|3||What’s On Offer?|
|5||Feedback for the Fool|
|6||Maybe You’re in the Wrong Place?|
I see this every day so now you can see it
Jonathan, graduation candidate
What I write has no obligation to anything other than to itself.
|The young Jonathan, a student|
|Jonathan, also a student, graduation candidate|
|Jørgen Leth, a Danish filmmaker and poet, honorary consul in Haiti|
|Lars von Trier, another Danish filmmaker|
|Arkadina, Irina Nikolaevna, actress|
|Kostya, Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev, her son|
|Sorin, Pyotr Nikolaevich, her brother|
|Dr. Faust, a German professor|
|Jaques, Lord attending upon the banished Duke|
The scene is the university of an idyllic town in Southern England.
JONATHAN I’ve lost my youth at university,
Alas, I haven’t grown into a man.
March 29th 2008, 2.05am
Today I begin, I have agreed to and have tried my utmost to understand the conditions under which I am supposed to write this dissertation. But before we begin it is important that I explain or perhaps clarify my situation. I have chosen to write this not through the demands set upon me but through my wish to burrow into the darkest corners of my existence, to root out the nasty and uncomfortable and to parade them across the stage that we refuse to observe. I am the annoyance that will twist and distort my task in the most beautiful and poetic way that my tired and worn brain will allow. I am no longer subject to the rules as I have no care for the results that such rules produce. It is no easy task to take a hold of one’s self and it is for this reason that my decision to write fills me with pain, anxiety and of course fear. But a solution is at hand, as I am no longer Jonathan Pointing, I am the suppressed, the ignored, the dismissed, I am Jonathan’s joy. And there will be no mercy in my assault upon his rational thinking. I feel that it is important that I acknowledge that in my attack I expose Jonathan, I make him vulnerable, and if it wasn’t for my understanding of Jonathan as a person I would retreat back into the dark corner in which I have been thrown. But as I state, this is not Jonathan’s wish, it is undoubtedly a scary place to be, out on the edge, to bare one’s self in such a rash and inconsiderate way. But in doing so, we begin to see areas of real interest, we see not just the learned or the academically correct but we also see the faults, we see drama, we see Jonathan. So I must also state that we are under no illusions here, we are aware even pleased for the inevitable mistakes both in form and content that will riddle this work, I only wish I could rely on the mutual excitement at this prospect.
For the purpose of history and relevance I will start at the beginning, day one at university, Jonathan, fresh faced and eager to dive head first into the world of drama, was about to be delivered an ego deflation. Half way into the first lecture, after the preliminaries and usual introductory customs had been performed, the class was asked a question. ‘If you were to write your dissertation now what would it be on?’ To Jonathan’s amazement the class then proceeded to franticly scribble down their proposed ideas, at the time I could only hope – to alleviate Jonathan’s sense of ignorance – that they did so blindly. To my further astonishment it seemed that people actually had some kind of answers. Jonathan wrote nothing, and I had no part to play in this exercise. The exercise seemed absurd, and I only realise now how destructive this posed question was, on the first day, the first encounter, at the very beginning Jonathan had been alerted to the end, the apparent reason why he is here, his death as a student.
Now I am at this end I am not so sure that I am any wiser to what I should be doing or why I am doing it at all. Perhaps this first task was a suitable warning for what was to come, an unconscious insight into the exchange of learning and teaching that governs our work. As students studying drama within an academic context we are faced with a fundamental problem that is placed in theatre in an attempt to give it some form of value. We are forced to work towards a gradable piece of work; we are set tasks that intend to prove our work and aid its validation. I have come to understand the grounds on which my work and other students work is subjected to this kind of response, our desire to complicate, explain and prove art is something that is deeply rooted in our culture. However, this is no reason to accept it. And so I feel I have to make it clear for myself that a grade simply is not a worthy response to any kind of artistic work, regardless of its nature.
Is it really the essence of art and theatre that is being offered or more a false hope, an invitation to look onto the realm of art through frosted glass? As students of art, in any form, should we accept this system where art is explored within such rigid constraints, where we are led and motivated by grades and not by any artistic endeavour? Over time this early reminder has held more resonance and continues to prove itself as a precise moment of relevance throughout my experience as a student of drama. So, as a student who is here not for a degree but one who craves a deeper understanding and most importantly an active and challenging process, I ask, where does that leave me? What do I gain? If I do not want the degree what do I get instead? There have been some crumbs of comfort in this course; in my disappointment I have found resistance, a burning desire to go against the system that controls my learning. I realise now the necessity of my actions in defying the rules that have been laid down. It is for my survival in theatre and as a student. It is in these moments of rebellion that I have been able to reconnect with my joy and my passion. And it has taught me that theatre and art go far beyond the walls of this university. Theatre is bigger than you, it is better than you, it is a subject that is not so easily tamed within scholarship and you would do well to respect that. And so I try to do so by swinging my hardest punch, by challenging it. It is not a desire to achieve, to master or to be a success that drives me towards this battle but my joy and my passion.
Po and difference
Education usually works on the matching system. That is to say if the pupil’s output matches what is expected it is marked right: if it does not match it is marked wrong. There is no way of distinguishing what is wrong in itself from what is merely different.
This system is based on a simple yes/no operative, everything is judged on what is proven to be right and what is wrong, and this is based largely on the following: experience, workmanship – or rather some vague and foggy notions thereof – and, most importantly, on whether the student has stuck to the given criteria and hit all the key aspects of what is asked. This system works in the realm of producing marks, which in turn produces degrees, so its success is purely based on results. And that result to me seems nothing more than a number, an agreement on what is good or bad, right or wrong. So what happens to the process? Is it forgotten? This is my problem with this system being put in place in an environment like university. In many areas of life a yes/no system is needed, it is needed to form clarity of facts and allows us to understand each other clearly in communication. So although there is a need for this system in areas of theatre, when working or creating I feel we should be encouraged to challenge the yes/no structure.
I tried to be clever in everything I did. The damage was greatest in areas where my interest and the school’s seemed to coincide: In writing, for example (I wrote and rewrote and lost all my fluency). I forgot that inspiration isn’t intellectual, that you don’t have to be perfect. In the end I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and brought into line.
My main concern with this system of marking is that it creates a destructive working environment. When a piece of work is graded it is inevitable that the work is treated as finished, and with the mark it is deemed either good, bad or perhaps somewhere in between. The reality of these marks is that we are given very little in the way of a real calculated response; it is difficult for a student to understand the mark as a response to their work. A grade deals very plainly with the quality of a piece of work judged by very simple and generalised criteria. And so it is of course natural for the student to simply accept the mark, as any further exploration into the subject has been terminated. This is a fundamental problem with such a system; it finalises the student’s work and puts a full stop on the end. – When what should be offered is a response that opens the work up for further exploration. Instead we are lured into complacency, and any further conflict on the subject is discouraged.
In my experiences the primary subject of discussion for students on their work is the grades. Students will openly admit their reluctance to investigate certain avenues for the fear that it will jeopardise their mark. What is most disturbing about this is that the students do not even express a flicker of doubt in this indirect controlling of ideas. People have died; students have died for the freedom of thought, a freedom that students should be encouraged to liberate. And this lack of awareness deserves more concern from the lecturers than whether or not the students are hitting targets. Our desire to learn is undermined and instead we are given a quick fix, a response that we end up trying to understand or even follow, to improve ourselves in the eyes of the institution. This may be the wish of some students, they may have no interest in the attitude I preach, but what happens regardless, is the students work is heavily affected by this marking system. It compromises the creative process, and has a huge effect on our attitude to that process. We are constantly involved in work that is assessed and judged in a way that tries to define it, and in this action I feel we are being disconnecting with the nature of art and the beauty in its ability to resist such forms.
You turn your work into a product that can be consumed without difficulty. It’s easily recognizable because it remains the same. Eventually, though, you lose your curiosity and your ability to take risks and challenge yourself, which seems to me like a kind of death.
The crux of this statement is its acknowledgement of the importance of curiosity and risk in art. Again this is something that the marking system devastates; the gift of risk taking is that it enables a kind of growth in art that is otherwise unachievable in study. However being a risk, there is the possibility of a dead end, and this seems a risk too great for an academic institution. And this concern of failure has filtered from the very top down to the students and it is stunting our growth and slowly killing our curiosity. And so again we arrive at a fundamental problem with such a marking system in drama. It does not ring true to the subject. In theatre we need to make mistakes, we need to fail and fall face down. In university we should be provided with the luxury and room to make mistakes, encouraged to take risks that may seem to go nowhere, because this is where we really learn. A performance, or any creative work built only on success and placation is inevitably weak and lacks a depth that can only be achieved through a painful and extreme process of inclination and disinclination.
Where a writer sets out a blueprint for his characters, and keeps them rigidly to it, where they do not at any time upset the applecart, where he has mastered them, he has also killed them, or rather terminated their birth, and he has a dead play on his hands.
A curiosity of life and people is a vital element of theatre’s existence; it provides an avenue of investigation that opens out into the growth and discovery of new forms and ideas. Regardless of the work’s outcome, it is this exhilarating process of learning that needs to be implicit in university and not stifled through the pressures of achievement. Otherwise it seems that the work produced only achieves within the context of university, and doesn’t hold its own as a piece of art, and as Monk states this seems like a kind of death. So I feel I have to treat and consider my work outside of the guidelines of my course, to take a risk in an effort to create something that transcends the constraints of a system of marking, and instead attempts to take a real position and stay true to the fundamentals of art and learning, to risk getting it all horribly wrong.
I have grown older, to be sure, and a hundred times more exacting, but by no means colder toward the question propounded in that heady work. And the question is still what it was then, how to view scholarship from the vantage of the artist and art from the vantage of life.
It gives me a great pleasure to include The Five Obstructions (2003) 1 as it is a fine example of the kind of relationship I speak of and crave. My main intention for including this film is to open up the importance of relationships in art and in theatre. I include this film also to exemplify that I do not oppose structure but seek a more laboured approach to structure, much like the one we see here. The premise for the film is that Jørgen Leth, a Danish filmmaker, is instructed to remake his film The Perfect Human (1967) under the direction of fellow Danish director Lars von Trier.
LARS VON TRIER The idea is that we watch The Perfect Human. Then you and I will formulate a few obstructions. We’ll make the same film, The Perfect Human, five times.
They watch the film together.
LARS VON TRIER A little gem that we are now going to ruin.
JØRGEN LETH A good perversion to cultivate.
The key to this process is Lars von Trier’s approach to arriving at the ideas behind the obstructions. They are formulated from ideas that aim to confront Jørgen Leth’s working methods, to throw him off balance. Von Trier allows his own influence to grow and adapt to the work at hand, he pounces on an idea almost as soon as it reveals itself. The obstructions become adaptable and relative to the situations that this process reveals. After they watch the film together, with no real intention Jørgen Leth speaks briefly about South America and Cuba. Immediately von Trier decides on an obstruction:
LARS VON TRIER So the film must be shot in Cuba. Obviously.
JØRGEN LETH I’d prefer to build a room there. Or we could use a screen.
LARS VON TRIER What a pity … In that case you can’t do that.
JØRGEN LETH Really? I’d better not tell you what I am going to do, then.
When Jørgen Leth exposes a desire to work in a certain way von Trier instinctively seizes the opportunity to interrogate an area of discomfort for Leth, in an effort to find something human in what he does, to get to the heart of his interests. As Leth states, he feels he must watch what he says to avoid this. However, and again this is an important element of the relationship, von Trier explains his intentions for these obstructions, and his reasons for pushing Leth in this way.
LARS VON TRIER I want us to figure out how to make a film that leaves a mark on you. You may prefer to regard it like working with an actor.
JØRGEN LETH Where you push me to extremes.
LARS VON TRIER The greatest gift an actor can give you is to screw up. I want the same kind of gift as I get from an actor when he does a scene in a way he hates but which is great for me because it came as if through the machine that the actor is in that situation, and in which he has done the good stuff, too.
This is why I find this film so important; it displays a certain rapport where the demands from art are clear for both artists and so when their ideas confront one another, we see an area of conflict that is vital for the progression of the work. This area of conflict fertilises a good working relationship, a third area of consideration where the two conflicting ideas meet. This clash of ideas, if considered and embraced by both parties, can be the most important and productive element of a healthy working relationship. With this level of respect and consideration ideas are not stamped out or ignored but they are confronted – and often compromised. However, this is an acceptable compromise, as there has been acknowledgement of the conflicting ideas.
This could be considered an ideal example of the relationship between student and teacher. If the student and lecturer provide the two primary elements of conflict then the evaluation process can be used as this third area of consideration. It could be an opportunity for the student’s and lecturer’s ideas to meet and confront one another. The result is a highly productive and beneficial process for both parties, a reward that is clear to see in the film. However, this can only work with a clear and well thought out structure. Something that is stated from the outset and is reiterated throughout this film is the intention for applying this method of obstruction. With a clear idea of what someone’s intentions are you can gain a much better understanding of the tasks they set and a better acceptance of those tasks.
LARS VON TRIER I’m going to make a very, very, very simple rule for the next film. I can’t imagine it’ll be anything but crap. […] And let’s say it’ll be alright if it is crap. I’d be thrilled if it was crap. But there is one single condition. It’s got to be a cartoon.
JØRGEN LETH Yes.
LARS VON TRIER The great advantage of doing it as a cartoon is that you’ll be faced with loads of decisions. The aesthetics and all that. It can only turn out to be crap.
JØRGEN LETH I hate cartoons.
LARS VON TRIER I hate cartoons, too.
Later. Jørgen Leth in the backseat of a car.
JØRGEN LETH on his mobile phone I’ve got to make a cartoon. – Yes. – Yes. – Yes, it’s way out of line. – Yes, just out of his head came this idea of a cartoon. I said, “I hate cartoons. I’ve never seen one I liked.” And he said he felt exactly the same way; he doesn’t like cartoons at all. So, you know … I could see the logic of it, damn it.
You can find logic to a painful task when you feel that your efforts and your interests are considered and the task is constructed with this in mind. By contrast, this is at the heart of my frustration with the work I have to perform at university: the intentions for the obstructions I face are unclear. I am told I cannot do certain things. But the reasons seem weightless, almost excuses, to avoid the work becoming something that may not be controllable, especially if I consider how Lars von Trier handles the obstructions in relation to how the university handles criteria.
The difference for the student is much like the difference between falling over and finding a five pound note and falling over and landing in a pile of dog shit. The fall is painful on both occasions, but how you feel about the result is entirely different. I am not suggesting that every student should be able to use their own ideas of form and ignore the guidelines of the university, but the fact that students may want to do so, should be addressed. If the university’s intentions were clear then we could make a much better judgement on whether we were in the right place or not. Instead, I have been left to make my own conclusions on this subject. And regrettably this prompts me to question whether my best interests are at the heart of the university. As a result of this I have simply ignored much of the forms that the course has demanded of me and in doing so I have undoubtedly missed certain points and ignored areas of academic study, that the university seems to value so much. But it is my lack of understanding on why criteria and evaluation govern what we are studying at university that drives me to resist them. Essentially I want to learn and I do not feel I can do so successfully if I simply follow instructions, at least not in theatre.
What can be seen in this film is how conflict in a relationship can be extremely dynamic, both Leth and von Trier deal very practically with the matter at hand, and with the conflict that reveals itself. There is a great deal of respect between them in their insistence to challenge one another’s ideas. Like sportsmen: a trainer respects them by challenging and pushing them, not letting them win.
LARS VON TRIER I’m sorry, Jørgen, but I am going to have to speak harshly. Regrettably. It was not the film I asked for.
JØRGEN LETH I’ll be damned! Let’s hear why not.
LARS VON TRIER One of the rules I asked for was that we shouldn’t see those people.
JØRGEN LETH Yes, but I interpreted that loosely.
LARS VON TRIER I have to say I disapprove.
JØRGEN LETH I thought it was a highly successful balancing act.
LARS VON TRIER It was a marvellous film. I love it. But I don’t think it followed the rules.
JØRGEN LETH Obviously this is a sophistic game. I put up a screen and screened off this bit of real life …
LARS VON TRIER I do understand. And this film is most likely much better than the other would be. But I asked for the other one.
JØRGEN LETH One always tries to make a better film.
LARS VON TRIER That’s what you mustn’t do. You always try to be too good. This is therapy, not a film competition with yourself.
If a student expresses a desire to try something different with the set work, then the lecturers need to consider this desire, and if still there are reasons why it cannot be so, then these reasons need to be communicated to the student. This way, even if the alternative is painful and difficult, there is an understanding to what the intention for the obstruction is. I am unclear on the intention of the criteria set in this drama course; they seem to be treated as a tool to control the work that is produced, without the inclusion of an explanation for this control. And so it seems inevitable to me that the student will interpret the criteria as yet another academic formality. If there is an inclusion of criteria in this subject then it needs to make clear distinctions in what its purpose is. As a student you have to rely on the criteria, they provide you with a structure, and if the ideas of structure are in any way hazy so will be the student’s response. If a student is not informed to the reasons behind the criteria they will inevitably be ignored.
At first, a criterion is a crutch for the student, but if rationalised then its purpose is to help you walk, to strengthen. If the purpose of the crutch is unclear and we are still forced to use it, then the leg becomes weak. The criterion seems to become an outline or a manual on how to be successful, a way to keep us on the straight and narrow. This is acceptable on a certain level, but without a third area of consideration in the relationship between student and teacher that reaches beyond success and failure, without an understanding of one another’s intentions, the idea of success on this level seems worthless and void of any real learning process. A freer and more adaptable criterion would allow a certain amount of exposure that would enable students to take risks and become more active in their attempts to really interrogate theatre. There is a natural compulsion to find ways in which we can understand and learn, and it is important that as students we are given the room to do this.
JØRGEN LETH I think we’ll make something interesting. Lars von Trier may well be very disappointed. Although we can’t control it en- tirely and cartoons are boring, we can’t help becoming involved instinctively and looking for a solution that nevertheless satisfies us.
Unfortunately conflict within university is often treated as a hindrance; it is treated as an obstruction that prevents the student’s work being brought to an end and being completed. But the obstructions – if rationalised – are what can give the work an otherwise unobtainable di- mension. And this is also something that this academic system destroys: creative conflict. Drama by its very nature and definition is conflict, and to shy away from it is to shy away from theatre. When an actor walks on stage he confronts conflict, this is inescapable. And so to divert a student of drama away from conflict is to install a weakness in him. The teacher primarily needs to create situations that enable the growth and learning of the student. A relationship that consists of instruction and service is not satisfactory in my opinion. Although in theatre this kind of approach is quite often a success in the sense that it produces work that a lot of people want to see, your job becomes the mere deliverer of this work. Examples for this can be found in some of the most commercially successful and lucrative productions in the world, but I am strong in my belief that the theatre is not a service industry.
Although this opinion might be personal it nevertheless has an important part to play in my approach to work and I believe that my interests in theatre need to be taken into consideration in conjunction with the work I produce. This would allow for a more precise evaluation of my work. Given the frequent neglect of what I would say is at the heart of my discovery or my work ethics, one must ask what the intentions of the university are, because it would seem that its representatives are sticking their fingers in their ears. It is inevitable that in a relationship of this nature the teacher has to play the villain. And this can only be worked through if the teacher accepts this reality and doesn’t try to avoid it. This displays a greater understanding and respect for the student than if they were to placate them. This is a drama degree and we are encouraged and instructed to partake in practical and active creative work. So we have to learn how to confront conflict in drama, conflict is in fact the most important tool we have as students, as actors or as artists. The marking system simply doesn’t lend itself to conflict. Marking or evaluating in this way is an awkward task and a miserable one for a teacher to have to carry out. It ignores what is important, theatre, and instead deals with the undesirable area of quality.
If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits. I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this by opening to his pupils precisely the attractions the study has for himself. The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor.
JAQUES A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
[…] O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.
Unlike other performance artists of the time, Burden disconcerted the institutional sponsors of his work as well as his viewers. Instead of making his patrons, be they gallery, museum or alternative space, comfortable with a prearranged plan, he left them wondering what he might do. Rather than use the uci gallery for his M.A. exhibition, Burden elected to spend the allotted five-day exhibition period in a locker, implicitly questioning the validity of his university art education and the degree that was about to be conferred on him.
Jonathan’s efforts to provoke conflict within this course are not really taken seriously and are often met with dismissal. He is treated like the fool; the actions he takes have no consequence and no bearing on his work. It is a narrow approach to view Jonathan as stubborn, perhaps this treatment is calculated, a way to dampen his spirit of resistance and his passion for theatre. There is some truth in Jonathan’s stubbornness, a task is set and he has simply not completed it in the way in which he has been instructed. However, although treating Jonathan in this way is a decent enough attempt to put an end to this defiance, such a thin response only acts as fuel to Jonathan’s frustration. If the aim of the lecturers is to move Jonathan away from work that takes on a form of its own and ignores the criteria, dismissal of his efforts to do so seems a foolish way to go about it. After all I am still here, and I am yet to be faced with a good enough reason to surrender.
Feedback is an opportunity to be seized by both lecturer and student; the evaluation should be confronted and put under the same scrutiny as the work itself. A piece of work has to be seen as a response to the task and not simply as an attempt to complete it. In my second year at university I was given the task of writing an essay on Dada, the question was how a contemporary audience can understand the subject when the nature of the subject is to resist understanding. After this was completed we were then given the option to extend our essay a further two thousand words or to create a performance. I extended my essay however this was not my main body of work; I also organised a daylong exhibition dealing with the nature of chance and explanation. The extended essay was presented as part of the exhibition, in an attempt to highlight the hypocrisy of the question itself, and placing the subject in a situation where it will be graded. Evaluation has a habit of defining something and so, given the subject, it seemed necessary to confront this act. The marking tutors came to the exhibition and marked my work thus.
M20th Extended Essay Feedback 3
There was much here that was admirable, provocative and thoughtful. You had clearly considered many of the dimensions of Dadaism and responded in a way that was visually appealing and intriguing. The exhibition was varied with an interesting use of mixed media and a mixture of rationalised and non-rationalised elements. You also attempted to integrate your previous essay with this extended version. There are a few areas here where your notions didn’t seem to chime with those of Dadaism: the social and political context (a form of resistance and iconoclasm) was implicit but not explicit.
A key distinction needs to be made between the exhibition and the printed essay which you submitted. While your work on the exhibition might well be counted as background research (or even action research) the assessment must consider the quality of the printed submission. The essay itself was undermined by a failure to include a bibliography to which you had been alerted in the previous essay. There was also a lack of sufficient secondary referencing. As you know, the stipulations for the essay are not solely based on a demonstration of an understanding of the principles of your topic, you also need to frame them in an academic critique. It is not enough simply to demonstrate Dada or an understanding of Dada – you need to contextualise it in an analytical way.
The indifferent attitude in this feedback is most evident in its failure to include a single question about the work. This suggests an air of omnipotence on the lecturers’ behalf. – Perhaps I am wrong in doubting their ability; however, I would be less inclined to question their judgement if the evaluation technique displayed a genuine curiosity in the student’s work. Evaluation criteria can only be efficient if they are revised constantly by those who set them, and especially so when they are applied to a moving target like art or theatre.
Alas, it would seem that the interests of art are not the interests of this university. The use of words like provocative and thoughtful seem like distractions. If the work had provoked, I would hope the response would be more sophisticated than this. It is hard to respond to this feedback, it is my efforts in the exhibition and not the essay that are undermined by the nature of the criterion. Any process of sharing and conflicting ideas has been ended and a considerable amount of my work has been dismissed. The exhibition and the work that went into it is simply not acknowledged as valid work, as the feedback states, the criteria mean that the lecturers have to only consider what they have set, the printed essay. Feedback is a chance for review; the lecturers too have to consider their methods as I have done, and not just to fit my expectations but to challenge them, and most importantly create a relationship that encourages the student to learn. At best my efforts are seen as a valiant attempt at trying something new. So it is apparent that this system even distorts the student’s intentions with their work, I have essentially been accused of deviating from the subject. I am treated like a child, whose interests are in gaining the praise of their peers. So my work on the exhibition was dismissed as it cannot aid my mark. Again, it is what is at the heart of my actions that needs to be considered, perhaps even above the content of the work. The content, although important, was more of a front to a deeper and more provocative idea that was missed. And this was missed because the criteria forced the lecturers to overlook the deeper elements of my work, the actual action taken against the idea of this system of evaluation. I must contemplate how often this neglect occurs. It is not praise that I seek in place of this dismissal; I am in no way trying to prove my work as valuable or good.
Since the inception of the first British university drama department in the 1940s, a still-unresolved debate has gone on over the nature and purpose of practical drama/theatre work within a university drama department. Indeed, in the early years, the debate focused on the question of the validity of such an activity in the scheme of a university faculty of arts. It is all too easy to say that this debate is well behind us. There are many academics (of many ideological persuasions) who see, at worst, the engagement with practical theatre-making as contrary to the essential verities of scholarship in the humanities: at best an enjoyable addition to the curriculum, but a great consumer of time, when the student should be engaged in the more serious matter of readily quantifiable scholarship.
Given the difficulty of justifying and evaluating theatre, it seems that the lecturers have sided with the social aspect of university. The decisions that are made for the welfare of the student seem to correspond to those made for the institution. To me this is a betrayal of the lecturer’s artistic position. What are their intentions for this course and for the students?
The debate of what is valuable in art is something that will always plague those who are involved. However, if there is any kind of answer, it does not offer anything of substance to the artist. Value is the business of others and if we allow these issues to affect our work then we begin to lose sight of theatre, our judgement and our decisions become clouded by the unobtainable. It becomes more and more difficult to accept the lecturer’s feedback under these circumstances, I begin to question what the reasons for dissecting my work are. It is of course done under the facade that it is to improve the work, but if I consider the idea of scholarship I feel a jarring contradiction in the ideals of theatre. I believe that what you study should influence how you study, and again the feedback only proves the rigidity of the criteria and its lack of ability to allow the student’s work to really respond and deal with the subject at hand. And so the same rule should apply, what you teach should influence how you teach and the same for how you evaluate. Evaluation is a chance to provide the next step for the student, not closure on the subject. And so I have had to set my own traps, in an effort to provoke some real response. I have tried to attack the core of what is really going on at this university. These attempts have often been haphazard, even lazy, but it is hard to maintain spirit when faced with such indifference. But I do not lick my seeping wounds alone, and it is always a joy to recognise the twisted dramas of life, even if it causes great suffering. In the The Seagull by Anton Chekhov we see a similar tragedy to that of the university. The subject of which is Kostya, son of Arkadina and a young playwright obsessed with new forms. In the first act Kostya shows his play to the bored provincial society. The performance is a complete disaster – but! I think only if you take Kostya’s text seriously, because the real disaster is not his writing but the society and situation they live in. 4
KOSTYA flaring up, loudly Right, the play’s over! That’s enough! Drop the curtain!
ARKADINA What are you so angry about?
KOSTYA That’s enough! Curtain! Drop the curtain! Stamping his foot. Curtain!
The curtain is lowered.
I’m sorry! It quite slipped my mind that only a select few are allowed to write plays and perform on stage. I’ve broken their monopoly! I … I … He is about to say something, waves his hand dismissively and exits left.
ARKADINA What’s the matter with him?
SORIN Irina my dear, that’s not how to deal with a young man’s amour propre.
ARKADINA What did I do?
SORIN You hurt his feelings.
ARKADINA He told us himself it was a joke, so I treated his play as a joke.
SORIN All the same …
ARKADINA And now it turns out he’s written a great work of art! Well, honestly! So, he’s put on this performance and practically choked us all with sulphur, not for fun, but as some sort of protest. He wants to teach us how to write, and how to act. Well, this is becoming a bore. These constant sideswipes at me, these pinpricks of his, say what you like, they’d get on anyone’s nerves. He’s a headstrong, arrogant boy.
SORIN He only wanted to please you.
ARKADINA Really? Then why didn’t he choose some normal play, instead of forcing us to sit through this Symbolist rubbish? I don’t mind listening to rubbish for a laugh, but this claims to present new forms, a new era in art. Frankly, I don’t think there are any new forms on display here, only bad temper.
Enter Jonathan, graduation candidate.
JONATHAN University is a spectacular drama in its own right, complete with its heroes its villains and of course its tragedy. A loss of the self, a time to begin that painful disconnection with your youth. But you did not allow a graceful farewell, instead you grabbed my youth. You expected me to march to the thudding beat of what you would have me do. So many have become victims to this cycle of consultation under the hope of gaining some credit, some acceptance, some kind of acknowledgement. You pulled and pulled at my youth with gnawing fangs and now it’s fighting back.
There is a great deal of discipline involved with this attitude, it is not easy to put one’s self through such exposure, and the temptation to conform seems an easy route out. It is not that I see it as a weakness, but more that I have to be clear to myself about what I am doing this all for, as it seems these reasons are of no interest to anyone else. I have to ask, how do I approach this task in a way that I can get the best from it? And in turn I feel the lecturers should be doing the same, by understanding the work as a response – and not as a completed piece of work, primed for grading – they can in turn respond to in a way that gives the student more than just a yes/no response. Value in theatre is impossible to define, but something that we are obsessed with seeking. This is acceptable, but there is a major problem when the importance of value and the delivery of that value become more important than the work itself. This is when the nature of art is contradicted. A relationship that consists of this pressure to achieve under any guidelines is one that ends up in an early grave.
The programme is developmental, promoting independent learning as the student progresses.
RADA was a continuation in some ways, of the old school experience. It was very prescriptive, very old fashioned, set in its ways and mostly uncreative. But it was terrifically good news for me that I had that experience. On one level it kicked me off into the world of professional practice, but on another it left me questioning procedure on a daily basis. It wasn’t till I took a foundation year at Camberwell Art School a little later that it dawned on me what the creative process is all about.
At the heart of this writing is this question: Maybe you’re in the wrong place? It was something that a lecturer said to me during a discussion regarding my reasons for doing this course, and my reasons for wanting to work outside the given criteria. My initial reaction was of a bleak reality: yes, I am in the wrong place. I don’t believe that the statement was made with any severe intention to provoke thought; but given the nature and context in which it was posed I could take little else from it. However, when revised and confronted it reveals itself as a key to dramatic inquiry. Yes, maybe I am in the wrong place! To question purpose or position is something that is unavoidable in drama, and as an actor on stage these questions are crucial to your survival.
If I am to take a closer look at the question itself there is much to consider in the nature of its approach. It is indirect and so therefore resists a direct answer, maybe I am, maybe I’m not; I would have appreciated something more direct, even an instruction: You are in the wrong place! But to make such a statement the lecturers need to be clear on what this place is before they decide on whether it is right for me or not. Although hard to digest it would give me a clear understanding of the situation. However, the telling part of the question is the word ‘maybe’, it shows a lack of commitment on the lecturer’s behalf, they were not willing to say to me either way, so I cannot respond to the question on any constructive level. Instead my role at university is brought into question as a mere throwaway comment – ‘maybe you’re in the wrong place?’ – left for me to consider. And so I did consider and I will decide on the answer, I will decide on whether this university is the right place for me.
Like an actor my relentless questioning of my position at this university has allowed some of my most important discoveries. I realise that the question is a dilemma of theatre itself. The reality is that as humans we don’t need theatre; no one would fall down dead if theatre ceased to exist. So this dilemma of self-importance and self-doubt is not exclusive to the individual but one of theatre. Theatre has to face this reality and many people respond by trying to justify theatre, to prove its worth. These attempts can only be received as self-righteous. This is the beauty and the horror of theatre, it just is. And this is a reality I have to face; no one needs drama students, or actors or artists. So the only real remedy for such doubt or inquisition is to confront the question head-on in my work, and while doing so to ask it of those who posed it. Maybe you are in the wrong place? Maybe you should justify your position. I try to adopt an attitude that looks for a way in which I can be accepted on my terms. I must not simply concede that this is not the right place but ask how I can make this university the right place for me. This kind of questioning ignites the basic problem of: why work in theatre? I can offer no answer that satisfies anyone but me, because when I’m working, the work or theatre is more important than myself. And it is this that I have to consider, so when working I do not try and solve my situations or my heartaches – if this happens on some level then perhaps this is a bonus; but ultimately theatre does not offer a solution, or provide any kind of truth.
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Truth in drama is forever illusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
As a society we harbour a strong desire to find the truth, and the truth of art, and Pinter acknowledges this desire as a citizen, however when dealing with drama there needs to be an understanding of the nature of truth. Each play defines its own truth, and so it is not something we can be in possession of in theatre. And for that matter the search for truth in theatre should not be encouraged, or falsely delivered in university. However as a citizen of this university, I seek a certain truth and I am of course less understanding of its illusiveness. This separation of my demands as a citizen is important to my survival in theatre. With the system in place at university the marks we receive for our work predictably become the most important thing for the student, an indication of their success or their failure.
Night. In a narrow high-arched Gothic room, Faust sitting uneasy at his desk. 5
Young Jonathan hides in a corner.
YOUNG JONATHAN whispering Beware of false profits. The marks are the devil; they offer us a false hope, a false truth. I may have sold my soul, but it was not to the devil.
FAUST Have now, alas! quite studied through
Philosophy and Medicine,
And Law, and ah! Theology, too,
With hot desire the truth to win!
And here, at last, I stand, poor fool!
As wise as when I entered school;
Am called Magister, Doctor, indeed, –
Ten livelong years cease not to lead
Backward and forward, to and fro,
My scholars by the nose – and lo!
Just nothing, I see, is the sum of our learning,
To the very core of my heart ’tis burning.
Considering the reality of truth in art, I feel it is important that the university makes it clear for the students that the marks are not definitive of their work; they are more a necessary formal response to the work, this would allow the students to respond in a way that looked beyond the mark and consider more important aspects than quality or ability. Unfortunately I am not sure if this is what the lecturers or perhaps the institution would want to encourage, they seem to favour a style that deals with the preservation of knowledge.
The universities used to be the centres of thinking, but they are now dropping out of the scene. To many people they have become irrelevant centres of mental masturbation. The old-style intellectual habits have no relevance to the modern world. For instance scholarship has become little more than the triumph of form over content. You take some tiny part of the field of knowledge and examine it with immense detail and concentration. In the end it is your workmanship which is praised and not the importance of the subject. […] Academic irrelevance is often a reality. It is no fault of the people involved but a direct result of the thinking system we have outgrown. The academic idiom was established to look backwards and preserve the past, not to look forwards and create the future.
YOUNG JONATHAN It was the university’s choice
to provide a drama degree
and I feel that there has been
no explanation as to why or for what
reasons they have chosen to do so.
Theatre is ignored in this university, it’s like
they invited it in
and now they are pretending it’s not there. So, yes
I am in the wrong place,
I came to university for theatre
and I have had to go to the darkest places
to route it out
and for this action
I am now being ignored too.
I feel as if
I am being punished
it was naïve of me to expect otherwise.
I have been accused in the past
of performing tricks
to evade the set work.
I have gained a reputation
at this university
as a rebel,
an anarchist even,
but you use these titles
as romantic notions,
as ways to pin me down
and look down at me.
We are both aware
of the positive effects
these labels have had on me,
but it is time
to shake free from your yoke,
as I realise I am the only one
is not about being cool
or not caring,
or trying to prove my intelligence.
You gave me this reputation and
it has only furthered my decline.
You have tried to define me,
I will define you.
This university is a sham,
You build and build with flash design. But
you are hollow on the inside.
When I speak of theatre,
I only get an echo of my own voice
Your towers of achievement have blocked out the sun,
and no one can see where to go.
I am in the dark and all alone.
You thought you could fool me
into thinking I was the fool,
I was the one who was living in fantasy
but I can see through you,
I can smell the fear
and I bare the scars of your scorn.
You offer theatre
for the sake of scholarship,
under the pretence
that you are providing opportunity
you can keep your drama credentials.
You offered theatre out
like some kind of vending machine,
but I did not just walk away
after you swallowed up my money,
I’m the guy kicking and shaking the machine,
I’ve been cheated, I shouted.
And so I kicked and I shook
until everything in that machine
came falling out.
So it looks like
it turned out just fine for me,
I don’t need to kick this machine anymore,
it has dried up now
and there’s nothing left for me
I realise now
what you have to do sometimes
to get what you want,
perhaps even thanks is in order,
but then again no point
in thanking a machine.
Ayres, Anne/Schimmel, Paul (1988) Chris Burden. A Twenty-Year Survey. Newport: Newport Harbour Art Museum. 5↩
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich (2005) 4 Plays. The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard. Translated by Stephen Mulrine. London: Nick Hern Books. 5↩
Craig, W. J., editor (1952) The Comedies of Shakespeare. London: Oxford University Press. 5↩
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1870) The Celebration of Intellect. Available from: http://www.rwe.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=100&Itemid=127 – accessed 3 April 2008. 4↩
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1868) Faust, A Tragedy (part one). Translated from the German of Goethe with notes by Charles T. Brooks. 7th edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. 6↩
Johnstone, Keith (1992) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Methuen. 3↩
Leigh, Mike; Raphael, Amy, editor (2008) Mike Leigh On Mike Leigh. London: Faber and Faber. 6↩
Leth, Jørgen (1967) Det perfekte menneske. The Perfect Human. Denmark: Laterna Film. 4↩
Leth, Jørgen/Trier, Lars von (2003) De fem benspænd. The Five Obstructions. Denmark: Zentropa Real ApS and Koch-Lorber Films. 4↩
McCullough, Christopher et al.; McCullough, Christopher, editor (1998) Theatre Praxis: Teaching Drama Through Practice. New Directions in Theatre. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 5↩
Montano, Linda M. (2000) Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties. Sex, food, money/fame, ritual/death. London: University of California Press. 3↩
Myerson, Joel (2008) “success”. Available from: http://www.cas.sc.edu/engl/emerson/Ephemera/Success.html – accessed 3 April 2008. 4↩
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1956) The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Francis Golffing. New York: Doubleday. 3↩
Pinter, Harold (1997) Plays 3. The Homecoming; Tea Party; The Basement; Landscape; Silence; That’s Your Trouble; That’s All; The Applicant; Interview; Dialogue for Three; Night. London: Faber and Faber. 3↩
Pinter, Harold (2005) Art, Truth & Politics. Nobel Lecture. Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation. Available from: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html – accessed 22 October 2007. 6↩
The University of Winchester (2008) BA (Hons) Drama Studies at Winchester University. Available from: http://www.winchester.ac.uk/studyhere/Pages/BA (Hons) Drama.aspx – accessed 1 April 2008. 6↩
2. As other dictums attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, this quote has almost got a life of its own due to wide distribution over the Internet. In this case because it is included in many fortune program databases (Wikipedia, 2008). Unlike other aphorisms (see Myerson, 2008) it has not been marked as misattribution, and while only the beginning can be found in his works (see Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1870) verbatim, chances are that it is taken from his Journals. ↩
3. Feedback sent via email on 2 March 2007 12:02 ↩