theatre/performance education part 2: home & the world

keith gallasch

Noni Cowan, Gestures, Theatre & Performance Studies Honours Project Performance, UNSW

Noni Cowan, Gestures, Theatre & Performance Studies Honours Project Performance, UNSW

Noni Cowan, Gestures, Theatre & Performance Studies Honours Project Performance, UNSW


I concluded that “there was a strongly felt need to be able to understand and teach Australian performance on its own terms but within the framework of national and international perspectives that this country has struggled so long to attain.” Here are further responses to my query to academics about how and where Australian content fits in their courses.

university of melbourne

Peter Eckersall, Associate Professor of Theatre Studies in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, wrote to me that his subject, “‘Live Art Beyond Theatre,’ addresses many contemporary Australian artists and practices (and the RealTimeDance portal is a remarkable and helpful teaching resource). Our teaching tends not to be based on ideas of national arts practices, however, and Australian artists are discussed alongside, in comparison to, and in collaboration with developments, events and trends internationally. We also have Master of Arts and PhD students who are working on contemporary Australian performance. Some of these projects are focused on historical practices from the 1960s-1990s. Others are focused on contemporary performance works. A number of these projects have been/are being undertaken with creative components.” Eckersall identifies “a tendency to think about arts practices more regionally, locally and conversely more globally. Australian artists and practices have become so diverse that we often discuss them with a focus on more specific, or more diverse, analysis and critique. I would say that it is not the arts practices that are elided, but the notion of an ‘Australian artist’ and what this means is more complex and sometimes less meaningful.”

Eckersall also believes that “there is a need for more publishing on contemporary performance. There are many more research articles and documents than books …There are some good resources such as Ausstage and RealTime but there is a need for more perspectives and more ways to disseminate findings.”

murdoch university

Helena Grehan, Senior Lecturer in the English and Creative Arts program at Murdoch University in Western Australia, writes that the work of Australian artists is important “as the work reflects (often) issues and themes that are of interest to our students and the work is also often inspiring in terms of identifying what can be done in a constrained environment (fiscally).”

Grehan’s own teaching focus is “primarily on current practitioners (or at least from the last 20 or so years).” As for written resources she “directs students to available books but also RealTime (I use it all the time with my students), Australasian Drama Studies, Performance Paradigm (www.performanceparadigm.net) and About Performance (Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney), which are all very useful, as are blogs. There could always be more but l’d like to focus on quality rather than quantity. Alison Croggon’s Theatrenotes is, for example, outstanding.

university of sydney

Laura Ginters, lecturer in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney writes, “Contemporary artists and their practices are central to what we teach and research in Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. While we don’t create work with our students, and nor do we train artists, the Rex Cramphorn Studio is filled, year round, with our artist-in-residence program and the work of these artists feeds directly into our teaching and research. For example, the 3rd Year Honours entry courses, Rehearsal Studies and Rehearsal to Performance, are based around a project where students observe, document and analyse two weeks of a rehearsal or creative development process taking place in the Rex. In 2011 the students observed My Darling Patricia at work on a new piece; last year it was Version 1.0, developing Table of Knowledge.

“In researching the company whose work they will observe, RealTime is often a valuable resource for students. Our Honours students also sometimes undertake their professional placement—they observe and analyse a full-length rehearsal process, then write up a casebook on the experience. This can be with one of the artists or groups of artists working in the Rex—or they will undertake such a placement with a company or artist outside the department: this could be anything from Tess de Quincey Co to Opera Australia. We also offer an Honours level course in Contemporary Performance (which is heavily focused on Australian artists), and this will sometimes include a practical workshop component for the students with a practising artist like Barbara Campbell.”

In second year, students commence performance analysis, seeing live performances and writing about them. Other courses—Embodied Histories, Theories of Acting, the Playwright in the Theatre, Playing Politics, Cross-Cultural Performance and Gender and Performance—”use the work of contemporary practitioners in dance, contemporary performance, performance art, and theatre and other genres. In my own Dramaturgy course in third year my students have had the opportunity to observe a director, actors, writer and dramaturg developing a new work for performance. And while we’re not training practitioners we’ve got a long history of practitioners coming to us for postgrad study—enjoying the chance to reflect on their own practice or a related topic.”

Study in this department is advantaged by having a large archive in print and video of performance documentation. Ginters is appreciative of RealTime, Currency House’s Platform Papers “and (a very few) good bloggers—like Alison Croggon and James Waites for “delivering interesting commentary and reviews of work I can’t see myself and/or won’t see reviewed elsewhere. Our own journal, About Performance, also often includes analyses of the work of contemporary practitioners: recent editions have included essays on ‘refugee theatre,’ the work of Back to Back Theatre, Marrugeku, Pork Chop Productions, Australian Dance Theatre and the Gathering Ground project in Redfern’s The Block, to name just a few.”

Ginters would like more books on contemporary practitioners, “and indeed their forebears: I’m writing a book on drama activities at Sydney University in the late 1950s and early 1960s has made me very aware of how little has been written about the pre-1970 era.” Often, she says, the primary material exists—”the ausstage project is a great example of this; so is the National Library’s Trove search function. Having more of RealTime’s earlier editions also available would be a terrific addition. Personally I’d also be thrilled if I could get access to the Sydney Morning Herald archives online after 1954 without having to visit the State Library in person!”

university of new south wales

Clare Grant, Lecturer in the School of English, Performing Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, tells me that, “artists of late 20th and early 21st centuries such as The Sydney Front and Jenny Kemp are specifically studied in John McCallum’s survey course, Staging Australia, along with earlier Australian artists. In his Program and Repertoire course, close attention to current performance programming forms part of the curriculum.” The Introduction to Theatre course “refers to several contemporary performance makers such as Deborah Pollard, and from an earlier era, Ken Unsworth.” In Reading Performance and Multi-Media production, artists include Australian drag performance (eg The Kingpins), both live and mediatised, William Yang, Stelarc, Tony Schwensen, Australian dance companies, Mike Parr, version 1.0, Back to Back Theatre, Marrugeku, Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Museum of Fetishized Identities, as well as local festivals.”

In the practical courses Grant teaches, students also see performance works— including media art, live art, ‘documentary’ performance, site-based work—in Sydney, “many of which involve the students or ex-students themselves…The work of Australian artists is vital to the department of Theatre and Performance Studies, especially as the work of students forms part of the contemporary performance milieu in Sydney. Many of the students work with practising artists through PACT Centre for Emerging Artists and Shopfront Theatre, often undertaken alongside their studies at UNSW.”

For 12 years Grant has produced an annual student devised work for the public. This year, however, she says the process “will shift to a number of smaller group shows created through contemporary performance-making practices. As well, each year a class of up to 35 solo performance makers publicly present their works.”

As for resources recommended to students, there are “extracts from Richard Allen and Karen Pearlman’s Performing the Un-nameable (Currency Press with RealTime, 1999) in various courses; Edward Scheer’s book on Mike Parr (RT102, p47); John McCallum’s Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century (Currency Press, 2009); plus Marrugeku’s Burning Daylight in DVD and booklet form. But we always need more; any new documentation is taken up quickly and used; Australian work with the physical and the documentary could use more attention. Streaming options, which Artfilms is working to develop soon, are valuable and probably more economical. Many of us teach the works we happen to have on DVD courtesy of the performance makers themselves.”

The evidence in Parts 1 and 2 of this brief survey provides clear evidence of commitment of teachers to Australian performance content in their courses, not only turning to print and online resources but, in various ways, putting students in touch with artists in residence, encouraging them to see productions, teaching analysis, developing dramaturgical awareness, making works and placing Australian work in the larger contexts of overseas works and the issues of the day. Most teachers would welcome books on contemporary artists (as more commonly happens in the visual arts) as well as stronger, more available video documentation. The emergence of contemporary performance from the 1960s to 80s warrants particular attention.


A very special resource is the Melbourne based artfilms (www.artfilms.com.au/) with its growing collection of Australian performance works and documentaries on DVD. Artists and companies include Jenny Kemp, Stelarc, 5 Angry Men, Trevor Jamieson (Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, a documentary about Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji), Melbourne Women’s Circus and others alongside their international peers. In the dance realm, Artfilms has works available from Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc, Chrissie Parrott, Igneous, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Meryl Tankard. The company’s latest project, director Kriszta Doczy tells me, is its Australian Avant-Garde series featuring Nigel Kellaway, Mike Mullins, Ken Unsworth and the experimental films of Gary Shead with work currently progressing on a DVD about the Sydney Front. Artfilm’s director Doczy eagerly encourages Australian artists to make documentation of their performances available to universities, schools and individuals. You can read more about Artfilms in the December-January edition of RealTime.

Another valuable resource is the National Library Oral History Collection’s interviews with leading theatre professionals Peter Oysten, Richard Cottrell, Richard Murphet, Nicholas Lathouris, Alan Seymour and others conducted by James Waites. Waites has been conducting these “whole life” interviews with a variety of people in and outside of the theatre business (http://www.jameswaites.com/) since 1996.

Theatre/Performance education part 1 appeared in RT 104 – see article.

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 30

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

11 October 2011