Friday, 11 December 2009

Give Praise Where Appraisal is Due

As the year goes on and we come to an assessment and performance heavy time of year such as this one, more often than not I can be found talking to students, appeasing and comforting them whilst imparting what little wisdom I have so that they can continue to work, grow and develop - cultivating a little plot of knowledge all of their very own.

But giving 'feedback' (appraisal after the event) can be more tricky. In fact 'feedback' in itself is an odd word. At least odd enough to be taken apart and analysed with a dictionary in hand in a slightly anal fashion;

'feed' meaning 'to give food to; supply with nourishment: to feed a child'
'back' meaning 'the return of posession: to give back'

In short, 'feedback' means to give nourishment back to the original owner of a piece of work. To give them your views, feelings and comments so that the participants may take them and literally 'grow'. Following this there may even be a a following process of appraisal where views can be exchanged and learnt from for much longer periods of time, until conclusions are reached, work 'runs out of steam', or owners don't need the guidance anymore.

Recently, through the appraisal and giving of feedback on students work I have been looking for where I fit in this circle of commenting and responding to students work. Wondering if it's enough to just say what I actually think or should I change what I want to say so as not to offend or annoy. Since beginning my role here at St Mary's this has been the hardest part of my learning so far.

It's not good enough to relate it to my own experiences, not that I was an extremely good/bad/indifferent student myself, but it's not fair to judge others purely by my own standards.

What I have found is that whatever feedback I give, and in whatever form the important thing is that the students are nourisjed. They can develop from what is said, learn from it and grow. In giving feedback I have no alterior motives, I want nothing in return; only to see the students thrive. I am doing no favours to a students learning if I tell lies, tell them how much I enjoyed something when I didn't, say I saw learning and Dramatic theory when there wasn't any (particularly in Drama where they will recieve harsh criticism/appraisial over many things). But I also have to strike a balance between that and letting students make mistakes in a comfotable and 'safe' environment - making 'feedback' constructive.

What happens from that feedback then becomes the interest of the student. How they react and respond can say a lot about the type of student they are and what they want to achieve.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Art of Self-Discipline

Can self-discipline be taught?

That's my big unanswerable question for this installment. Over my time teaching in all areas in and around the course and to a whole range of students the notion of self-discipline and being able to motivate/challenge yourself seems to be a recurring theme.

Over the past few sessions I have been using a lot of work by Tadashi Suzuki. Suzuki is a Japanese practitioner who focusses on the stillness of the Actor, creating a strong centre to the body and feeling movement from the core muscles. He puts the body through an endurance test, not unlike the early martial arts training, and sees how the performer copes with what is thrown at them.

I love this work because it gives students responsibility for their own actions. Students seemed shocked that I wasn't interested in their aches and pains, how difficult they were finding it or if they were struggling with the point. Instead they had to find their own justification for the work, work through their pain, play games with themselves in their own minds and ultimately overcome them. This work also shows development very quickly to those who respect it and are willing to give in and 'play the game'. Likewise it highlights those who lack focus, discipline and awareness very quickly. A good student will see these issues and continue to work on them, develop and improve. Other students will see the work as a waste of time, blame others, berate me and ultimately learn nothing.

But should I be worried about how students react to the work? Surely the role of a teacher/lecturer is to give students the tools to facilitate their own learning. But do the students today have the skills within themselves to self-motivate, self-analyse and self-discipline? In short, I don't know. And more pressing, is it my responsibility to give students these skills?

I know that we rely heavily on the skill of self-discipline to function as a Drama department. Turning up to classes, completing the reading, reading outside of the reading lists, going to see theatre, engage in community projects, turning up for rehearsals.................students finding their own learning outcomes for all of the above! (that last one is the most important, and one which I bang on about all the time). I am still learning every day in my job here at St Mary's, because I want to and what I do interests, inspires and involves me. I hope our students are doing the same.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Me, the 02 and..........JULIE ANDREWS!!

For anyone who knows me, this won't come as any surprise....but I have a secret obsession.

Ok. It's not really a secret, more a a full blown fact. And not really obsession, just mild fascination and adoration.

Yes. I am a Julie Andrews Fanatic!

Ever since I was a child and I used to watch the Sound of Music on my gran's TV, I found my singing voice at an early age and was given Julie Andrews videos to study, from the moment I danced along to Mary Poppins I knew she was everything I wanted to be.

And why this fascination? Well I think she comprises of all the things I wanted to be growing up. She's typically British, with her long vowels and slightly old-fashioned outlook. But also an ambassador for British eccentricity which we all love and admire. She's also an amazing singer with a beautiful tone and range (never changing no matter what the song, but with a voice like that who needs to?).

But long into my adulthood this flame has continued to burn and I have watched diligantly as she lost her voice and went through painstaking amounts of therapy and treatment. I was delighted when two years ago, in a rare moment of hope, she sang four short songs to show her development. But the best is still to come...........

On the 8th of May 2010 I will be sitting in the 02 Arena listening to the lady herself! Singing all the songs that made her famous (which lets face it, could be any of them). This is a one off concert. ONE OFF! How excited am I!

Think of the merchandise I will buy/wear/drink out of/stick up on my wall/listen to endlessly.

Think of the songs I will be singing non-stop between now and the show.

Think of the songs I will continue to sing after this date and for the rest of time.

Think of the brownie points I'll earn at my weekly Sound of Music Appreciation Society meetings (ok. That's a joke..................but..............)

I hope you can join in my excitement for this amazing news! No doubt I will be posting blog after blog about it after I have been!!!!

(Having bought my tickets however, I'm not sure I can afford to eat.)

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Vocal Play

‘The Human Voice knows no bounds’ I said in a particularly impassioned section of my research seminar on Monday at St Mary’s.

Many weeks ago now Michelle asked me to deliver a seminar to St Mary’s Staff about a National Voice project I am co-ordinating and delivering called ‘Vocal Points’ (more on that in a few weeks when I go to Newcastle for the final culmination event at The Sage Gateshead on the Banks of the Tyne). I was happy to do it, having delivered a lot of presentations about the project throughout the year and across many different mediums.

The seminar went well I think, allowing me to discuss a topic incredibly close to my heart – the power and potential of the Human Voice, not just for Performers but for ‘real’ people too (said quite deliberately). Looking at social etiquette and how it kills vocal spontaneity and freedom in early years. Why do we make noise so willingly as children? And more importantly, why do we stop? This all leads to the sort of problems - anatomical, psychological and emotional that I have to deal with every day. So what can we do to combat this? How can we get people to respect the notion of ‘play’?

Some interesting questions were asked and I fielded them as best as I could, but this will never be as important as experiencing the work first hand. When I went into the field of Voice it was never focussed on the Voice of the Performer, but about realising and releasing the human voice in Community settings, promoting self-advocacy, vocal ownership and confidence. And the Vocal Points project has been a big part of that.

I struggled as I attempted to find words to describe how important and enjoyable vocal expression can be……….I should have just bought them all tickets to see Naturally 7 last night………….

The show opened to 7 of the coolest men I have ever witnessed, walking onto a bare stage. One by one they turned into a 7 piece band/modern day orchestra. Beat-boxing, vocal scatting and instrument imitation filled the Royal Festival Hall for over 2 hours, until the normally stale upper class defined atmosphere felt more like a high school pop concert.

The sheer impressive success of these men was not only in their vocal trickery, obvious bond with each other or dynamic stage presence but their amazing technical ability for pitch, volume, breath control, power and flexibility – all of my students can learn a lot from these men!

As I sat and watched them move from piece to piece I became inspired by this spectacle. How amazing if more people like this acted as ambassadors for vocal tradition? If new vocal rituals could be started from performances such as this. Gone are the days that we readily use text and speech purely for pleasure or entertainment in mainstream contexts. But we could start something new, something age defying, gender defying, class defying and ‘talent’ defying (vocalising for pleasure, not product).

As the end came on my night in the Royal Festival Hall, and in the company of this amazing act I walked to the train station past posters of X Factor finalists, and Ex Britain’s Got Talent auditionees who were ‘lucky’ enough to get a break. If the Grand Canyon were merely a crack upon the surface, the gap between Naturally 7 and these other acts was a huge gaping hole.

Naturally 7 are performing at the London Jazz Festival and can be found on you tube

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Oooh, it makes me mad!

This is a rant. I am not apologising for it, but I do think it fair to warn you....

So, this weekend Ben (the Piscatorial Pianist (check out his blog if you haven't already)) and I went to Newcastle to see off our friends Stu and Sam as they embark on their 6 month trip to Cuba. A good time was had by all..........blah blah blah.

Anyway, on the way back I was listening to Radio 1 on the long journey from Newcastle to London stuck in a two hour traffic jam at the Chiswick roundabout and lots of people were calling in talking about the week they were having, fulfilling some need to broadcast into our homes what kind of sandwhiches they were enjoying today (?!?!) when one girl rang up and said she was on reading week and she was enjoying having a chance to relax because she'd been working so hard over the first part of her third year so far.

Fantastic I thought, how lovely that she's been working so hard. And what a positive message! 'What kind of things have you been doing to make you so busy?' enquired a tepidly interested host. 'Well.............'

'I was on freshers team and I had to look after all the first year students. That meant going out and getting drunk every night for a week which is really hard work'

'God yeah' replied the presenter.

'Then I have been doing a promotion in our local students union where I had to sit in a hot tub in a bikini whilst people came in and joined me and had pictures taken. My skin was all wrinkly and the bikini was really chaffing'

'Terrible!' replied the presenter with growing enthusiasm.

'Then I slept in last week and missed the first 3 HOURS of my lecture because I was so tired from all the work and so I have missed loads of notes and things. And the lecturers haven't put the notes on the e-learning website for me to look at. How am I supposed to learn?'

The presenter suddenly burst into action; 'That is so unfair. It's like they don't understand how much work you've been doing.'

'I know. Now I have to catch up on all the work I've missed because I've been so busy at work during reading week. Rather than chillaxing (?!?!?) with my friends.'

'Oh no. That sucks.' said the presenter in a sympathetic voice.'And where are you now?'

'In the PUB'!!!!!!!

OK. I'm going to sound old now. I know, and I admit that whole-heartedly. But am I the only person who finds this completely appalling. I know how important it is to have fun at uni (I was there not too long ago myself and had a great time) but there is a fine line. Students must be able to organise their priorities and understand that lecturers are not here to work around you, but work with you to help you learn. Whether you pass or not is another matter, and one which is solely your responsibility.

And, responsibility is key. Who is responsible for their own education? Does this change depending on where you are or what level of education you're in? Time after time I see students who struggle with the responsibility University life comes with. Not having looked after themselves before, not having been treated like an 'adult' before in an Educational setting. And this is not entirely their fault, of course not. They can't be expected to know what goes into being responsible for their own actions if they've never been ALLOWED to do it before.

However, in the case of this girl above, she seems to have her priorities all wrong. Going to university is an EDUCATION. It is about growing up, it is about a 'coming of age', but more importantly it's about being given an opportunity to learn, to better yourself and to be in charge of your own time. It is a huge honour and I hope there aren't too many students out there wasting it.

Finally on the radio show, listened to by millions of listeners, students, or teenagers about to embark on a degree or higher education course, the presenter said; 'No-body bothers reading in reading week anyway. It's just an opportunity to bunk off anyway, isn't it?'.

I give up.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Living Newspaper

I've always been fascinated by Living Newspaper. A theatrical form presenting factual information on current events to a popular audience, made famous by the Federal Theatre project in the 1930's (amongst other incarnations). But more than that, Living Newspaper has historically urged social action, creating propaganda by using agit-prop theatre and multimedia.

The links to Brecht and his work are obvious and it's difficult to discuss this without alluding to his work and style of Epic Theatre. I remember sitting at University during my Applied Theatre degree like a sponge, drinking in all the information. As a practitioner I had long believed that Drama had powerful social influence. But Brecht was an example of a man who truly embodied these beliefs. Living Newspaper was an example of this idea in practise.

More than anything it is an example of Drama making ideas/thoughts/information accessible for all. An ides that is very common - conference after conference, workshop after workshop, class after class is concerned with using Drama to open up a topic, Drama in the classroom, Drama in the Community and using Drama as a tool for change. All the way back to pioneers like Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton who believed Drama could be used in any classroom, and on any subject.

Anyway, back to Living Newspaper. I've used my own version a lot recently. Taking the basic principles and incorporating a body of work by North East Theatre practitioner Sheila Stewart who works with children and adults with learning difficulties getting them to create their own environments using newspaper and masking tape.

The level 1 Theatre Arts students and Joint Hons students have been creating pieces of theatre using newspaper articles as stimulus, finding other supporting material, then creating props, costumes, set (and even giant parachutes) out of newspaper.

The topics were as diverse as Social networking and body image, to pressure, the Iraq war and paedophilia. But I was always amazed with the sensitivity these students showed about their chosen focus, and how much opinion they shared on each and every article.

It makes me pleased to be a Drama teacher, because the students in level one begin to question the world. And this is what makes their transition to Higher Education so exciting - so tangible. For me it's good to see that students are still being driven by their curiosity and belief in Drama and the huge body of work and knowledge that surrounds it.

'Living Newspaper' has been an interesting task and one which has seen the students be creative, inventive, focussed and involved. And I've been very pleased with the results.......

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Cherry and Ham

I forget to say............On going to Newcastle I went to see Chekov's 'The Cherry Orchard' at The People's Theatre. I know the People's people really well and have done a lot of work there myself over the years. It was good to see some familiar faces on stage and in the production team and to be in a familiar theatre.

I was immediately struck by how much I love this play! Chekov seems to encapsulate so much about human feeling, expression, nature and life that it's impossible not to swept along with his words. He does for me what Beckett always wants to, present us something which is 'real' and shows us the 'dreariness' of our own lives, but with much more wholesome and complete results. I can see why we use it so much in our lectures. There's so much in the lines that is to be drawn out, speculated upon and ultimately explored.

As for the show, it was a first direct by my friend Ben and he did a good job. There's a lot of people in the play and it is a huge undertaking. It's also good to see people taking risks now and again, Ben choosing not to stage the play conventionally but in a stylised way. Bringing the cast on as a group of travellers who tell the story, and creating a set which looks like an old run-down home. Whether they all paid off, I'm not entirely sure. But I think it shows a lot of imagination and potential as Ben continues to grow and develop.

It reminded me of how much I like directing and also, how important voice work is in Directing a play and getting the best from your actors. Voice is not to be confined in the warm up; and should not even be confined to accent or articulation work. But truly used as a means to get your actors to communicate the story through the words, connect to the text, and explore their body and voice through performance in a way that other disciplines don't. I can't wait to get started on Arabian Nights and use the techniques that I am so confident about. And show the actors what good there is in using Voice work as part of their performance work every day!!

On the second note.................Ben and I have found a house and we are soon to be residents of Ham (of Mark Griffin fame). From then on we can start to feel like real dwellers of South est London and begin to plan our new lives in this new location with good roots and foundations. Very excited!!! And can't wait for the old fashioned piano parties already.

Monday, 19 October 2009

If this is 'wrong' I don't want to be 'right'?

This weekend I went back to my Sunny (?) home town of Newcastle. It was so good to be back and see friends as well as telling everyone about my new job at St Mary's. But it wasn't all fun and games, I went back to deliver a keynote speech at a Secondary School to speak to a group of English teachers about 'Putting Fun Back Into Practise'. This is a subject which is incredibly close to my heart knowing the difficulties I had at school as a youngster. I didn't find out I was dyslexic until I was 22 and studying for my MA. This was a daunting prospect at this point in my career and I found it very difficult to adjust.
However, in hindsight I believe my dyslexia had a lot to do with the disenchanted feelings I had as a students in my younger years. Never feeling like I really fitted in, finding everything much harder than everyone else seemed to, finding writing a constant strain and struggle (look at me now! Writing for fun heaven forfend!). I didn't have much 'fun' in the classroom and have spent all of my teaching career so far trying to find ways that I can put 'fun' back into my own teaching and communicate with learners of all kinds through many different mediums. I try not only to teach the 'right' words and the 'right' ways to perform, but also enhance what I consider to be essential life skills; spontaneity, creativity, child like behaviour and imagination. All of which are at our disposal but need to be untapped.
I found Keith Johnstone's book 'Impro' an inspiration. He talks a lot about his experiences as a students and expresses much the same as I felt. Saying that if you feel like your inspiration is being quashed you will finally stop speaking for fear of being 'wrong' or of 'failing'. So I propose an education-wide banishment of the words 'right' or 'wrong'. Instead people should be free to experiment, play, explore and develop in whatever ways they choose. By doing this not only will our students minds be opened but as will the minds of our future leaders and people of important roles in society. By creating a world where we don't censor ourselves, where we ask questions about everything around us then nothing becomes 'taboo', nothing is 'naughty', nothing is 'bad'. Instead everything becomes a positive learning experience where we learn to choose, to be self advocates, be self aware and create our own boundaries of what is personally acceptable and what is not. Needless to say this was a little too much for my friends in Newcastle I feel. And what was more bizarre was that they seem to be scared of their own students?? A lot of the work was deemed too much, too 'over the top', 'not what the students would involve themselves in'. But, in truth, not anything that the teachers would be happy to try for fear of 'failure' or fear of being 'wrong'. And that is the crux. Can we banish these words in the classroom for our students if the teachers are using these words in regards to their own learning/teaching everyday??

I suddenly had a much greater understanding of my students frustration at Undergraduate level. And I think it will take a positive cultural and educational revolution to change it. Anything less may just be lost.

Any thoughts??

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

My first blog

How does one start a 'blog'????

I don't really get blogs. I don't understand the point generally. They seem incredibly self gratifying, talking endlessly about yourself and your own work. However, the more of them I read the more intrigued I get. 'What a good way to communicate to my students' I thought? 'What a good way to let everyone into my research thoughts' I thought to myself. So here I am!

I decided to write this blog to journal my thoughts, feelings, ideas, inspirations, activities and general random happenings as I begin my new career at St Mary's University. I hope my students find some of what I say interesting. I'll be putting lots of things up as I encounter them. Maybe it will start some discussions? Who knows??

Things here are going well so far. The students all seem very lovely and brimming with ideas and creativity. So much has happened already in the first four weeks that seems like possible blog fodder that I almost wish I had started this earlier.

Year ones are all very enthusiastic, working hard on their pieces. Looking forward to 'living newspaper' (which I am sure I will 'blog' about later).

Year 2's are proving really great to work with. Very thoughtful, lots of good work going on in sessions. Looking forward to seeing their assessments at Christmas and hoping that the Voice work will pay off!

Met the 3rd years for the first time last week. After Christmas I am directing their production of 'Arabian Nights'. Sounds good. They're excited, I'm stressed................but excited.

All in all a good first few weeks!