‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of…’
(William Shakespeare, The Tempest)
Performing Artists. What is it we actually do? Well, that’s a very good question. For one, we can devise complex theatrical presentations that seek to answer the most challenging of life’s question. Who are we? Why are we here? Why do hotdogs come in packs of 10 and hotdog buns come in packs of 8? We are also known to dabble in business. We come up with ideas that we bring to markets, in this case our audience. We market the shows we produce. We source financing through various different schemes. We build a brand, which in our case are ourselves, the practitioner or practitioners. We are entrepreneurs!
Except that’s not what we see. Entrepreneurship, and variations of that word, are seen as terms used not in the field of Performing Arts but more for those business people in suits who talk about synergy and drink copious amounts of coffee in stuffy boardrooms while making EXECUTIVE DECISIONS. That’s not us. We’re ethereal, wispy creatures that exist solely to create art for people. This is doubly true for those of us who use Performing Arts in an applied context, where we use drama to work with groups and individuals to address issues and difficulties that they are experiencing. Why is this, I hear you ask? From my experience it’s because of two main, intertwined reasons; context and language.
‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.’
(The Captain, Cool Hand Luke)
All too often in Performing Arts courses, we are asked to hit checkpoints on assignment briefs in order to then fulfil certain learning outcomes which the course must deliver to its students. Fine. No problem. We want to learn these skills as that’s why we’re on this course, after all! However, when you stop and consider for a moment the context in which the students are learning in, you run into a problem. Yes, you are indeed training students to be independent practitioners but, shorn of the context of what it’s like to create work in and for the industry, you are left with practitioners who are technically adept but ill prepared for the field they are going into.
Language is a particularly curious factor. All jokes about boardrooms aside, the issue with the use of language when working with Performing Arts students can be best exemplified by students’ reaction to the word, ‘research.’ We’re a naturally curious bunch. You tell us to come up with a physical performance based on the lifecycle of a butterfly that needs to include Korean heavy metal music and we will go off, look up pictures and information about butterflies, play with physical techniques from LeCoq and Meyerhold and spend hours scouring Youtube for obscure K-metal bands. No problem. If you ask us to research and prepare an essay on post-modern views of Othellothen we’ll freak out and tell you that we can’t do it. ‘We don’t know how to/I am not very got at research.’ This is despite the fact that, for the most part, constructing an essay is quite similar to constructing a performance, when you think about it.
- Break down what you are being asked.
- Gather resources that may be useful to the essay/piece.
- Analyse these resources and begin forming an argument around certain points/begin forming a piece around certain elements.
- Write a first draft/Create a rough piece.
- Rewrite and bolster your argument/rehearse and refine your piece.
- Add final polish in terms of headings and spellcheck/final technical tweaks.
- Hand it in/perform it.
I know that is being a bit simplistic but I do believe there is definite correlation there.
“Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can.”
How do we address these issues then? I don’t think there’s any ‘one size fits all’ approach, unfortunately. I do think, however, contextualising things such as assignments less as university exercises and more as theatrical productions aiming at industry could help put a real world spin on things, to better prepare students for life after graduation. Language is a bit trickier but, again, contextualising things could have an impact. If graduates see themselves as, to borrow Youtube parlance, ‘content creators’, rather than ‘actors’ or ‘practitioners’ it could help them see themselves in a more pro-active, entrepreneurial light. Ultimately though, I feel that whatever measures are put in place, they need to be firmly embedded into the curriculum and in an accessible way.
We do also have to bear in mind that not everyone, and I would suggest perhaps most people, who attend these courses go on to careers in drama or theatre. There is a real danger there that these students will graduate without the knowledge of the skills they have acquired on the course. I can only speak anecdotally but a number of my peers have quite low opinions of their skills and, as a consequence, are not confident putting themselves forward for jobs which they would like but feel are underqualified for, when that could very well not be the case. These people are disciplined, curious, creative problem solvers and I would imagine most businesses would be very happy to employ people with that skill. I myself am conducting research in a field that’s so far removed from Performing Arts that, when I tell people what I do, they give me odd looks. I was confident in taking that role, however, because I was fortunate enough to attend an extra-curricular activity that changed my whole outlook of both me as a person and the skills I possess. Unfortunately, out of a class of 40+, only 7 of us attended that one off session.
‘I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’
(Rick Blaine, Casablanca)
So there we have it. A few tweaks here and there and us Performing Artist are poised to take over the world. Really, the only thing standing in our way is that hotdog-bun conundrum, but I’m sure our interpretative physical piece will answer that in time. In all seriousness, though, I’m a firm believer that students of any creative discipline have a lot of untapped potential both as prospective employees and problem solvers of the future, and as entrepreneurs who can create inspiring works, lead cultural movements and create spaces for others to flourish and the more we can push them to be all they can be, the more rich and rewarding experiences we all will have.