The Quest For Professional Theatre Company Practice
The Collaborative Project in the IB DP Theatre course asks students to research a professional collaborative theatre company (a devising company, rather than a play script company), to explain the approaches of this company, and to explain how these approaches might influence their own approaches to theatre making. A tall order when most companies don't really give a lot away about how they make their theatre. The ones who do share a bit of their process certainly don't do so with the Collaborative Project assessment task in mind. I set out to fix that, with the help of the award-winning UK-based Ad Infinitum theatre company.
This article appears in Scene, the ISTA magazine, in January 2020.
What do you take for granted? If you’ve left home to teach overseas, what did you take for granted back home? I left the UK 8 years ago and have taught Theatre in Asia since, realising now how much I took for granted the ease of access to good, live theatre. When I lived in Manchester, the thought of a two hour train journey to London meant I often put off tickets to the hottest new production, thinking ‘next month’ or even ‘next summer’. Even the brilliant offerings on my own doorstep would sometimes drift away from me: it’s easy to become complacent when you are surrounded by great theatre from a range of companies. Having worked in professional theatre before becoming a teacher I felt I was able to access live productions at the click of a finger.
Then I got to Asia and found that the pool of inspiration and reinvigoration was surprisingly smaller. Taking students to see live shows was so much more difficult out here: their busy extra curricular activity programmes; the language barrier hiding much from my view; and, yes, the quality of what was often on offer. Local theatre traditions and theories were the positive flip side to this of course - my knowledge of Noh, Suzuki, Sichuan face changers and Beijing Opera has blossomed by varying degrees. My training with local experts and exposure to live theatre in these areas has directly improved my teaching of the World Theatre Tradition and Research Presentation components of the Diploma Theatre course.
But the Diploma course also requires us to experience theatre as spectators. This seems obvious: if you want to be a better footballer, you watch Ronaldo and Messi play and begin by trying to understand their approach and technique. This is why the element of requiring exposure to live theatre as a spectator is so important in the DP course, currently so important it is written into the Director’s Notebook assessment task, and why the Collaborative Project requires our students to study a professional collaborative theatre company: watching is learning. Yet for many of us, access to those high levels of practice can be frustratingly out of reach in our adopted homes, and sometimes even in our original homes.
Watching any theatre is much richer for our students than watching no theatre, so encouraging students to watch other school and student-produced theatre is the easiest starting point, though this naturally becomes a lean towards more of a peer support exercise than a genuine spectator experience. Digital Theatre Plus is a fantastic resource (and a partner of ISTA too!) with access to the highest level of production values through their impressive catalogue of recorded live theatre. The beauty of this platform is that the recorded live shows satisfy the DP requirement of students experiencing live theatre. However, its cost and reliance on decent internet speeds put it out of reach of some schools.
So what is a busy Theatre teacher to do? We need access to live theatre for our own professional development, and that is achievable to different degrees depending on where you work. We need to provide our students with access to live theatre so that they may appreciate the work they create from the perspective of those it is designed to impact, and this is somewhat achievable with the difficulties outlined above. But here’s the real rub: we need to provide access to the approaches and workings of professional theatre companies so that our students may see theatre from the perspective of the creator. There are some great resources online, and companies like Frantic Assembly have created a powerful brand of school outreach that includes education packs, though these packs aren’t created with the IB Diploma Theatre course in mind. The paucity of such packs can leave teachers threadbare when it comes to facilitating classes full of students wanting to research different companies in a way that allows them access to the approaches and toolkits of professionals with which they can inform their own creative process. With all of this swimming around the DP teacher compartment of my head, I needed a resource that gave insight into a professional company, and addressed the requirements of the DP Theatre course.
ISTA TaPS and IB teacher training events usually include tickets to two professional theatre performances, which can be the primary exposure to live theatre for many teachers and students during the busy school year. It was while working as a student ensemble leader at the Hong Kong TaPS a few years ago that I met George Mann, co-Artistic Director of Bristol-based Ad Infinitum theatre company, and set in motion a process of investigation and interview that I believe goes some way to resolving some of the frustrations of the Theatre teacher’s access to professional theatre making. George performed a one-man Odyssey at that TaPS, and gave exceptional masterclasses. The performance was exhilarating, and I was soon excited to hear that his company would be sharing a scratch performance of their in-progress work, No Kids, in Bristol at a time when I would be staying with family nearby. I accepted George’s invitation to attend and gained a rare insight into the workings of a professional (award winning, no less) devising company. I shared my feedback in exchange for hearing the observations of a room full of the UK’s brightest theatre makers and producers, and a rather tasty homemade mince pie. I floated the idea of making an education resource pack that captured their process and toolkit. For them, they get brand promotion, another string to their next grant application bow, and perhaps fewer emails to field from eager Theatre students who could now get a chunk of their research info from a shared resource. For me, the benefit was simple: I get access to a professional theatre company’s creative mindset, with the opportunity to create the Collaborative Project-specific research resource that teachers had previously been unable to find, and I had the company’s blessing to share with Theatre teachers around the globe.
So here it is - the education pack that was crafted for students and teachers of DP Theatre in mind, following interviews with George and Nir the Artistic Directors of Ad Infinitum, squeezing in Skype interviews between tours to South America and Asia and the UK launch and tour of two new shows. It digs into this eye catching UK-based theatre company with criteria A-C of the Collaborative Project directly addressed: the personal contexts of the co-founders; the approaches of the company; how a show journeys from nothing to something; and some rehearsal room stories and techniques for exploring the ‘constellation of stimuli’ that they amass during each production. They haven’t paid me in any way (being able to share this pack with you was my benefit) so I can confidently and objectively say, if you get a chance to workshop with the company, see one of their shows, or get them into your school (they offer all of the above), grab it with both hands and don’t let go. Through the process of creating this pack with me, they have a strong idea of what international school theatre students are looking for. I know they are touring in East Asia next October, I just need to figure out a way of getting them into my town. With tight budgets, this is hard, but I’ve learned not to take good theatre for granted these days. Anyone want to club together with me?
More information and contact for workshops and tours from Ad Infinitum at their website