Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
@maria_kukhareva
University of Bedfordshire profile

 

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Arts Week 2017: Andy Smith dematerialising theatre

virginia-live-oak-440351_1920

An Oak Tree

Evening. The room is white and hung with a lighting rig, the lights are not switched on. There is wine and jaffa cakes coming to room temperature at the back. The performances of Andy Smith are often performed in a space very similar to this. Daragh Carville has just introduced Andy Smith to a room of students, performers and academics.

Andy Smith

Find simple questions, if you just let them hang in the air a little bit/

The entrance of a late arrival interrupts the thought. Andy Smith, who is not a professional actor, has been told that he does not do theatre. Whatever others may say about what it is  that Andy Smith does, or indeed does not do, he is completely clear.

Andy Smith I’m the first audience.

Andy Smith is the ultimate collaborator-facilitator. Whether that is as part of his ongoing work with Tim Crouch or in his own productions, which he hesitatingly refers to as solo work, Andy Smith makes it clear that the audience is very much an active element in his process.

Andy Smith

I can think of millions of examples of theatre where things are taken away. Can anybody give me an example of a theatre that hasn’t got an audience?

The audience remains silent.

Andy Smith

It is inside the audience where the dilemma or the ideas happen. You are what is making this.

It is this logic that informed the dematerialised theatre.

Andy Smith

I’m aesthetically interested in doing more with less.

The act of being present with one another is enough to make theatre.

Andy Smith

I step away up here to make more space for you there. Inviting the audience and making a suggestion about something. Theatre happens inside an audience.

Andy Smith finds that the acknowledgement that theatre is occurring demands recognising, using and manipulating traditions and forms in order to make it real, tangible. Storytelling is central to all of Andy Smith’s work.

Andy Smith

It’s not a very fashionable thing to say but I’m ok with that.

Andy Smith makes the presentation into a piece of theatre. To demonstrate this he brings up a willing volunteer (the writer of this piece) to perform a dialogue that accompanies the artwork ‘An Oak Tree’, the piece that inspired the play ‘An Oak Tree’. In giving his definition of his vision of theatre, dematerialised, an academic forum would be the best form.

Blackout

Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA

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Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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‘Composing Performance’ – a practical workshop for Arts Week.

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

walkthewalk02Last term our MA group was based at Shakespeare’s Globe, and in a session on Tudor music workshop leader Keith McGowan explained that John Cage’s idea of silent music would have been old hat to the early moderns and the ancient Greeks. They took their cue from Pythagoras who had identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of string that produces it, and thereby understood that mathematical relationships will express ‘musical’ tones – whether you are able to hear the music or not. So it is that the movement of celestial bodies creates the music of the spheres, and Tudor dancers moving in proportion, to the Galliard or the Pavane, created their own harmonies.

Director Peader Kirk didn’t cite Pythagoras as an inspiration, but form, proportion and harmony were called for, and found singularly lacking when a group of us started to move around Room G10 at the Composing Performance workshop, run as part of Birkbeck Arts Week. Working barefoot, and in pairs, with one leading and the other ‘complicit’, we used the space of the room to walk, stand, sit or lie down. It may sound simple, but for us rookie performers it felt like an exercise in lumbering self-consciousness as we tried to avoid careering into each other, and wondered whether it was right to lock our gaze or to look away.

The aim of the workshop was to reveal how a compositional rather than a narrative approach can be used to create theatre. Peader was going to make a montage performance using us as his raw material, and he certainly had his work cut out. Ever so slowly we took on a broader repertoire of movements. We could vary our pace, and use proximity to move closer to, or further away from our partners. We could swap leader and follower, or even merge with another pair. This was definitely Grade One performance stuff, but the very simplicity of the approach, and the limitations, gave our movements a certain coherence.

Finally, starting from a very simple movement, we were ready to start composing.  A brave volunteer (well done Nick !) walked the breadth of the room. Paused. Turned. And walked back again. We watched as Nick repeated this walk and then each of us had to choose where or how to insert ourselves into the composition in such a way that added to and did not distract from the performance. Very slowly, and with a deal of trial and error, we found positions, and actions, which felt right – in some sort of Pythagorean way. With lights dimmed and to the soothing ambience of a Brian Eno track, Nick’s regular pacing took on additional meaning as each of us joined him in the performance and then, one by one, peeled away. Thankfully no visual record was kept of our debut, but we each found our own narrative in the piece and for a moment, even in G10, there was a sense that, with Peader’s help, we had created a moment of theatre.

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