Talking about Employability and Enterprise at CSM with...Michael Spencer: Course Leader, MA Performance Design and Practice
Michael has been a professional performance and theatre designer for thirty years, with his work ranging from community theatre to commercial touring, repertory theatre and opera. In 1991 he was the first person to receive an MA in Theatre Design, so Michael has first-hand knowledge of enterprise and employability. In his ‘talking tour’ he shares details of the course’s approach to better-equipping students for graduate employment.
What is your approach to enterprise and employability?
In the last decade or so on this course, there have been two big changes instigated by students: the first is the desire for authorship. Fifteen years ago this course, was a Theatre Design course, about producing theatre designs that serve the texts with the director facilitating the acting. Over the years students have asked to author their own work and express their own ideas directly in the performance. In addition to that, there’s been a massive increase in students’ desire to be employable, which is no doubt linked to the increase in fees: those two factors have directly impacted on our curriculum.
Students instigating changes
Our response to the students’ need to author their own work has been to create more projects which challenge the hierarchical systems embedded in theatre and performance; a designer can create a piece of work or write a piece of work. This means works can come from a visual starting point instead of a written text.
The other thing we have done is to invite in clients to work with us and let us know what they want and having the students work to that agenda. Students have to negotiate between clients’ needs and their own creative expression. They also have to negotiate the tensions between the dramatic model of theatre and the performer-led, designer-led or non-verbal work.
We also value what the students do outside the curriculum as much as within it. In other words, we used to only look at their experience within the college, but now students are bringing in external collaborators to work with. We support the external work, but ultimately the students find the projects for themselves and they make the work outside of the confines of the college. What the students learn outside is just as important as what they learn here, - it teaches them to be enterprising in the truest sense.
What career paths do you expect your students go into?
One student chose to design a wedding in India, and she’s used her theatre design skills to do that because this is what she wants to do when she leaves. She doesn’t want to work in theatre, so it’s the perfect project for her; it’s making her more employable for her chosen field.
It’s actually enterprise and employability which has changed the name of our course from Theatre Design to Performance Design & Practice, because we are no longer solely about the designing for the theatre; a) there just aren’t enough jobs in that field and b) the students come with a different agenda, where they can apply the skills & knowledge in different contexts.
We have a recent graduate who was employed as the performance consultant London Zoo, which seems tangential but is hopefully the start of a great career, related to their studies. We have people who want to work designing weddings or people wanting to work in community contexts, they hope to apply theatrics and visual theatre in a way which helps their communities; to give them a voice through performance.
We are constantly trying to encourage the students to do what they want to do, to actually locate their practice. At the end of each year we give students a series of options and they choose for the following year from a number of projects, many of which involve external collaborators: eg the London Sinfonietta, where they collaborate with composers to make a film which will be screened at the BFI . This year we are starting new collaborations with the Royal Albert Hall and Trinity Laban in Greenwich. The students have to decide which project they want to do because they have to decide which is best for them in terms of their future aims.
What are the most important attributes from this course for students to take into their chosen careers?
The first is flexibility to adapt to different contexts, that’s one of the things that the course gives them. We don’t have specific career pathways so the breadth of the course allows students learn how to look at completely different contexts.
They also have to have the ability to reflect on their practice and understand it, to help them locate it within their desired fields. It’s important that they know what kind of work interests them and it’s necessary for students to understand the difference between pastiche, received ideas, and original thinking; that’s what we aspire to teach them.
Is your discipline changing?
Yes it’s changing a lot, for example, students wanting to author their own work; that is happening across Europe and the World in our subject, and it’s manifesting itself across many other disciplines. Dramatic theatre has changed - the text and the written word is no longer the centre around which the entire performance revolves. It’s not about dismissing that model of practice, it’s just acknowledging that there is a change (academics call it post-dramatic theatre) and exploring future possibilities for the discipline.
Other things that are changing are the same as within other disciplines like Widening Participation. We are becoming more interested in who the audience it, especially in terms of sustainability and inter-disciplinary collaborations.
Transcript by student journalist Rebekah Thompson