On Reckoning (an activist classroom performance review)

When new acquaintances find out I teach at a university, the first thing they want to know is what, exactly, I teach. Usually, I say “theatre”. Sometimes they ask for details, and then I explain that our program is academic, not conservatory, and that technically I teach “theatre studies”, not acting. But usually we don’t get that far. “Theatre” seems enough for most people – it’s cool, seems fun, and is largely self-explanatory.

But teaching theatre, for me, isn’t just about introducing students to plays and performance – the obvious stuff. When I explain to my classes at the start of the semester what it is we’re going to be doing together, I often tell them that we’re going to be learning how to be critical, self-aware, thoughtful audience members. This is not just a useful skill for when you find yourself at a live performance; it’s an essential life skill. Being a thoughtful spectator allows you to read the world with care, parse competing sets of information astutely, and examine the things you’re seeing and hearing from multiple angles, in their critical context. In other words: it allows you to bear witness, with care, to our world and the many different peoples in it.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend a piece of theatre that demanded I bear witness to a very specific, urgent set of experiences: those of indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential school system, their families, and others who have been touched by the official process of truth and reconciliation that took place between 2008 and 2015. (For those who don’t know anything about Canada’s TRC, the archive of its findings is available here. If this seems a bit overwhelming, start here. If you know nothing at all about Canada’s residential school system, read this first.)

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PJ Prudat as the daughter

The work I attended is called Reckoning, by playwright and actor (and, I’m proud to say, my friend) Tara Beagan and designer Andy Moro, in conjunction with their company Article 11. It’s at the Theatre Centre in Toronto (an amazing arts hub and incubator) until Sunday 24 April.

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Andy Moro; Tara Beagan

Reckoning is composed of three short plays: a dance-movement piece with recorded sound, (Witness) in which John Ng performs the role of a TRC commissioner, coming steadily more undone as he encounters the brutal testimony he is meant to synthesise; a realistic scene (Daughter) in which PJ Prudat plays the child of a former teacher accused of rape who seduces her father’s accuser (played by Glen Gould); and a truly hilarious, incredibly poignant monologue (Survivor) by Jonathan Fisher, who plays a survivor recording a note for his family as he prepares to commit suicide on the steps of parliament in an act of protest against the insufficiencies of the reconciliation process.

These are the bare bones. This show’s power, however, resides in the ways it asks us, over and over, to look again – to look deeply into and engage thoughtfully with seemingly simple, spare scenes. Reckoning is elegant, gorgeous to watch, expertly composed. But it is not at all beautiful – and in this contrast its truth lies.

In the first scene, Ng’s official witness enters his office tentatively, slowly; soon, he begins to contort as the language of the commission’s official documents (transmitted through the space’s sound system) hits him literally in his gut, snakes across his body. He removes pages and pages of testimony from his briefcase only to feel, too, their violence; he grabs his task lamp and turns it into a gruesome, angry eye, staring hard at words that could scarcely be more viscerally draining. The virtuosity of his movements contrast sharply with the contortions he must undergo, dancing with the angry, bright light as he struggles to get out of the room. His body bears literal witness to the demands of bearing witness to the material we are all encountering together. He trains us in the act of witness as we prepare to continue Reckoning‘s journey.

Prudat and Gould have an even greater challenge: to “act natural” as they embody two people whose experiences of the residential school system are both historical, distant, and yet profoundly present and immediate. Prudat’s character was born at a residential school, her mother a student and her father a teacher; Gould’s is a survivor preparing to give testimony to the TRC. When the play opens they have just had sex; they then begin drinking and talking. Prudat’s daughter has been torn apart by the accusations against her father, who has since died; she has invited Gould’s character home in order to see him in the flesh, but also, it appears, to see her father again, and to demand he/they (both?) witness her suicide in the face of his accusations, her loss.

The naturalistic set-up of this scene makes it gut-wrenching: as always with Beagan’s plays, naturalism is here a vehicle for profound intimacy onstage that goes painfully awry, and that requires audiences to squirm through the anxiety and discomfort witnessing others’ bodily intimacy can impose. Here, I found myself fascinated by Prudat’s gorgeous body, dressed only in a slip, but pulled sideways by the sheer complexity of her lived experience as a child of the residential school system, a woman trapped by her love for her father despite the wreckage of her origins, able to see both sides of the commission’s work (supporting survivors, suing for justice for both survivors and accused) and yet unable to see her way clear of the implications of the commission for her family, her future. Even as they ask us to revel in Prudat’s beauty and Gould’s charm, Beagan and Moro here require us to look beyond them, into the unexpected difficulty of this daughter’s relationships, coloured as they all are by her colonial present, and to recognize the “reconciliation” process as uneven, inadequate, ugly, deeply damaging.

Daughter ends with a moment of violence aborted, and a glass of wine flung sideways. When the lights come up Jonathan Fisher appears to mop the deck, makes light of the work, and everyone (at last) can laugh, unburden a bit. At the performance I attended Prudat caught a chair as it nearly fell from the platform stage; this became our opportunity to applaud, since applause had felt quite wrong at the end of her and Gould’s performance. I found this accident instructive, powerful: does bearing witness at the theatre mean applause, bravos, or boos? Not really. Those are acknowledgements of work, declarations of approval (or not). Witnessing human experience, human bodies in pain, at the theatre requires something very different. When we clap, we thank the actors for their labour, and then put it to one side; when we do not clap, as in instances like this, it is (I hope) because we are doing our own work, prompted by the work of the actors and production team to labour ourselves in their stead.

Fisher’s closing monologue is, like Ng’s piece, an exercise in virtuosity; so damn deadpan-funny I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying it – after all, he’s recording a suicide note! OR, was I? Fisher’s survivor obviously wanted the people for whom he was recording his message (Charlie, his nephew, and Trina, his sister) to feel both his joy and his sadness, to hear his funny as well as his hurt. How do we live with two contradictory emotions at once? Can the pleasure we take in a performance be more than “culinary” (as Bertolt Brecht might say)? Can it enable our political engagement? These are hard, nuanced questions – the kinds of questions essential to developing a practice of critical spectatorship.

Near the end of his recording Fisher’s character makes us all get up: he DEMANDS, with acute vocal force, that we stand to sing, with him, Canada’s national anthem. For the purposes of his note this is a deeply ironic gesture: our anthem is laden with assumptions about who owns Canada, who owes Canada allegiance, and who Canadians are (sons, not daughters, according to the lyrics – sorry, ladies! Fisher deadpans again). This is the one moment in Reckoning when I was called upon to use my physical body to meet the performance; it’s easy for spectators sitting in the dark to forget we have bodies, unless the seats are especially uncomfortable, or unless the bathroom beckons. Strangely, however, in this case none of us seemed reluctant to get up. Fisher’s script required him to boom out his demand that we stand, but it wasn’t really necessary. We were all already on our feet.

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John Ng as the witness

Something about this work, this process through which it had taken us, had made us all well aware of, and also prepared for, the need to rise and meet Fisher’s voice and eyes. (And our voices he insisted upon: none of this lip-sync pretending, he scolded.) Meeting survivors’ eyes with our own eyes, open wide and searching for more than we think we already see, know. Meeting survivors’ voices with our voices, ready to speak of the atrocities, the cultural genocide, on which this country is founded, and ready to speak toward a better shared future.

That’s not reconciliation, but it’s the first step towards a reckoning.

Respect,

Kim

NOTE: I’d like to thank Tara and Andy for extending me a complimentary ticket for this show. Work like Reckoning is made on a shoestring, and needs our support. Go see it!

On asking more questions

I’ve been trying a lot of new things in my two classes this semester. Last week I wrote about some changes I’ve made to the way I handle in-class performance work in my 20th century theatre course, which is primarily for English Lit students. This week, I’ve been thinking about just how many other changes I’ve been juggling these past two months. I’ve been trying new exercises in classes – including, for example, Lois Weaver’s terrific Long Table, which requires students to take complete responsibility for a discussion as well as responsibility for when to jump into and out of that discussion. (It’s harder than it sounds!) I’ve been bringing guests like Hattie Morahan and Tara Beagan in via Skype and asking students to build the questions we will ask them, thereby taking some ownership over the quality of the visit and the information it yields. In my smaller performance studies class (“Performance Beyond Theatres”) I’ve been requiring a lot of ad-hoc presentations and participation from students, partly in order to match the class’s more intimate seminar shape and feel, and partly in an effort to “lower the stakes” around anxiety-inducing things like speaking in class.

A couple of days ago, though, I was reminded by a student that sometimes the things that I think will be a breeze and a treat are neither; sometimes the things I suspect will lower the stakes only cause panic. I am, to state the never-quite-obvious-enough, not my students, and there’s a limit to what I can guess of how they are feeling. I’m better at this guesswork than I used to be, when every single thing that happened in classes or in office hours got filtered through my new-teacher impostor syndrome, in which I imagined that it was All My Fault For Sucking So Much. But even now, with a decade in the classroom behind me, I’m still a bit quick to imagine either that I’ve screwed up big time, or that I’m a Teaching Genius, depending on the mood of the day.

There’s not a lot of half way in the classroom; it’s a performance, after all, and performances are full of heightened affect. It’s exhilarating when you fall in love with how well things seem to be going, and taxing, very very taxing, when things seem to be going rather wrong. Sadly, it’s hard to feel the more obvious, likely more accurate thing: that stuff is mostly fine and could also be better, and that it’s mostly nothing to do with you, the teacher, at all.

This evening I sat down to read my latest Tomorrow’s Professor posting, which features a “throwback” book review by Roben Torosyan, director of the Office of Teaching & Learning at Bridgewater State University, about Stephen Brookfield’s landmark 1995 text, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. As is often the case with TP postings, this one was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time.

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Torosyan talks about his longtime debt to Brookfield’s book (hence the nearly 20-years-on review!), and particularly to Brookfield’s fondness for short, qualitative questionnaires that encourage both students and teachers to take regular stock of what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what has been surprising, pleasurable, rewarding in the classroom.

This is what the book means by critical reflection, then: simply taking regular time to reflect calmly, sincerely, and without judgement on mundane classroom stuff.

Here’s Torosyan’s version of Brookfield’s “critical classroom incident” questionnaire for students:

1. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?

2. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?

3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?

4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?

5. What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that occurs to you.) (p. 115)

And here’s the questionnaire Brookfield recommends as a weekly debriefing exercise for any teacher engaged in a new prep:

1. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most connected, engaged or affirmed as a teacher–when I said to myself “This is what being a teacher is really all about”?

2. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most disconnected, disengaged, or bored as a teacher–when I said to myself “I’m just going through the motions here”?

3. What was the situation that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress–…[one] I kept replaying in my mind as I was dropping off to sleep, or that caused me to say to myself “I don’t want to go through this again for a while”?

4. What was the event that most took me by surprise–where I saw or did something that shook me up, caught me off guard, knocked me off my stride, gave me a jolt, or made me unexpectedly happy?

5. Of everything I did this week in my teaching, what would I do differently if I had the chance to do it again?

6. What do I feel proudest of in my teaching activities this week? Why? (pp. 73-74)

There are, I think, two key things to note about both of these questionnaires.

First, respondents needn’t respond to everything. The idea is to write about what’s especially compelling in this class, this week – but to get it out, whatever it is, because whatever it is can only then become a teachable moment, a chance for learning something important about class dynamics or about the way students are receiving particular kinds of material or exercises or formal innovations. Students should be encouraged to talk about the good and the not so good, honestly. Teachers should be encouraged to do the same.

Second, these tools are designed to help teachers, in particular, to get past the urge toward extreme classroom affect. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel either pretty/really good, or pretty/really crappy after most classes, and it takes a lot of effort to detach from those feelings of profound investment and even responsibility for what I often imagine is a shared feeling of good/bad/awful. It’s really tempting to assume that students feel exactly the same way I do. But what if that’s not true? What if that excessive affect is actually completely personal and subjective, and more importantly not that useful in its raw form? Brookfield’s prompts for teachers are meant to help us objectify, as anecdotal evidence, what we might otherwise ingest too fully (and generalise too abstractly) as subjective feeling. His prompts for students are, likewise, designed to help teachers recognise broad patterns but also outliers in the classroom, so that we can learn from the former and learn not to over-invest in the latter.

I’d already decided, before reading Torosyan’s review, that Madison and I should poll our class about the effectiveness of our recent thesis-building workshop. I now thing I’m going to poll both of my classes at the half-way point to find out what kinds of “critical moments” in class – both good and bad – are shaping their experiences, and how we might improve the good and manage the bad better. I’m also going to do the teacher questionnaire next week, as our October Study Break hits, for both of my classes, and I’ll invite Madison to do one too. (Madison, you are hereby invited!)

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I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kim

On “Red Forest” by Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre is an extraordinary company. Political dissidents working in exile, making performance that fights oppression and dictatorship in their home state, many of the members of the company have suffered at best job loss and at worst arrest, detainment, and threat simply as a result of their choice to use theatre as the public platform for free and open speech against injustice that it always ought to be. Their two earlier shows in London, Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker and Trash Cuisine, were critical and popular smash hits, and established BFT’s reputation as a company with both a political heart and a lyrical soul.

So I jumped at the chance to book a ticket to Red Forest, their offering at the 2014 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). And I was enormously surprised not to be impressed; in fact, I was shocked at my tremendous disappointment in the show.

Red Forest tells the (apparently) interconnected stories of human suffering and environmental degradation in a number of different communities across the globe. Starting in North America/Turtle Island, with a voice-over monologue delivered by Jeremy Proulx, a First Nations performer from Ontario, the story travels through Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India, and beyond. Its touchstones are Proulx – whose role appears to be that of a kind of mythical ancestor to all of the show’s sufferers and (rather perplexingly) combines Anishnaabe (also known as Ojibway) and Lakhota identities – and Aisha, a young, pregnant African woman on the run from civil unrest, played by Michal Keyamo. Aside from Keyamo (who is black) and Proulx, the roles of all the other “global” sufferers in the show are played by White members of the company, from Belarus, England, and Italy.

Red Forest is a devised work; that means it’s not based on a pre-existing script, but rather on the shared creation labour of the whole company. Devising is a fairly trendy contemporary mode of theatre-making, and at its best produces powerful, passionate, often unexpected material based as much or more on gesture and soundscape as on words or text. It is collaborative and democratic (again, at its best), and thus embodies the spirit of theatre as public, social practice. But it can also, just as easily, create work that looks amazing yet lacks nuance: shows can be aesthetically glorious and incredibly visually compelling, impressing with the committed and passionate work of the company, while also leaving audience members confused, uncertain, even angry about those issues, ideas, and underlying assumptions not paid proper attention during the devising process. How much you care about these kinds of loose ends, relative to the pleasure of the aesthetic spectacle, has everything to do with how much you’ll love or hate a devised show that falls into this kind of trap.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not interested in writing “bad” performance reviews for their own sake; I love to celebrate good work (as I did recently here, and here, for example). But a show like Red Forest isn’t just not especially accomplished, despite the proper acclaim of BFT; in the story it has devised it also elides identities, communities, and experiences of globalisation-driven hardship in ways that are not politically helpful. These elisions in turn risk generating overly simplistic messages about non-Westerners for Western audiences – which on the night I attended included a very large contingent of secondary school and university-aged students, many of whom seemed happy to be seduced by the production’s lovely visuals, gorgeous singing, and attendant sentimentalising of the hybridised “other peoples” on offer. Given the risk of this result, I feel compelled to speak publicly about why I did not like this show, and about why its choices need to be interrogated.

My surprise at not liking my first ever live Belarus Free Theatre show was followed closely by my surprise at not being alone: I posted my unhappiness to my Facebook page and was quickly supported by colleagues from the UK and beyond. Further, when I investigated reviews of the show online, I discovered that mainstream critics were also not on board. Lyn Gardner’s piece in the Guardian sums up the mood well:

…too often this show looks and sounds beautiful in a poetic way yet fails to create context. … The danger is that the show becomes so much aesthetic hand-wringing rather than a call to action. The design and use of voice exacerbate the sense that we are watching a travelogue with a focus on suffering. Two shallow pools of water and a strip of sand provide a playing space where the actors are reduced to adding illustration to the voiceovers and projections that offer up soft-focus images of refugee camps with barbed wire or sunsets and sunrises. There are times when it feels as if you have switched on the National Geographic channel by mistake.

Like Gardner (along with Jane Shilling in the Telegraph, and Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard), I found the overarching problem with Red Forest to be a lack of clear context for each of its interlinked stories, which is another way to say that the show didn’t really bother to detail, or even pause to think much about, the specific material circumstances of each of the communities represented in the show – what makes these communities different from rather than simply similar to one another. It chose instead to sweep bathetically from one person, community, and experience to the next as though all of the characters and contexts it presented were on some level the same, and thus deserved the same sorrow/admiration (but perhaps not much more, as Gardner points out).

I should note here that BFT devised this show after collecting a substantial number of stories told first-hand to company members in communities all over the world; there is a lot of documentary-style research behind Red Forest, which is a tremendous strength. But how this research has finally been theatricalized frames the problem here: rather than recognising the words of their interlocutors as a starting point for further thick research and detailed creation (or even further collaboration with those interlocutors), the company seems to have felt that the words they gathered alone – along with their obvious compassion for the speakers’ plights – was enough to drive 80+ minutes of theatre. The result is a show mostly based on the BFT company members’ experience of what they have been told by the “others” they met, and their troubling alignment of that telling with their own experience as political dissidents not welcome in their own nation. It’s as if they’ve swallowed the words whole, rather than, perhaps, properly listened to them.

On the surface it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this kind of alignment, like it’s a gesture toward solidarity. And it can be – don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to suggest that finding ways to empathise with others in not-dissimilar situations does a disservice to BFT or their audiences. But there are risks associated with this kind of empathy, especially as a starting point for theatre-making: as tempting as it is to say, “hey! Your pain is just like our pain!”, in reality pain is never that simple, especially when it’s driven by a complex mix of political, economic, and cultural factors that are often unique not just to individual nations but to specific towns and villages within those nations. To say that what BFT’s members have gone through to make their work in the last few years is analogous to what, for example, a fisherman in coastal Brazil goes through as his community adapts to the twin effects of climate change and resource mining is, simply, disingenuous. Further, and most important, this kind of casual elision diminishes our ability to generate credible, specific, political resistance in both cases.

This problem of “experience elision” is especially troubling to me, as a Canadian scholar who has worked directly with Indigenous performance creators, in the case of Proulx and Keyamo’s roles in the show. As I noted above, these two are the only racially “marked” performers in Red Forest; that means that Proulx is charged with standing in for all Indigenous communities everywhere, while Keyamo becomes all black women (indeed, all black persons) everywhere. The piece makes no bones about this larger elision: it’s clear from the way the story is constructed (and from the way his appearances are paced and framed, as he turns up to dance spookily around different sufferers at key moments) that Proulx’s character “Jeremy” is some kind of mythical Indigenous ancestor to all the characters in the show. (This, incidentally, is a not especially sophisticated rendering of the familiar “noble savage” trope that we can trace from the writings of Enlightenment France all the way up to Dances With Wolves and beyond. Ask an Indigenous person what s/he thinks about the noble sufferings of super-natural pow-wow dancing people and watch him/her spontaneously combust.) Aisha in turn is tasked with moving through nearly every scene as she tries to scratch survival out of the unforgiving desert, inserting her black maternal body into the stories told of Chernobyl, China, Morocco, etc. She becomes an earth-mother figure, conveniently “birthed” (like archaeology’s mythical first human) by the sub-Saharan community portrayed at the top of the show. To top it all off, in the penultimate scene she is violently raped, in a moment that made me anxious I was witnessing the show’s final and most upsetting elision: of all black women, everywhere, with inevitable violence and victimhood.

So neither Jeremy – despite his claim during his opening voice-over that he is not the “stereotype” of the “Indian” we might be expecting – nor Aisha get to be individuals; their stories always have to stand in for other stories of hardship, longing, pain, and (every so often) celebration. And, of course, those other stories in turn stand in for the story of Belarus Free Theatre: in the end, I could not shake the feeling that this entire work was constructed by BFT as a metaphor for their own company and personal experiences. (I was only sort of surprised to find that, on the BFT website, the “Red Forest Campaign” link takes you to a petition that asks you to “Stand with Belarusian campaigners facing intimidation and arrest!”, not with, say, Brazilian fishermen facing ecological disaster.)

As a company BFT have a specific, urgent story to tell about Belarus: its many, diverse communities and those communities’ lack of freedom right now, in a moment when visual spectacles like the recent uprisings in Ukraine determine whose stories get told in the media, whose stories attract political attention, and whose go unspoken. They do not need to see their mandate as a burden to tell others’ stories in broad, pretty brush strokes; they do not need to pretend their suffering is the equivalent of someone else’s suffering. It does not need to be in order to be worthy of our attention. Hopefully, next time they encounter others’ provocative stories, BFT will consider collaborating with some of the outstanding artists and companies doing not-dissimilar anti-colonialist work to their own; from my own small experience I’d direct them immediately to Canada’s outstanding Native Earth Performing Arts; to its former Artistic Director, actor and playwright Tara Beagan; and to the longtime performance maker and feminist Indigenous activist Monique Mojica. The results, I suspect, would be more honest, more provocative, and more politically effective.

Until next time, then, BFT –

Kim

Weesageechak-welcomes-you

(Weesageechak looks forward to a call from Belarus. Image: www.nativeearth.ca.)

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.

Kim