Arts Education – what should we teach and how?

There’s a Twitter discussion happening right now hashtagged #artsed .  The hashtag acts as a search key for tweets that have anything to do with arts education, but this particular thread of the discussion is focussing on the issue of professional training for artists – more particularly theatre artists, and especially actors.  The originating posts are from the US but, such is the nature of Twitter, anyone from anywhere can jump in and contribute – it’s a democratic open house in the Twitter stream.  The current thread is tackling a matter dear to my heart and to those others who are participating.

However, there’s only so much you can say in Twitter’s 140 character delimited conversation bites and, inevitably, you long for another venue to continue the conversation at more length. I’ve turned here to my own scratch pad/blog, and perhaps others will join in the conversation. Continue reading “Arts Education – what should we teach and how?”

So you want to be an actor? We have a problem

A year ago I wrote about American scholar and practitioner Robert Hornby’s ‘The End of Acting’. It’s a book that has a strong point of view about the art of acting and the education of artists.  I’ve enjoyed dipping back into it since a first reading in 1993.  That an actor needs training is, from Hornby’s perspective, a given. A year ago I noted the importance the author placed on skills aquisition for the actor in training:

… these are means to an end, ’skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’Three things you need to learn, Nov 2007

So what skills or knowledge do you need to be an actor, a creative artist? What kind of education does an artist require?  They’re good questions, and they continue to exercise the minds of many, as they have done in the past.

The idea of formalised, western actor-training in specialised institutions came to us quite late. Once upon a time an actor learned on the job. The integration of courses of study into higher education departments came in the latter part of the 20th century, and after drama had been well established as an discipline in its own right either within university Departments of Literature or Departments of English. From the mid-1930s, there was a move by influential British figures to establish a modern training for actors based on the French model.  Michel St Dénis the French director, teacher and theatrical innovator was consulted, and from this time until his death in 1971, St Dénis was perhaps the most influential of the European theorists on the development of English-speaking actor-training curricula.  St Dénis’ program of study was built upon European foundations, and whilst programs of study have developed beyond his original blueprint, this influence can still be felt in the curricula of schools such as Julliard (US), RADA (UK), NIDA (Australia) and other high-profile actor-training institutions. The European push has had, and still exercises its generative influence upon the training of theatre artists in this country, the UK, and in north America. Historically Australia has pretty much always looked to the UK and then the US for inspiration when it comes to developing theatre-training programs of study.

NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) Australia’s first theatre-training institution opened its doors in 1959; NIDA is now affiliated with UNSW. Indeed it has always been physically close to the UNSW campus, occupying as it once did the premises of the Old Tote Theatre Company on the university’s campus. NIDA is housed in its own splendid buildings these days, but it remains just ‘across the road’  from UNSW. In time Australian CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) also developed training programs for actors and other theatre practitioners from the 1970s. Most of these colleges and institutes then morphed into universities from the late 1980s.

This shotgun marriage was a political act driven by the federal government’s rationalisation of the higher education sector; colleges of art and universities were amalgamated … in some cases … under duress.  Apart from the organisational and governance differences which now affected many of these formerly autonomous organisations, what really seemed to matter was the new feel in the corridors.  What had been an industry-style training program of study found itself side by side with more academic or theoretical programs. There were inevitably gains and losses over time as some schools literally disappeared or courses of study were abandoned. In the best of these amalgamations, the practice of the art form informed theory and vice versa; courses that claimed to focus their study on the intersection of theory and practice were developed, and a newer discipline often called Performance or Theatre Studies developed.

It has to be said that the relationship in these institutions between the theorists and the practitioners, or between the theorist-practitioners and the artist-practitioners was never an easy one; perhaps the relationship was never really understood.  Fundamentally the issue was whether or not creative arts skills training was appropriate i.e., ‘academic’ enough in a university setting.  This false dichotomy which separates out learning outcomes continues to plague pedagogical discussions on the best or most appropriate way to train artists and creatives. The sad outcome was that a pecking order was battled over; a competitiveness encouraged to ensure survival.

David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast) published a paper which explored the link between actor-training and advocacy for court-room practitioners. He noted:

It has become conventional in higher education to analyse learning outcomes in terms of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. … I would propose the adoption of a third term – ‘qualities’ – to identify those attributes which can only be acquired by systematic and consistent practice. (my emphasis)

Practice is the key word here. Grant’s ‘qualities’ relate to Hornby’s ‘three things’ in that they are learned through experience, through doing. Hornby focuses on three attributes which a trained entry-level professional should have aquired over a course of study. These are: how to relax, how to relate to a scene partner, how to pursue objectives. Easy, right? Yes and no.

Hornby’s attributes are not particularly difficult to teach and it’s worth saying that there are many angles from which to approach this training,  but the key ingredient is/has to be time … time to accommodate the reality of experiential learning. Hornby goes on to say that these skills have to be learned over and over again. It’s time consuming … and here’s the rub: time=money. In a time when cost-cutting and restructuring is a fact of life in most higher education institutions in Australia, the inevitable outcome for performing arts training is clear: the ‘resource-rich’ i.e., labour-intensive programs are the first to go.

Courses and programs designed to educate the next generation of artists are being reviewed … nothing wrong with that, indeed this should be one of those ‘rolling’ activities that exercises the mind of all educators. If however, it’s cost-cutting which is driving, as it almost always does … the reviewing and restructuring, then the exercises is being approached from the wrong end. These exercises always lead to no small degree of angst in those academics tasked with the job of rationalising their program offerings, and anxiety for those who will be affected.  It’s not overstating things to suggest that the future of our creative artists, and the quality of the industry is at stake when penny-pinching leads the charge for change.

The importance of  intensive, immersive engagement in experiential training for creative artists cannot be overstated.  It’s not possible to cut short skills-training and expect artistry to begin. Nor is a legitimate program of arts training possible without such engagement.

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