Teaching theatre to students in Theatre: harder than you think!

I’ve been asked by my longtime friend, the poet K.I. Press, to contribute something to the Quip Blog at the CCWWP (Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs). A version of the post (possibly shorter than the one below) will be up soon here, and I will announce its publication and link again to the Quip Blog at that point. Meanwhile, though, the material I’ve written seems just right for this space, so I thought I’d preview it now.

For those of you already a bit familiar with my work as a teacher of performance to English students, quite a few of the details below won’t be a surprise; I’m reflecting on my strategies for using performance as a critical tool in the seminar and lecture-based classroom. What will sound new, though, is the writing component I’ve recently added to the work. I’ve already reflected a bit on the value of “critical moments” as teaching tools in a recent post, but there’s more here for those of you who were curious then about how the technique works in practice.

I’d welcome feedback on the exercise I outline below (as well as other elements of the post, of course!). My strategies are by no means perfect, and I’m all too aware of how easily they can ossify and lose their vibrancy.

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Teaching theatre to students in Theatre: harder than you think!

When I got my first proper academic job almost 10 years ago, my main brief was to teach theatre to English Lit students in an official English Department. I expected this would be a huge challenge: there would be plenty of introverts, these introverts would be scared of the tasks that required them to make and show performance in class, and I’d get a lot of push-back from students who felt that dramas were like “novels” and their job was to read and analyse, not to think about performance as a public, even political, artistic practice. Lots of assumptions, in other words, but some of them did hold up. What surprised me, however, was how game my Lit students were to give performance a try – especially because I put no pressure on them to produce anything polished. No memorising lines. No elaborate sets or costumes. I emphasised that their “thought work” was the key to the performance exercises: get together with your assigned group, read the play you’re working on, select some scenes (or a strategy for mashing them up or re-writing them – all this was on the table), play with ideas about what you’d like to say about these scenes, and then get up on your feet and play some more. Be prepared, when the performance is over, to hold a Q&A with your peers, and to talk about your critical choices. That’s it.

In other words, I sold the performance exercises to my English Lit students as an embodied, practical form of academic critique. It worked. In fact, not only did it work: it produced some of the most stellar student performance I’ve ever seen, driven by strong critical thinking and an engaged, enthusiastic commitment to “poor” theatre.

Last year, I joined an esteemed Drama Department in the UK. I imagined that this shift would mean I’d have an easier time getting students on their feet, and this absolutely proved true. I also knew that, working with a student body accustomed to a variety of performance genres, including both traditional, script-based theatre and live and performance art, the presentations I could expect in class would be of very high quality. What worried me, however, was the challenge of getting my new theatre students to understand the nature of the performance tasks I assign in seminar settings: I’m not looking for polish, but for critical, academic, even political engagement with the texts we investigate. Could they resist the urge to spend their time making their performances look and sound “good”? Would they know, the way English Lit students are generally trained to do, how to apply a strong, analytical critique to the work they were engaging?

My first experience of this challenge, in a studio course on Shakespeare, proved some of my worries to be founded. I also realised, during that course, that I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted from my students: was I also looking for polish? Did I want them to focus exclusively on critical engagement, or was I tacitly assuming that they should be able to deliver both? Early on, this proved a muddle for me and difficult, I think, for the students; I decided to seek out some help in order to make things clearer and better.

I got in touch with one of my new colleagues at a program my school runs called “Thinking/Writing” (http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk). She helped me to parse the different kinds of tasks I was hoping to accomplish with my new students, and to articulate them clearly, and separately. I realised, via this process, that I needed to distinguish carefully between the kind of work I wanted my students to do when they were making a performance to share, and the kind of work I wanted my students to do when they were watching a shared performance. The two kinds of work would be related, but not the same.

My colleague and I designed an exercise template based on what she called “critical moments”. The students making performance would get a very similar brief to the ones my English Lit students receive: read your text, have a conversation about it, select EITHER a crucial scene, OR a crucial idea conveyed to you by the text, and explore it in performance, keeping the text’s possible social and political resonances in mind. The students in the audience, meanwhile, would get a different brief: when observing the performance, keep your eyes, ears, and other senses tuned to a “critical moment” that resonates especially for you. This might be a gesture, a series of gestures, a performance technique employed by one actor, a design choice, or even an “accident”. When the performance ends, record your critical moment, and then write about why it matters to you for just a few minutes. The writing part is key.

My teaching associate and I tested this exercise in two workshops we hosted with our first-year students last fall. It worked exceptionally well. In fact, it worked better than any performance event I’d ever held with students. (It also worked very well in my studio course, improving our group crits significantly.)

I realised after some reflection that the key to our success with this exercise was the combining of reading, performing, and writing – in other words, the crossing of modes and genre boundaries. By asking English Lit students to perform, I’d broken down some of their prejudices about what theatre is and is not, what it can and cannot do. In the same way, by inviting theatre students to blend reading, performance making, critical observation, and critical writing together, I’d managed to open the door to new insights about their chosen materials, and also to encourage them to take critical writing, as part of their work in and on theatre and performance, more seriously.

The experiment continues.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching theatre to students in Theatre: harder than you think!

  1. Thanks for this great idea, which I will of course appropriate. There’s a good book on using writing to teach that I’ve been using for a bit: Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (Jossey Bass, 1996). It’s full of specific strategies, but none of them “cross modes and genre boundaries” as effectively as what you describe here. I’m appreciating this blog!

  2. Great post, Kim! I really like the exercise you and your colleague came up with. I think this would be a great exercise for me to use as a director in the rehearsal process with my cast and crew. I’ll definitely be trying it out when I choose my next play.
    Love the blog, too. Thanks, Kim!

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