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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Summer swag! (Read on for free stuff from my new issue of RiDE!)

 

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It’s here!

Many of you know that I’ve been at work for some time on a special issue of Research in Drama Education (RiDE), a performance and pedagogy journal based in the UK. The issue is called “Theatre and Performance vs the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities”, and it traces many of the same issues that have long been my concern here (and elsewhere): around academic labour in the neoliberal academy; around the role performance plays in addressing social issues far beyond the traditional remit of ‘theatre’ or even ‘the arts’ more generally; and around potential solutions we may already have at hand to best manage our ongoing imbrication in the now-normative ‘crisis’ in higher education, especially liberal or arts-based education.

The invitation to guest-edit an issue originally came from Colette Conroy, a resident RiDE editor, as a result of my work on the blog – and so it seems especially appropriate, and makes me particularly happy, to announce its publication in this space.

If you or your library have a subscription to the journal, you can access the entire issue online here.

But as a thanks to those of you who read regularly – and especially to those of you reading in the middle of summer! – below I’m including a URL that will give you free access to the issue’s introduction. It can only handle 50 clicks, though – so get in there early.

Thanks to you all for your ongoing support!
Kim

“Theatre and Performance, Crisis and Survival” (an excerpt from my introduction to the issue; the link to the full article follows)

‘Theatre and performance vs the “crisis in the humanities”’ has a very personal origin story.

It was late 2012, and I was working as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London – pretty much my dream job. My then-husband and I were living in South London, in a neighbourhood that had once been, perhaps, not much to look at (though a happy enough home to immigrants and regular working people) but was now full-on gentrified. We rented a two-bed garden flat that cost more than 75% of my take-home pay. The rest of our finances we cobbled together from J’s tech-entrepreneur income. Some months were way up, and some were way down.

So far, so global city. But life at work was also less manageable than I’d imagined it would be.

I’d been warned by colleagues that the UK academic system was very different from that in Canada, with a lot more faculty-side administration, HR-driven systems that gave the feel of a ‘corporate’ university structure, and of course the dreaded REF exercise: the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ that requires all departments in all UK universities to submit their top research ‘outputs’ for measurement against one another, in a Game of Thrones-style competition for league table status and future funding. When I arrived at QM, I was fully aware of all of these fresh challenges, but not prepared for how all-encompassing they would feel, day in and day out.

So this, I realised about three months into the job, is what it feels like to work in the neoliberal university.

Now, seven years on, I’m back in Canada at Western University, in southern Ontario. While we don’t yet have a REF to dread, our new provincial government is driving hard to implement quality-measurement tools that will be keyed to university funding around the province in the future. Western is finally emerging from a number of years under a dogmatically STEM- and business-forward administration, and our new president (a theatre scholar!) is one bright light at the end of this tunnel. But things are hardly about to change overnight, if they change at all: the aforementioned provincial government has just delivered punishing budget cuts that have seen my faculty’s (Arts & Humanities) part time workforce reduced by over 75%, and morale is the lowest it’s been in years. To try to save ourselves, teams of Deans and other senior administrators from Western fly regularly to China, desperate to attract a life-line’s worth of foreign-student investment. We continue to ‘internationalise’ as much as possible, imagining that is the key to our survival.

Welcome to the neoliberal university-as-normal.

[To read on, click here!]

 

 

 

What is experiential learning? Part one: an exciting new challenge, and a bunch of new questions

I’ve embarked on another new teaching adventure. This winter term, the students in my Performance Beyond Theatres class (basically, “intro to performance studies,” and one of the classes I’ve been working on renovating in an effort to decolonize my teaching practice) will be participating in a new program that links the City of London (Ontario) with Western University, as well as with Fanshawe College (also located in LonON). Called “City Studio London”, this program allows Western and Fanshawe students to work directly with City staff on new projects designed to improve community life for all Londoners.

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A gorgeous image from City Studio Abbotsford.

My course has been paired with a class in the Faculty of Social Science taught by Psychology professor Leora Swartzman; together our students will be working on gathering data about, and then generating performance interventions supporting, London’s new diversity and inclusion strategy. Our particular focus will be on the role of the bystander in making our city a safer and happier place for all.

I’m really excited about this project! It means my students will directly encounter the challenging work of collaboration with fellow student-scholars as well as with a civic partner. We will be able to put our thinking and reading about performance as a tool for advancing social justice into practice with the support of a capable and experienced city staffer. My students will be able to work creatively on a meaningful community issue, and they will see their performance actions come to life not just for each other, but publicly, for residents in our city. They will see the impact of their creative labour first-hand.

At the same time, though, I do have some questions about this work – about how we frame it, and about what we value most within it. These questions emerge for me from the way we’ve been talking about the work ahead as we’ve begun (only begun) prepping this course. They also resonate with anxieties I have about the “experiential learning” turn, and about its cognate, the “experience economy”. (For more on the latter, click here to read foundational research by Pine and Gilmore.)

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When you google “Experiential Learning” and hit “images”, you get diagrams. SO MANY DIAGRAMS. I’ve downloaded a few and am scattering them throughout this post. They make a compelling collage…

To be clear, I have every faith that Leora (who is practiced at community-engaged learning, one of many forms of experiential learning), our students, our community partners and I will do excellent work together, and that it will yield a range of valuable discoveries for all stakeholders. Like I said: I am, really, excited!

But as we have begun our planning work, I have become attuned to the way that experiential learning, in the context of this course and of the City Studio project more generally, is deeply, essentially linked to “deliverables” (this is the project’s language) for our City partners. City Studio begins from the premise that our students will work toward generating a measurable product meant to serve and support those partners; this is its primary objective. Positive, growth-oriented student “experiences” will (we assume; we very much hope) be had along the way, but this is an assumption that underlines, rather than supersedes, the measurable outcome as product.

Making a product for community use is of course a very valuable goal and one students are keen to participate in. I’m not opposed to it – in fact, as my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez argues brilliantly in an upcoming interview in Research in Drama Education (24.3, August 2019), if we truly believe that Performance Studies is interdisciplinary in its reach and can mobilize performance as a multidisciplinary tool for teaching, learning, and discovery, then we must recognize that our partners in such discovery will have a range of outcomes in mind on their end. We have to recognize the legitimacy (and value) of those outcomes as part and parcel of our collaborative endeavours.

But still. There’s a real tension here (deliverables/outcomes = learning), and as I’ve noticed it, I’ve thought more about the value systems underlying the way our universities talk about experiential learning today. I’ve particularly noticed that the term is very often linked, or even elided, with things like internships and co-op opportunities. That is: with chances for students to go get “industry experience” as part of their degrees so they will graduate job-market ready.

 

This was not always the case. Among the earliest teachers to think outside the classroom box and imagine the labour of experiencing the world as central to a well rounded education were the American transcendentalists Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, among their many peers. (Click here for my 2016 review of a superb book on the topic by Martin Bickman; click here for a quick, related read in the Washington Post.) Their pedagogical philosophy – characterized by heading for nature, exploring widely and without a particular end-product in mind, and then discussing, writing, thinking, and debating in the service of heartfelt reflection – resonates with the first definition of experiential learning quoted by Ryerson University’s Michelle Schwartz in her “Best Practices in Experiential Learning” (2012) (the quote is from Lewis and Williams, 1994):

In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.

The philosophy behind experiential learning, then, does not define “experience” in any particular form; its openness inspires me, but, as Schwartz notes, that same openness “means that it can often be difficult to define what is and is not an experiential activity” (1). In building an “expanded definition” for the term (1-2), she cites numerous “working principles” for experiential learning from Chapman, McPhee and Proudman (1995); these include “an absence of excessive judgement” (perhaps in the form of constant quizzes and grading); “the role of reflection” both during and after activities; “creating emotional investment” for students, and shared investments between students and teachers; and “the re-examination of values” alongside “learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones” – coming to terms with difference in action.

These principles are meant to align with a range of active pedagogies, and of course they are highly socially and culturally transferable. So how did we get from learning to question our ingrained value systems and encountering difficulty productively, to internships with industry partners meant to lead to paid work? Schwartz ends her introductory comments with some sense of an answer:

From the point of view of the university, experiential learning can help institutions stay relevant to students by providing them with the necessary skills to transition into the workforce. Cantor also sees experiential learning as helping the university fulfill the need for “higher education to more closely interface with business to promote community economic development” (1995, p. 79). For institutions concerned with issues of inclusion, experiential learning can promote “the value of diversity… and bring together people of different social, ethnic, and economic classes,” preparing students for entry into the world at large (1995, p.81).

Experiential learning can also be a boon to departments with few resources, and “the literature highlights the benefits of using experiential learning to embellish lean instructional and budgetary resources” or to “bolster your available resources” (Cantor, 1995, p. 84).

What’s wrong with this picture? It comes straight from the neoliberal university playbook. This is the model that argues universities should be in the business of training students for the work force, first and foremost. In the process this model implies (or sometimes outright states!) that a social-democratic, liberal-arts education is at best an elective and at worst a waste of time to be defunded (because hey, the unlucky departments can always hunt for industry partners to “bolster [their] available resources”!).

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Notice in particular the language at the end of the longer paragraph just above: if institutions are “concerned with issues of inclusion,” experiential learning can help them promote diversity as a value. Of course this is a good thing, in itself; what’s not so good, though, is that experiential learning, in this configuration, functions as a handmaiden to support neoliberal university policy: diversify or lose student bodies, and the dollars now attached to them.

I get cranky a lot about the neoliberal university. And there’s no question that modelling experiential learning on its principles is a risky bargain. But this isn’t where I want to dwell, here or in my next post. 

Rather, what I want to emphasize is this: the “industry-partnership” version of experiential learning risks ignoring (in fact, risks making invisible) the many other, incredibly beneficial, ways in which learning is already, and always should be, “experiential” in nature and scope.

Forget “experiential learning” for a minute. What is it to experience learning? What would it mean really to “do” experience – to treat experience as a verb, “a doing” (Lewis and Williams) and not a thing, an activity we undertake in (co)motion rather than an object to possess?

Notice how, in much of what I’ve quoted above, and in the language of experiential learning that circulates around us today, “experience” always functions as a noun or an adverb. It modifies “learning”; it is a thing to be grasped and made monetizable.

Students should have stimulating experiences out in “the real world” in order to build “work experience.” In the “experience economy” we purchase cool coffee shop vibes, not lattes made for drinking.

If experience is understood, in our economy and thus our workaday world, as a thing to be purchased and coveted, how can it also be used as a tool to bring us together, to build community, to drive political change?

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a nice latte.

I find this conundrum fascinating. Is experiential learning, in a neoliberal economy, fundamentally at odds with itself? What kinds of experiences might we highlight, as students and teachers, in order to bring different, less immediately commodifiable modes of experiencing back into the field of representation?

That’s the topic for my next post, where I’ll share several short snapshots of “experiencing learning” from my recent trip to the annual CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) conference in Vancouver, BC. I’ll try in that post to model an alternative praxis of learning-as-experience; I hope to take it with me into this fall’s exciting new labour with City Studio.

Meanwhile, stay cool!

Kim

 

Theatre IS democracy. Pass it on.

Tomorrow is mid-term election day in the U.S.; my best wishes to all of my American readers, colleagues, and friends.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an important election. It is an election that may well determine whether the U.S. returns to some semblance of its pre-2016 self, for all its flaws and troubles, or pushes closer to the brink of genuine fascism.

This frightens me, as I know it frightens many of you. Depending on where you teach, it may also frighten your students. Or, it may be they are tuned out, don’t care too much.

Maybe they are old enough to vote and are planning to vote. Maybe they are old enough to vote but are also disenfranchised for one reason or another. Maybe they are old enough to vote but won’t be voting, sick like so many of us of the disgusting and horrifically xenophobic rhetoric that passes for political discourse in so many corners of the world these days. Maybe they aren’t old enough to vote yet, but care deeply anyway.

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Whoever your students are, you might be thinking today (whether you’re American or not) about how to talk to your students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. (If you don’t live in a democracy, you may be thinking about these things even more urgently.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, too.

I’ve been working slowly over the past year on a new research project about the place of theatre and performance education and training in the contemporary university. (This is a collaborative project – a big hello to Kat, Diana, Sylvan, Rebecca, Barry, and many more of you out there.) At the core of this project is one essential belief: that learning about, and learning to make, theatre and performance is akin to learning about, and learning to make, a healthy, supportive, socially progressive democracy. For this reason, theatre and performance studies are not just “niche”, nor are they “just” creative arts. They are about learning the art of genuine citizenship – and should be recognized, funded, respected, and promoted that way by university leaders.

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The Theatre of Epidaurus at sunset. The Greeks knew it.

Today feels like a good day to reflect on the firm, urgent bond between theatre-making and democracy-building. What is theatre, after all, except a creative endeavour in which a group of human beings research, practice, struggle over, and negotiate the challenge of inhabiting the attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, wisdoms – as well as the geographical and socioeconomic and cultural and historical contexts – of a group of other human beings? At its most basic, acting is the art of the proverbial walk-a-mile-in-another’s-shoes gesture, the central act of empathy that binds us to our fellow citizens (and to those among us who are not so privileged as to be our fellow citizens yet – the hardest stretch of all).

Actors say repeatedly and vehemently that it is not possible to play a character in whose experience you do not, on some level, have faith; you may be far, far from that character’s context or politics or even sense of human decency, but without some basic understanding of who that character is, where their actions come from, and how you as a human being are linked to them as a human being, no creativity can come.

The portrayal of another without even a smidge of shared understanding would result in stereotype, and nothing more.

(Brecht devotees, I am among you. But performing Brechtian distance is not the same thing as acting without empathy or emotional investment. One of my favourite clips to show students when I talk about this kind of thing is from a French documentary made about a decade ago for ARTE, about the acclaimed British touring company Cheek By Jowl. In the clip, Tom Hiddleston talks about what it feels like to play two diametrically opposed characters in the same production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. His thoughts are compelling and resonant, and represent how closely Stanislavskian or “system”-style acting is to Brechtian or “alienated” acting, at its core. [Click through to the middle to find Tom.])

But theatre is about more than the empathetic bonds actors build with characters and with one another, of course. It is also about the fundamental challenge of collaborative world-building. You start with a script, or maybe just an idea. You play. You devise scenarios from held objects. You think about design, about scene structure, about set architecture. You select patterns to draw out – then you argue about whether or not these are the right ones. The contours of your world emerge from your shared graft, energy, arguments – creativity.

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I have shamelessly snatched this evocative image of 12 Minute Madness from alt.theatre’s website; please click through to read my colleague Kelsey Blair’s terrific review of this production. Thanks and apologies to alt!

It’s hard to be sure – lots of feelings circulate in the rehearsal hall and sometimes they are ugly. But you have a shared project to make – a world to build together. The world must go on! So you return the next day, patch it up a bit, move on together, and the suture strengthens. You keep building.

This is for me the heart of theatre’s link to democracy. To make a world is hard. To cross the barriers of difference with humility is hard. To fight over something fundamental without destroying a relationship is hard. To fight over something fundamental, almost destroy a relationship, and then come back in the morning to try again, together, is hard.

So far so true, you might be thinking. But what about studying theatre, in academic (not practical or conservatory) programs like the one on which I teach? Like all critical liberal arts, academic theatre studies requires teachers and students together to enter into a shared world built by others, for others, and then undertake the challenge of really, carefully thinking through what is at stake in that world: what social claims are on the table, for whose benefit they have been tabled, and at what potential costs.

This is the work I’ve been doing every week with the students in my new experiential learning class, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. We read (via a team of student leaders on each production, who build a wiki-page of intel for us in advance) about the place, the artists, the history and the ideas behind a production; then we see that production together, ask questions afterward of the artists and other makers, and finally return to the classroom for a debrief, held alongside a discussion of relevant readings. We investigate a world – with empathy for the makers and yet also with questions about their choices, as well as about the social, economic, and demographic constraints that have shaped their work. We ask each other what the work is meant to do for a community (Toronto and its many constituencies), and what the work seems to want to say to us.

We respect the work but push hard back on it. Which is to say: we do the work of citizens in a democracy.

I know not all classes can, or should, look like this one. (It’s a lot of work to run and expensive, too.) And yes, I also know that not all theatre practice looks like the idyl I describe above. Lots of artists are total jackasses. Lots of us prefer to nullify rather than negotiate difference in rehearsal. Lots of us are egomaniacs and practically dictators when we hold the director’s baton. (So: pretty much like your average democracy, then!)

But that’s all the more reason for us to remember, today, what theatre – as a practice, a study, an art form, and a form of worlding – at its best teaches us, and what we as teachers consequently need to share with our students. Theatre shows us how to act like proper citizens, regardless of the day: how to care for one another, how to care for our world as if we are all invested in it, and how to contour that world as if it is for all of us to experience, appreciate, negotiate, and enjoy.

This is the message I want to send my students, tomorrow and everyday, about what learning in our shared classroom means. About what I as a teacher believe in.

I hope you’ll pass it on!

Kim

More collaborative writing

A few weeks ago I co-authored a review essay on the musical Fun Home with my student Rachel Windsor; that pleasurable, rejuvenating exercise was exactly what I needed at the end of a long and tiring term.

So I’ve been at it again: this time with a terrific postdoctoral fellow who works with me at Western University, Dr Erin Julian.

Erin and I are currently collaborating on a research project about diversity and inclusion at the Stratford Festival, a large repertory company grounded in the plays of William Shakespeare. Stratford has been working hard in recent seasons to shift its image as a straight and white kind of place, making big strides in hiring younger, more ethnically, racially, and gender-diverse cast members and thinking outside the old, familiar box of “what the playwright intended” (as if we could ever know that, anyway).

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(Please, people. We all know Shakespeare intended to go to the beach!)

All of these strides are great, of course. But what, Erin and I wondered, does it really mean to practice diversity and inclusion at Stratford, as opposed to just representing those things? That is, what does it take for a non-straight, non-white perspective to become the seed for work, the grounding place for a vision, and also (crucially) the starting point for new working practices, rather than just the thing a theatre company wants the public to see, perceive, or believe about it?

We can – and should, of course – ask the very same questions of our educational institutions, our employers, as well as our own classrooms.

As Erin and I developed our project’s research questions, we were inspired by the important work done by Toronto’s Modern Times Theatre Company in their “post marginal” initiative (read more about that here), and especially by the associated symposium, “Beyond Representation,” that took place in Toronto in April 2017 (read the final report from that superb event here, or check out video of the speakers and panels here). We were also inspired by the work of Keira Loughran, a playwright, actor, and director who works for Stratford as both the head of its playwrights’ unit and Forum public engagement series, as well as in her capacity as a theatre artist.

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(The fabulous Keira Loughran)

Just around the time that the “Beyond Representation” symposium got me thinking deeply about diversity as theatrical practice, Keira told me about her vision for her summer 2018 production of Comedy of Errors at Stratford. She wanted its world (called Ephesus in the text) to be gender-fluid, as well as generationally and ethnically crosshatched: in other words, a world that all of the characters could inhabit completely comfortably, in both their similarities (the play is littered with twins and mistaken-identity plots) as well as in their profound and meaningful differences. She told us about her plans for the script, for casting, and for building links with the trans community, particular via artist-consultants from that community who came on board once rehearsals began in March.

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(The fabulous Sunny Drake, one of the consultants on Keira’s production)

Erin and I decided that Keira’s production would be a brilliant way for us to dive deeply into the challenges practicing diversity in a thorough-going way, at all levels of theatrical development, can pose at a large, resource-rich, but also traditionally-minded and subscription-audience-driven festival like Stratford. We had some hunches about what these challenges might be, but we were also willing to be surprised about both the good and the not-so-good.

Truly, we simply wanted to take the measure: when you commit to working diversely and inclusively as a starting place, when that kind of work isn’t your workplace norm, what happens next?

We’ve been shadowing Keira’s process since early winter, including attending rehearsals and workshops, and we were thrilled to be invited to a dress rehearsal in early May. The show opens this week, and we’re excited to see how audiences and critics respond.

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(The promo image for Keira’s Comedy of Errors, featuring Jessica Hill and Qasim Khan as the central twins. It’s selling out – grab tickets soon!)

Erin and I also recognize, though, that with our privileged perspective as academic insider-outsiders comes responsibility: the responsibility to help audiences (including critics) to see something of the complexities of process lying behind the stage world they will encounter at Comedy of Errors. Keira’s version of Ephesus isn’t going to be what a lot of audience members will be expecting; how might we, with our nuanced sense of the production’s development, help them get oriented, find their feet in this different-looking place?

Audiences, we think, not only should know, but need to know at least a bit about how the incredible care taken and commitment shown by Keira, her cast, and her entire team to building a thoughtful, deeply humane world of body inclusivity has shaped the final product they will see. Seeing only the product is tantamount to seeing diversity only as representation, not as lived practice or indeed as workplace practice. In relation to this production, that feels wrong.

So last week we reached out to Keira to ask if she’d permit us to write a preview article for Stratfordfestivalreviews.com about our shadowing of the production, what we observed and what we felt about our observations. Keira – who is deeply aware that some Stratford audience members may feel somewhat alienated by the world her team has created – readily agreed.

I’m now really pleased to share the article with you. In addition to being a window onto a gender-diverse and non-conforming Shakespeare production, I hope it can also serve as a bit of a primer, inspired by Keira’s thoughtful directorial guidance, on how we might all practice body diversity and inclusion in more effective ways in our classrooms and rehearsal spaces – not just representing it, but living it with our students and thus modelling inclusionary perspectives and actions as new cultural norms.

As Keira’s process reveals, diversity practice is genuine, proper work, but it’s really not that hard to do: it simply requires us to begin, as Donna Michelle St-Bernard noted in her “Beyond Representation” keynote address last April, from this basic question.

What would happen if I imagined that I was ACTUALLY the centre of the universe?

I’d know I was not the most oppressed person in the room. I’d have to turn around to see who was behind me.

Click here to access my and Erin’s preview, “The Comedy of Errors: Building Inclusivity at the Stratford Festival.” Thanks in advance for reading!

Kim