My research and teaching in the Interdisciplinary Performance program at UBCO is anchored in devised creation work. It is a form of creation in which the script originates not from a writer, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory work by the artists themselves. Unlike many forms of theatre that draw from already existing material, this style of practice is uniquely positioned to create work in response to current events as they unfold and in response to specific places and community concerns. The work is inextricably linked to the communities (large and small, human and non-human) within which it is made.
This work can take many forms, including applied theatre, community-based art, performance art, new media projects, interventionist practice and live performance. My own research has become more specifically focused on eco-art and this focus influences my teaching more and more. Eco-art is a relatively new research area within the fine arts, and within arts education contemplative educational practices and environmental studies are being fashioned into pedagogical tools. It is my hope that with these tools, students will be better educated in this emerging field, our disciplinary silos will be challenged, and teaching, inquiry, and scholarship within the fine arts will improve.
While I combine many influences in my teaching, as dictated by my wide-ranging professional and educational experiences, the pedagogical tradition of Jacques Lecoq drives much of the curriculum. It is predicated on the notion that it is the performer’s live body more than the spoken text which gives theatre its defining identity and that every aspect of our physical and emotional world can be represented in the human body. To mime is to embody and in doing so, to understand better. Miming becomes a form of knowledge. There is an emphasis on collaboration and the creative translation and integration of disparate inspirational sources into a theatrical language or hybrid work. The aim is not to simply hand down a method, but rather to propose permanent references and values. The work troubles basic assumptions about the natural world, about art-making, about the artist in the marginal zones of our culture, about collaboration and about public spaces. In this way, new pedagogical territory is always being explored.
While I have taught physical theatre for several years, I have only recently begun to take my students’ “bodies” out of the studio to train them in conversation with their environment. In performance we often train ourselves to be sensitive to each other and to an imaginary space and to converse with each other and that imaginary space. Rarely do we develop these skills outside of a constructed performance setting. More and more I teach and practice an opening of awareness to the more-than-human world beyond the confines of the studio. This process is just beginning.
By combining live performance, digital media and dialogical performance practices that take place outside of sanctioned cultural spaces, my students are able to expand their notion of home and community and celebrate live performance’s greatest gift: the communion of body and place. It is also my hope that by teaching the translation of local, ephemeral and site specific works to digital media, work can be generated and disseminated more widely, contributing to the discourse surrounding this practice.
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TEACHING GOALS AND STRATEGIES
I have co-designed the performance program along two parallel and integrated paths: on the one hand the study of technique and the development of performance creation methodologies and on the other, an international perspective on performance studies, practice-based research and cross-cultural research.
I facilitate two very different learning environments as a professor at UBC Okanagan. For the performance, documentary production, and IGS (Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies) program I work in an intimate and practice-based studio setting, and for film studies, I work in large lecture theatres with up to 100 students in attendance. While these two environments necessitate very different approaches to the material, in both cases I strive to adjust my methods to accommodate the various learning styles and needs of my students.
The large lecture hall format of the film studies classes makes this goal more difficult to attain, but I continue to improve the learning environment within this setting to allow for the greatest degree of active participation from the students, meaningful interaction with myself and my teaching assistants, and range of activities and assessment methods to better accommodate different student strengths. My own experience as a filmmaker allows me to use practical and anecdotal examples to illustrate theory. I seek out and organize specific video examples to demonstrate film style, structure, and ideology. I encourage class discussion, group work, and in-class practical exercises and I require research essays as well as offer opportunities for hands-on and applied projects and creative response.
VISA 371 investigates digital documentary production theory and practice from the point of view of producer/writer/director. The course culminates in the creation of a short form documentary produced by interdisciplinary student teams. These documentaries often involve in-depth community engagement and students must navigate and negotiate complicated issues of representation. The pedagogical innovation lies not only in the method of teaching, which is inextricably linked to the challenging trial-and-error production process, but also in the student team combinations and their chosen projects. In addition to students from Creative Studies and Critical and Cultural Studies, I have had students in this class from History, Environmental Science, Biology, and Indigenous Studies. While the course simply requires third-year standing, I have accepted strong first-year students. To date I have also worked with graduate students who have research foci that they want to explore within the digital documentary format. With this varied intake, I have not only integrated students from various departments and faculties across campus, but I have also provided an opportunity for students from different stages of their degree to benefit from each other’s respective strengths and perspectives. While students may come to the class with experience and knowledge in their disciplines, they have little or no knowledge of the theory and practice of documentary production. As such, they bring their respective strengths to a new endeavor. By taking on specific roles within the process, each student is challenged according to their needs. A Cultural Studies student may, for example, be able to shape a strong thesis regarding a particular issue. They may not, however, have the aesthetic sensibilities of a Visual Arts student or understand as clearly the relationship between form and content in practical terms. Similarly, a more mature graduate student may not have the same skills in digital production or post-production as a strong undergraduate student (who is a digital “native”). By putting them in carefully designed teams, the students teach each other throughout the realization of their shared research goal.
THTR 101 introduces students to the fundamentals of performance by tapping the expressive potential of the whole body, and by establishing a rehearsal process and a practical and theoretical approach to the discipline. Students begin from a neutral state a state combining calm and curiosity, and begin research into the dynamics of nature, elements, energy, and animals. Through this embodiment, the students’ bodies extend beyond their skin. The aim is poetry. Neutral mask is used to return students to a pre-cognitive state and to learning as a sensory and somatic experience. Freeing one’s impulses and exploring the rules arising out of play itself is the foundation for all class work. THTR 103 is an introduction to acting techniques pertaining to the style of psychological realism for stage and screen. It aims to equip students with the physical, vocal, emotional and intellectual tools for character development, and the enactment of contemporary theatre and film scripts. THTR 201 continues and expands the work undertaken in THTR 101. It is designed to develop perception and to explore unique sources for the actor to use for rehearsal and for devising new material. These sources include: objects, materials, mask, poetry, colours, and visual art. The upper level courses explore more specifically what Lecoq referred to as “geodramatic territories.” (Lecoq, 14) They introduce students to a range of theatrical styles with an emphasis on their relevance and applicability to current theatre practice and the creation of new work. THTR 401 also introduces digital media as an element of performance complementing other traditions of live art explored in THTR 301. The students are challenged to integrate communications technology into live performance and explore the performer/spectator interface. Students have an opportunity to put their learning into practice and to test their work in public under the direction of guest artists or faculty members in THTR 280 and THTR 480. These are intensive laboratory courses in performance creation leading to a public presentation. The capstone or thesis courses of the BFA Degree are THTR 482 and 483. The main objective of these self-directed courses is to provide the students with a critical and supportive environment for the development of their artistic direction within an interdisciplinary environment. This includes theoretical, historical and technical expertise, as well as a critical awareness of how their work relates and fits into the contemporary theatre world.
RELATIONSHIP TO UBC OKANAGAN’S ACADEMIC PLAN
Global and Civil citizenship: My research and teaching in the Interdisciplinary Performance program at UBCO is anchored in devised creation work. It is a form of creation in which the script originates not from a writer, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory work by the artists themselves. Unlike many forms of theatre that draw from already existing material, this style of practice is uniquely positioned to create work in response to current events as they unfold and in response to specific community concerns. We practice art, not as a commodity, but as a regenerative process. The work is inextricably linked to the communities (large and small) within which it is made.
Inquiry driven, research based learning: In my research and in my teaching, I value the artistic and civic rewards of questioning and emplacement. As Stephen Wright notes, “‘problems’… are the fuel of meaningful public life… formulating questions is less about eliciting responses than an act of calling a participatory public into existence” (Wright 545). For Wright, collaboration and ethical community-based art require raising questions and acting collaboratively to address them. By troubling basic assumptions about the natural world, about art-making, about the artist in the marginal zones in our culture, about collaboration and about public spaces, we may advance knowledge. I would like to quote Jill Dolan’s “Geographies of Learning” here.
I use performance in my teaching to (in Dwight Conquergood’s words) “privilege particular, participatory, dynamic, intimate, precarious, embodied experience grounded in historical process, contingency and ideology.” Using performance in the classroom helps to disrupt some of the more conventional ways power circulates between professor and student, offering students a chance to try out by trying on different kinds of experiences and ways of approaching new knowledge… We have to remind people that teaching and scholarship offer epistemologies, ways of knowing and understanding, even misunderstanding, that can be productive even if they aren’t reproductive. (Dolan, 16)
Interdisciplinary and multi disciplinary scholarship: My teaching and my research can be reframed as an active, generative process that helps us speak and imagine beyond the limits of disparate epistemologies. Art can enact community here and now through the process of physical and dialogical interactions across disciplines, fixed identities, official discourse and partisan political conflict. Interdisciplinary initiatives that exemplify this potential are:
The Digital Media Commons Pilot Project won a Curriculum Innovation Award under the leadership of History Professor Jessica Stites Mor. Working with History Professor Stites Mor and Cultural Studies Professor Dr. Daniel Keyes we have established a Media Centre. The aim of this project is to utilize existing resources to integrate digital media training into the classroom. This is a pilot project that will be integrated into cross-discipline, cross-faculty teaching and learning in its next stage. The immediate objectives of the pilot project are to facilitate innovative methods of inquiry; advance curricular innovation; develop new skill sets at the undergraduate and graduate level in creative scholarly production; enhance learning and resource-use of audiovisual materials; and improve student engagement. Under the auspices of this initiative I have created a third year Documentary Course within the Visual Arts program.
Collaborating with Colleague Michael V. Smith, Students in Theatre 201 and Creative Writing 481 created interdisciplinary Happenings throughout Campus November 29th– December 2nd, 2010. This collaboration was designed to promote interdisciplinary practice, community awareness and engagement.
Team teaching the capstone courses for Performance and Creative Writing with Nancy Holmes (CRWR 481, THTR 482 and 483) has provided us with the opportunity to encourage collaboration across disciplines as well as provide an opportunity for project driven community involvement in our SSHRC funded Eco-Welcome Wagon project.
Sustainability: My research and teaching are deeply relevant to issues of sustainability. If we are to move beyond the rhetoric of sustainability then we must combine the heart (and the body) with the theory. I strive to be present with my students, in this valley and in this community in a way that challenges traditional structures of learning.
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- Dolan, Jill. Geographies of Learning: Theory and Pracitce, Activism and Performance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
- Kenning, Dean. “Eco Art: On Art Energy in an Age of Ecology.” Art Monthly 313 (Feb. 2008): 1 -4.
- Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1990.
- Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.
- Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Wright, Stephen. “The Delicate Essence of Artistic Collaboration.” Third Text 18.6 (2004): 533-545.