Rebecca Holderness  
Essay | Syllabi | Student Work/Responses

Theater performance curriculum in the university setting necessitates a complex balance of elements.  It must balance immediate goals against long-term outcomes and must make allowances for multiple levels of physical and intellectual expertise and provide for highly individual learning paths.  One section of such a curriculum ideally works symbiotically with others, and the larger impact of this course of study may occur long after its term is done.

In 2005,the structure for a BFA curriculum was in the earliest of planning stages, but yet to be written.  Over the last five years we have developed an integrated, innovative curriculum to support the creation of a physically and vocally invested actor with an intelligent, practical approach to theatrical creation.  The curriculum also supports an environment of creative autonomy and self-directed learning.  In the course content the practical training is balanced by research into the history of performance experiences.  The centrality of a commitment to integrated training models, which create a common creative language simultaneous with supporting individual autonomy, was a central factor of the research of Holderness Theater Company and has become one of the truly unique aspects of the UWM program.

In response to the challenges presented by this confluence of circumstances and the transformation of my teaching from studio to academy, I have pursued developing my curriculum with The Center For Instructional And Professional Development, at UWM, where current research in learning could be applied to this artistic pursuit.

At UWM I have taught voice, movement, acting and directing at many levels throughout the BFA and Dance/Film MFA.  My core teaching consists of a full year of movement for the first year BFA Student  (Studio 1 – Physical Performance 440-441) and a full year of acting for those same students in their second year (Studio 2 – Acting 580-581). In a unique collaboration, Bill Watson, Head of Acting, and I trade teaching roles (movement and acting) over these two years.

Studio 1 – Physical Performance 440 has an overall intention of access to self, imagination and the beginning of performance skills acquisition, working methods and general knowledge of the field.  In movement I have developed a first semester course based in the undoing of habitual movement tensions and patterns.  In addition, the course provides practical knowledge of human anatomy as it relates to movement and diverse experiences that stimulate the imagination.   The re-patterning of movement supports breath and speaking, increases stamina and physical safety, and clears the individual’s movement for expressive acting.

Projects and assignments for the course were carefully developed with CIPID to encourage intellectual and somatic integration through visual art making and directed journaling and testing.  In this semester students collage and create artist books, learning about other kinds of expressive media and responding to the material taught in movement through image and construction.

Studio 1 – Physical Performance 441 (second semester movement) uses various methodologiesto connect the physical work of the actor more deeply to both the flow of imagination and impulse, and prepares the actor to use observation and research to build compelling characterizations.  This semester’s work is supported by assignments in creation of character movement from text, collage and analysis in combination with deliberate use of movement improvisation and composition.

Studio 2 – Acting 570 has as an overall aim of bringing the actor’s work into analytical and practical control and focus.  It connects somatic and imaginative experience to task-related creation, e.g. acting a role.  At this point I shift from teaching movement to acting.  My first semester curriculum focuses on classical text as a form that supports deep emotional and large physical choices through understanding of language forms, text analysis and issues of personalization and clear delivery.  We often take these text skills directly into the gloss of texts such as those of Dahlquist, Parks and Gurgis, where strong analytical skills are required to decode the play.  I believe that contemporary playwriting is using an elevated language, derived from the quickly evolving English language, and increased global exposure to language, slang and media.  I have articulated this study in conference workshops in Denver and Ashville under the title of Radical Classical using the same techniques employed this course.

Studio 2 – Acting 571 (second semester acting)is conceived as a period to assemble diverse experiences of the last two and a half years into a skill set employed in a longer project.  Students rehearse a longer project (short plays from 2-4 actors) over the semester- chronicling and employing the methods they have learned –  combining them in individual ways.  While the creation of an actual list of methods for rehearsal is one outcome of the course, students are also introduced to matters that directors consider (staging, setting actor-audience relationship.)  This not only empowers them to produce their own work but supports them as a pro-active member of the production overall when acting.  In this course students are also networked out into the professional community, contacting and interviewing directors and other theater professionals around the country (including faculty at the Yale School of Drama, emerging directors in North Carolina or playwrights elsewhere).

MFA Dance: courses 773 and 774, and Theater Topics 490 for MFA and BA candidates has focused on composition, the physical practice in acting (for dancers) and directing.  Each aspect is focused with the same practice and priorities as my undergraduate curriculum – but going deeper into questioning and critique of process and product.  I hope to be able to develop an online course that looks at this intersection of analysis and practice, the pragmatic and the visionary in the production development process for performance makers – a course in entrepreneurship for performing artists.

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