Teaching to yearn

By Steph Kehoe

In 2018, the theatre department at the Victorian College of the Arts will launch a new BFA Theatre - a course designed for ‘actor-creators’ – those theatre artists who want to devise and perform in their own work. As we developed the course this year, I found myself thinking often of a quote from Saint-Exupery’s Wisdom of the Sands:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” (i) 

In light of the vast and endless possibilities of the theatre that our students are yet to create, our job as educators is of course on one level to teach skills and share knowledge but we also have a responsibility to teach young artists to ‘yearn’

Sometimes it seems however that there is a tension between this exciting, if difficult, responsibility, and the heavier, albeit perhaps easier, duty of preparing students for ‘the Industry’. This Industry sits as if an immovable beast – a blubbery Jabba The Hutt of the Arts precinct - who must be served up freshly trained blood every three years to feed an insatiable appetite for the status quo.

There are many communities that await our students. . . . Whereas ‘Industry’ implies tightly locked doors into buildings with limited space and finite places, Community is inclusive and infinitely expandable.

We can, however tame the beast if we rename the goal of an arts education as readiness for Community rather than readiness for Industry. There are many communities that await our students - the community of theatre makers in Melbourne and in Australia, the broader arts community here and abroad, local communities, cultural communities, national and international communities and so on ad infinitum, vast and endless. Whereas ‘Industry’ implies tightly locked doors into buildings with limited space and finite places, Community is inclusive and infinitely expandable.

To prepare our students to contribute to their Communities, however macro or micro, we need to teach attitudes and aptitudes rather than just marketable skills. Our students will need the ability to see both broadly and deeply, to listen closely and to speak clearly. Their education needs to foster and encourage curiosity, passion, humility, and empathy. Discovery, rather than acquisition, is the primary aim of their learning.

Just as Phillip Glass explains that he writes music that he is at the limit of hearing, the BFA Theatre will encourage our students to make work that they are at the limit of imagining.(ii) This is not about insisting on the ‘innovation’ so beloved of grant application speak. Rigour, method and craft are not antithetical to yearning and discovery. Indeed revolution, as Eugenio Barba reminds us, takes lucidity and great know how.(iii)  Phillip Glass might also remind us, if he weren’t busy practising scales, that he played thousands of hours of Bach before he was able to ‘hear’ his sublime motifs. So rather than a throwing out of craft, the Theatre course will inspire in our students a love of how our artform works, its scales, its harmonies and rhythms, how space and time work in theatre, how the body can move and be moved, how the voice can make sound, carry emotion, transmit thought and indeed then create new thoughts, new imaginings and new yearnings.

So rather than a throwing out of craft, the Theatre course will inspire in our students a love of how our artform works, its scales, its harmonies and rhythms . . and indeed then create new thoughts, new imaginings and new yearnings.

The work of translating all of this into a curriculum model, fitting it into a timetable, making ‘readiness for community’ and ‘discovery’ teachable awaits us now. But just as in theatre making, so too in teaching, it is important just to play around and dream from time to time. We will get back to you next year to discuss how we assessed ‘yearning’!

One of my first acting teachers reminded me recently that the etymology of theatre is ‘the place where we have visions – the seeing place’. I hope that the BFA Theatre will itself become a space for our students where they where they have visions and a place from which they will leave ready and able to share what they see, imagine, dream and yearn for with others.


References

i) Antoine Saint Exupery. Wisdom of the Sands. New York: Amereon, 2003

ii) Quoted in Scott Hicks (dir). Glass: A Portrait of Phillip in 12 Parts. Kino Films, 2007

iii) Eugenio Barba. Beyond the Floating Islands. New York: PAJ Publishing Co, 1987


Steph Kehoe is a Tutor in Movement and Theatre Making at the VCA. Steph trained at Ecole International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. She completed her teacher training in the Lecoq pedagogy at the London International School of Performing Arts where she then taught for several years. Steph was a founder member of Les Mondes Contraires (2000-2010). The company mission ‘to go towards’ saw the international troupe collaborating with local artists and performing in the favelas of Brazil, on the Mongolian steppe and in the mountains of Nicaragua. Steph was Artistic Director of the Women’s Circus (2013-2016) and has also worked with Born in a Taxi and Zen Zen Zo and taught for Circus Oz, Rawcus, St Martin’s, ArtPlay, Union House Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Rose Bruford College and the John Bolton Theatre School.