Editorial: AusAct 2019 – Being relevant

Robert Lewis, Dominique Sweeney and Soseh Yekanians

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The second AusAct: The Australian Actor Training Conference that formed the basis of this issue of Fusion Journal, was held at Queensland University of Technology on 9–11 August 2019. The concept of the conference emerged as a result of discussions between colleagues in the Acting and Performance discipline at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga. We were interested in the state of actor training in Australia and the most effective way to discuss this was to create a platform for practitioners, academics and pedagogues to celebrate, interrogate and showcase actor training methods that have been created and developed in Australia.

Performance practitioners, directors, teachers, academics, postgraduate students and performers were invited to attend to discuss and demonstrate their original pedagogies and methodologies that have been developed in Australia and inspired by the environment, land, the Australian performing arts industry, and Australian values and culture. In general, presenters were encouraged to discuss the need for uniquely Australian performer training pedagogy, the link between Australian values and culture and actor training, the role that place, space, environment and land plays in the development of training methods and, finally, the involvement of technology in actor training.

The theme of the 2019 conference, ‘Being Relevant’, called for papers that considered how actor training can maintain its relevance in Australia, as well as drawing upon relevant methods, approaches and aesthetics that reflect contemporary and future Australian actors. It highlighted the fact that not only do we need relevant content and material to reflect the ever-changing social climate, it demonstrated the fact that relevant artists who create works through which they can better connect to the world around them, is needed.

The following points concerning being relevant in light of Australian performance pedagogies were the starting point for paper presentations:

  • Relevance of Australian actor training
  • Relevance of training for performance
  • Relevance of international actor training methods in Australian performance practice
  • Development of relevant performance training in Australia
  • Relevance of place, space and environment in Australian actor training
  • Relevance of technology in performance training
  • Relevance of health and wellbeing in actor training

The 2019 conference hosted 21 paper presentations, 13 of which have been published in this edition of Fusion Journal. The conference also included 10 workshops. Presenters discussed intercultural fusion, actors’ health and wellbeing, youth theatre, integrative practices, safe practices and technology in actor training.

Jessica Hartley, Keynote Speaker, discusses in her article Vulnerability in a Crisis: Pedagogy, Critical Reflection and Positionality in Actor Training the crisis ensuing in traditional conservatoire actor training which is creating a new market for smaller, bespoke training programs with a solid identity. In her keynote, using two case studies, Hartley calls for trainers to ‘lean in’ to their precarity by questioning their positionality, their own training, their bias and their politics.

Jack Bradford, director of the Brisbane Junior Theatre, discusses in his article Brisbane Junior Theatre’s Abridged Method Acting System the unique Abridged Method Acting System (AMAS). AMAS is designed to prepare and equip actors with craftsmanship based theatrical skills for a career in the performing arts. BJT’s unique actor method is an abridged, condensed, refocused combination of internally driven Stanislavsky based methods and the external action driven methods such as Meyerhold, Laban, Lecoq and the classical acting method of British actors in the 20th century.

Kim Durban examines and celebrates the surprising aesthetic, textual, psychological and comic relevance to actor training in an institution of the haunting of Richard the Third by the ghosts he has murdered, in her article Haunted by Irrelevance?. Durban’s deliberations are haunted by the ghosts of ideas and concepts that she may have ‘murdered’ on her way to building relevant program design that will appeal to acting students, their parents, the arts industry at large and marketing departments.

In their article Encouraging Actors to See Themselves as Agents of Change: The Role of Dramaturgs, Critics, Commentators, Academics and Activists in Actor Training in Australia, Bree Hadley and Kathryn Kelly explore the role of ‘dramaturgs’ in actor training, in particular focusing on Hadley’s personal experience. The first part explores actor training institutions in Australia and their integration of critical or commentary skills to understand “historically marginalised groups, such as First Nations people, people of colour, and people with disabilities” (p. 51). The article audits the current writing on the subject and suggests that to make training institutions more inclusive by watering down the training is offensive to diverse theatre makers. Neutrality in training is broached as a European stereotyping with a proposition that this type of training diminishes marginalised voices, particularly First Nations artists. The dramaturg enters into this environment to offer actors the potential to see themselves as agents of change.

In their article ‘Part of the Job’: Actors’ Experiences of Bullying and Harassment, Ian Maxwell, Mark Seton and Marianna Szabó revisit their 2012 qualitative data collected as part of the Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Survey, in context to the impact of the subsequent #MeToo movement, and the high-profile court cases involving allegations of inappropriate behaviour in rehearsals. The in-depth explorations raise significant questions surrounding the overall mental and physical wellbeing of actors. The unique data collected facilitates establishing a baseline for understanding the complexity and pervasiveness of inappropriate rehearsal behaviour, grounded in an attention to the experiences of working actors.

Robert Lewis, in his article From ‘Methods’ to ‘Approaches’: Integrative Practices and Physiovocality in the Digital Landscape, takes us on an integrated journey into physiovocality in the digital landscape. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to ask questions about actor training in a world that has retired to digital communication. How do we assist in unlocking the potential and imagination of actors to work in this world? When there are ‘zero walls’, what is it that actors can do to prepare? Lewis elaborates with physiovocal exercises inspired by Butoh which focus on the ‘Space Between’ and ‘Imagery’ and combines this with Laban’s shape qualities. The exercises are demonstrated with Charles Sturt University Acting students connecting movement and voice in the Lewis Integrated Acting Technique. Transformation and transition through imagery is core to the integrated practice and using breathing Lewis invokes ‘Ma’ as the space between the breath. The aim is for actors, using these training exercises, to open their imaginations and a capacity to achieve a physiovocal unity.

In their article How can Australian Actor Training be Relevant in a World of 86 Per Cent Unemployment? Gabrielle Metcalf and Andrew Lewis look at the relevance of actor training within the context of employment. They question the very real concerns surrounding lack of employment/jobs that exist for students once their degree is over. They suggest that, for some, there is never even enough work to pay off the HECS debt accumulated over the three years. Therefore, “what does this signify for the relevance of actor training, when most graduates can only look forward to a future of unemployment or at best, underemployment?” (p. 96). This article explores ways in which the Conservatoire model of actor training can be adapted and modified to provide industry ready graduates who are better equipped to enter a profession where high unemployment and dwindling arts funding are a sad reality.

Lola Montgomery offers a case study of mask training in burlesque performance in her article Becoming Burlesque: Performer Training in Contemporary Burlesque. The article sets out historically how the art of burlesque concerns an ‘intimate rapport’ with the audience. While the author states that burlesque “indirectly engages acting skills” (p. 112), the argument shimmers through a range of bricolage, through developments of the genre until reaching the use of masks. And the story is about song and dance and striptease but also essentially about ‘acting’. Masking is key to becoming burlesque. It is not the adornments or lack of, it is the way actor training can improve the ability of the burlesque performer.

Shane Pike’s explorations into the emergences of performative technology, specifically Augmented (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) and how these advances challenge more traditional notions of actor training, proves fascinating in his article Virtually Relevant: AR/VR and the Theatre. The article not only looks at the evolving collaborations of these newer technological developments with acting/theatre practitioners, the industry and the audience in how they consume storytelling, but also challenges the role that conservatoire actor trainers now have in training their students to be industry ready amongst these advancements.

Mark Seton’s article, Immunity to Change? Attending to Symptoms of Culture and Cultish in the Actor’s Training Regime, discusses recent observations made into actor training that uncover two main types of cultures. The first identifies a healthy learning environment, yet the second worryingly uncovers a cultish master–apprentice ethos that highlights a cult-like abuse of power by teachers, which undoubtedly leads not only to the direct mistreatment of students, but inherently effects those students’ wellbeing. Seton deeply questions actor training in direct reference to Kegan’s and Lahey’s ideas around “immunity to change” and asks, “when is resistance apparently laziness and when is it a sign of something more that needs compassion and patience? How might both teachers and students participate together in meaning-making that respects the challenges of transformative change as crucial to embodied learning?” (p. 129).

Dominique Sweeney, in his article Stomp in Australia, investigates The Stomp as an exercise to interrogate what actor trainers do. The Stomp is known widely as an exercise made popular by Tadashi Suzuki, and adopted in Australia by companies such as Ozfrank Theatre and Zen Zen Zo. A much older stomp from traditional public Aboriginal performance practices exists in styles like wangga and offers knowledges that provide direct ways of appreciating the connection to country. The awareness developed through traditional performance practices involves careful and detailed observation of place. Sweeney, in essence, asks the question: how as actors and actor trainers do we learn respectfully from the elders of traditional practices that live, walk and breathe the country to tell our stories not as interloping invaders but as artists alongside Aboriginal performers and potential future creators?

Angela Punch McGregor, in her article The Invisible Communicator: A Vocal Workshop, demonstrates exercises that form part of her current voice pedagogy. Her work as voice coach is constantly attending to this conundrum: applying the exercises that might address the physical complexities, but also integrating such work into the larger metaphysical expression of the human voice.

Mark Radvan asks: Can we refresh our praxis to better prepare acting students for careers in film, television and theatre? The author sets out the way the current Qualifications Framework has developed, defining the difference between a diploma and a degree. The way teachers approach pedagogies and curriculum raises questions about the way teaching is developed. Curriculum thinking means defining Acting as a discipline as distinct from Drama and Performance Studies, and asking questions pertaining to actor training. How are the skills developed in the application of actor training so that students clearly demonstrate their autonomy with the knowledges gained? Radvan proposes the need for a coherent and in-depth philosophical core to actor training. This then ensures that the accumulated knowledge, and the development of creativity and problem-solving abilities, offers acting students a transferability of skills in addition to their actor training.

About the authors

Dr Robert Lewis is a Course Director of Creative Industries and Lecturer in Acting at Charles Sturt University. He previously lectured in the Theatre Program at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) from 2004–2016. He has studied theatre at UTAS, Honours at Monash University, Education at RMIT and Voice Studies at NIDA. His PhD focused on integrative practices and intercultural performance training aesthetics. Robert recently completed a Certification in Integrative Studies at the One Voice Centre, New York. He is a director, writer, theatre maker and voice and movement teacher who trained with Cicely Berry, Frankie Armstrong, Rowena Balos, Mike Alfreds, OzFrank Theatre, as well as Butoh with Yoshito Ohno in Japan, and is a Nobbs Suzuki Praxis member. Robert has published theatre performances and training films through Contemporary Arts Media (Artfilms) and has also published various academic articles on the subject of voice and movement integration. He is the director of Persona Collective, a performance group focusing on integrative practice and research, in which he directed and adapted productions including Iam Nocte (adapted from Seneca’s Oedipus), Profuge (adapted from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) and directed the site-specific performances Two Houses, Savages and Norm and Ahmed including the original play Lines and Boxes.

Dr Dominique Sweeney teaches acting at Charles Sturt University. His performance work has seen him on stages, screen and other locations throughout Australia and internationally. Dominique taught acting at Sydney Theatre School, at Griffith, ANU, UWS, Macquarie and Sydney Universities and at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy, Russia. He worked as an Environmental Education Ranger in Centennial Park, Sydney and his education included two years in Paris at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Dominique is a core member and chair of the board of Theatre Kantanka, a company that specialise in site specific performance. He continues to work as a performer, director, researcher and creator.

Dr Soseh Yekanians is a graduate from the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School in New York. In 2012, she was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award Scholarship to embark on a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth. Her research investigated how theatre directing and the performing arts could provide a culturally displaced individual with a sense of identity and belonging. Dr Yekanians’ practice-led study specifically provided new insights into how theatre directing allows an individual to (re)discover their identity through leadership in a non-judgmental forum and how the theatre as a space for communal exchanges and conversations can initiate dialogue about cultural differences. Following her doctorate, two major career highlights have been the publication of her children’s literature book, The Special Team Elite and her revised thesis titled, Finding Identity through Directing, which was recognised by world leading academic publisher Routledge.

To cite this editorial

Lewis Robert, et al. “Editorial: AusAct 2019 – Being Relevant.” Fusion Journal, no. 17, 2020, pp. 1-5. https://fusion-journal.com/editorial-ausact-2019-being-relevant/

First published online: April 2020

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