What is experiential learning? Part two: snapshots from experiencing differently

Two posts ago, I spent some time thinking about the paradox of “Experiential Learning” (capital E, capital L!) as a commodity in the neoliberal university, and I proposed an alternative way of thinking about the experiential in relationship to teaching and learning. In this post, I put that thinking into practice with a few snapshots of my recent trip to the CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) annual conference at the University of British Columbia.

First, though, a brief digression in service of some theory.

In that earlier post, I talk in particular about the difference between “experience” as a noun (a thing to buy, to have, to collect, to seek out), and “experience” as a verb – a “learning by doing”. In (re)imagining learning as “experiencing”, I am taking a cue from the 20th century director and acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, for whom the practice of experiencing was central to the development of the technique (sometimes called emotional realism) associated with his legacy. As Sharon Carnicke argues in her landmark book Stanislavsky in Focus (2nd edition, 2008, esp pp 129-47), “experiencing” is a way that an actor prepares and trains (by living and observing life outside the theatre in thick detail); it is also essential to that actor’s work on stage, as they recreate their thick observations in the making of a role and experience them all over again. This is what is sometimes called “living the part”.

As Carnicke explains, though, the Russian term for experiencing (perezhivanie) is more complex than the latter phrase can capture, and for Stanislavsky it connoted much more than just mimetic realism. Stanislavsky imagines actors to be co-creators – along with playwrights and directors – in shaping character, and experiencing is what underpins their creative labour. Experiencing also roots his argument (in “Perspective of the actor and the role”, in An Actor’s Work, trans. Benedetti) that actors operate inside a double optic on stage, where they live the moment-to-moment of their characters, but also remain aware in each of those moments of a character’s larger arc, context, and the story’s eventual end.

“Experiencing” for Stanislavsky, then, is a doing that includes inhabiting another’s story while recognizing and reckoning with that other story’s context and circumstances – which will be different from one’s own. At the same time one hold’s one’s own lived experiences in the world up to careful scrutiny in order to use them as a creative tool in the service of building a role. Finally, one experiences all of these things – the life, the character, and the context – at the same time on stage, and negotiates amongst them.

What I love about Stanislavsky’s model of experiencing is its very doubled quality: that to have an experience is not to hold it but to question it, to see it from the perspective of the immediate moment but also through the crucial wider lens of context, implications – and yes, potential outcomes. To experience is to question the thing itself; to experience is to encounter difference; and to experience is to create in collaboration with others.

Now, with this framework in mind, those promised snapshots.

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Performing Towards Youth at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto.

It’s day one.

I’m jet lagged and so I get up early and follow my colleague Laura down to the very first session, which is co-facilitated by Kathleen Gallagher of the University of Toronto’s OISE institute, and playwright Andrew Kushnir. Kathleen and Andrew talk a bit about their recent, amazing collaboration, Towards Youth, and then lead us in a Verbatim theatre workshop.

Andrew reads a series of value statements, and the rest of us place ourselves physically on an imaginary line in order to represent our feelings about those statements. Each time, someone inevitably ends up in the outlier position, and it’s immediately, viscerally clear to us all whether we are “in” or “out” of line. Andrew invites our discussion; outliers laugh and talk about how they aren’t really THAT outlier-ish. We laugh, too, sharing their discomfort and potential uncertainty.

Near the end of this part of the workshop, Andrew reads a statement that comes from the director Robert LePage; the comments he reads were made in the wake of a recent scandal involving the cultural appropriation of lived Black experience. I wasn’t aware of the statement’s origins; some others were, some not.

I found myself the outlier this time. I found myself agreeing with the spirit of the statement, divorced of its context. I felt strong in my brain that my position was a good one. But I felt queasy in my body on the edge of the pack.

Afterward, I thought hard about whether or not I would have positioned myself the same way had I known the statement’s origins. I thought carefully about the potential implications of that statement in a variety of contexts. I felt in my body the ugliness of being on the margin, but also the humility of seeing from two perspectives at once, and of being unsure of whether or not the choice I’d made was a good one for everyone. During our debrief, another member of the workshop wondered how our use of the statement might have changed if Lepage himself, as the author of those words, had been in the room and had been given the opportunity to contextualize them, reconsider them, debate them. We all wondered with him.

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Petra Kuppers demonstrates assisted floating during her Salamander workshop at UBC, June 2019.

Later that day I sit with hundreds of colleagues in a large auditorium to hear Petra Kuppers, our invited keynote speaker. Petra is talking about water-based workshops she holds around the world in order to reframe our experiences of our bodies and their interactions in relationship to ability. She begins by sharing a video reel of images from one of these workshops, and she asks us all to partner up and then to audio-describe the images we see. This proves incredibly challenging. My partner and I remark on how hard it is to find good, accurate words to convey the images on screen before they disappear. Experiencing the visual through the linguistic is discombobulating for me; it’s also conducive to improv poetry.

That afternoon I get to participate in Petra’s Salamander workshop myself. I arrive at the UBC aquatic centre and move quickly through the gender-neutral change room, arriving at a glorious, open, air-and-light-filled space containing no fewer than three pools (and many more different water-based places within them). We get in, Petra sets our stage, and soon we are holding one another at head and lower back to enable effortless floating.

I feel the pain in my arms as I try to hold my partner effectively. I hear the quiet around us in contrast to the sounds of children’s play, music, and voices elsewhere, echoing through the space. I float myself and feel the pure joy of looking into the ceiling, nothing else to do, but then I am suddenly conscious of my body’s weight and its potential burden and return to myself, differently.

Later, we move to a warmer pool and make sounds together, creating a water-based orchestra. I dive under several times and open my eyes to feel the sting of the chlorine and witness the wavy shapes of my colleagues’ and students’ bodies rendered amphibious. At dinner, I make gentle fun of the things we did, but in truth this is probably the most memorable and enjoyable experience I have ever had at an academic conference, where the norm is sitting quietly, stiffly, uncomfortably, struggling to listen attentively.

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A glam promo shot from Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa.

The next morning we gather in the same big auditorium to listen to three outstanding  indigenous women artists talk about re-matriating theatre on Turtle Island. As Lindsay Lachance, Quelemia Sparrow, and Kim Senklip Harvey talk about their practice, they share ways of working that don’t resemble the kinds of teaching and learning with which many of us settlers – directors, actors, or none – may be familiar.

They talk about “presencing” – sharing one another’s community stories to ground everyone in a room (in an Indigenous-led room). They talk about blood memory as a dramaturgical tool. They talk about birch bark biting as a means of embodying story, and as a practice of collaboration. They talk about making offerings to one another, gifting moments to one another, during rehearsal and in performance in order to keep everyone safe, strong, and well. They talk about making a shared Indigenous-led space, and then creating in that space using life ways and ways of art and labour connected to ancestors, and to generations of good practice. And they talk about indigenous women as theorists.

I witness this conversation on the stage, much of which is not just directed at us but connected to us as a dialogue – even though talking to settlers has got to be exhausting, endless labour for these women. I witness with gratitude as I watch and listen to them make theory together, laughing but also in moments hurting together. And I think about them as theorists not just of theatre and performance, but of pedagogy.

***

The Activist Classroom is going to take a break for the rest of the summer. Go to the beach already, people!

I’ll be back on 3 September, with a few surprises in tow.

Stay tuned, and thanks as always for reading!

Kim

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