Studying performance makes you better! A former student’s view

The guest post below was written by one of our former students in the Theatre Studies program at Western; it was written as part of a showcase of work by Theatre Studies students published in Western News, our on-campus weekly, to celebrate the official launch of our program on 3 March 2016. You can read the other – equally thoughtful – student pieces here.

By Jonas Trottier

In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Alan Rickman gave advice to aspiring young actors. He stressed the importance of exposing themselves to art, ideas, and current events in order for the young artist to form for themselves opinions on the world.

These are the things that I think have most benefited me in my journey as I’ve gone from undergraduate study at Western into a fine arts-based acting program at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto. The ideas that I was exposed to both in and out of the classroom as a student in Western’s Theatre Studies program have provided me with a broad intellectual foundation and a balanced, thoughtful perspective, both of which now inform my decisions as an actor and creator of theatre.

When I remember the political and social activism of my peers at Western, the creative, refreshing interpretations of texts on offer in scene studies for our classes, and the original performance interventions we made (here I think of the brave performances I witnessed at Purple Sex, a sex- and race-positive showcase that happens each March on campus), it is abundantly clear to me that all of those things have helped shaped my view of the world.

They have helped me to see and understand the world from the perspective of those on the margins.

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(Purple Sex is a student-driven, feminist, critical race, and queer-positive performance fundraiser that takes place every year at Western.)

Having this kind of exposure to alternative ideas, identities, and experiences of the world, and being able to see things from perspectives which may be very different from my own, is indispensable to my work as an actor. Empathy is the actor’s greatest tool. Without it, it is impossible to look at a script and see not simply how a character must act but also the incredible range of truthful ways in which they might act. To be able to see these possibilities and weigh them against each other in order to make choices that will create the most compelling piece of theatre is what sets great actors apart from those who lack the means to make these analytical choices.

In addition to this exposure to different worldviews, I benefitted so much at Western from learning about a wide array of theatrical conventions that stand apart from contemporary stage naturalism (the most common convention on display in mainstream theatre in North America). This has helped me to keep an open mind about the form theatre can take, and what different kinds of forms mean on stage. From the techniques of Brecht’s Epic Theatre to more esoteric forms such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, having a knowledge of a range of historical and contemporary techniques allows me to make good choices about which form or technique can most effectively help me achieve the desired effect for a piece of my work.

In looking back on my time at Western and thinking about where I am now in my journey, as well as where the Theatre Studies program at Western is going, I experience an interesting feeling of internal conflict. While I am infinitely happy to be doing the work I am doing now, a small part of me wishes I had had the opportunity to spend more time at Western and further my academic exploration of theatre and performance by taking some of the program’s ever expanding offerings. For now, I’ll continue to immerse myself in the practical side of the theatre, and just maybe use a book list or two, borrowed from my teachers and peers still at Western, to guide my ongoing personal investigations.

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JONAS TROTTIER graduated from Western in 2015 with a minor in Theatre Studies and is currently studying Theatre Performance at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto.

 

From London to London: A Student’s-Eye View

[Friends: this guest post is by Caitlin Austin, a final-year Theatre Studies student at Western University, and the amazing student intern/”guinea pig” I wrote about in my report on our recent “field trip” to London, England. Here, Caity offers her perspective on her time with us in the U.K., and reflects on what study-abroad opportunities have to offer students like her – heading for teacher’s college, and addicted to the stage. Enjoy!]

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“From London to London,” reads the caption of my Instagram post as I departed London, Ontario for a very exciting weeklong trip to London, England! The photo (below) features British and Canadian currency, and the magic ticket that would allow me to cross overseas: my passport. This trip to England marked my first time to Europe and I couldn’t have been more excited! Just carrying the foreign currency in my wallet made me feel worldly, sophisticated, and gave me a real hankering for tea and crumpets.

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The trip’s purpose was to help design and plan the future Destination Theatre course (for more details, see Kim’s earlier post here), and to build relationships with academic institutions in England with which Western students will eventually have the chance to be involved. I accompanied my professors, Kim Solga and M.J. Kidnie, on this journey across the pond and gratefully became an intern of sorts. I participated in meetings, took notes, and offered feedback from a student’s perspective, trying to answer the question, what will future Destination Theatre students REALLY want in a trip such as this?

Well, if future trips are anything like this one, those students are in for a treat! I was lucky enough to see 5 plays in 5 days. This was nothing short of heavenly. The first play I saw, Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse, I caught on our first night, still jet-jagged, with a friend I had met only a few months prior during a summer acting program in NYC. All hail the connective powers of travel! The other shows, ranging from a West End musical, The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre, to a nearly 4 hour Greek Epic, Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre (Trafalgar Studios), each offered something unique. However, all productions are not created equal and the scales were tipped heavily in the favour of the West End musical scene when I saw The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon was, without a doubt, the most fantastic thing I have ever witnessed. I smiled from start to finish. Actually, I was smiling long before the show even began because of the good fortune that had brought me to the front row of the greatest musical ever created (my apologies to all other pieces of theatre EVER). This good fortune began when, during some souvenir shopping near the end of our trip, fate had me stroll down a street called Coventry. While walking to find lunch, I happened upon the Prince of Wales Theatre where two representatives invited me to enter the ticket lottery for the matinee performance. Spoiler alert: I won the ticket lottery and was able to purchase a £100 front row seat for a mere £20!

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Caity in musical theatre heaven.

The lottery process itself was quite the event. A real ceremony, full of pomp and flair. The theatre representative draws a ballot from the large, spinning drum and teases the crowd by saying something to the effect of, “One ticket… Going to… America…” – and then pauses for all the hopeful Americans in attendance to squeal with excitement before announcing the lucky winner’s name. Once my name was called (yay!) I claimed my ticket and began to feel like a real V.I.P.: I was barraged with congratulations from theatre staff and fellow ticket winners. Such fun! So, if you should ever find the chance to attend a production of The Book of Mormon, do it! I’ll even cross my fingers that you’ll win the ticket lottery, too.

Besides the many examples of incredible theatre I was lucky enough to see, I had a blast exploring London as well. Kim and M.J., both with years of London living under their belt, were superb guides as I got to know the city. They offered insider knowledge only privy to someone who has held a London address (did you know you can order in the express line at Monmouth Coffee if you buy coffee beans at the same time? Also, the falafels at Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road are unrivalled), as well as supportive encouragement so I could feel confident exploring the city for myself. I’ll proudly tell anyone that I learned at least a few of the major Underground train lines while away and returned to Ontario envious of London’s superior public transit system.

Though we stayed in Mild End on the Queen Mary University campus (very comfortable beds, by the way), we journeyed by train to Stratford-upon-Avon for a half day to scope out how Stratford might fit into the Destination Theatre schedule. What a quaint little town! Though it would be easy to be distracted by the many shops, cafes, and photo opportunities – Ok, maybe we were…

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Caity meets Sir John Falstaff…

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…while Kim ponders her next move with Prince Hamlet.

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Oh, and that dog is made out of sand! MJ + Caity are impressed.

But we also participated in several really productive meetings with different Stratford institutions and returned to Queen Mary with lots of exciting Stratford opportunities for future students. 

Amidst all the excitement of a first time trip to England, one of the features that struck me most was the genuine kindness of almost everyone I met. Locals, and perhaps fellow tourists, helped me when I asked for directions and cashiers patiently waited while I tried to make sense of the British currency in my wallet. Along with the nameless strangers I encountered, I met several of Kim’s and M.J.’s many friends and colleagues in London, all of whom made me feel very welcome. It was really lovely to see how incredibly well-respected and well-liked my professors are, though for anyone who has known them, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Kim and M.J. have got to be two of the hardest working, most determined, creative people I know. I’m convinced their days have more than 24 hours because the amount they accomplish from sunrise to sundown is hard to believe. I marvel at their work ethic and was honoured to be welcomed so warmly into their process. As an English and Theatre Studies student graduating this year, I will remain incredibly grateful that I was able to experience Destination Theatre in its first iteration and am so excited for the future of the program. To any and all potential students reading this: renew your passport, pack your bags, and get ready for the experience of a lifetime!

On making English Lit students get up and perform – really well

Those of you who know a bit about me, my research and my teaching know that I am famous (particularly in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University) for making students in my honours-level English classes perform, all the time, for marks and not for marks. The point of our performances is to discover the story that human bodies tell about play scripts, which is often a very different story from the one that the script alone can tell. When I began teaching at Western in autumn 2005 I became quickly notorious as the woman who made groups of students stage scene studies and withstand Q&A sessions with peers every week. Every week! But the information, the pleasure, the strength, the joy that work provided was and has been pretty much endless, certainly for me and likely for a number of students now long graduated who have been kind enough to keep in touch. (A lot of those students just killed their Finals to boot, thanks in part to inspiring peer performances in class.)

When I moved to Queen Mary, University of London in autumn 2012, the shape of my teaching changed. A Drama Department is different from an English Department in so many ways; principal among these at QM was the focus on political, socially aware embodiment we promoted in every class we taught on our Honours BA in Drama program. In my studio classes I had to develop different approaches to teaching familiar texts: instead of relishing occasional performance, I had to figure out how to balance expected practice work with small-group learning about the theory behind the making. In my seminar classes, meanwhile, I had to find ways to incorporate performance research experiments without taking too much time away from our class discussions of readings, and without making those experiments seem like banal, poor relations to the more intensive work completed in studio. (I actually don’t think I succeeded on this front; something to aspire to in future, then.)

So goodbye said I to the weekly scene studies familiar from Western – there just wasn’t place nor reason for them at QM. But fresh challenges – namely, teaching critical and political approaches to performance to freaked-out first-year students who had just finished A-level devising and had no idea what was about to hit them – prompted fresh learning, for me as much as for them. I thought hard about how to shift the model I’d been using at Western to suit a QM first year audience. I met with the brilliant folks at Thinking/Writing, part of the QMUL library’s stable of resources. And I talked to people in my department – strong and well-loved teachers all – about existing best practices.

This is how, in place of my old, weekly scene study scheme (better adapted to students for whom performance is newly illuminating as an approach to textual exegesis), I came to institute a pair of mandatory performance workshop days for my first year class, “Performance Texts”. In each of these workshops, a different group of students (actually, four groups of students per day – it was a huge class) would present 10 minutes of work inspired by a specified text. (Including, for example, Kane’s Blasted, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Fugard’s The Island – eclectic as a mix, but all politically and emotionally challenging works.) One workshop happened earlier in the term, and was keyed to the first assignment; the second workshop happened closer to Christmas, and was generally a lighter affair because students knew what to expect (and that it would be fun!). In both cases, and across both classes in two different academic years, I can honestly say that I had four of the best teaching days of my life.

The workshop system – aided by the suite of fantastic exercises, including both free-writes based on students’ “critical moments” from each performance, and group discussion followed by a performer Q&A, both developed in conjunction with Kelly Peake from Thinking/Writing – worked better than my weekly scene study scheme ever had. Why? Basic chemistry: students were sharing a hot-house community environment, in which they were literally all in it together for two or so hours, and in which they had to work together and individually in a variety of guided ways. The energy in the room was high, the students’ level of engagement palpably strong, and the level of discourse impressive for a group of first-years, thanks in large measure to the writing exercises Kelly suggested we use to guide students’ engagement, channel their energy, and prompt targeted discussion. So, when I returned to Western this past autumn and resumed my place at the front of the Department of English and Writing Studies’ honours-level modern theatre class, I decided to import my new performance workshop plan rather than revert to the old scene study framework.

I knew straight off the bat that the biggest challenges I’d face in this new environment would be a brace of English and Writing Studies students who would be a) terrified of performing, and b) uncertain what was expected of them on this important day called Performance Workshop #1. The old scene study scheme had strengths and weaknesses, and one of its strengths was the normalisation of performance in my English classes. Performing is what you did, regularly; learning from class performances happened every week. Students figured out quickly how to read performance effectively – you had to or you were screwed. Under the new workshop system the stakes were oddly heightened, even though I try to chill the stakes in class whenever possible, the better to encourage creative thinking and risk taking. But I couldn’t avoid the fact that our first performance day would be loaded with risk for half of the class, the half that was expected to get up and show us something good.

How did we prepare for the big day? My TA, Madison Bettle, and I worked hard in the lead-up weeks to help students start acclimatising to the differences between reading plays as books and reading plays in performance. We looked at some clips from the outrageous, compelling, controversial Berlin Schaubühne adaptation of A Doll’s House, and we talked about what small moments of gesture, speech, light/sound change, or movement might do to communicate key meanings. (These small moments we named, after Kelly Peake’s suggestion, “critical moments” – moments in performance that create a spark, generate learning, provoke something worth pondering further.) Next we held a “scratch” day, playing with ad-hoc performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull, the text set for the first performance workshop. Students were unsure what to do, but the stakes were low: we were just playing, in order to see how student performances might work to make new textual meaning. Then, we watched Simon Stephens’ and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant A Doll’s House for the Young Vic on Digital Theatre Plus and held a class interview with Hattie Morahan, the whip-smart, gregarious and generous star of that production; we worked on gaining deeper insights into how critical moments on stage are built, and the many ways we might perceive their meanings. And then, just like that, it was time for Performance Workshop #1.

The big day was this past Tuesday, and I have to say it was superb: another exhilarating day for me as a teacher, and a pleasure to watch, especially as students who were not performing communicated the inspiration their peers’ presentations sparked in them. Although in their reflection posts on our class blog the student performers generally talked about the stresses of getting together enough beforehand, of not having enough time over Thanksgiving weekend to prepare, etc, they also talked intelligently and with honest self-reflexivity about what they might do better next time, and how. Sure, some of the performances were more “theatrical” than others, but all demonstrated a level of commitment to the thought work expected of them that impressed me and Madison and generated plenty of healthy class discussion. Students wrote their own scenes, re-imagined Nina as a real seagull (and a male seagull to boot!), and created a retrospective of Irina Arkádina that gave depth, empathy, and warmth to a character we had too easily dismissed in class discussion as self-involved and retrograde. I’m about to turn from this post to preparing the groups’ marks for their work (gang, if you’re reading, they are coming!), and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to reward these thoughtful student actors for strong and committed and thoughtful performances that genuinely pushed each of them, productively, out of their comfort zones and into a space of new learning.

With gratitude to all y’all in English 3556!

Kim