5 Top Tips on Teaching Performance Practice

Photo by Elyse Marks

Photo by Elyse Marks

Poppy Corbett is a playwright and Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University of London who has kindly agreed to write this post on teaching performance practice. She co-wrote (with educationalist Pie Corbett) The Enormous Book of Talk for Writing Games for KS2 teachers – a book that can be used to help children improve their written work through speech and drama games. In 2014 she won a College Teaching Excellence prize.

I’m a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, specialising in playwriting. Term is, scarily, into full swing and so I want to reflect on what it means to teach practice. These are my top five tips for teaching practice, which I’ve kept non-subject specific so you can apply them to your own teaching. All the ideas have arisen just as much from me being a student of great teachers, as they have from my own feeling-my-way-in-the-dark teaching.

1. Frame the practice very carefully

When I studied for my Masters degree, we spent a glorious week with Toby Jones as a visiting practitioner. Just before we were about to present our final performances (hastily thrown together), Toby gave some perceptive advice about how to be an effective audience. It went something like this (I paraphrase):

We have to be clear what we’re looking at – this is very fragile work – we had no time to make it and are responding to something we’ve received. It is unfinished work but confusingly has the hallmarks of finished work (clapping at the end, an audience watching). But it’s NOT finished, it’s just step one – so we must treat it carefully.

I’ve never forgotten this and believe it’s important to carefully frame the showing of practice. When work is shared, it is vital that the whole seminar group understands what stage the work is at. It is no good students responding to a first draft, or an initial piece of choreography as though it is a few hours before opening night at the Olivier. This helps students to develop their own critical faculties. Context is key.

2. Practice before theory

Introduce practice immediately. If you throw students into practice straight away it becomes a habit and eliminates nervousness. I learnt this important lesson when I was an undergraduate student. On a physical theatre module it felt (to my twenty year old self) like we spent a long time (disgruntledly) rolling about on the floor and throwing sticks at each other. Our lecturer (the fantastic Dick McCaw) then gave us critical reading. I was amazed – I understood difficult reading on the practices of Meyerhold, Zinder and Barba with clarity because I had embodied the very exercises described. If the reading had been introduced before we explored the physical work, I believe it would have been harder to understand the exercises. Because we already had embodied the theory, we understood the reading more perceptively.

3. Compliment more than you criticise

Give more compliments than criticisms. It can be tempting to be hard on students and continually point out what they are doing wrong but like all of us, students thrive from positive feedback. This is not to say you should not be critical, but you mustn’t forget to tell them where they’re going right.

As a theatre director, the best thing I ever did when forming a company was to invent the ‘circle of love’: at the end of a rehearsal the actors sit in a circle massaging each other’s backs. One by one, each actor offers a compliment to the actor they are massaging. This can be anything from ‘I like your new trainers’, to ‘you really impressed me in that final scene’. It is the most successful exercise I have facilitated in order to bond a group. This was inspired a brief time at the Moscow Art Theatre School where the Michael Chekhov teacher insisted on a love of your fellow actors. Although I don’t (obviously) massage my students, I have found they thrive off compliments. Make sure you praise what they are doing well and it is inevitable they will keep doing that.

4. Provide professional opportunities

Give students opportunities to engage with professional practice. This could take several forms, depending on your practice: take them to see a play, encourage them to enter work into professional competitions, or invite a professional into the seminar room. Always encourage students to perform their work in front of an external audience. Students hide for so long in the academy that they forget an audience not constituted of their peers may have a completely different reaction to their work.

When suggesting external opportunities, make sure you organise them in advance or you may end up like I did, seeing a Thornton Wilder play all by myself. My students asked for a theatre trip; I suggested one and a date to attend, but ended up being the only person to show up…! Departments may have resources to pay for these activities – chat to your Head of Department.

It can be time-consuming and costly to try and organise professional opportunities for your students, but I believe it is always worth the effort.

The most successful project of my teaching career was to produce professional play readings of students’ work. I found two excellent directors who offered dramaturgical advice to the students. Following this I produced public readings of their plays at Shoreditch Town Hall, using professional actors. The returned feedback forms at the end of the course mentioned it as a key learning experience: “it gave our group a more accurate idea of what writing a play ensues: this wasn’t being written to be marked, our play was being written to be performed and enjoyed by an audience.”

5. Share your practice with your students.

If you’re a practitioner I encourage you to share your practice with your students. Let them know when you are performing or running a workshop. Make it clear to them what professional practice you do. It places the students’ trust in your professional ability to teach and it allows them to link practice-based work with academic writing: “did you notice that moment in my performance when Oedipus realised the terrible truth he’d shagged Mum and killed his Dad? THAT, my students, is what Aristotle means about ‘anagnorisis’.” Thirdly, it gives you an immediate platform for your professional work. One of the most touching moments in my teaching career was during a nervous time before an industry reading of a play. Nervously scanning the auditorium to work out who all these stern faces were to my surprise I spotted a group of my students in the audience. Suddenly, the industry professionals mattered much less and the interaction of the students with my work mattered a whole deal more.


If you want a chance to learn more about teaching practice, come along to our teaching practice event on Saturday 12 December 2015 at Royal Holloway University. For more information click here.

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