Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

We had long been talking in our department about interdisciplinary with other subject areas but getting it off the ground was difficult. This is when we looked at the situation from another perspective and thought why don’t we do it internally; multidisciplinary projects within the Performing Arts?

In Grade 6 and 7 all students have to take Drama, Dance, Music and Theatre Design. We took the decision to combine two disciplines where they have to create a single product over the course of a semester. So, Grade 6 attend Dance and Music where they have to compose a dance and a piece of music to a certain theme (first semester ‘personality traits’ and the other in second semester ‘opposites’). In Drama and Theatre Design they devise small theatrical pieces and make costume elements, and then in the second semester create puppets for a self-devised piece.

Grade 7 we switch it up with the aim of challenging student perceptions and thinking. We combine, Dance with Drama and then Music with Theatre Design. These couplings that are not so ‘natural’ produce some excellent work and I have been surprised by the willingness, and openness the students have approached the tasks. The end of unit performances this past semester were particularly strong which surprised, not only us, but the students. Putting ‘unexpected’ elements together is an identified tool to help enhance creative thinking (and an upcoming blog post).

We leave the actual creating of the final work till quite late and spent the majority of time through the unit skill building. Students spent one lesson a week in each of the two disciplines they are doing for the semester. In my context, through dance, a focus on how to abstract movement from words and gestures, working with choreographic tools. In the Music class they anaylsis pieces through listening tasks, learn some basic theory and work on composition skills. These are independent lessons, music and dance, but are ‘sold’ to the students as one course, for example we look at how to compose music and choreograph  dance over a two week period using the same stimulus “rollercoaster”. All the time we push students beyond ‘the first thing’ they think of while doing any type of creating. Trying to get them into a habit of producing multiple alternatives, a great little tool to demonstrate this is the 10x2 artful thinking activity.

Our goal is that when we arrive at the final product the students should be in a semi-autonomous state, where they only need guiding questions and prompting. We provide boundaries – what needs to be included – and continually guide them with feedback.

There are loads of positives doing these multidisciplinary project based units and we make sure that there is an authentic audience at the conclusion by inviting parents. Beyond that:

  • It is a collaborative process, students work in groups of three to six and have to deal with compromises – finding strategies to work effectively together.
  • Changes perceptions about how disciplines can be combined to create. Students often enter with a “but how will we do this? What will it look like?” attitude. Even Music and Dance which are a ‘natural pairing’ students are encouraged to develop dance content without having finished composing music. This order (or simultaneous creating) is difficult for students because it breaks with expectations.
  • Tracking student progress. The constant communication with colleagues allows consistency with students across the different disciplines.
  • Reduced planning time, as we do the same lesson twice a week, the second time round with the experience of the first is often an improved version.
  • Reduced grading time. The students are receiving an overall grade for Performing Arts, some activities that are not subject specific like writing artistic intentions, reflections, exploring the stimulus are divided between the teachers and moderated. It reduces our grading load for these classes by half.
  • Students that are learning English benefit from communication and explanation from peers.
  • Makes the creative process explicit. Throughout the skill building phase we work with constraints, metaphors and producing LOTS of alternatives/solutions.
  • During the final product stage, it is a genuine problem that has to be looked at in detail and requires an analytical and playful approach.
  • Having showings during the process raises the quality, students are encouraged to work harder when they see what other groups are capable of producing.
  • Differentiation. Students choose their own  groups, which manifests in pushing each other to achieve higher (in almost all combinations, although you always get one group…)

The multidisciplinary approach has been a very successful model within our context and one that we really enjoying teaching. I am positive it could easily work in other subject areas as well. Please feel free to ask if you have any questions on how we structure it.

 

Feature image by Nela

What wikipedia won’t tell you about an audience

What wikipedia won’t tell you about an audience

“When people try expressing their creativity, their self-esteem is often a reflection of the outcome of their work. Was it good? We ask ourselves.” – Benjamin Hardy.

In this blog post Benjamin Hardy writes about self-esteem when we create and put our creations out in the world. The article looks more specifically at not worrying about the outcomes but focus on ‘the doing’ to build flow. But when we do look for a  response to gauge our output, we believe an audience is required to be able to answer “was it good?”

The audience for a performance is a complex phenomenon and this blog post has been rewritten several times as I try to order my ideas and thoughts about the subject. It does not try to be a definitive article with all the answers but reflections and opinions to create thought, discussion and debate.

Who are the audience?

Anything we put out in the public sphere is subject to an audience, they become part of the feedback loop, our critics and admirers. Invited, they are a voyeur. They enter at a predetermined time and make a performance real, a non-existent contractual agreement to reveal artwork. They are an observer or a listener; they may be passive or active; they may be a targeted group or those who stumble upon the work. They have invested, at the very least, time, which makes them opinionated. They come without knowledge or understanding of the process, the grappling plethora of decisions that were made to explore and develop a work. They see and judge only what they experience with little empathy for the creator because they have invested. The audience is a fickle thing.

Numerous times I have heard performance artists say that they do not care about what the audience think, their process is the reason they create no matter how the resulting work is received. I dispute this, in so far, as the essence of any piece of art is communication, therefore it infers some thought given to those who will potentially see it. The audience is an integral part of creating and a consideration while doing so. To ignore them is ignorant, the artist does no disservice to the work of art by accepting their eventual presence. The art was intended to be seen from the onset was it not? Desiring approval from an audience is usually not the best way to make art but to eliminate them from the equation while creating would be naive.

Yet the artist should remain true to themselves and not bow to a whim of pleasing the audience. Following an unconventional path is a valid choice, stepping into the unknown, staying true to an artistic vision…  because sometimes the artist is ready and the audience is not. Take the case of Nijinsky and his choreographic work ‘Rite of Spring’ set to an original score by Stravinsky in 1913. It had a scandalous premiere in Paris, a huge step away from traditional ballet, with the dancers standing feet turned in and the music straining through dissonant chords. The audience were in an uproar of unmet expectations. As much as this performance was vehemently dismissed as rubbish at the time it is now one of the defining works of dance and music of the twentieth century.

What role does the audience play in creating?

An important one. What you want the audience to understand from a performance, frames how you create it. How the generated ideas are selected, rejected, developed and refined. The artist works with an intention that they want to convey. They formulate an impact they wish the audience to experience. These two parameters drive any work. With a clear defined intention of what the work is about and the message to be communicated, then the artist deliberates and experiments with the best methodology to deliver the content. Here, there are really no rules. What do you want to evoke in the viewer and how are you going to do it?

As a stakeholder in the performance the audience hold an incredible amount of power, they expect value for investment. Therefore one has to consider how to communicate the work to them, not to say you should make them happy. Shocking and disgusting an audience could provide them with an experience which enlightens and brings awareness to some intended issue. It does not have to be a pleasant experience, nor should it be, that is not what live theatre or performance is for. As much as a performance is a reflection of our humanity so are the audience a mirror to the work.

What do the audience do during a performance?

Even as a passive viewer or listener, the audience change the artwork when it is presented. It moves into a new domain from which it cannot return. The same dialogue, the same gestures, the same steps, the same songs as rehearsed but in front of viewers, ownership changes. It is given over to the audience, it belongs no more to the creator or performers. It stands trial.

Why do we need the audience after a performance?

At the duration the audience are a barometer of the performative experience. If they hated the work, it is not to say it is bad or invalid. Unfortunately, an artist’s career has little room for failure when launched to the public, a perceived ‘bad work’ can in fact be an important development step in the artist’s continuum. Although, ‘being as good as your last work’ does hold some truth in performance art with a reliance on funding and needing people to return to fill seats. Despite all this, there are many secrets that the audience can divulge. Insights, abstract connections, emotive reactions, realisations, praise and criticism. This is the feedback that the artist needs to hear and it can be hard, and crippling to the self-esteem. Nonetheless it is feedback and it is the artist’s decision what to do the with the feedback. Feedback is vital to the artist. This needs to be explicitly taught early on to help deal with and decipher criticism that is negative, into opportunities to learn and grow.

The performance does not need to be the end of the creative process, development can (and should) occur after presentation to an audience, the work changes and begins to live from being viewed, experienced. This provides wisdom and understanding, a different perspective that those involved may not have been able to grasp till that point. It would be foolish not to notice those details and work with them, obliterate them or enhance them. It may be for this work or for future creations.

The audience will never in its entirety agree, you can never satisfy everyone.. That’s life. It is up to the artist to negotiate and form resilience, stay true to vision and keep on creating.

Featured image from Nela

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

 

Recently I read an article on the value of school musicals… as we were fast approaching opening night of our own, which I was directing. So, here is my take on it.

“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
– Tom Stoppard, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

After five months of rehearsals (five months for three performances!) ask any student if they think it was worth it, I’m fairly certain they would tell you ‘yes’. As with all creative endeavors it’s not just the end product but the process of practise and decision making that contains the learning, and if not the adrenalin kick of performing, the enrichment.

There are triumphant moments and loads of challenges which at the end an audience sit and (hopefully) marvel at the spectacle. What is behind the illusion on stage often gets overlooked, or never considered. Real life skills plus a multitude of learning moments are ingrained in rehearsing.

For one, anybody who thinks they can do something the first time for stage and do it right, is wrong. The students heard the word “again” come out my mouth more than any other. Characterisation is a process of empathy and experimentation, a unique mix of yourself and the qualities of the character whose role you have, every interpretation is different. Singing is about practice and refinement, as is learning to be in time with the music and each other while dancing a choreography.

Second, if you get it right once it doesn’t mean it will be right the next time… or the next time.. or the next time but the more you get it right the more consistent it will be. It is to be blunt, damn hard work, although outsiders often see it as just playing around (upcoming post soon about ‘why dance school is harder than medical school’).

Third, it is full of practical skill building. Dancing, singing and acting require coordination, active listening, body awareness, control, expression, spatial awareness, self awareness, confidence, projection, timing and empathy.

When all three are performed together, well it’s communication in a very complex form. Think about it, singing and dancing simultaneously while pretending to be someone else.

Fourth, teamwork/collaboration. The people on stage, have to work with, and trust each other to develop and produce a successful performance but they are still only a small piece of the puzzle. Costume, makeup, set designers, stage hands, light and sound technicians… Nothing looks or sounds good without them. Their process also begins at the same time as rehearsals, decisions in one creative field affect (and inspire) another, therefore clear communication between them is vital. I cannot stress how much I make the performers aware and appreciative of the people that get them to the stage and keep them looking good on it.

Fifth, it builds relationships. It is an extraordinary situation, school leavers with those starting middle school. Everyone is a stakeholder in a common goal. Students connect over similar interests that they only get to share through this unique situation. They build surprising, meaningful bonds.

Sixth, it installs an environment of responsibility. Everybody has a responsibility to know their lines, choreography and harmony. You don’t want to let yourself down, God forbid anybody else. It also gives older students the opportunity to mentor younger, and this often happens without any prompting.

Seventh, dealing with disappointment. Things do not always go right, as is the nature of live performance. Rehearsals are can be left on a low because it didn’t go as anticipated. Audiences do not always like what they see (and are usually happy enough to tell you). Getting back on the horse, being resilient and learning from those experiences is a vital part of the performer’s skill set.

Eighth, improvisation. Built during rehearsals to develop content. This is a demanding undertaking, you put yourself and your ideas totally on the line. It helps to build confidence to deal with things that go wrong in the moment which has a lot to do with being open, listening and being able to respond. Improvisation gets better with practise.

Ninth, inclusion. This one cannot be understated. Along with the tiaras and tantrums of the divas, the school musical picks up many students that sit on the social fringes. These kids are suddenly integral to a project and its success, no matter how much of an oddball their peers may think they are. The realisation that social ineptitude is actually a quirky personality with a wealth of passion.

Tenth, fulfillment and fun. At the end of the day it’s exhausting, has plenty of moments of frustration, numerous challenges and problems to be solved but it is simply fun and fills the proverbial cup to the brim. Very little that I have experienced has that same swelling feeling in the lungs and throat with a compelling urge to dance, topped off with pride and accomplishment when the cast sing the finale in a production that took five months to piece together. This is far from an exhaustive list so here is my plus one:

Eleventh. It explicitly details the creative process.

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Header image by Nela Fletcher – see more here

Overwhelmed, time to reflect

Overwhelmed, time to reflect

 

I’m currently directing (my first) school musical ‘Shrek’. We are down to the final rehearsals and there is so much happening in front of me, even when there only one or two people on stage. There are multiple options, choices, directions and outcomes – I get literally overwhelmed by it. Others I know are so quick to jump on a moment and work it out. Mostly,  I need perspective and time to reflect to know the right choice for what I want.

I feel the pressure of watching something, knowing it’s not right and not doing anything about it… Because I need the time to go away and think about it. I find it hard to trust this intuition and not try to ‘look’ like I am doing something about it and actually end up wasting more time.

It is a reminder to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Playing to one while working at improving the other, as long as all parties are aware that is how the (my) process works.

4 things dance class is good for

4 things dance class is good for

 

During parent-teacher conferences today I realised something that shouldn’t have really been as such a revelation as it was. A parent asked what style of dance I teach and I started (as always) explaining I don’t teach any particular style but tools with which to create, and design dance. Then, out of my mouth came “I don’t teach dance. I teach creative process through movement.”

And this is what I am trying to do. The students have taught skill sets to develop movement from any starting point through interpretation and then how to to organise it. They are encouraged to try out different possibilities and evaluate them, knowing that there are an infinite number of combinations in any given task. And I’m nowhere perfect in making this happen, it’s my challenge and I am getting better at it.

The parent listened to me and then turned to her son and said “…but there are still valuable things you can take from class like presence, presentation and good body posture.”

Its moments like these where one sees the huge disconnect that can occur between parents, their kids and their education. Without being careful we become those old dogs that cannot learn new tricks by thinking that education cannot change . As a parent and educator I beg you to stay informed about what your child is doing at school, trust the teachers and try to learn from them but importantly question them and try to understand what they are striving to accomplish. Most educators are on the ball and really giving it their all to prepare your child to deal with the world around them, preparing them to tackle it alone once they leave school.

I will endeavour to continue teaching the creative process above and beyond “presence, presentation and good body posture.”

ctl+alt+del

ctl+alt+del

 

So, ctl + alt + del. Reset.

I started blogging to achieve a few things, improve my practice in the classroom, create a professional network and ultimately challenge myself and my own creativity. Unfortunately the demands of the working environment, and especially the industrial noise it manifests, has seen me put it off again and again, and again. It frustrates me. A lot.

The ironic thing is that the more I blog the better my reflection, practice and ultimately creativity will be.  Doing things again and again, and again instead of putting them off is the only way to improve – which is no new revelation.

Reading other teacher’s blogs and their exploits makes me wonder if you have figured out how to create some extra hours in your day, or if you sleep? There are so many things that are important to me, family, creating, work, friends… how do we find time in such a noisy world to focus and be present.

Being present, 100% in the moment is when we notice more details, can give meaningful feedback and reflect effectively. These strategies enhance creative behaviour, I know from experience …they just tend to get lost when the machine is full swing.

So, ctl + alt + del. Reset.