Initial Thoughts on Performopedagogy

Yonatan Levy

1. In general: Introductory notes on theatre and education through a demonstration of the concept of performance.

One of the methods for understanding the organic relationship between theatre and education begins by unpacking the concept and the practice of performance.

Performance, as I understand it, is the medium through which the artistic spirit sets humanity’s aspiration toward presence as an ideal; the mind’s living amplification of its own existence. Performance is the art of investigating the human present in its entirety – the exploration of the human and the ways in which it exists. In anthroposophical terms, it is the art of the Consciousness Soul, the creation of an amplified space for the possible manifestations of the “self” as a conscious soul. Performance has a natural tendency to elevate the mundane and the secular to the degree of ritual. This accounts for the genre’s mentor-initiate relationship with its audience. In performance, the artistic space is transformed into a classroom, where often similar types of frequencies reverberate and can be sensed in the atmosphere. The performative lesson’s subject matter and study materials are modes of existence.

To the students at the School of Visual Theatre I would say that a fine reversal is taking place here. The School’s performance spaces are transforming, quite literally, into “classrooms.” Sanctified spaces where learning takes place during assigned presentations, which involves the class’ transformation into a communal civil space of shared experience. Those who take part in this activity are taught a thing or two about their own humanity. It is in a sense a study of the act of studying. Readers who aren’t students at the SVT, can, if they are so inclined, see themselves as participants or spectators in this lesson.

Gesture and medium: a full gesture can only happen through an aware use of the medium. This essay for example, which is now a medium, is essentially a gesture. Here, the educational-theatrical gesture is directed toward the presence. An example for the reader of how an aware appropriation of the medium could provoke an awakening of her or his awareness.

In order for all of this to work, there has to be a certain degree of openness; a willingness to be a student. Otherwise, this is nothing but a mere intellectual exercise. Studentship is a part of the investigation of performance and it is tantamount to spectatorship. Surrendering to performative frequencies allows the transmission of transformative knowledge, embodied in the formation of the piece.

Given the profound social role of theatre and the ideological objectives of education, we can say that performance art suggests, and practically involves, the emergence of a new culture. Performance creates modern temples of initiation, where it breathes life into the space of human presence. The concept of the tabernacle – the provisional, makeshift temple – is essential to understanding the performer-space dynamic. In broad strokes, we can say that from the evolutionary spiritual perspective, these provisional temples host and are governed by spirits that are specific to the time in which they exist – the zeitgeist. And so, it is theatre’s role to identify and host the “good” forces that benefit and better our time so that they can be accessed and absorbed by all free human beings.

The concept of the tabernacle is mirrored in the Masonic tradition, where the lodge is considered to be a provisional ritualistic chamber, a historical step toward the construction of the Temple. Needless to say, this notion of the temple is completely unrelated to the psychotic construction plans on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Rather, it is a vision of a restored civilization: civilization coming to its senses, or better yet, to its true spirit. It wishes to form spiritually-driven relationships that involve profound dialogues between people, and between people and institutions. Spirit cannot inhabit the heart of a man if it has not been invoked from a state of freedom. And, if only for this reason, it is necessary to maintain the freedom of the audience/students. The question of freedom in art and in education is not a question of what one can or cannot say, but rather concerns the ways in which the actions of the artist/teacher support and promote the inner freedom of their recipients.

The world of performance contains an inherent tension between the sacred and secular aspects of space, which is dual by nature. The friction generated by the intensification of the aura of the mundane whilst insisting on its mundane nature – becomes a chord of different levels of expression. It transmits a frequency of awakened awareness that is often attributed to the psychotronic activities in the performance space. One key musical consideration in the creation of a performance piece is the polyphony of the different levels of manifestation of the space-performer relations. As in music, the tone can be grating for shock purposes, or it can be “harmonious”– when it can be defined as a pulsation.
(Pedagogy is guided by a similar kind of thinking, in terms of the art of pedagogy, that is. The structure of the curriculum, the syllabus, and the composition of a single lesson – working with tension and release, questions and answers, shape and life, the movement between ready-made textbooks and improvisation, sculpting through time with attention to the present, and first and foremost – the perception of teaching as a living happening – all of these reflect the deep connection between performance and education. It is important to keep in mind that the motivation behind the teacher’s intentions toward her students are very different from those of the artist toward her audience. Hence, they are also very different from the teacher’s comprehensive emotional experience. This is a fundamental and irreducible distinction).

Whether it brings about awe or shock, the duality also carries terror – the terror of the gap between the dead materiality of a thing, and its ultimate singularity conferred on it by the one-off nature of the performance. For example, when an object of some sort is used during a performance, it ceases to exist as a mere object, becoming a momentary materialization that is emblematic of a spirit or a specific range of meanings; a temporary representative of an occult world that exists as such only for the duration of the performance.

The alignment of oscillation between shock and awe of possible chords along the different levels of existence that emerge in the stage act, can also be found on other scales of social activity. This arrangement can, for example, define the nature of the political action of the play, directorial style and acting method. And if we apply/superimpose this split onto a therapeutic approach to art, it is likely that artistic shocks will reflect or provoke “growing pains” in the public, shedding of skin, opening wounds and other life processes that involve a breakdown, breakthrough, sudden eruptions of power, conceptual geysers, a blow, crashing and arousal. The artistic awe comes in countless forms that share the task of affirming being, deepening man’s affirmation of his being. There is an obvious overlap between this configuration and the classical notion of tragedy and comedy, yet during the stage activity, the performative musicology of a political play may alternate between unraveling or healing as it deepens its investigation into the essence of a collective problem.

As for the school setting: it also harbors an intermediary zone that isn’t limited to binary shifts between the dead and the festive. This is the domain of life – of the routine, the maintenance, the cleanliness and the functional. Without a strict adherence to the habitual, healthy and engaging rhythmus of the secular, the intensification of the holy will not occur. Boredom is a part of the default of the multi-layered school. If it is a good school, then even the boredom is full of life.

To recap, since we define culture as the sum of the human gestures that occur within it, and on the premise that a new culture will rise as a result of human communication that weaved by gestures that are saturated with emotion and consciousness; the classroom and the stage may be considered the main sites for such a culture’s development.

2. On the particulars: Intermediary thoughts on presentation periods at “Shaked” anthroposophical high school

Education is an art. Education must be thought about as art. The pedagogic-artistic thought, in its nature, relates to the concrete as a pathway to finding the aesthetic in the ethical, the ethical in the aesthetic, and the truth in both. The lucrative materialistic educational perspective considers a lesson to be none other than a timeframe designated for getting through the “material,” thus we must “hurry” to deliver it in time. In high school everything is primarily geared towards “final exams” that signify the ability to demonstrate that the material was “acquired,” that it has been stored and can be retrieved at any given time. This leaves, at best, one weekly hour to cover the subject of “morals and values,” depending on whether there is time left after classroom announcements. Needless to say, that worthy education of art cannot base itself on a materialistic approach to human development.

The goal of learning shouldn’t be to acquire information, but rather, the inner development of an individual. Therefore, the study materials have to serve the developmental event that occurs in the classroom. The connection to performance is clear.

This is true of any age, and any field of knowledge. Yet amongst many examples this is extraordinarily evident and clear in theatre studies – where performance is the content in the most optimal sense. Theatre studies in anthroposophic schools are delivered as a “presentation period” – three weeks to a month during which, the entire class time – regardless of others interested or the theatre department – is dedicated to running an entire production. My experience involves working with teenagers at the Waldorf “Shaked” high school.

Working with teenagers is of course significantly different from working with university students. Generally, in the case of high school students, individual awareness is at an early developmental stage, therefore, the school’s pedagogic treaty prescribes a radically different type of communication between teachers and students. As far as we are concerned, the dramatic high school years intensify the development of the physical, emotional and mental structure. These changes are dealt with by traditional formulas – theatre in its conventional sense as based on text, character and acting. With regards to performance, there is an educational tendency to avoid performance studies at too young of an age, since it is an art form that communicates directly with the individual’s existential awareness, which is more typical of an older age. Therefore, performopedagogic considerations, such as which types of performance influence which stages in the development of the human psyche dictate the types of subject matter, texts, movement, music, costumes, stage set, budgeting and prostration – from the kindergarten years right to high school.

The anthroposophical approach is age-related and detailed. It maintains that for adolescents to grow to be able, moral and free-spirited individuals, their bodies, hearts and minds should be developed gradually with a fine multifaceted balance. The premise that the school fulfills a key role in nurturing adolescents into free, independent personalities during their high school years demands an approach that isn’t radical indoctrinating, one that avoids turning youths into their teacher’s ideological puppets. In any case, teachers aside, the teens, who are mainly preoccupied with their self-image in the social sphere, have an impulsive tendency to build-up a tough character which is to some degree illusory; a kind of selective and exaggerated web of opinions, tastes and behaviors that often serves as a protective shield for insecurity and emotional wounds from early childhood. Therefore, not only must the educator insist on a non-indoctrinating attitude on her part, she also has the responsibility of recognizing when the student’s basic sense of freedom and individuality is threatened by an inner obstacle, when the self-image disguises itself as the personal identity and disrupts the teen’s potential for experiences, thoughts and feelings. In this educational context, a student theatrical production is a great pedagogic tool that enables versatility and freedom, since it prompts the students to consciously recognize and enact certain behavioral tendencies, to exaggerate their own personality traits or to identify with a completely different personality type than theirs.

Casting decisions take into account the individual coping mechanism of each student with a specific emotional challenge. Which of the female students will be asked to sing a solo part? The class singer (empowerment of the powerful), or maybe the shyest student (breakthrough of a blocked path). Who will play the villain? (usually the ones who are the most morally evolved, considerate and humane of the students are interesting candidates). Who will play the dictator? Who will play the prophet? And who will be the character that dies? Since the relationships between the students also undergo transformations through the drama, there is great potential in questions such as: who is paired with whom as friends, lovers, enemies, parents and offsprings. In this sense, the drama can subtly serve as preliminary intuitive work with karma. The questions of what play to produce and how to direct it are examined in relation to a shared developmental challenge, selected specifically for each class, according to its age group and unique character.

In the high school freshman class that I taught, I chose to put on Julius Caesar in order to refine questions of authority and rebellion, freedom and the loss of boundaries, speech and demagogy, societies and gender awareness; with this said, the restrained quality and the clear and direct gestural style of Shakespearian Rome allows the teenage boys to feel comfortable with their natural emotional extremity; and even though many of the characters’ emotional nuances get lost, the young actors manage to portray them with rhetorical intensity and a presence. In the sophomore class, we ran a production of Alice – Through the Looking Glass to attend to the class’s need to experience a liberated, irrational and mischievous state of consciousness. During the senior high school class, in which harsh existential questions begin to surface, we performed The Trial. In another freshman class, the production of the western High Noon related to the intensity with which the students lived out puberty’s classic threshold dilemma – the question of the individual in relation to society. The following year, that same class, whose emotional capacities had already increased by then, performed Romeo and Juliette and for the final year they performed The Karamazov Brothers after engaging in lofty class discussions about the meaning of human existence.

3. Additional examples

Other projects specifically dealt with the connection between education and performance. One of them, which I directed with a class I taught, is called Mayhem in the Ghetto, a musical adaptation of the protocols of the Knesset Education Committee, on the subject of the disruptive behavior of high school students during the Cameri Theatre production of Ghetto in relation to the country’s political climate. The students assumed the characters of adults who discuss the bad viewing habits of teenagers, the connection between education and theatre, and the question of whether theatre is educational to begin with. We performed this play at the Tel Aviv municipality headquarters as well as at different festivals in Israel. Whilst touring with this performance, we raised funds for the class’ graduation trip to Georgia. The true project was in fact a class journey: a lesson in a multi-faceted performative wandering, a mobile sculpture in civilian spaces; from studying governmental rhetoric to the transfer of currency from the commissioners of the performance piece, to the class’ bank account: a social lesson.

About a year later, the Adam Verte and Sapir Sabah affair exploded. Our school, which up until that time operated as a special study program within Ort Greenberg school in Tivon, was forced to separate and launch an independent school. Adam Verte taught at Ort as well as the anthroposophic high school. For Avi Schwartz, the Ort high school principal at the time, the question of “Is the IDF the most moral army in the world?” was a convenient cause for his dismissal. What was publicized as a national political-social-educational matter, was in fact, or also, a compensatory act in a minor bureaucratic feud between two schools. In any case, before the dismissal hearing I asked Adam to record the conversation, assuming that the protocol will serve as fresh content for a performative adaptation. And so it was. Verte’s conversation with the Ort administration was staged, composed and performed by four students at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. It was publicized on Haaretz newspaper website and even served as subject matter for a performance by Renana Raz under the same title (Shimua, Hearing).

About two years prior to the Adam Verte affair, the tension between our institution and Ort’s management inspired another play titled Disciplinary Conversation (directed by Nir Shauloff). It too dealt with a rebellious teacher who finds himself in a disciplinary meeting with the principal and the vice principal, in which he passionately, yet not innocently, advocates the ideal of educational freedom as opposed to administrative tyranny. In my own disciplinary conversations with the principal, without her knowing, I used to steer the conversation so that I would be able to seamlessly incorporate in it parts of the play, in a strange and deliberately immoral performance (but still far less immoral than reporting a regular teacher as an administrative worker to save up on employer’s expenditure) in which one participant is aware and the other isn’t.

Disciplinary Conversation. Photograph : Noam Livne

The perception of education through art is the foundation of methodical and didactic creativity and experimentation. I wrote a number of “Lesson Plays,” i.e., prewritten lessons in which each student receives a play and performs under his/her own name as one of the participants, with replicas that were written specifically for him/her. Of course, this is a method that must be aware of its own absurdity, since it makes the students recite far-fetched and eye-opening insights on the subject of the lesson (such as Joseph Beuys, or the films of Artavazd Peleshyan), an extreme and declared denial of freedom. Keeping in mind that most of the lessons in the regular education system are dictated and dictatorial in an unaware and unannounced way, I am positive that an aware and humorous enactment of a forced role can awaken teens to the reality of the mechanisms of thought oppression which are acceptable in this world. This is due to the precision of the conscious gap between the pre-written excitement of the class discussion, and the dictatorial rules of the game, which brings about a unique quality of awareness that is the secret of the didactic power of performance. First and foremost, we are dealing with a form of awareness; the content serves the form; the form is the vibration that penetrates the spirit in the “material” and frees it. It is the specific intelligence of a specific content. If the form is fixed and does not change in relation to the content, the lesson loses its life-force. Another “Lesson Play” titled Form and Content, in which the students were asked to eat ice cream with elongated spoons out of the teacher’s concave hat, dealt with these very issues; with content and with form and therefore with both content and form.

Form and Content. Photograph: Emil Salman, Haaretz

We can assert that every lesson optimally carries two contradicting performative principles: the ritualistic and the improvised. A certain sanctification of the obligation, the organized structure of the lesson, order and clarity, numerous questions regarding honor and internal meaning – these are the specifics of the ritualistic foundation. They are considered to be harsh and oppressive, and rightly so if they fail to be carried out from freedom and in the name of freedom. However, the more the ritualistic and the improvised interweave with one another, the more the rigid principles of educational life are activated from a place of freedom, along with the contrasting freer aspects of the lesson. The open discussion, the diversion from the subject, the joke – the transmission of ritualistic joviality, all serve to make the lesson become whole, precise and more transformative.

Education that is aware of its performative aspect, places the be-coming into presence, the core of the pedagogic action as an ideal and a method. A presence that appropriates itself in a live and versatile way to different age-groups, contents and different emotional states, operating in the long-run and on a grand scale in the name of establishing a new culture that is aware and creative to the best of its capacity.

March, 2017