Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Uncertain Musical: An Experiment in Performance as Research as Pedagogy

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Uncertain Musical: An Experiment in Performance as Research as Pedagogy

Article excerpt

I've realised that after having lived the theory through the performance, I've remembered it so much better than after having studied it in first semester.

Anonymous second-year Musical Theatre student

Institutional background: Stuart Grant

Performance is a risky business, a chance encounter with the moment. Research, although often dealing with the careful rearrangement and interpretation of existing data, is a risky business: always a questioning, an attempt to reveal new understandings, patterns and clarifications. Learning is a risky business: an admission of the limits of knowledge, for teacher and student alike. This article speaks from an event, a still ongoing process, which combines all three. It is about fear, courage and humility.

Melbourne has a very large and vibrant musical theatre culture. Music theatre is, without a doubt and by a wide margin, the most popular, most attended and performed meatrical form - not just in Melbourne, not just in the rest of Australia, not just in Western cultures, but in the world today.1 This article tells the story of one instance in this complicated and diverse field, of a crossover point between the Melbourne amateur theatre circuit and a university curriculum in a state of change, where one respected teacher of Musical Theatre had retired and left a vacuum, and some others stepped in and tried, with varying degrees of success, to take things in a different direction. It describes a particular set of responses to a particular situation of practical pedagogy, in a particular institution, at a particular moment, under particular conditions in die history of the relationship between universities, the arts, academic discourse and a popular form of entertainment.

For many years, the Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies at Monash University had gained a reputation for staging amateur and semi-professional yearly productions of more or less obscure musicals. However, on die retirement of the Musical Theatre teacher, there was no one who wanted to teach the course. The other staff included a Shakespeare specialist, a feminist theatre historian, a couple of contemporary theatre-makers, a historian of Aboriginal theatre, and an anthropologist of South-East Asian theatre. They were not entirely comfortable with the amount of emphasis placed on musical theatre in the Centre, of which the stated aim was to 'produce informed practitioners' who could devise their own contemporary theatre. The figures of Brecht and Stanislavsky loomed over all activities of the Bachelor of Performing Arts degree. The problem was that the programme had the reputation as a haven for musical theatre, and had become the second and third choice of students who could not get into WAAPA, Ballarat or other skills-based musical theatre schools in the country. Although it was made clear that it was not a skills academy, it was, nevertheless, a place to study and perform musical theatre. The solution needed a curriculum which would cater to the students' expectations as well as conforming to the Centre's overall critical and academic aims.

So this project began in a practical response to a specific set of institutional constraints, pedagogical imperatives and historiographie orthodoxies. Our aim was to teach a group of second- and third-year students trained in a specific discipline to rethink their methods and approaches in the context of a theoretical questioning. The only initial research motive was the aim, in response to this set of demands, to write and perform a show which functioned in some way as a research essay, built around an interpretation of key historical data compiled in service of a consistently developed and argued question. The idea was to make a musical about the history of the musical, which argued that the form required more extensive, credible, theoretical academic consideration. The performance was to function as an argument. However, as we have tried, as teachers, to respond to the needs of our students, the overall shape of the relations between research, pedagogy and performance in the process have continued to evolve. …

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