Sunday, 31 August 2008

Arts NSW new funding program now released

NSW artists and arts organisations will be greatly relieved to know that Arts NSW's long-awaited new arts funding program guidelines for 2009 have finally been released, details here.

For those who haven't been following the extended saga of the Arts NSW funding policy changes, there was a grants review initiated by Arts NSW themselves in late 2007, with some 49 arts organisations contributing submissions to the report's writers. The report was publicly available in early 2008 (but seemed to disappear off the website in July), but didn't exactly have much attention drawn to it by the State Government. There have been great problems with the way the arts are supported in NSW, and the report of the Cultural Grants Review provided some clear answers to some of them.

The most significant recommendations of the Review were:

- to establish a ticketing company to operate on a cost recovery basis and stop so much arts funding being siphoned off to commercial ticketing agents that theatre artists in particular are almost always forced to do. (the report cites the example of the Sydney Writers Festival paying $70,000 of its box office income of $500,000 to a ticketing agent in 2007).

- to devolve funds to the Regional arts development boards so that funds for regional arts can be better allocated

- to expand the number of companies funded on a multi-year basis (eg. triennially), and to provide a clear pathway for entry to this category (an 'emerging key orgainsations' idea that aligns neatly with the Australia Council's 'Make it New' policy shift for 2008)

- to rethink the purpose of project grants. This will be the most contentious, as it'll make it even harder for newer artist teams and individuals to be funded by Arts NSW. However, the report's logic is that part of the increase in the number of multi-year funded companies will be to require them to support some of these sorts of activities, which to me makes much more sense that forcing a bunch of small companies to vigorously compete for tiny scraps of grants which are insufficient in size to actually make the projects work anyway. Anyone who's been funded by Arts NSW on a project grant that was 20% less than you asked for (a regular feature of the last five years) knows exactly what I mean. This will be painful, but I believe that its necessary.

- to enable artform managers to engage more in strategic planning and less in grant admin. This seems unbelievably obvious, and I don't know why we needed a review to tell us this.

There was more, including developing an Indigenous arts policy (unbelievably, this was absent), and developing stronger links with existing policies in the ares of education, innovation, and heritage. Its not a long read, but a fascinating one.

Many of us in the arts have been eagerly waiting for some indication from the state government as to which of the report's recommendations might be acted upon, and what implications this might have for the sector. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the absence of any sense of how things might change, for better or worse, has caused a large degree of anxiety amongst artists and companies. Six months after the release of the Cultural Grants Review, all that happened was vague promises that an interim grants structure for 2009 would be announced by the end of June. Then July passed, and August passed, and many of us turned blue from holding our breaths. Now we might yet be able to return some colour to our cheeks, and get on with the business of making art. Applications for the new arts grants program are due to Arts NSW on October 10.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Some thoughts on collaboration and group-devised performance

Due to my new sessional lecturing gig at the University of Western Sydney, I've had to dig through a lot of my writing archives to find material for lectures, and much to my surprise, some of my older writings are actually quite interesting. At least to me. This passage is an excerpt from my Honours thesis, submitted in 2000, and while I probably wouldn't write in this way today, I'm quite taken by the perspective of my younger self. Perhaps its simply nostalgia. You be the judge. This section is a prelude to a description of the workshop stage of version 1.0's The second Last Supper (2000-2001), and as such is an interesting record of the early stages of us working out what the hell it was that we were doing, and our possible place(s) in the world of performance. Enjoy.

A model of a devising process

"'Collective creation’ is not some miracle process which erases all difficulties. On the contrary, it invariably brings them together every time that an actor enters; and on each occasion, everything has to be revised and reinvented." (Caubere 1999:75)

All performance work made by a collaborative group is made through a devising process. The group constantly makes strategic and tactical decisions about what material is needed in the construction of the piece and why. From my experience of this process in a number of collaborative groups, I have formulated a seven-step model of a devising process. In practice one is not necessarily conscious of this process, and may not represent the internal workings of the project in this manner. The ‘steps’ do not occur as discrete identifiable objects in themselves and the boundaries between steps are permeable. They bleed into one another. These steps are designed to illustrate the shape of a collaborative process.

It is important to note that this model is not designed as a teaching aid or a list of ‘how to devise performance’. For models designed to illustrate a devising process with an educational focus refer to such publications as Tarlington & Michaels 1995 and Bray 1991, and also to the later chapters of Oddey 1997.

Step 1: Initial concept/frame
Every project starts somewhere, but the actual stating point for each project is never identical. This initial concept may be an image, a piece of text or music from any number of sources, or a theoretical concern. The starting point might be as simple as a working title, a phrase or single word with a cluster of implicit meanings and connotations. Or any combination of the above. The starting point of version 1.0's first three pieces (The Dream Index, Where the garment gapes..., and Preludes and Fugues) was a title that was conceived by myself and approved by the group. This title provided a frame on which a series of ideas and images could be hung. For another group the starting point would be different, dependent on the combination of personalities within that specific group. Whatever the initial concept, it is highly likely that the initial concerns of the project will shift through the process and the resultant performance will contain no trace of the initial notion around which it was made.

Step 2: Group discussion
“At some point in the creative, collaborative process, you do arrive at a group certainty. That is not to say that are all necessarily driving towards exactly the same objective, but there is a line of agreement.” (Long as cited in Oddey 1997:43)

The next stage of this process is that the group reaches some form of loose, flexible consensus or shared agreement about the project concept through extended discussion. Agreement is reached upon at least some of the primary concerns of the piece, and initial strategies to facilitate the generation of material are decided. A collective understanding of the project is established, leaving space for individual’s specific concerns, knowledges and interests. The group discovers a common ground, from which they can begin to make performance.

Whatever position is reached through initial discussions is likely to change repeatedly throughout the process, following the evolution of the performance material. Also this process of discussion is not contained tidily to the beginning of a process but occurs repeatedly as new positions are clarified, new possibilities identified, and old material re-interrogated.

During this initial discussion process shared or individual exercises may be set to start generating performance material, and specific group reading material may also be set. Specific avenues of research may be suggested, and members may set themselves individual tasks based on their expertise or interest. For example a group member who skills base lies in classical singing may investigate appropriate musical material for the project. A group member skilled in writing may set themselves a number of writing tasks, and so on.

Some fundamental questions that are likely to be raised during this part of the process are:
What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Where are we doing it?
What are we talking about?
How can we talk about it?
Why is it important for us to talk about it?
What does it mean for us, in the here and now, to be talking about it?
What performance strategies can we use to represent it in a manner satisfying to the group and stimulating to a potential audience?
What do we want to achieve by undertaking this project?

Step 3: Personal reflection/research by individual group members
The members of the group work individually and reflect upon the concept under investigation. Interesting and relevant documents are identified and followed up. Members develop material in response to initial discussions and in some cases make responses to exercises and/or provocations set during initial meetings. Any specific group reading material that may have been set is undertaken.

Members return to the group with images, texts, staging concepts, props, theoretical concepts, music, etc. This new material is fed into group discussion and from the process of showing this material potential new material is suggested or made possible. This individual research is ongoing, and continually throughout the process group members will present new ideas and material that arises outside of the rehearsal room. Of course, this notion of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ becomes problematic here, due to the fact that while within a devising process all of one’s life becomes about the work.

Step 4: Improvisation/ play on the floor of the rehearsal room
Improvisation and play are the primary tools of a devised process. It is through free and structured improvisation that material is developed, ideas and personas tested, and solutions to problems found. Improvisation and discussion often go hand in hand, with one feeding into the other, suggesting strategies by which to proceed.

The evolution of material occurs tangentially, not necessarily in a linear fashion. One thing certainly does lead to another, but not in a logical cause-and-effect way. The impulse for an abrupt change in pace/direction/focus may come from a look, or a position of a performer’s body in relation to another’s. This ‘trigger’ need not even be understood by the other member or members of the group that follow the impulse. Tim Etchells’ gives a list of some examples of such episodes in the work processes of Forced Entertainment, suggesting a notion of collaboration that is fundamentally based around mis-understanding, of taking up and following an action from another group member and creating something fantastic, only to discover afterwards that they were doing something totally different:

"Collaboration then not as a kind of a perfect understanding of the other bloke, but a mis-seeing, a mis-hearing, a deliberate lack of unity. And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t quite belong, fragments that mis-see an mis-hear each other." (Etchells 1999:56)

Step 5: Shaping
A process of shaping, editing and assembling the material generated through improvisation now occurs. Structures and frames are developed, and material is reworked and re-shaped until it is able to ‘make sense’ in terms of the emerging internal logic of the piece. As new material is developed and fed into these newly established structures, the structures and frames are re-interrogated to ensure that they continue to serve the interests of the work, and those of the group.

There is also a need to fit the material to the mechanical necessities of the production, which may mean altering sections slightly to facilitate the movement of performers within the space, adding necessary technology or staging elements such as microphones, and many other possible permutations.

It is here that a process of ‘reverse dramaturgy’ is utilised. This process may involve the creation of filler pieces or transitions that make ‘sense’ of (or at least follow a consistent internal logic) often arbitrarily derived material after it has been assembled, to ultimately create a coherent collage. Such a process of reverse dramaturgy is often as much concerned with the act of performance itself as it is with a performative ‘narrative’.

Step 6: Feedback from ‘outside eyes’
Essentially an ‘outside eye’ is someone who grants a fresh perspective on the performance work generated in the rehearsal room. This person (or persons) may have a designated role within the work, such as a dramaturge, or may be a friend or colleague invited into a rehearsal at a particular stage for this purpose. This provides a critical eye that is not immersed within the process, and is able to look from an audience’s point of view. The outside eyes may be able to identify structural problems or elements that don’t make sense in terms of the whole performance, but have been taken for granted or simply forgotten by the performers, elements that have become invisible or ‘natural’ in the process. They may also propose suggestions for solutions to stumbling blocks or dead ends reached by the group in rehearsal, or a second opinion that resolves an unresolvable argument or difference of opinion within the group regarding a particular performance element.

An outside eye is an important function, no matter how self-reflexive a group may be. Often it is only from outside the group, with no personal investment in the work, that the performance can be seen clearly. Of course the group must choose what feedback is useful or constructive and what feedback is ignored, based on the tastes, beliefs, needs and experiences of both the group and the outside eye(s). The outside eye is a tool that is used to benefit the performance process. How that tool is used in practice is entirely at the discretion of the group in question.

Step 7: Performance
The process of developing and shaping the performance doesn’t come to a halt when the performance reaches opening night, but continues to develop as new ideas and structures emerge through contact with an audience. Elements that don’t work are edited out of the performance. Accidents that propel the work in an unexpected but inspiring direction become incorporated into the piece. New elements suggest themselves to the group during the performance season, and are tested out. If they work, they may become part of the performance. In this way the performance never becomes a finished product, but always remains in process. Because the performers themselves have control and responsibility for their own actions, they have the licence to explore new possibilities within their own performance, and do so. Therefore the work continues to evolve as each of the participants increase their depth of knowledge as to the manner in which the performance operates. This evolution only occurs through repeated encounters with audiences in a performance situation. The work is never complete until the performance season is complete.

Images: Danielle Antaki, Rohan Thatcher, Stephen Klinder, and Yana Taylor in version 1.0's The second Last Supper. Images by Heidrun Lohr.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

the job-ready graduate: on the right path

Over the last decade there have been a range of policy initiatives to support young and emerging artists to develop innovative practice, for example the dedicated funding categories at the Australia Council and mentoring schemes such as Youth Arts Queensland’s Spark program. What appears unexamined in this focus on artist emergence is the university sector, from which many of these young artists begin their careers. Support programs from funding bodies offer pathways into professional practice, but how do young artists find their way towards these pathways in the first place? What routes do performance graduates take from university study to professional practice, and what strategies have universities adopted to assist their graduates to prepare for and manage this transition?

Read the rest of my recent article, The Job-Ready Graduate: On the Right Path, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #86, here.

Image: Rebecca Cunningham,
1 Litre of Blood, 1000kgs of Bullets, photo by Sharka Bosakova.