OUT NOW: Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Volume 10, 2019 – Issue 2: Digital Training

It is highly likely that the majority of you are reading these words on a screen rather than on paper in a hard copy of the journal. You are probably facing a desktop computer or a laptop, possibly even a tablet or mobile phone. Whatever device you are using, along with the various capabilities to see/hear other things and annotate, the screen involves you – your embodiment and capacity for cognition – in ways other than holding a book in your hands. The activity of reading may have remained the same (i.e. you are still ‘reading words’ and looking at photographs), but the act of reading has changed.

This special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training on Digital Training explores some aspects of how performer training as an act – i.e. as a practice in its various forms – is affected and effected in a digital environment. What tools and platforms can be brought to bear on the experience of training; how might they enhance training processes and, by extension, teaching, rehearsing and even performing? How do screens and devices influence the time, place and space of training? For example, what is their effect on the trainee’s attention or the student’s ability to be self-reflexive, or their capacity for notation? Does the trainer’s role change in such an environment and, if so, how? Questions like these foreground our ‘being in the world’ in the twenty-first century as much as they reflect the changing landscape that is performer training today.

In sending out our special issue call, we were keen to embrace the broadest notion of training, including but also going well beyond the performance studio. We also wanted to know more – not only about how we might do training digitally, but also how we show, articulate or reflect on it whilst doing. In performer training, where does the digital begin and end? We are of course all performing continually, something of which social media make us especially conscious, but how might these self-same media enhance or damage training practices? Who has not turned to YouTube films or other digital resources to learn how to mend a bike puncture or some-such practical task, to get ideas for makeup, cook a meal, learn some yoga? The ways are legion in which we interact or mould and present ourselves through digital means on a daily basis. Beyond such now quite normalised activities, there are increasing possibilities for more bizarre or challenging technology-human interactions, from robot hotel concierges or sex dolls through to personalised ‘yogabot’ teachers. How might any of these change understanding and practices of training?

Set against these technological advances, for this relationship has typically been positioned oppositionally, are the live interactive processes of performer training, person to person. This is the familiar stuff of this journal, from accounts of personal experiences in the studio, through analyses of and reflections on particular pedagogic processes past and present, to specific focuses on a technique (Feldenkrais 6.2, 2015), a place (Dartington 3.9, 2018), or a person (Michael Chekhov 4.2, 2013), to name the focus of just three TDPT special issues. Liveness in training has often been considered the be all; but, we suggest, it is not the end all. In our special issue we want to broaden perspectives to consider how digital tools, processes or resources might enhance the act of training, avoiding the binary of live as being better than digital. We wish to celebrate but also understand their capacity to extend, challenge or simply alter training.

It sometimes seems that modes of transmission in training (predicated on this liveness) have been fixed rather narrowly for decades, however broad the types of practice conducted within this spectrum. Given current desires to interrogate problematic hierarchies such as that of the teacher-pupil or master-trainee, to empower individuals and communities, and to provide greater access to materials and processes too often the prerogative of a Northern hemispheric and Western elite, can digital training offer powerful alternatives which might soon become future norms? What are the politics and social implications of digital training? Caroline Wake argues that ‘digital pedagogies […] risk reinforcing privilege’ considering the expensive infrastructure and technical labour involved to produce and maintain them (2018, p. 65). And yet, as most of the articles in this special issue illustrate, a great deal can be achieved with the basic technology of a computer or the ubiquitous mobile phone and an internet connection.

Each of our six articles along with the Training Grounds pieces offers different responses to some of these questions, exploring digital training in a range of ways in relation to diverse media and modes of interaction. One unusual feature of our collection is that half of the articles are cowritten; even though Paul Allain is listed as sole author for his piece, close collaborator Stacie Lee Bennett-Worth prepared the photos and his essay is very much about a team project. This perhaps speaks to the complexity of working with technology, the fact that different skill sets are often needed to maximise technology’s potential. ZU-UK’s essai makes this very clear. It also suggests that multiple presences can help to offset the absorption that digital tools can entail or, in fact, might require: just think of how the camera person–editor relationship works in film. Interestingly, the majority of our article writers, 6 out of 10, are women, belying commonly held assumptions about the dominance of men in tech-related areas.

Three articles reflect on university educational and rehearsal practices with students that utilised digital technologies. In ‘Training the homo cellularis: attention and the mobile phone’, Maria Kapsali assesses a student project with mobile phones in order to address questions about the value which both attention and distraction might have in training processes. She examines how the creative use of mobile phones may invite us to reconsider ‘the way attention is exercised and understood within performer training’. In her case study, student performers deployed mobile phones to send performance commands remotely across small distances. Kapsali puts forward this example to think through how technologies can extend and challenge familiar understandings of the space for training and performance, how the mobile phone might act as pharmakon, both poison and cure.

Tom Gorman, Tiina Syrjä and Mikko Kanninen stretch this potential for spatial interaction quite a bit further than Kapsali’s on-campus project. Their account of a remote rehearsal collaboration between British and Finnish colleagues and students shows the complexities of not just how to rehearse King Lear or Coriolanus across a 1,500-mile distance, but also how social media and digital platforms like Adobe Connect facilitated learning and training outside of the virtual and actual rehearsal spaces, and how they helped to close this physical, geographical gap. Quite pragmatically, they explain some of the difficulties in using such telepresence but they also celebrate the gains. As with all the pieces, we learn how working digitally can alter notions of space, time, the body and human contact and interaction. Technology can confound and bemuse us, but it also opens immense possibilities (how quickly we take these for granted though!). As just one example, the use of scale intrigued the authors: in a world with no actual physical contact between the two groups, whenever the student actors approached the camera, their presence became greatly magnified to the cast many miles away whilst, seemingly paradoxically, also creating a strong sense of intimacy.

Paul Allain’s ‘Physical actor training 2.0. new digital horizons’ also promotes the benefits of digital technologies, in this instance focusing on capturing and distilling but also presenting training processes through online publication. He traces the development of a substantial online resource, an A-Z, created with this issue’s co-editors, Camilleri and Bennett-Worth. The project involved filming Camilleri’s and his own training which was then edited down into over 60 films and published along with other companion materials such as an extensive reading/viewing list on Methuen Bloomsbury’s Drama Online platform as well as their own open access digital performer webpage.

Allain’s article has a useful companion in Franc Chamberlain’s original take on what is usually conceived of in this and most other journals as a book review. Here, instead of focusing on text, Chamberlain compares two major online resources for theatre, dance and performance scholars and students – Routledge Performance Archive (RPA) and Digital Theatre+ (DT+). Both websites offer an abundance of workshop films, interviews, and textual materials about practitioners and practices, though the latter focuses more on filmed performances, whilst the RPA mostly explores process. Allain’s article references these both as stimuli for the A-Z and as fellow resources that will inevitably change the way students learn and, perhaps, even train.

Sarah Crews and Christina Papagiannouli’s ‘InstaStan – FaceBrook – Brecht+: a performer training methodology for the age of the internet’ investigates how students can use digital tools to enhance their learning, in this case exploring how different social media platforms were deployed to understand better three key director figures of the modern age: Konstantin Stanislavski, Peter Brook and Bertolt Brecht. The authors invited the students to embrace new possibilities for rehearsing, researching, training, and reflecting, working mainly with Instagram, Facebook and Google. When these tools are fully integrated into the students’ learning and when the teachers ‘work with rather than for the students’, new performance techniques and practices can arise as digital doors open.

In a similar vein, Göze Saner and Scott Robinson write in ‘Designing performer training: digital encounters with things and people’ about their own practice research projects. Their partnership of Robinson as designer, documenter and video-artist and Saner as actor/practitioner-researcher and lecturer demonstrates how playing with technology can unpick training processes, specifically with reference to the absence of a teacher-trainer and a shared space. They focus on what they call ‘constructed enactive pedagogic spaces’ that engage digital technology not only to improve the skills of participants but also to reappraise (‘deconstruct’ they call it) existing exercises. In doing so, Saner and Robinson conjure an enticing correlation between how to train (the resources used) and what it means to train (the nature of training).

In ‘Training the analytical eye: video annotation for dance’, Rebecca Stancliffe offers a welcome shift away from live studio and creative practices as she examines how dance tools might be used for annotating choreography. She initially presents a survey of some key practices, most notably William Forsythe’s long-term research in how to document and open up choreographic process with a range of digital processes. For Stancliffe, video annotation becomes a form of dialogical mnemotechnics. It can encourage what she calls annotational thinking, ‘an iterative and recursive process of grammatisation’. Such documents create dense multi-layered artificial memories that can even train the student as they deepen their understanding of dance. For Stancliffe, training is enacted through the process of looking as much as dancing in a studio. What is being posited here, and to some extent in all the articles, is that we train ourselves and are trained in so many more ways than just the overly familiar and too-dominant live in-the-studio interaction between trainer and trainee.

Some themes recur across the articles and other pieces. We learn how digital tools and processes aid deeper analysis, can offer greater insights, may help us share work, and can lead to creative innovation. All well and good. Perhaps we don’t need to be reminded of the possible negative effects they can also have on our physical and mental behaviour and wellbeing, something that appears in the background here, but is clearly not to be overlooked. Rather our authors promote the need to face into such possibilities, challenges and risks, to bring what is so pervasive outside the ‘studio’ (which we take in its broadest sense as any place in which training occurs) into its practices. This goes far beyond the ubiquitous use of Moodle, Blackboard and MOOCS in current educational practices. Allain’s article especially and Chamberlain’s review emphasise the need for trainers and educators to take control of and offer curated resources as antidotes to the mass of materials in which we all can, and frequently do, get lost online.

The Training Grounds (TG) materials further demonstrate the innovative and diverse discourses opening up around digital training for theatre, dance and performance across two Postcards and three essais. Jo Scott’s Postcard provides an invitation to break down the distinction between the natural environment and the use of digital technology in training, challenging the recipient to bring these two worlds together in an exploration of digital training in nature. Kris Darby’s Postcard, by contrast, initiates an exercise of coding as performance, that allows participants to interact through programming and hacking practices. ZU-UK’s discussion of training for interactive performance offers a glimpse at two artists and their collaborators who have transitioned from twentieth-century body-based practices to work with the hybrid styles of technology-assisted, interactive performance. The text of this discussion itself represents the multi-modal aspect of their working practices, having been reconstituted from written email and audio responses from different times and locations. Robert Lewis explores the demands that Motion Capture make on actors, demonstrating how training needs to adjust accordingly but can also benefit from such approaches, with particular regard to the voice and spatial awareness. TG editor James McLaughlin’s own essai documents an ongoing attempt to bring the TDPT Blog into his teaching practice as a resource for his students and a platform to present their ongoing praxis.

In collating all these papers, we were also very mindful, as the opening to our editorial indicates, of how technology so quickly evolves. As fashions change and discoveries advance, expensive software, systems and access become quickly outmoded, sometimes even impossible to engage with. We have tried to capture a moment, dated 2019, only too aware of how passing this might be. The first issue of TDPT appeared in 2010 with the aim of exploring ‘the vital and diverse processes of training and their relationship to performance making, including those from the past, from the present, and into the future’. It is hard to imagine a TDPT issue in ten years’ time without strong elements of technology and digital tools incorporated into accounts of exercises and other preparatory strategies, possibly entangled with human bodies. In addition to the screens on which most of us are reading these words, in 2029 there might well be affordable implants and prosthetics – or even robotic and AI companions – that enhance the twenty-first-century performer’s psychosomatic capacities … but that is a theme for another special issue.

  • Wake, C., 2018. Two Decades of Digital Pedagogies in the Performing Arts: A Comparative Survey of Theatre, Performance, and Dance, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 14 (1), 52–69. [Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]

To read the journal: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rtdp20/current

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