Perils of performance pedagogy

Peta Tait

De-Coder, 3rd year performance students, supervised by Meredith Rogers at La Trobe Univerisity

De-Coder, 3rd year performance students, supervised by Meredith Rogers at La Trobe Univerisity

De-Coder, 3rd year performance students, supervised by Meredith Rogers at La Trobe Univerisity

What are the implications of teaching about live contemporary performance when students cannot view performances and cannot read about the productions in what they perceive as the ‘exciting’ theory texts from overseas? This article is concerned with the way that the available resources–publications and productions–might implicitly impact on students’ perceptions of Australia’s performance cultures. These comments are based on teaching performance studies, subjects on postmodernism and embodied performative identity, and a decade of incorporating some study of Australian contemporary performance into theatre and drama subjects.

This discipline field is three-fold: the study and making of contemporary performance, applications of performance theory to widely varied cultural practices, and research questions addressed through performance outcomes. I assume that I do not need to give yet another justification as to the validity of these processes or their distinctiveness from theatre as professional craft for colleague readers. While contemporary performance is experimental, its practitioners would recognise an artistic momentum if not also a movement. Pedagogy needs to convey a sense of a milieu to students as well as considering specific texts and forms. In the extreme, perhaps it should facilitate access to networks something like the intention of the theatre ‘industry.’

I have been wondering what an introduction to, and the study of, contemporary performance means for most younger students who enter our courses as undergraduates attuned to theatre and with little prior exposure to performance? If applications of performance theory or performance research seem to be more successfully taken up at present by individuals in fourth year and postgraduate study, there are undergraduates who gravitate to making performance pieces. However, does performance studies have a lasting effect on these students even if only to become educated audience? Or does it remain university praxis? It seems easier for students of dance and music to engage with a contemporary performance culture.

It is arguable as to whether pedagogy about performance that has happened, and that our students will not see, is teaching about a contemporary milieu. At times I have found myself juggling this odd hybrid of theatre with elements of performance in order to provide students with some sense of the immediacy of live work. Opportunities to see contemporary performance do not necessarily coincide with subject offerings, semesters or geographical location. Copyright problems and financial costs restrict the use of video resources for teaching. Like the study of theatre, the understanding of performance is greatly enhanced by viewing the work. Admittedly, students can see other students’ work developed in class so does it matter if they do not have much opportunity to see performance in the wider artistic context? It may be self-evident but opportunities to see innovative professional performance can impact profoundly on the work students create.

Certainly, contemporary influences on artists are not straightforward, and there can be major restrictions on viewing of innovative performance by other artists. In one extreme example, the Russian director Kama Glinkas told John Freedman that he had created his image-based theatre from his conceptions of Western performance, derived from seeing (still) photographs rather than productions (John Freedman, “Russian Theatre is Not a Time-Killer”, TheatreForum, No. 12. 1998). This is the approach of a mature artist and cannot be assumed to be viable for novices. My colleague, Meredith Rogers, describes this as rendering visible a performance work process, which is common enough but not usually acknowledged.

Here is the crux of my concern. Performance has evolved as a particular specialisation, in that it is very rare for the text to be produced again by anyone other than its original creators even if there is the occasional opportunity to remount it. For the artists involved in performance making this presents particular challenges since each show will be a progression but remains a new work. It may also involve different combinations of artists. By informing students about previous Australian performance works, which they will not see in production, they are studying what has become like a history of Australian contemporary performance. (In theatre, however, dramatic texts are often restaged, and although it may be argued that this is not the case for many new Australian plays, scripts of these are often published as a result of one season.) If lecturers like myself encourage students to study contemporary performance from available photographs and, at most, script extracts of what were often movement based and extremely visual texts or installations, there is an implicit message that these are fragmented parts of a larger, original text. Admittedly, if students workshop these fragments they are learning about the process of performance making as assemblage. However, what students encounter are ghostly traces of an absent whole text. Therefore we implicitly communicate an idea that most contemporary performance is elusive, existing in the memories of those who saw it. How can students move beyond this to an understanding that such texts belong in a larger milieu or movement?

Despite students’ apparent fascination with performance making projects and available videos or other resources on contemporary performances, given the opportunity to make their own work without a lecturer guiding otherwise, in my experience most undergraduate students return to making theatre. I have been trying to make sense of this tendency over several years. At first it seemed attributable to theatre’s dominance of the form. These days I wonder if it is difficult for students to conceive of the momentum of performances grouped together like they encounter repeated theatre productions. While students might make short performance pieces as a component part of a bigger project or program–pieces akin to performance art–the possibility of making a longer sustained complete text remains much harder to envisage.

In some ways the practice of performance making in pedagogy is easier to effect than undertaking pedagogy about Australia’s performance cultures since the early 1980s. The practice might be neatly understood in the doing and making with students working together to create their own performance work or working with an experienced practitioner. However, if we are to encourage experimentation after university, students need to engage with a milieu that might also be a movement. If we do not teach at least some of its artistic legacy, which is an ongoing influence among experienced practitioners, we are restricting the capacity of young practitioners to contribute to its progressive development. But this is not the same as exposure to a contemporary milieu.

Some students in major centres have opportunities to work with leading practitioners who can offer an overview. Performance Space (PS) in Sydney offers a tangible ongoing focus for work that is not always available elsewhere. In 1991, 17 of my students were involved in 2 weeks of performance making in the PS gallery, but to my knowledge only one of those students had performed there again by 1996. Until 1996, presenting the concept of a performance milieu was a somewhat disjointed process dependent on a lecturer’s personal resources and knowledge. Since 1999 we have had Performing the Unnameable, with which to consider an accumulated body of works. While I welcome even the inevitable canon, I am left with the same concerns. It is crucial to teach about previous work, but I am concerned that the study of Australian performance making does not become elusive, fragmented history. Thankfully RealTime has revolutionised communication about contemporary performance as it happens nationally.

However, resources like RealTime provide written records but not written texts and pictures. These are intended as supplements to participation in the event. This raises concerns similar to those found in the study of theatre. For example, there are problems with teaching about certain kinds of theatre when the most accessible resource is a drama script, even if it is workshopped in class. The written mode, which is invisible in theatre, continues to dominate perceptions of it in pedagogy, and recent productions are accessible only through written reviews.

The performance milieu may not need productions by young ensemble groups emerging from our institutions. Such processes may belong to the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Angharad Wynne-Jones observes about transitions at PS. Yet it is difficult to create even solo performance work without a network of interested artists. The impact of the Australia Council’s emphasis on project funding means that artists are brought together for one project and this compounds the problems of the one-off performance culture. Ironically, for a time in the 1990s, young performance makers would probably have been more likely to get an Australia Council grant than anyone submitting a conventional play script. How do young performance makers develop the track record to be successful with funding applications? Perhaps this means that we need to be developing solo performer, writers or directors, which invariably undercuts any effort to establish networks of performance makers.

There are 2 other complications as to why the potential of performance making eludes interested student practitioners. Firstly, the writing process in acclaimed contemporary performance often remains invisible. I suggest that it is very difficult to make performance if some entity, the director or group (or even a writer), is not undertaking this writing process in the development of the work. In making performance, students become aware that ideas seem to evaporate or become simplistic in a process that does not structure and/or concentrate them into layered significances. For example, the effectiveness of Virginia Baxter’s What Time is This House (Australasian Drama Studies Association Teaching Texts, 1992) for pedagogy is that it provides a complete script with which to begin conceiving of, or even making, performance.

Secondly, the problem of perceiving a milieu for performance lies with the paucity of contextualisation of Australian performance. Important references by overseas theorists that engage our students, and particularly those who are drawn to make work using theory, do not cover Australian work. Yet the milieu that nurtured our performance cultures, while subject to international influence, has its own perspective and this has regional variations. The availability of these publications undercuts the Australian artistic milieu. Journals that allow for theoretical analysis like the seminal Performance Research or the extremely useful TheatreForum, which gives wide coverage of contemporary performance internationally, have alleviated this problem in recent years. The contributions in these journals about Australia are selectively dependent on academics and critics who will do extended analysis of texts, and cannot also be expected to contexualise this work. Recently, as I edited a volume on the available research on Australian contemporary body orientated performance (Body Show/s: Australian Viewings of Live Performance) I became aware of huge gaps in our own unique and original performance culture.

I teach performance to students in Melbourne while my knowledge is influenced by what I have seen from the 1980s to the 1990s at PS. Melbourne has an extremely rich performance culture of its own, much of which I did not see. While performance cultures may be city specific, practitioners are not. Individuals work between these different cities, which raises a further set of interesting concerns for academic knowledges and the documentation of performance cultures. The interdependence of artistic collaborations in the production of performance texts should be recognised and the possibility of artistic influences from individual practitioners tracked down. Performance analysis needs to accommodate this mobility to make sense of influences and developments in city specific cultures.

Is it possible for academic writing to capture a sense of a milieu given its dominant discursive approaches? Like theatre, performance cannot be studied as the work of one author even if the director is the seminal force, but involves a number of artists working in collaborative ways. All these artists should be acknowledged. (Solo performance is definitely easier to study.) Performance projects that bring collaborators together in unique configurations mean that each contributor has a performance past as well as that of the production, which delivers a metatheatrical configuration with its hybridity of form. A multiplicity of interpretative significance seems an inevitable consequence of the instabilities of ‘good’ postmodern performance in its theoretical reception. This may mean that theoretical interpretations cancel each other out. Admittedly, meanings that slide through the gaps in fixed interpretations can be problematic in academic analysis unless they are accepted as co-existent. The difficulties presented by research that combines the work history of practitioners delineated as the problematic authorial intentions alongside efforts to conceptualise the reception of the text might be alternatively considered co-existent. Perhaps they can be written as a separate section even if to only mention the names of comparable performance makers. This would present ways of acknowledging a momentum of contemporary performance.

At the 2000 Australasian Drama Studies Conference, Brazilian colleagues from the Drama Department at the University of Brasilia claimed that during the 1970s and 1980s they were more likely to see a British Council funded production from England touring to Brasilia than one from Rio. Do we have similar problems in Australia? It may be an exaggeration but these days it seems like we are more likely to see an overseas performance production in Melbourne than one from Sydney or Brisbane.

Lecturers in performance usually have some practice that spans the theoretical pedagogy and theory in performance making. Because universities barely recognise theatre as an ‘industry’ let alone extending to one of contemporary performance–if these are industries they are both subsidy dependent–performance lecturers tend to emphasise what will be recognised within university culture, that is; investigative research with performance outcomes. Moreover, I am not convinced that weekend conferences that suit this performance with research outcomes convey a sense of context or milieu for contemporary performance. Festivals like Melbourne’s Next Wave are useful if students can afford to attend more than one production.

Performance cultures vary regionally and student performance makers are caught up in even greater dispersal. The possibility of knowing the work of other students is serendipitous and unpredictable. This might appear to be a sort of postmodern fragmentation in the field but it is counterproductive to perceptions of a performance milieu.

I am considering how we might interest a wider cross section of our students in continuities in Australian contemporary performance. Our efforts to nurture an appreciation with locally produced work might be momentarily engaging but it loses significance if it remains isolated within the institution rather than linked up to work happening elsewhere. I would argue for a concerted effort to bring an experience of performance happening in other places to our students, even in other parts of the same city. They need to do more than read about performance although reading about student work might assist this process.

I’d like to suggest a strategy for facilitating student exchanges. Recent developments with new technologies and electronic arts might alleviate some of these concerns outlined above although not necessarily access to a complete text. I appreciate the problems with new technologies in class work as my efforts have not been continuous, and remain contingent on circumstances. However, finding ways of using new technologies to capture aspects of the larger live work might alleviate some of the fragmentation and limited access to different types of work. For example, a Melbourne production in June 2000, The Secret Room, directed by Renato Cuocolo and performed by Roberta Bosetti, was talked about enthusiastically by our fourth year students. This was encountered either as a live show and/or as it was broadcast on the net. It was referred to frequently in discussion about our 10 minute prerecorded performance available on the net. These students who usually make theatre have been talking about The Secret Room, which is recognisably performance. The potential of new technologies as a broadcast medium for this type of open-ended viewing is exciting. Granted it requires an extra adaptation for the camera and perhaps some theoretical investigation into its qualities of live bodies and liveness, and reconfiguring the spectator and performer relationships. Given that students will not reproduce past performance cultures, and these seem to have become like a history lesson for them, it is important to develop approaches that open out new exchanges in Australian contemporary performance.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 8

© Peta Tait; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001