5.4 Tony James: Practical Performance Teaching in Rose Bruford College Studio Spaces.
I first began working at Rose Bruford College in March 2000, directing a disparate group of International Students in an informal, abridged version of Twelfth Night, a performance of which was given one Friday afternoon in less than ideal surroundings in front of their mentor and 2-3 interested individuals. I must have passed the ‘audition’ as I was invited back and, since that time, I have worked with the M.A., E.T.A., the Acting B.A., and, most frequently, with A.T.A. students in a wide variety of performance and rehearsal spaces.
The reason I mention the various courses is that Rose Bruford is a college which caters for many interests, and the demands of these interests often conflict with each other. As in any institution, availability of room space can cause trouble, double bookings do occur, but these can usually be sorted out by speaking to the appropriate staff - the first port of call is the helpful Reception staff. But other problems arise. You could be directing the sensitive death scene of Juliet and the class next door is an Actor-Musician directed piece which, necessarily, involves a lot of trumpet blowing, marching, drum banging, yelling, and what-have-you. Generally speaking, I have found that if you approach the director or student concerned with a mixture of courtesy and firmness, a compromise can be reached whereby both classes can proceed successfully.
Focus, concentration, and timing.
Depending on how long the session is, through experience, I have found that addressing any group of students, no matter how many in the class, for longer than 20 minutes at a time leads to fidgeting, restlessness and a loss of focus. For this reason, I break up any session wherein information has to be passed across into bit-sized chunks of rarely longer than 10-15 minutes. I begin by dealing with administrative matters, and lay out the timing of the session. Then we play a ten-minute 'game' to encourage the students to leave their personal concerns outside the studio and prepare them, mentally and physically, for the task in hand. Another talk follows, outlining the theory of what we are about to attempt, and setting them a task, the duration of which will depend on the complexity of the demands and timetable considerations, to accomplish either in groups or individually. Having worked on their own, thus giving me time to interact on a more individual level, they then show their work to everybody for comment and discussion from me and their peers, and I finish the session with a five minute summary to hear from them what has been learned. Feedback at the end of a session is vital as it airs any problems that may have been encountered, provides them with a base to begin the next session, and gives closure to the class.
Group size and studio space
This varies. From experience, the optimum number of students is 12, plus or minus 2, but often I am required to take a practical class of 20+, though rarely more than 25. This leads to problems when setting a practical task. 20+ students will do what the louder, more extrovert leaders tell them to do, and the noise level while they are sorting out the pecking order and their ideas will be unacceptable, as well as turning off the quieter, more introspective student. The basic format of Studio space in Rose Bruford is (usually) an open area with a wooden floor and, depending what the previous class was, a variety of chairs or none at all. Classes are therefore necessarily Open Plan so I find it best to divide the students into four or five groups of four or five students, one group in each corner and one in the middle space. But, in some of the smaller studios, this is impractical so I will ask a group(s) to find some other space (a temporarily empty room or a foyer) within the college, or outside if the weather is good enough, and instruct them to return at a particular time to show us what they have accomplished.
The first introduction to a new group of students can be unnerving, particularly if they know and have worked with each other for some time. They will have defined for themselves a way of presenting a group corporate image which can be hard to decipher and infiltrate. It is comparatively easy to identify the leaders and the isolates, the extroverts and the introverts - body language alone will give many clues - but the majority of students fall into neither category and it is these you have to get to know as soon as possible. The trick is to break the group image by separating them into smaller units as soon as possible by setting a practical task for them to work on. As they separate into the corners of the space, you will be able to visit them and communicate on a more personal level - this will enable you to get to know each student on an individual basis, and you will then be able to tailor your teaching methods to suit each member of the class.
The above technique can also be applied to a group of students who do not know each other, but be aware that they are much more interested in each other than in anything you may have to say. Consciously or not, they will be observing each other to gauge how they should behave in this new environment. Students new to the college, even if not fresh from school, still retain a school mentality whereby they want to be told what to do and what to learn. I take advantage of that fact in the first session with them by laying down some ground rules such as the necessity for being on time, to come fully prepared for the class, and to leave their personal baggage outside the studio. In other words, make it clear what you expect of them and get them to agree that these ‘rules’ are reasonable and acceptable to all. Then break that somewhat authoritarian atmosphere by playing getting-to-know-each-other practical games, forcing them off their seats to test themselves, begin the process of defining their relationships, and explore the space. I believe this is essential: they will be together, probably for three years, during which time they will work out their own group identity, and they must learn how to communicate effectively with each other on an individual, professional level. The sooner this process starts, the easier it becomes to create a creative, hardworking atmosphere in which each student can potentially thrive.
Points of advice
Things I wish I’d known:
If travelling by train, allow at least 30 minutes extra to cater for the vagaries of South Eastern trains whose reputation for late-running trains, last minute cancellations, unmanned ticket booths and so on reach incomprehensible levels of incompetence.
Get to know on a personal level and form a good working relationship with staff in charge of Room Allocation, the library staff, the administrators/secretaries and the curators. Academic staff are much less important!
Look after your belongings - do not leave anything valuable unattended at any time.
Teaching in my area
1. Beginner acting students in particular more often than not want to be told rather than find out for themselves. By telling them, you think you are helping them which can lead to a false sense of pride and a-job-well-done euphoria in you, but the reverse is true. They learn nothing except to repeat the information you have given them. Let them experiment, get it wrong, try again, fail better. It is no reflection on you as a teacher/director that they do not turn in first-class work the first time a task is attempted.
2. Lessons can only be learned through mistakes, not through getting it right. If they learn something through self-discovery, they own that information, are less likely to forget it, and it will be incorporated seamlessly into their own future behaviour patterns.
3. Get to know your group on an individual level. Students bring varying life experiences with them and work at different speeds. In order to maximise the potential of each student, and therefore the group as a whole, you need to adapt the way in which you present information to each individual. Use a variety of techniques - questioning, cajoling, encouraging, provoking, reassuring, galvanising, emboldening, persuading, stimulating, pestering, and invigorating.