Final Reflections on Ireland 2012

In the final days of the applied theatre course in Ireland, we conducted a series of debrief conversations with the students and facilitators as a way to find some closure on an experience that flew by.

The debrief following the original performance projects took place on Thursday morning, and included full group and smaller devising group discussions. We began with affirmations for the two developed pieces shared the evening before, and then Jenny and Declan met with each of their groups individually to talk through student observations about the processes. We then recombined to allow for students to share in pairs and trios about their actual creation processes. This interchange allowed the students to learn more about the work of their colleagues. Following this conversation, students continued to work in small groups to think through the immediate and long-term implications this experience might have on their individual practices. I encouraged the students to be specific in this conversation and make links directly to upcoming projects they would like to complete in the near future.

One interesting and important point that came up in the discussions with Jenny and Declan had to do with the composition of the audience for an applied theatre project. In reality, a large proportion of the audience will often be friends and family of the performers, and this can invariably affects the overall aesthetic of the performance, which in turn, in my opinion, could also affect the quality. I wonder if in an applied theatre context, practitioners might often sometimes make choices with the community’s audience in mind, thus creating an insider experience for audiences who know the performers and an outsider experience for those who do not. And if this occurs, whether on purpose or accidentally, how does that affect the perception of quality? This phenomenon is not limited to a devised piece within an applied theatre context, as I know that more traditional theatre productions in school settings and in community theatres in the US can also experience the same insider/outsider assessment paradigm. I want to think more about this potential dichotomy, as I’m not sure that one can or should apply one standard to all work. I firmly believe that applied theatre should always have a strong and consistent aesthetic, but the phenomenology of that aesthetic may take multiple forms as the audience-performer-character triad has much more fluidity in a community-engaged project.

Friday marked the conclusion of the course, and the teaching team worked together to take the group through some additional reflective activities. We began with an informal assessment activity. Each student received a large notecard, and s/he was asked to write on one side of the card up to three elements of the course that they would keep for future iterations and on the other side up to three elements that they would modify or discard. This exercise does not replace the more formal, school-imposed evaluation, but it does provide informal data for me and subsequent directors of the Ireland experience.

Joanna Parkes then led the group through a timeline exercise. Using a large sheet of butcher paper, Joanna marked the start of the course and the beginning of weeks two and three. She then charged the group with the task of placing key moments from the experience onto the timeline. Using markers, the group drew pictures and wrote sentences and phrases to describe their individual and collective experiences. As I looked at the group’s mural-like creation after the fact, I was struck by the evidence of learning and growth apparent. One student also noticed that the left side of the mural, or the beginning of the course, was largely populated by individual moments, and as the mural moved to the right, it reflected more experiences common to the community-at-large. A great example of what might happen to a community of people moving through an applied theatre process.

I followed the mural with an exercise that I typically facilitate at the end of any course. While I recognize that I assign marks to the students in the course based on their accumulation of points and mastery of tasks that I assign and that the teaching staff evaluates, I’ve also come to realize and believe that assigned marks do not always accurately reflect the depth of an individual’s learning. I am committed to providing students with a university-sanctioned mark for an experience, but I also think that true reflective practice demands that we investigate and acknowledge our own learning. This is learning that might not be measured by standard assessment techniques. To facilitate this investigation, I ask students to consider their learning through three lenses: awareness, connections, and ownership. I asked the Ireland study abroad students to consider these lenses and to write one sentence for each lens that illustrated their learning in the course. I used the following questions as prompts:

What are you more aware of as a result of your work in this course?

What connections have you made as a result of your work in this course? The connections could be to your own practice, to concepts within the course, to concepts in this course and another course, to your past experiences, or to your future goals.

What do you now feel that you have ownership over as a result of your work in this course?

Students had the opportunity to record these observations in their own journals, and then I noted that ultimately this is the learning that truly matters, as it will follow them into their practice, more closely than the final marks for the course will follow them. I was promptly corrected by two students who pointed out that the marks would matter for PhD and MFA applications, as their GPAs would reflect the marks. Fair enough, but I stand by my position. The learning articulated in this exercise has just as much or more value for the individual than the mark.

Orla Hasson conducted a final set of exercises with the group, starting with an image theatre exercise where the students revisited images of Ireland from our very first session, and then transformed those images into current perceptions of Ireland as they finished the course. Orla followed this with an exercise of take aways and giving thanks. A ball of string became the literal representation of our community connections. Each student shared a take away from the experience and then thanked one individual from the course for something that they appreciated, then passed the ball of string to that person. When the group had created a complete web, Orla asked us to lean back slightly, allowing the weight of the collective to be supported by the web, thus illustrating the strength of our community. We then released the web as a group. A powerful way to end our experience together.

The students then presented the teaching staff with gifts, and the course concluded. We went our separate ways, having learned much about Ireland, applied theatre practices, community, insider/outsider experiences, and of course, each other. I’m grateful to my Irish colleagues for their commitment to the program, and I’m impressed by the work of the students on the course. Their final projects come to me on August 22, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their experiences translate into potential applied theatre projects.