On teaching as “practice”

Last night I participated on a panel at Birkbeck, University of London, speaking to students on the Master’s course in Text and Performance (from which I graduated in 1999!) about the relationship between scholarship and artistic practice in the academy. With me were my distinguished colleagues Allan Read, from King’s College London, and Dan Rebellato, from Royal Holloway. Allan, whose route to the academy came through years of grass-routes theatre-making, offered a lively talk about that history; Dan, who is a playwright as well as an internationally known name in theatre and performance studies, talked about his inclination to understand artistic practice and scholarly work as separate endeavours with separate, and unique, spheres of influence. (For those of you not inside the profession: this is a rather contrarian perspective – usefully so.) I wasn’t nervous going into the panel, but I was nervous (a bit, anyway) after hearing Dan and Allan speak so naturally and eloquently about their work as theatre makers. They clearly have an artistic practice, as well as being scholars. I am not an artist, and I have never identified as one. I am simply a scholar, and a teacher. Suddenly the things I wanted to say seemed rather irrelevant, even small.

Now, I should qualify my looming anxiety by saying that, of course, I had felt it earlier: I felt it when my friend and colleague Aoife Monks, who runs the Birkbeck course, asked me to participate on the panel, and I then thought about it throughout my preparation for the event itself. The questions I asked myself, as a result of this feeling and thinking, were:

If I’m not an artist, what’s my practice?

What is my relationship to art and theatre-making, practically as well as theoretically, as a scholar of performance who works in a community of artists as well as academics?

And, perhaps most important:

What does “practice” mean to me, anyway?

This series of self-searching questions got me to think a bit about the word “practice” as such – not in isolation, of course, but nevertheless outside of the specific, theatrical context in which Aoife’s prompt for the panel was embedded.

In its simplest form, “practice” means to try something a bunch of times in the hope of getting better at it. I “practice” the piano. I “practice” riding my road bike really quickly up the hill. I “practice” reading the monologue in front of the mirror while I try not to crack up laughing. That kind of thing. In its most practical form – which is connected to craft work and to the labour of making that work – “practice” means the same but more: I make this work again and again, in slightly different and (maybe) more sophisticated iterations each time. I learn from mistakes and develop what I’m doing as I go. In this sense, I “develop” my “practice” at the same time as I develop my craft – I build on what I’m doing, physically but also psychologically and pedagogically, and I learn in a meta-critical way about what is working and what is not (in other words, I practice learning about my craft, about what works and what doesn’t, even as I do more of the things that work and drop the things that don’t). So “practice” here means specifically to evolve, to grow, to search, to learn, to discover. Really, it’s a term that describes a way of living and being and working in the world – far removed from the sense of onerous and painful rehearsal that I associated with it as a kid.

Now, back to the panel – and specifically to the moment when Dan ended his presentation and I had to get up and tell the students that I was, anticlimactically, not an artist and had no exciting slide show of work to share. I need not have worried. As it turns out, not only were my colleagues and the students receptive to my “riff” on the idea of practice in place of a thoroughgoing discussion of my (nonexistent) art, but I also drew strength from the idea of taking what Allan and Dan had put on the table and shaping it a bit differently – practicing it afresh, maybe.

I shared some of my scholarly background to start, talking about how influenced I have been by the time I spent in Texas, in 2005, when I was a postdoctoral fellow in the “Performance as Public Practice” program at UT Austin. That program, I realised even as I spoke, shaped for me my first sense of “practice” as something that teachers and scholars, as well as artists, do to and for and in the world – that we do as acts of conscious public-ness, as acts of open (and hopefully critically generous) engagement with the many communities in which we are embedded. From Austin, I went on to work casually with a number of different artists, including Tara Beagan and Jennifer H. Capraru, learning from them and in turn offering them support in the academic dissemination of their work; I think back on this labour as a crucial part of my practice as a scholar of contemporary performance. I also learned, from my time at UT, to think about the teaching of performance as itself a practice – a variation on the making of performance as artistry.

What’s at stake in calling my teaching in and about theatre and performance a “practice”? A labour of craft, one that I rehearse and refine, again and again, in the hopes of learning about it, discovering new things, improving? What are the outcomes of such a practice, for me and for my communities?

One of the benefits of using this term in this context, I think, comes from its malleability, but also from its precision. If I am to have a practice, I need to understand something of its workings, and to think about those workings regularly (keeping them oiled, maybe, like my bicycle chain). I need to have, maintain, and hone an ethos about the relationships engendered in my classrooms and my broader teaching spaces (including my office, my inbox, the coffee shops where I meet my students). I need to understand my methodologies, so that I might unmake and remake them. I need to have strategies for managing problems and failures, and I need to reflect on these regularly. I need to know what ideas and plans to keep working on, and what stuff to leave alone because, for now, it is in optimal shape. I need to treat the work of teaching, perhaps, just a bit like the tough yet fragile clay in a potter’s hands – with quiet respect as well as urgency.

Further, if “practice” as a verb (“practise” in the UK) means to work (on) one’s metier, “practice” as a noun – for me anyway – signifies a collective. I go to the practice to meet my friends and become a better soccer player. We meet to practice our scene together. (Or my favourite, from the gloriously craft-focused, community-driven TV series about post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux and his cohort meet every week for “Indian Practice”, more often just before Mardi Gras, when the whole city practices together.) So when I “practice” as a performance scholar and teacher, I hope always (or as often as possible) to do it in a group – whether that group is a cohort of students, or a small clutch of peer collaborators, or sometimes both. Thinking about when and how my practice is solitary, and when and how it is messily collective, is also a useful prompt to thinking about the ways in which the work of teaching performance ebbs and flows out of the solo and into the community.

One small, innocuous word, yet so much to think on. Thanks Aoife, Allan, and Dan for the opportunity.