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Education feature: training for contemporary performance

A wild space

Keith Gallasch

Talking performance training is like finding yourself in an alternate universe, the familiar suddenly becomes a terrain of possibilities, bristling with unmapped spaces, virgin forests, alien influences, new performative species. Explanatory metaphors fill the air, time and space seem different here. The inhabitants speak of perceptual fields, of performance as thought and about having to learn to sit with ambiguity and uncertainty. Protocol demands you not mention the psychology of motive or the actor’s relation to story, certainly not until a lot of other things are addressed. In this world, the practitioners of contemporary performance and teachers in acting schools and performance-making courses are responsive to both the performer’s complex needs as a body, and to a new world where ways of being, holding space, the very desire to perform and the need to speak, if at all, are pivotal. Here performers are proud of their autonomy and the capacity to collaborate, occupy theatres, galleries, streets, sites, and interact with communities, across cultures and cyberspace. This world is a wilderness, new and uncharted, but like all such places it has its own proliferating laws, methodologies, possibilities and those poly-linguals who speak its languages. The university and the actor training school can be found here too, adapting to the artistic, intellectual and job market demands of the new performance species. They are also instigators, these artist-teachers and fellow travellers, opening out notions of acting and performance. While the very idea that universities should teach contemporary performance is alien to some, Mark Minchinton, actor, dramaturg, lecturer (Faculty of Human Development, Victoria University) proposes that the terrain he and his fellow teachers have opened up (and sometimes fight to preserve) within a university is a “wild space.”

Minchinton says that the 3 year Bachelor of Performance Studies is about performance-making but it is not strictly vocational: it’s for thinkers, makers, performers who are encouraged to “think the performance”, a performance not rooted in traditional forms. He says, however, that the course is excellent preparation for theatre and dance, or, alternatively, for established performers re-thinking their craft. Minchinton himself teaches performance skills, in particular what he calls “performance ethics” explored through team work and collaborative projects mixing first, second and third year students. Individual projects also emerge, especially in the final year when the focus is entirely on making works. By turns the work, he says, is exhilarating and nerve wracking because you’re always asking, What am I doing?” His answer? “Creating and preserving a wild space, re-describing it and protecting it…playing with the university structure…establishing an ethical relationship with it, striving to not be dictated by it.”

The nature of the collaborative projects is up to the artists who teach in the course. “We depend on diverse sessional staff as a guarantee against insularity.” Teachers include Elizabeth Dempster (see page 30), Jude Walton, Margaret Cameron, Margaret Trail, Chris Babinska, and Minchinton himself. Graduates go in many different directions—Pia Miranda into film (Looking for Alibrandi) and theatre (eg Benedict Andrew’s demanding production of Fireface for Sydney Theatre Company), Domenico de Clario into performance art and heading a visual arts department (Edith Cowan University, WA), others go on to further study and training at RMIT in fine arts and multimedia, and the VCA for theatre or dance.

For Bruce Keller, writer, performer and teacher, University of Western Sydney, the Theatre Making (formerly Theatre Theory & Practice) Bachelor of Arts degree is about all kinds of performance—site specific, community, cross-cultural—and alertness to new developments. The course combines study and practice. Keller says that students usually arrive with a rigid notion of theatre. He tells them however, “We’re here to mess with your minds,” opening them up to possibilities, to appreciate the diverse range of performance practice to be found in Sydney. In a university with adjoining music, dance and fine arts departments the cross-disciplinary potential is rich. Keller’s particular pleasure is watching for student epiphanies. He explains that most students when they enrol know that they like the arts, but are not sure what career they want, unlike, say, those students who are accepted into this university’s acting course. It might take a year or 2 of making work before a student hits on what they want to become—that could come from performance, lighting, sound, production management, a community project… Sometimes, he says, it comes out of a very demanding experience. Many students will go on to become teachers, taking with them an expansive and subtle view of performance. What the students gain, he says, is confidence, openness and ideas. Through off-campus projects as part of the course they work with communities and interculturally. These and other experiences provide professional links and industry contacts. Like Minchinton, Keller is emphatic about the value of sessional teachers drawn from Sydney’s performance community: “Students often don’t know it but they’re getting the cream of the Sydney performance milieu.”

Writer and director Richard Murphet runs the performance-making course at the Victorian College of the Arts within the Drama School. It is a 1 year Post-Graduate Diploma in Animateuring (or a 2 year Masters) in collaboration with the Dance School. Murphet sees no polarity between theatre and performance, believing it a continuum entailing “deep, interpretative acting skills.” What is central, he argues is “the figure in space and how text, image, structure, multimedia relate to the performer.” Rather than character it’s “the revelation of presence” as demanded not only by contemporary performance, he says, but the plays of Maria Irene Fornes, late Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Jenny Kemp. For the postgraduate animateur performance-making course, it’s all about “what’s going on in the space”, not the story: “Narrative is only [Hitchcock’s] McGuffin…it’s what’s between the actors that the audience gets off on.” What has to be asked is “what is the grain of the voice?”, “how do you whisper a movement?” The animateurs do 3 or 4 projects involving a solo performance, participation in a production directed by Murphet, facilitation of a work involving first year actors and an independent project of their choice. In these activities the students get to work with composers, choreographers and other artists. In their courses they are taught by Lisa Shelton, Tanya Gerstle, Robert Draffin and Murphet. They observe scene classes with Lindy Davies (page theatre article) and “pick what they want.” Graduates, he says, get work everywhere, with theatre companies, venues, in regional arts, directing, facilitating, performing.

I was curious about what a director expects of the trained performers she works with. Jenny Kemp has produced a unique body of work in Australian theatre that makes very particular demands on her performers who have backgrounds in acting, dance, voice and movement. She has worked recurrently with a number of performers and, significantly, regards them as her collaborators. Kemp articulates her expectations precisely. “Rhythm and timing are to do with intuition. Sometimes they are automatic in a performer, but not always. They have to be nurtured.” There is also the challenge of balance between the vocal, the physical, conceptual and spatial kinaesthetics of performance. “In a very general way”, she says, “tradition leans on the voice. Therefore the text is attended to and not the space” the performer finds herself in. In rehearsal, the performer “has to find a place, a world in which to stand, to inhabit…and must respond to the text spatially. The response should not always be that the performer speaks. Again this is to do with timing which is a kind of umbrella over all the elements of performance.” Kemp thinks that the worst scenario “is a homogeneity of rhythms in a group of actors…They each need their own sense of rhythm and character.” Another expectation is for performers “to sit with uncertainty and ambiguity, to be able to deal with contradictions within the rehearsal process, within their character, within the play. They must accept that a director will make mistakes and will change her mind.” Similarly, they must understand that contrary actions can be played in a character: “It’s obvious, but the actor must sit with complexity and contradiction, must embrace pluralism and difference.” Because the work is group-based, the performer also needs to be patient and tolerant, to keep working when not paid attention or when things are difficult, to have “a certain degree of autonomy.” A key expectation is to “hold form during performance. It’s a standard requirement but it’s not always understood. If the trajectories are strong it always helps.” I ask Kemp about younger performers she’s worked with recently: “I felt the training and the talent…There’s somehting palpable when someone arrives with training. It’s also about curiosity. It has to be there. Sometimes [it’s there] despite the training—which is sometimes developed for something else…It’s about how an actor relates to surfaces and depths, the inside and the social.”

Margaret Cameron is a writer and performer and has been a sessional teacher at the Victoria University for 7 years as well as at the VCA. At the former she teaches voice to first year students, “But not in terms of technique. It’s about the need to have a voice, of finding the need to have a voice, to go straight to the point about articulation. I ask the student, ‘Tell me something exactly.’ The more difficult it is to speak of something, the more interesting it is.” Like Kemp she sees the working group as made up of different qualities. “A performance is many perspectives in a space. The next premise is that space is created by perceptual practice…the intersections of those perceptions. A stage is a frame, a point a view, a window…” Cameron describes our usual state as like having a hand pressed against our face: “you have to push it away to create a space, a performance space in which to play. There is no play without space, no articulation of bits, no movement.” The process then is about “ways to practice perception” and in this she has been influenced by Deborah Hay, the American dancer and teacher she has worked with. After creating the desire to speak, Cameron procedes on to movement, to using the “invisible muscles…breaking every movement into a trillion pieces” by asking questions with no answers and afterwards asking the students to tell her what they felt, their own feedback. “They come back to language as if new. You put yourself in a place of observation minutely, otherwise there is no space. This is about thought and the body as thinker. Thought is the ability to endure ambiguity.”

For Cameron, the unversity “has been an amazing assistance. I use it to work. The university and my students are my collaborators.” At the end of the course? “The students are alone with it”, with what they have learned and become.

There’s a growing tendency for theatre and performance studies departments that are not primarily training oriented to include a practical component to offer students some sense of what it means to devise, produce and perform in a work for an audience and how that relates to what they’ve been studying. Clare Grant, former Sydney Front member, solo performer and actor teaches in the Theatre, Film & Dance Department, University of NSW.

She declares: “There’s nothing to study unless you’ve done it.” Her focus is on performance making, offering students alternatives to the character-based, cause and effect narratives of conventional theatre. Students opting for performance making include those in theatre, performance studies and film, or studying combinations of these for their degree. The Workshop Exercise course, for example, planned in conjunction with other courses, and, choosing from a range of performance types, culminates in a public production. Grant says that if she’s directing, the outcome is “not group-devised”, but “comes from individual imagery,” yielding a multi-layered performance. She amalgamates the individual performances into the finished work. One goal is to develop an awareness in students of “how to present the present moment” and she encourages students to “learn how to work without creating subtext.” Although Grant is not formally training students to be performers, her aim is for them “to be confident and hold the space”, “to look good in that space” and “to have a good experience.” Autonomy is important: “they create the material, they know what the task is.” Students go on to teach, to work with PACT Youth Theatre, a few go to NIDA or the VCA, some to directing, some to postgraduate work on performance.

Sydney performer and a founding member of Version 1.0, David Williams was a Theatre Theory & Practice student at the University of Western Sydney in the 1990s. He contributes his commitment to performance in part to the inspiration of a teacher, Yana Taylor, who insisted that students see contemporary performance, “work out what is” and brought artists from the performance scene to classes. In a course where students were introduced to an electic range of disciplines and “made work within loose parameters”, there was a sense, Williams says, of being able to make choices and to follow a form or an idea to see how you could go with it. As the course progressed “a set of principles for performance, not a style, emerged”, a sense of how to be, to occupy space, alternatives to being a plot-driven character. At it’s best, he says, the course encouraged openness and exploration and interdisciplinary relations with other university departments. There were moments, however, when performance making students felt like the poor cousins of those in the acting course. Some students sought extra-curricular training at a time when Open Season at Performance Space and Contemporary Performance Week at Sidetrack offered short term but critical opportunities for performance and development. Williams laments the passing of these events. The challenge on graduating, he says, was how to develop a practice, rather than a string of projects. PACT Youth Theatre, then directed by Chris Ryan provided the opportunity to perform in directed works and, in response, create one’s own. Williams spent 5 years training in Suzuki with Meme Thorne. Nowadays, as is happening across Australia, it’s improvisation at the Omeo Studio, says Williams, that’s providing a foundation for his practice.

This brief visit to a new otherworld of performance teaching and its nexus with changing attitudes to actor training is a small sample of the many more university departments who are opening up their own wild spaces.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 37-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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