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education and the art: performance

creative release, creative limits

maryrose cuskelly: era, artstart & the performing arts

Maryrose Cuskelly is a Melbourne writer with a background in the performing arts. She is currently working on a book about skin to be published by Scribe Publications next year.

dancers from Link Dance Co,
WAAPA, performing Chrissie Parrott’s new work Reaching Veldrada, 2009 dancers from Link Dance Co,
WAAPA, performing Chrissie Parrott’s new work Reaching Veldrada, 2009
photo Christophe Cantano

An aspect of ERA (which will assess research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions) that met with approval from all interviewees for this article was the explicit inclusion of practice-led research in the submission guidelines. As Maggi Phillips, Coordinator of Research and Creative Practice at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) says, ‘it’s the first time they’re envisaging artistic practice being accepted as research, so fundamentally, the concept is right.”

Clare Grant is Lecturer in Performance in the School of English, Media and the Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales (UNSW}. Questions are still to be answered regarding how the new ERA system will pan out, she feels, but she is optimistic about its implementation. “As a practitioner, my main goal is to try and get new performance makers out there into the world. It means a lot of keeping up with what’s happening, and occasionally giving dramaturgical support to young people on various kinds of projects.” In the past, Grant says, this had to be done in addition to other commitments demanded of her position. Under the new guidelines, the way UNSW views her work obligations is now more in accord with how she has always understood her role, she says. Her mentoring and dramaturgical work will be recognised, reducing the stress of having to justify time spent in this way.

Jonathan Bollen, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Honours and Postgraduate Co-ordinator, Drama at Flinders, is unsure whether ERA will bring improvements for the artist-academic. Because, he says, ERA is simply a mechanism to allocate resources to universities. Whether there is a positive impact will depend on how universities do their reporting. “ERA may provide a box you can tick for performing arts, but whether it will change how the work is valued in institutions and the ease with which it is undertaken is still unclear.”

peer review complications

Maggi Phillips believes that, on balance, ERA is a positive development. The problem, she says, is in the evaluation method. Peer review is “a very complicated and expensive exercise when looking at everything throughout Australia and all universities.” Research output will be also assessed under the more traditional system, including journal citations, in which practices as diverse as performance, poetry and lighting design will come under the same code. How successfully these methods will evaluate research output, she believes, is yet to be seen.

Peter Hammond, Head of Performing Arts and Lecturer in Theatre at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), is enthusiastic about ERA, believing the changes will “put creative arts on the table and upfront” and he is hopeful that the new system will mean more money filtering into performing arts education. He anticipates problems with the peer review aspect of the assessment, however, particularly for performing artists in remote areas. “What constitutes peer review if those artists are in isolation?” He also found a significant drawback in the initial ERA trial for the humanities and creative arts cluster” “It has been very limiting for us …we have to decide which 20% of outputs are a genuine representation of our creative and research work. I have found that quite difficult, to leave certain artists out and to justify the inclusion of others.”

Will Peterson, Head of Drama and Theatre Studies, Monash University, while concurring with the inclusion of practice-base research, sees potential problems with the peer review aspect of evaluation. Because of the relatively small pool of viable performing arts courses, there exists a high degree of familiarity between practitioners, making anonymous, objective assessment difficult. He also believes that the discipline code system discourages interdisciplinary research and scholarship. His research, for example, might be published in Asian studies, cultural studies or anthropology journals, all of which fall into another discipline code. Under ERA, he says, performing arts academics will be rewarded “for staying in our own little field.”


Graduate artists are the focus of ArtStart, which aims to assist them establish their practice and support their transition from study to career. The Australia Council will administer the program, with 200 successful applicants per year over four years receiving up to $10,000 each. Are grants of this type the best way to help graduating artists and how are performing arts institutions already supporting students with the transition to the industry?

National Institute of Dramatic Art Director and CEO Lynne Williams hopes to further expand what she calls “the pathways into industry” already offered by NIDA. A new initiative was launched this year called Springboard, where recent graduates can collaboratively apply for an opportunity to develop a performance project. The successful groups have access to NIDA’s rehearsal and performance spaces, assistance in technical and marketing areas and a small amount of funding. There are also plans for a mentoring program where graduates are linked up with alumni in their field. Recently, NIDA has attracted Federal Government funds to support a feasibility study into an enhanced program of postgraduate courses and other continuing professional development opportunities for the arts and entertainment industry to further ensure successful and sustainable careers.

Will Peterson remembers how crucial it was for his development as an artist to have the opportunity to develop a work in his early years and would welcome a grant that would facilitate a similar experience for today’s graduates. “You get really hungry when you’ve had that experience once. You will do almost anything to ensure it continues.” He does, however, have concerns for mid-career artists, no longer “flavour of the week”, who also struggle to secure ongoing funding for their work.

Jonathan Bollen, too, welcomes the $9.6 million earmarked for emerging artists and wouldn’t like to see any of this money siphoned off for older artists, because “I teach young people, and I’m interested in the work they do, that’s where my investment is.” In general, he says, ArtStart looks good, particularly if it supports young artists working with each other rather than seeing their skills and ideas incorporated into established companies.

While Peter Hammond supports grants for graduate artists he would like to see the money tied to an educational purpose or a marketing outcome. UTAS’s company, CentrStage, utilises staff from the school of visual and performing arts, professional performers and graduates. Current students also gain valuable experience and training by crewing CentrStage shows. Hammond would like to see CentrStage in a position to expand their one-year salaried apprenticeship program for a selected graduate.

The Monash University Academy of Performing Arts Graduate Theatre Ensemble, under artistic director Peter Oyston, likewise gives students, who are admitted annually by audition and interview, “experience in creating professional theatre and learning industry practices to provide them with a realistic threshold into the performing arts industry as directors, dramaturgs, producers and performers.”

Maggi Phillips believes the transition from education to industry is very difficult “especially for dance and theatre.” However, she’s concerned that the money to finance grants such as those proposed may mean funding falls away in other areas. “For example, if that means that companies and the arts infrastructure are not supported properly… you might have young artists ready for transition but there’s no work to go to.” Rather than offering individual ArtStart grants, a case could be argued, she says, to instead fund programs like WAAPA’s graduate dance company, Link, which BA students can apply to join in their honours year and which Advanced Diploma students can use to convert to a BA.

Clare Grant broadly supports grants to help emerging and graduate artists, but also points to the success of companies like PACT Theatre in developing the practice and skills of young artists and is keen to see the support and funding it gets continue. However, she says, each year several young artists graduate from UNSW without developing links with projects such as PACT’s and they, especially, may well benefit from a grant that provides them with the space and time to consolidate their work.

Clearly, there’s enthusiasm among academic-artists about ERA but much has yet to be resolved about peer review procedures and the scheme’s artform categories—where, for example, does interdisciplinary work, so central to the arts these days, fit? It seems unwise to place limits on creativity at the very moment you acknowledge it as research. ArtStart has also had a broadly positive response, but given the collaborative nature of much theatre and dance, and various schools’ establishment of graduate companies, the value of implementing small, individual ArtStart grants will need serious consideration.

Maryrose Cuskelly is a Melbourne writer with a background in the performing arts. She is currently working on a book about skin to be published by Scribe Publications next year.

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 8

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

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