theatre/performance education part 1: home & the world

keith gallasch

University of Queensland (Australian Drama) students perform Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan

University of Queensland (Australian Drama) students perform Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan

University of Queensland (Australian Drama) students perform Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan

AUSTRALIAN CONTENT IN THE CURRICULA AND SYLLABUSES OF COURSES IN AUSTRALIAN THEATRE HAS BEEN CONSIDERABLY ADVANTAGED BY THE AVAILABILITY OF PLAY SCRIPTS (THROUGH CURRENCY PRESS, ESPECIALLY, AND PLAYLAB) AND DISADVANTAGED BY THE ABSENCE OF A NATIONAL THEATRE MAGAZINE—LONG SOMETHING OF A MYSTERY. CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE AND CUTTING EDGE THEATRE HAVE BENEFITED FROM THE PRESENCE OF REALTIME SINCE 1994 (BUT FOR THE MOMENT ONLY ARCHIVED ONLINE 2001-PRESENT). THERE ARE KEY ONLINE SOURCES LIKE AUSSTAGE, SEVERAL SIGNIFICANT BLOGS (BY ALISON CROGGAN AND JAMES WAITES) AND JOURNALS AND, BEYOND THAT, EVERYWHERE I ASKED, A CONSIDERABLE HUNGER AMONG LECTURERS, RESEARCHERS AND STUDENTS FOR A MORE PALPABLE SENSE OF THE PERFORMING ARTS ACROSS THE NATION—IN WORD AND ON SCREEN.

Opportunities to see theatre and contemporary performance, both current and past, on DVD and online look set to improve, and that includes digital broadcasts to regional cinemas, as the Sydney Theatre Company did recently with Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard. Of course, the Australia Council and various State Government touring schemes have already improved access—a glance at Melbourne’s Arts House current program on our back page is a sure indication of improvement, with its inclusion of a number of Sydney-based artists. The rise of small, innovative live art festivals and the likes of Brisbane Festival’s Under the Radar program have yielded cross-border opportunities only dreamt of a decade ago. Accessibility on a variety of platforms is on the increase—so important for regional universities, but often no less so for students in our huge, sprawling cities with the added impediment of escalating ticket prices.

At the same time, it’s the face-to-face, body-to-body engagement between students and practising Australian artist lecturers and guest directors and teachers that is a top priority, of course more so in training than history or theory courses, but even there you will see increasing emphasis not only on seeing the work but also engaging with it, for example as observers, documenters, reporters and trainee dramaturgs (as in Performance Studies at the University of Sydney; see RT105). In both kinds of courses you’ll find opportunities offered for playwriting and group devising, so that students gain some sense of being ‘inside the artist’ as their own capacities and skills evolve.

For our 2011 survey, I’ve approached teachers (where available—it was that time of the year) from a range of schools and departments asking them where Australian work fits in their courses. Inevitably it’s regarded as important in itself but, more critically, in an international context—a mix of treasuring and exploiting the local scene, attempting to gauge a national perspective and finding our place in the global picture—mighty tasks but ones often tackled with verve and invention.

university of wollongong

Staff members (including practitioners Tim Maddock, Chris Ryan and Janys Hayes) in the Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong told me that students enrolled in both the Bachelor of Performance or in the Bachelor of Creative Arts (Theatre) “work with contemporary Australian performance practitioners to devise performance works, write and perform their own texts, as well as presenting productions by both Australian and international playwrights. There is a strong emphasis on contemporary Australian artists in both the practical and history/theory program. Students are encouraged to see festivals and site-specific performance, by both independent and major theatre companies, as well as live art, contemporary performance and post-dramatic theatre.” However, it is felt that “the lack of available performance and theatre documentation is an issue.” Keeping up with even recent work can be a challenge making it potentially “redundant, unless properly recorded and readily available.

“Our reading lists include a number of titles from the Rodopi Series on Australian theatre and performance, as well as Currency publications on Australian artists and practices. However, publications on playwrights dominate the field and significantly more DVD documentation is required. At present many recordings are limited to either personal collections or theatre company archives, and can be difficult or impossible to access. This impacts on the ability of staff to teach across a broader range of contemporary performance work. We address this issue predominately by engaging guest practitioners who teach strategies of contemporary performance by example. This intersects with the theory program, which studies the history of these artists and provides the opportunity for such artists to screen and discuss examples of their work.” Guest artists who have directed and/or devised work with students since 2007 include Geordie Brookman, Kate Gaul, Carlos Gomes, Regina Heilmann, Deborah Pollard and from Korea, Park Younghee.

university of ballarat

Ross Hall, Lecturer In Acting in the regional University of Ballarat says that its Arts Academy runs two practice-based Degree Programs one focusing on acting, the other on musical theatre. “Most of the art that’s created here is done so under the broad umbrella of pedagogy and intensive performance training. Over the past 10 or so years, we’ve performed Australian content on a fairly regular basis—mainly text-based works, covering many genres from full-length plays to new Australian musicals. We run scene classes on specifically Australian content—again, mainly contemporary plays. We also run devising strands in the early parts of our courses; [these] map developments in Australian drama and musicals [and can explore] pre-existing Australian stories in a dramatic way. Our students devise work that travels out into the community. We’ve taken part in the evolution of new work, co-producing these with freelance writers and artists. We’ve co-produced issue-based community theatre. We’ve commissioned new Australian works, both dramatic plays and musicals. We have visiting artists and current practitioners give lectures and workshops. We engage practicing directors to work on many of our performance projects.”

flinders university

Jonathan Bollen, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Drama, School of Humanities, Flinders University (and a regular contributor to RealTime), focuses on the fact that “students go on to become the colleagues and spectators of the artists they learn about at university, so it is crucial they learn about who is making work now.” He teaches a course titled Live Arts and Performance that introduces third year students to performance art, post-dramatic theatre and contemporary performance. “It focuses on selected artists and companies within an international field, and traces connections with recent developments and current practice in Australia. It is designed to equip students with the knowledge to navigate international arts festivals and the field of contemporary performance in Australia. The OzAsia Festival in Adelaide provides a focus for the study of intercultural performance in Australia.”

This placement of local performance in an international context is reflected in course structure: first year students focus on three contemporary Australian works in substantial detail; second years “studying the history of modern theatre learn about the New Wave, Australian Performing Group, Nimrod and the Black Theatre movement. At fourth year, I teach topics on Contemporary Australian Drama that explore the production history and dramaturgy of recent works from Australian playwrights, including Wesley Enoch, Jane Harrison, Andrew Bovell, Katherine Thomson, Hannie Rayson, Daniel Keene, Patricia Cornelius, Tom Holloway and Noelle Janaczewska. Australian plays from the 70s to the present are regularly produced as part of the department’s activities.”

Bollen would like to see “more books that focus on the work of particular Australian companies and artists—books that combine documentation of product and process, with analysis and critical reflections. It would be great to have books on Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra, Back to Back, The Border Project, Chunky Move, Urban Theatre Projects, Version 1.0 and more. Performing the Unnameable (Currency Press with RealTime, 1999, editors Karen Pearlman and Richard Allen) was great when it was published. We need another collection on contemporary performance for the last decade.”

As for magazines and online publications, “RealTime is a crucial resource. I couldn’t teach Live Arts and Performance without it. It is required reading for students. It is the only resource that provides national coverage and international context for contemporary performance in Australia. The other online resources that are crucial for teaching are AusStage and AustLit. I also rely on the websites of companies and artists. The scholarly journals About Performance, Performance Paradigm and Australasian Drama Studies are valuable for in-depth studies, but their coverage is not so extensive.” A vital component of the department’s approach is that “four of the six permanent lecturers in Drama at Flinders are practising artists. Their work as artists forms a core part of their teaching. It is also visible to students in work on productions on campus.” In his reply to my queries, Bollen appended an extensive and impressive list of the websites for artists, companies, festivals and venues in Australia and around the world that are part of the syllabus for his Live Arts and Performance course.

university of queensland

Playwright Stephen Carleton is responsible for Australian Drama at the University of Queensland: “We offer an Australian Drama course that spans the entire 20th and early 21st century from Federation to the present.” The final weeks of the course focus on contemporary practice through a thematic approach, for example “Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Rim” is projected for 2012. “Additionally, we feature the work of Urban Theatre Projects in Sydney and Tracks Dance Theatre in Darwin within the ‘post-national theatre’ rubric of our Contemporary Theatre course…We also offer a third year course in Dramaturgy and Play Writing in which students learn contemporary dramaturgical practices and theory and apply this to each others’ new writing projects.”

“As a practicing playwright and convenor of the Drama Major,” writes Carleton, “I have a substantial investment in the centrality of an Australian focus in our program, and all staff at UQ Drama are committed to encouraging students to place the Australian cultural and industrial theatre experience in an historical and international theatre context. As well, UQ Drama produces Australian works one semester in every four. Most recently that has been work by Van Badham. We encourage students to experiment with the short plays they write in Dramaturgy and Playwriting in terms of form and content.These are frequently produced by the University’s theatre group Underground as part of their annual Bugfest Program.”

As for books, “we set Maryrose Casey’s Creating Frames, about Indigenous theatre practice, alongside broader Australian survey texts such as those by John McCallum and Geoffrey Milne as required reading.” A particular challenge, says Carleton, is the absence of “texts placing contemporary Australian theatre practice within an international context.” However, Carleton claims that “UQ Drama’s emphasis on Theatre Through Time and Space represents the most comprehensive canonical approach to Western European and International theatre (including Chinese, Indian and Pacific theatre traditions) from Antiquity to the Present of any tertiary theatre program in Australia. Placing contemporary Australian theatre practice within this broad spatial and temporal history is a central tenet of our approach.”

However, he adds, “It is incredibly difficult to get information about what’s happening in the regions and the capital cities beyond Sydney and Melbourne. A dedicated national theatre magazine would be a wonderful thing—a specialised theatre magazine that augments RealTime’s focus on multi-form and genred performance, dance, film review and analysis—that would be an excellent resource to have.” He is appreciative of AusStage and AustLit for providing increasing online documentation.

The observations made in Part 1 of this survey add up to a strongly felt need to be able to understand and teach Australian performance on its own terms but within the framework of the national and international perspectives that this country has struggled so long to attain. The work is there, books, journals, archives, new media tools, touring networks, but something’s missing or, better, something’s growing—but how well formed will it be for the performers and performance scholars of today and tomorrow?

Part 2 of this survey will appear in RealTime 105, October-November, and will include observations from Peter Eckersall, Associate Professor of Theatre Studies in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne; Laura Ginters, Lecturer in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney; Clare Grant Lecturer in the School English, Performing Arts and Media the University of New South Wales; and Helena Grehan, Senior Lecturer in the English and Creative Arts program at Murdoch University, Western Australia.

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 8

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 August 2011