kind of balance: “I’ve always found they really feed one another fantastically. When I get worn out—just hitting my head against the problems of putting work out—it’s good to go back to teaching. And when I get drained from teaching, it’s good to go out and do my own work.” His students also reap the benefit of having artist-educators by getting an accurate picture of the realities of being an artist. Murphet says, “Every time I go to direct a play...I don’t know how to do it. I start at the beginning and I ask, ‘What’s directing about?’ and then I gradually find it. And that’s fantastic for (the students), because they feel they know nothing and that’s the state you have to be in when you’re doing art.”

Benefits for students

And what else do students gain from having artist-educators? According to Maddock it’s having teachers whose theatre practice is fresh and alive: “I think when you stop doing it, you calcify and your ideas about doing theatre become frozen in time.”

Bakaitis’ view is that it is crucial that performing arts students have educators who are also working in the industry: “All you’ve really got to offer the students is your address book and your contacts and if you can’t give them current contacts, then what’s the point?” Murphet also acknowledges the benefits for students if teachers can plug them into networks, but thinks it’s of greater importance to infuse them with the excitement of constantly interrogating theatre as a form.

For love or money?

Money is always an issue for an artist trying to survive by their art alone, but none of the interviewees would give up teaching completely if project funding came flooding in. Mary Moore, particularly, relishes her working environment: “This particular relationship [with the Drama Centre] is very special...It’s not really about the hours or the remuneration or any of those things. It’s like a company.”

Both Murphet and Bakaitis say they would like more time for their own work but they would grieve the loss of contact with bright, artistically ambitious young artists if they left their positions. Maddock, too, appreciates the university environment’s vitality and the openness to experimentation. For Punch-McGregor, money has simply never been a reason for choosing any particular path: “I regard it as a privilege to work in this industry.” These committed artist-teachers are nurturing students as colleagues, future collaborators and fellow travellers.

Mary Rose Cuskelly is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She has a background in the performing arts.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 2

© Mary Rose Cuskelly; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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