Devising Place and Social History: A Regional Perspective on Teaching Devised Performance in the Tertiary Sector1

Article excerpt

New performance-making practices are so central to contemporary theatre production globally that a course on devised performance is an obvious critical and practical learning experience to offer students of Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies in the higher education sector. I use the term 'devised performance' here to indicate a new performance work for which there was no pre-existing play text or performance score. Within the limited timeframe of an undergraduate course, however, it is simply not possible to teach the many different categories of devised performance that are prevalent in contemporary Western theatre practice; this is particularly true for courses that maintain a focus on practical exploration and collaborative outcomes. Autobiographical performance, site-specific performance, time-based performance, verbatim drama, documentary theatre and site-responsive performance are just a few of the genre categories currently applied within the eclectic field of contemporary performance-making.2 When one reflects on the fact that there is no singular or overriding process of creative experimentation that can stand in for the wide variety of strategies employed by contemporary devisers, the prospect of teaching a course on devising performance can initially appear problematic.3 The obvious solution is for the tertiary teacher to choose which sorts of performance-making processes and outcomes will suit their specific teaching environment and their available resources. This article discusses the pedagogical strategies currently employed for teaching collaborative performance-making within the School of Drama, Fine Art and Music at the University of Newcastle.4

Histories of devised performance reveal that the workers' theatre movements of me 1920s and 1930s, the counter-cultural and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the community theatre movement that emerged in the 1970s, all derived thematic and scenic material from a prolonged engagement on the part of practitioners with a discrete set of social, political and/or aesthetic concerns. By the 1990s, Alison Oddey has observed that 'the term "devising" had less radical implications, placing greater emphasis on skill sharing, specific roles, increasing division of responsibilities, and more hierarchical group structures'.5 So while we can say that contemporary devising practice is no longer tied, necessarily, to political activism or driven by the imperative to raise consciousness about this issue or that, it is a truism that devised performance arises from the need or desire, on the part of the practitioner/s, to explore some theme or other and then to share the creative outcomes with an authence. When contemporary performance-makers undertake their research, select and workshop their material, reflect upon their processes, rehearse and eventually perform their new work, they have been pursuing a theme or an enquiry of some kind. These process stages are particularly implicated if the new performance work is generated from documents, testimony, archival research, or all three - as is the case with projects generated within the course under discussion here.

Here then is the next decision for the tertiary teacher leading a course in devising performance: what will the devised works be about? The course upon which this article focuses asks students to engage with the history of the place in which they are studying and living: Newcastle. The city is the second-oldest white settlement in Australia and the region has a rich Indigenous history; local repositories contain readily available source materials concerning both histories of inhabitation. The choice to make local history the broad theme of investigation in turn opens up the opportunity to use creative processes associated specifically with documentary theatre, autobiographical performance and verbatim performance. A reliance on local history source materials also leads, quite logically, to the possibility of creating site-specific performances and die opportunity for students to experience what Nick Kaye has described as the exchanges that occur 'between the work of art and the places in which its meanings are defined'. …