Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
January 25, 2010, by

Thinking Out Loud: Why I Need a Study Group (or, Where Theatre School Failed Me)


by Leora Morris

Part I: Theatre School Up Ahead, No Thinking Allowed.

When I graduated from theatre school, I knew how to crash a general audition, how to write a grant proposal, how to apply for internships on workinculture, how to analyze Shakespeare… I even knew something about how to create my own work. 

I had a whole lot of skills ready to put into practice and very few ideas about what I would use them for.  In fact, I didn’t even have a way to approach thinking about how I might want to use these newfound skills (outside of getting hired by someone else with a vision).  No one ever sat me down and got me thinking about what type of theatre I might want to make and why.  The more I look around at artists emerging from institutions like the one I attended, the more I feel we as a generation of artists were never asked to think about this.

It seems that conservatory programs value doing over reading and talking.  I wonder: isn’t there a time and a place for thinking as well?  Isn’t it a problem that my only non-studio classes were “The Business of Acting” (addressing questions around producing, funding, taxes, and marketing) and an undervalued set of Theatre History classes, taught by a fantastically overqualified instructor who barely had time to bring us up to Fronteras Americanas before he ran out of time? There was certainly very little space for discussions around aesthetics, contemporary Canadian and international theatre, cross-disciplinary work, and criticism.

Scott Walters explains that his desire to examine ideas motivated him to move from the professional world to academics: “Most theatre artists don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water!”  He suggests the academic world could cultivate radical ideas and then disseminate them to the professional artistic community in digestible chunks via the internet.

I would rather imagine a way for artists to be both fully involved in their creative practices and still engaged in thinking about it at an “idea” level. Shouldn’t it be part of every performer’s development to consider the how and why of his or her artistic practices?

Part 2: Why the Internet Can’t Do It All.

If theatre schools aren’t going to start this discussion around artistic practice, it is lucky for an emerging type like me that the internet can provide some help.  I can start to get a feel for the art being made, why it’s being made that way, what other people think about it, what I think of it, I can engage in discussion with more established artists, and so on.  What this means, though, is that if I spend time considering my own practice, I generally don’t do it in a group, but alone with a coffee, maybe a notebook, likely my laptop.  I get to physically come together with other artists to actually create, but a shared space to think critically is mostly limited to the internet.  Is this kind of contact sufficient?  Is there not a difference in the nature of the exchange when our ideas co-exist in live-space instead of in cyberspace?  I find that something magical happens in that terrifying moment of trying to find my thought in front of a group of people.  Those moments seem to transform my thinking in a different way than when I read someone’s blog.

This is not to say the internet can’t be a central player in discussions around practice, just that comments like this on the Next Stage blog start to worry me:  “We’re not snobby, we’re just busy. And we’d all like to meet regularly to socialize and network, but who has the time?”

It makes me nervous when we start to discuss expanding and evolving our theatre community in terms of efficiency and time-management.  What I appreciate about study group is that we are not interested in finding economic solutions.  Instead, we prioritize finding the time and space to sit with the questions, so we can give them room to breathe.  It might look unproductive, sound winding, feel clumsy – but the overall movement forward has a depth and breadth to it, that I’m not convinced is there when we aspire towards thinking with efficiency, or in isolation. Indeed, it is generally when I find myself staring at the wall, patiently allowing for new thoughts among new people, that I find they actually begin to bubble and rise.

Part III: Where Thinking Out Loud Fits In.

At Dancemakers, we structure our practice with the values of “3C’s” (contemporary, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary) and yet, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what those words mean.  Thinking Out Loud comes out of a simple desire to let our brains and bodies physically share a space while we all contemplate our practices.  We are a small, generous, fluctuating group of dancers, actors, directors, academics, producers, artistic directors, and anyone else interested in filling the gap in the performance world between theory and practice (we often talk about dance but are interested in a broader discussion about the performing arts).  We read texts and discuss them in order to identify our opinions, test our theories, refine our arguments, and contemplate new ideas.

A sampling of the questions tossed around:

  • How do we respond to our artistic lineage?
  • If we had­ postmodernism, why do I need to think about modernism?
  • How do I dedicate myself to thinking critically and artistically about my world and still participate in it?
  • Is it valuable to impose old work on new performers?
  • Is amateur participation in the arts making professional art redundant?

For me, it’s an act of stretching myself into unfamiliar territory around people who relate to the same basic structures that I do, so I can think daringly without feeling alone at sea. It’s about conjuring the kind of curiosity and imagination that can lead to entirely new ways of working.  I always leave feeling “activated”.  For months the ideas and questions raised sit poised at the front of my mind, ready when I see a show and wonder “what is this show doing – and how do I feel about it?” or “how does this show fit into the arts ecology of Toronto/Canada/the world?”

We meet next Tuesday February 2nd and welcome new faces.  We’ll be talking about audience as community and beauty (among other things).  You can read the details of all our past and future goings-on here.

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  1. Danny says:

    I don’t think there is a lack of encouragement or training specific to creating one’s own work in Toronto’s schools – as long as you’re taking the right program. If you take a program like George Brown – a classical theatre program – you probably won’t touch on the subject much, because that’s not what they are training their students for. Humber focuses on collaboration quite a bit from what I heard and York has a creative ensemble program. I’m sure that people who enter these programs could complain that they weren’t being given enough speech work or learning to deal with text enough.

    The point is, to blame an institution for not teaching you how to THINK seems like a big buck pass. We all know how to think. I think about my art all the time, and maybe that’s why I don’t have a work of my own up yet. I’m spending too much time thinking about it and not enough time writing it, working it, trying it out, DOing it. School gives us the tools to shape these raw thoughts in to actual pieces. It does its job by training us at our craft, but it’s our own creativity and artistic talent that makes new art. One doesn’t go to culinary school and then complain that they now only know the recipes the school taught them. Taking it further is in their hands. And it’s the same with us. Let’s take a little responsibility for our own art.

  2. Jacob Zimmer says:

    It has been my experience that we do not think as well alone. That without the space and caring of others, my thinking is simply not as good. The smiles, the questioning squints – all of these are how I am taught to think and to articulate those thoughts.

    The thinking I do on my own is important but it is simply not enough. It is like the plays I stage in my head: nice enough for an afternoon daydream but not ready for public. Shared thinking is the stage between me and the public, it is the space I rehearse and practice my ideas and their articulation. Through the experience of thinking with others, I have certainly learned to think better – more critically, with more openness, inventiveness and precision. We may all know how to learn (having learned language) and so can learn to think better if we are invited to create the space and the feedback loops.

    The continued separation between “classical theatre training” and out-loud-shared thinking is just killing us at least 2 or 3 fronts –
    1: it implies classical theatre requires no thinking about contemporary life. Which may go a ways to explain a lack of relevance.
    2: There aren’t nearly enough “classical theatre” jobs for all the poor kids coming out thinking they’ll just audition and take scene study classes until they walk onto some big semi-thrust. Or onto a commercial set.
    3: (controversial and provisional statement coming:) The current generation of theatre school students and grads are more conservative. This of course is not universally true, and maybe nothing new – maybe the exceptions have always been the bright lights – but I have felt more and more that the “next generation” is more interested in a kind of success that makes criticality and engagement very difficult. This is not just a theatre school problem, but it is a problem in theatre schools. An ever increasing instrumentalization (“I go to school to have a degree, I have a degree so I have a job, I read a thing so my mark is better, I get a higher mark to get into grad school, I go to grad school because there were no jobs”) kills a dynamic learning environment, not only because of over bureaucratic/capitalist Universities, but because of the will and desires of the students. Am I wrong, am I reading something backwards?

    Also, chef schools I imagine do a good job of teaching and breaking down why flavors go together the way they do, on the pacing and pleasure of a meal, the health effects and nutritional values, on how food is grown and made. I imagine them also providing a great deal of space for experimentation and feedback surrounding these issues.

    We spend a lot of time rehearsing a kind of activity, which is good – the more we do something with others, the better we will be. Perhaps there needs to be a space for the practicing of thinking also. Perhaps that could be both in school and out.