The brain shifts gear

Jane Woollard

Deborah Leiser-Moore, Here and There—Then and Now

Deborah Leiser-Moore, Here and There—Then and Now

Theatre practitioners are undertaking postgraduate study in universities round the country. Creative doctorates, Master’s degrees and PhD work by research and practice appear to be choices many artists are making after some years in the industry. A range of reasons came up when I spoke to those engaged in postgraduate research, but all spoke of the riches of having the time to go deeper into theory behind their practice, and of the access to the resources of a university.

Vanessa Pigrum

Director and performance maker Vanessa Pigrum is mid-way through an MA in Animateuring at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). After some years as Artistic Director of the Melbourne Fringe, event management, teaching in the tertiary sector and following the birth of her daughter, she decided to pursue an MA part-time and “juggle it” with her other projects. The MA has allowed her to pursue “an eccentric interest”, examining how structural models from music and the visual arts can be adapted for the process of making theatre. “After working in the field for over a decade I started to feel I was able to apply skills I had built up into a range of activities. You find yourself slipping into being a gun for hire, applying the skills you have to what’s in front of you. There were very few pet projects. The practical concerns override your inner creative drive. I was saddened by the lack of space for applying myself to projects—to be able to follow them through.” Pigrum also values the support of her supervisor. “It has been very encouraging to know that my mentor is (almost) as involved in my research as I am and will push me to be more thorough, more daring, more circumspect.”

Anna Tregloan

Anna Tregloan is a set and costume designer also completing an MA in Animateuring at VCA. “A lot of what I do is show-oriented and has a quick turn around. It has been good to take time with the MA.” She explains that she has been “working practically in aesthetics for a long time but hadn’t had a chance to do academic and philosophical research.” The structure of working within academic parameters freed her to explore the link between her practice and the principles underlying her work. “As much as you’d like to take yourself off to the library, it’s good to have a construct to do that within—that pushes you along.”

Kim Bastin

Composer and director Kim Bastin has this year begun work on a PhD at Latrobe University through the Theatre and Drama Unit. “I’ve been working very hard for the last 19 years and arrived at creative burnout last year. I wanted to give myself a period away from creative work in order to revitalize my energies and have time to reflect on my creative practice.” Her PhD examines the practical question of “how theatre directors and musicians communicate across 2 very different disciplines. I am also looking at how music works within current theatre practice; what it does, how it creates meaning, how it supports narrative and emotion.”

Sam Haren

The opportunity to explore both theory and practice appealed to director Sam Haren, who is doing his PhD at the Flinders Drama Centre in Adelaide. Researching the work of the Wooster Group and Romeo Castelucci and the connection between place and performance. “I’m looking at how dwelling in a place culturally influences the company and the work they make. The PhD is in part researching these organisations, but there is also a practical component looking at the way I work in Adelaide—how this place effects my own work.” Haren has relished the opportunity to continue an extension of learning, “to feed the work that I’m doing”, as he continues his freelance work as a director alongside his PhD studies.

Deborah Leiser-Moore

Director and performer Deborah Leiser-Moore also took the chance to further her own work through an MA at Victoria University. “When you’re in that spin of working, working, you don’t have the chance to sit back and you don’t get interrogated in the same kind of ways.” Leiser-Moore’s MA has been mainly practical, and examines the passing down of ritual from one generation to another in Jewish and Muslim culture. She created a video installation and performance piece which used the ritual of the wedding as a centrepiece. Extensive research and development took place over a period of 4 years as she juggled other work commitments and parenting her young son. The project and resources of the university enabled her to learn how to edit video. “I was able to move my work to a different place—I was excited by changing the form of my work. When you’re making new work and funded by the funding bodies you don’t try new things because you’re not being funded to do something new, but something you can already do.” This can lead to a kind of stagnation, as the pressure of working to project demands in short timeframes means artists draw on their existing skills, rather than going deeper, or developing new abilities.

Ralf Rauker

Performer Ralf Rauker has commenced a PhD at Edith Cowan University, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) while he teaches full-time in Contemporary Performance. He is familiar with combining a theoretical and practical approach. For him, “research was always very much connected with my artistic interest to make a performance or develop performance training.” His PhD revolves around Brecht’s first play, Baal, and has a practical component which will involve 3 different productions based on Voyages of the God of Happiness by Brecht. Why Brecht? “I love Brecht! I hate Brecht! I want to know more about Brecht! For my work as a lecturer and an artist it is an essential struggle, to confront myself with his work. Trying to find out what political theatre means at the beginning of the 21st century I want to learn from Brecht’s enormous influence on political theatre during the 20th century.” However Ralf Rauker’s attitude to Brecht remains critical. “I want to find out what I can use from his legacy and what is not relevant for me today. And in the future I want to ask the question again and again: Why Brecht?”

Kit Lazaroo

The question of linking 2 worlds come up in a different way for writer Kit Lazaroo as she reflects on the first 12 months of her PhD work with the East Timorese Hakka community in Melbourne. She explains, “a number of the East Timorese had been asylum seekers for up to 10 years and had never been given any certainty about the outcome of their cases. I wanted to research the impact of that uncertainty upon wellbeing.” As part of her PhD, Kit meets with members of the community each week to hear their stories of Timor, and to share craft activities. “Because I practice in the worlds of medicine and playwrighting, research into the lives of the East Timorese refugees seemed like a way of bringing those things together—to examine the subject of wellbeing on the one hand, but doing it through story-telling on the other. But I didn’t think it was going to result in me developing myself as a playwright—that realisation has come more recently.”

Challenges

Most of the practitioners I spoke to were comfortable with combining performing arts practice with academic work. Many were stimulated by new ways of confronting their own practice, of being presented with a fresh set of questions to ask. Deborah Leiser-Moore says it “is a rigorousness you would never ask of yourself. It’s so exciting.” Anna Tregloan has also combined a practical component in her MA with a written component which she is “struggling through” at the moment. “To work within certain academic parameters I often found to be counter-intuitive. But in the end I would come up against these research boundaries and keep on going. It has been fantastic to be freed of the product oriented nature of the task of making a show.”

The question of resources and practical support is a major one for theatre makers. Sam Haren also makes the point that “as independent artists you are looking for ways to practice and to have professional development and extension of your practice.” The practical aspect of his PhD is an opportunity to “accelerate an academic understanding of a proposal—like a litmus test.” He is also conscious of the historical legacy of undertaking postgraduate research. “The whole idea of a PhD is that you’re extending the theoretical knowledge of the field you’re working in.” He says that financial considerations (“Do I need to get a job at the call centre?”) have played a role in his decision to go on with the PhD. “However, if I had to pay HECS and didn’t have a scholarship then I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”

Anne Thompson

Anne Thompson, who works mainly as a director after many years as a dance practitioner, is completing her PhD at Flinders University. Unlike the other artists I spoke to, she has done a “straight PhD.” Her subject of enquiry has been white performance and reconciliation. “I was interested in exploring what it was to be white in Australia. My experience in contemporary dance had never confronted me with cultural politics. I had engaged with feminism and the body, but the issue of racism felt like an unthought through area for me.” Her work has been entirely written with no practical component. Anne Thompson had been freelancing for a couple of years and didn’t like taking work that she “didn’t feel happy with at the end.” She applied for a scholarship for the PhD study “to buy me some time. It is a way of self-funding.”

Thompson has worked extensively in the performing arts and education, and believes there is a good relationship between the sectors. She has been charged and changed by the experience of academic research. “It trains your mind. If I did 6 years of an intensive dance style it would train my body in a particular way. I think differently now. There is a stamina and rigor in relationship to ideas. My brain has been shifted into a different shape.” The solitariness of the work of postgraduate research has not troubled her. Her work as a dancer and choreographer means she is used to working in a self-motivated, disciplined way. “The parallels are clearer to me in the dance sense, because of the discipline of dance and having to shift yourself into the pedagogy that’s presented.”

The academic impact

How has the academic study affected their practice? Vanessa Pigrum’s piece, The things you cannot know opens in August in Melbourne as part of her MA work. “I am hoping to get out of it a new process to share with other artists.” Anna Tregloan says, “I went back and read postmodernist theory and theatre history that I hadn’t read in years and theories that I hadn’t come across—all this has broadened the understanding of my practice and clarified the doing of it.” Kit Lazaroo is still formulating what the work will mean to her practice as a writer. “I’ve always felt that I write plays because I’m this odd person and I don’t mix very well with other people—it’s something I need to do to get through life. Now I can see in a more general way that it’s something that other people share and it answers something quite deep in people. How it will actually affect my writing I’m not sure yet.” Ralf Rauker too can only guess at outcomes for his own practice. “I’m just at the beginning of my postgrad work and I don’t know yet how it will influence me as a practitioner. I don’t want to get irritated by the formal aspects of doing a PhD. The academic world and the world of an artistic practitioner are different, but this does not mean that communication is impossible. Because I want to continue to work as a university lecturer I will build bridges in my own thinking and doing, between those 2 worlds. As an artist I know how fruitful creative chaos can be, but I also know how important it is in performance work to organise your material. In a way the PhD is an exercise in how to organize my research and how to connect it with my performance work.”

Kim Bastin feels the tension between the two worlds more acutely. “I am attempting to produce something that doesn’t require a higher degree to be understood, or will only be of use to academics. I don’t want to get so immersed in theory that I won’t have the confidence to create anything when I go back to my practice.” Lazaroo also expresses the difficulty of blending 2 approaches in a project. “I had this dream I was given a can of sardines, and I had to put the sardines in a blender and as I walked to the blender I’d opened the tin and the sardines were alive and they had little budgerigar heads with beaks and they were biting my fingers trying to stop me taking them to the blender.”

Industry impact

How might the numbers of arts practitioners with postgraduate qualifications affect the industry as a whole? Anna Tregloan feels that theatre in Australia “lacks a great deal of philosophical discussion about itself. In comparison with the visual arts there is very little discussion on and around it. If more debate and discussion begins to happen around theatre as an artform then I’d like to participate.” Sam Haren’s hopes that increased numbers of performing arts practitioners undertaking postgrad research will enable artists to have “a greater awareness of context and the history of their field.”

Personal motives

The commitment to postgraduate research has come out of deeply personal reasons for each of the artists I spoke to. Vanessa Pigrum asked herself, “Are you still in the game or not? Are you going to take an easier road, or the opportunity to keep your artistic self stimulated and active?” Sam Haren spoke of a desire to “Get out of the rat race of getting the next project funding and going into a carefully pursued line of work.” Lazaroo describes how “It’s not a resting thing, it’s a wrestling thing—wrestling with who I am, why do I write, what relevance does my writing have.” Bastin is pursuing her line of enquiry because she is “hoping to have a few more answers to questions I confront in my own practice.” Tregloan believes “it is an artist’s responsibility to be knowledgeable in what they’re doing and to have as complex an understanding as they can manage.” Anne Thompson says the “brain shifting” nature of the work has given her “a clearer sense of my own cultural positioning and my values and where I come from.” It all sounds so very rewarding and constructive, in theory and in practice. Clearly, postgraduate research for theatre practitioners can be a brain shifting challenge that creates a reservoir of meaning for practice.Jane Woollard is a director and writer and Artistic Director of Here Theatre. She completed an undergraduate degree at University of Melbourne and a diploma at VCA in the 1980s and is feeling that her brain could do with some shape shifting at some point in the near future.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 12,

© Jane Woollard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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