Project name: Physical Actor Training: an online A-Z and ebook
Report compiled by: Stacie Lee Bennett with Professor Paul Allain
Reporting period: January 2016 – January 2017
Project website: http://www.thedigitalperformer.co.uk

In this progress report we outline the proposed methodologies set out in the initial application for the grant and explain how the team has moved forward with these in mind during year one of the project. This relates especially to 1-4 below. We detail the relevant events, conferences and symposia which have contributed to an extremely interesting and productive process of research. The second year of the project will focus on achieving 5 of the methodology.

Proposed Methodology

1. An initial survey of precedents, within and without the field
2. Practice-based research in the studio led by Allain with Camilleri
3. Compiling the A-Z then filming with Hulton and Camilleri (pilot phase then full filming)
4. Guidance throughout from an Advisory Board and the support of a specialist Research Assistant on how best to use digital tools and formats
5. Digitally enhancing the film material and related commentaries with specialist input at this stage from the Research Assistant.

The starting point to this research project was initially to source then analyze the quality of existing digital resources both in and out of the field of actor training (methodology 1). In identifying the key distributors of similar kinds of digital resources and assessing the current usage of these tools we have been able to adapt our strategy to expand on the knowledge that already exists in this area as well as begin to understand where the gaps are and how we can develop a better resource.

Resource websites such as Digital Theatre Plus, Routledge Performance Archive (RPA) and Alexander Street Press have been our main case studies for the process of understanding how theatre and training is being accessed online. We have assessed the analytics for both University of Kent and the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama usage, and were thereby able to identify some key issues with the format of films on these sites:

– Length – According to Cisco, online video accounts for up to 75% of all web traffic – a massive proportion of this is YouTube and not directly relevant to this project – and recent studies suggest that due to this volume of visual material accessed 24 hours a day, broadly speaking our attention spans are decreasing. A large majority of our prospective audience will be university students around 18-21 years old, who are generally active across social media sites and very much accustomed to immediate access to all kinds of information. In order to address this decrease in attention spans and in review of RPA user analytics showing a 2.30 minute drop off in many of their films, our initial test phase tried out a 3.00 minute model of short films in order to try and condense the information required for each term in our A-Z. eg. A for Acrobatics. We have tried to distil information without diluting the overall sense of the term and its related practices.

– Design and development – When asking students about the design and overall look or feel of the aforementioned websites it was interesting to hear that the ‘academic’ style of the sites was in one sense simple and easy to navigate with material that could be found efficiently; but at times they found it not very visually stimulating. After developing a series of website mock-ups which address both of these points we have developed an ongoing dialogue with Drama Online in order to follow design best practice but also rethink the standard approach to presenting academic video online. Within this are questions surrounding academic authority and the ability for the work to be internationally accessible (regarding content not subscription). These are points that we will continue to interrogate throughout the development of the project.

– Usability – In thinking about how our resource might develop, it has been interesting to hear from students, staff and professional practitioners how they think this resource will work extremely well in a studio setting. This means the usability of the website will be absolutely key, ensuring a responsive, multi-device enabled website that has an efficient media player and sufficient features to ensure the resource is internationally accessible.

– Innovation – As there are very few digital resources of this kind that currently exist we have identified that the project needs to showcase innovative thinking in the approach to filming training and it also needs to show the student voice and the training process. In response to our research workshops, we have found that students identify well with the work when the films highlight the moments of difficulty or learning and can then envisage different routes through and ways to develop their own practice.

– Sustainability – Another important point that we have been researching is how the project will be sustainable in the future. We have spoken at various conferences and events over the past few months and the feedback regarding the project has been twofold. Firstly, that the project is extremely necessary in this field of study and many colleagues and students would find it very useful as a resource for their teaching and practice; and secondly, questioning whether there are ways to ensure that the resource as a model can continue to develop post-project publication. We have addressed this concern with Methuen Bloomsbury and we are aware of the data structure that the media will need to adhere to, in order to ensure that the work will be accessible in case of any alterations in web based video output specification. Methuen Bloomsbury also have a bi-annual update of material which will be an opportunity for the Research Team to contribute new material or update existing work.

In early 2016 – with the above points in mind – the research team devised a structure for an experimental Digital Studio session, which allowed students, practitioners and professional actors space to explore various ways to digitally capture the process of training, mainly through live-feed camera projection (methodology 2). These studio-based sessions allowed participants to move between roles of cameraperson and physical actor trainee, as Professor Allain delivered a series of exercises. By bringing cameras directly to the centre of a studio practice experience, we were quickly able to identify that the wide-angle still frame shot (the norm in the documentation of many physical training practices) is not necessary the best for capturing an exercise of this embodied nature.

By exploring hand-held and other articulate camera shooting techniques, the participants were able to find angles and shot types that offered more visual information regarding spatial orientation, the impulse of the exercise and the dynamic quality of the movement. This work allowed us to develop a shooting plan for filming the pilot stage of the project (September 2016) and then full film shoot (Jan 2017) and also provoked Stacie Lee Bennett (RA) to develop a filmic A-Z in response to documenting actor training, which will be published on the digital performer website.

We have developed this experimental Digital Studio model as a way for the project to be introduced into studio settings and encourage self-reflective practice alongside using the resource.

These digital studios shaped and informed the two filming sessions (methodology 3), which have been completed.

We have circulated our test films to our Advisory Board members amongst other interested parties and have used these to ask specific questions and to circulate information about the project (methodology 4). We have received substantial developmental feedback from this process, in part through a typeform survey as well as orally through several workshops and presentations (listed below).

As the online A-Z is not due to be published until 2018, we have also set-up a sister site at http://www.thedigitalperformer.co.uk. This is a space for us to publish ongoing research, share test material and begin to open dialogue around performer training and technology. This is another way to contribute to the sustainability of this project and also more widely the theatre and technology landscape that is now building in momentum.

The idea of a special issue of the journal Theatre Dance and Performance Training focused on Performer Training and the Digital has been accepted for publication in 2019, to be coedited by Allain, Bennett, and Camilleri. A call for papers will be disseminated in 2017.

Project Research Presentations and Formal Meetings

28–31 January 2016 – Research Paper, International Platform for Performer Training Conference, Wrocław
9th March 2016 – Physical Actor Training Workshop Audition
16TH March 2016 – Digital Dance Day, Symposium at Coventry University
7th April 2016 – Physical Actor Training Workshop Audition
19th April 2016 – Meeting Methuen Bloomsbury
28th April 2016 – Alexander Street Press meeting, London
9th May 2016 – Experimental Digital Studio
7th June 2016 – Experimental Digital Studio
7th August 2016 – Meeting Methuen Bloomsbury
8th September 2016 – Experimental Digital Studio
9-11th September 2016 – Pilot film Shoot
31st October 2016 – Documenting Performance Symposium – City University
9-11th November 2016 – Research Paper, European Theatre Perspectives Symposium, Wrocław
13th November 2016 – Workshop and Research Paper at the Institute of Theatre, Barcelona
20th November 2016 – National University of Singapore, Singapore, Workshop and Research Paper
6th December 2016 – Digital Studio and Research Paper – Central School of Speech and Drama
6TH January 2017 – Research Paper, Labanarium Launch Event, University of Surrey
11-13TH January 2017 – Film Shoot
23rd January 2017 – Global Skills lecture, University of Kent at Canterbury
1st February 2017 – Global Skills lecture, University of Kent at Brussels
3RD February 2017 – Meeting Methuen Bloomsbury
8-10 March 2017 – Research Paper with Camilleri at Interweaving Cultures: Theory and Practice Conference, University of Malta

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