Friday, June 28, 2013

The Empty Space & The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.

The Choristers on the Beach. Peter Brook's 1963 "Lord of the Flies".
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage".          (Peter Brook, "The Empty Space" 1968.)

In my retirement from English teaching I read much of the night and have no intention of going South for the Winter.

This post is about imagination and is inspired by my current reading and reflections on:
1. Peter Brook's classic work on theatre The Empty Space 

2. William Golding's Lord of the Flies

3. William Gillette's The Illusion of the First Time in Acting.

4. Internet Blogs about Education.

5. My teaching experience.

I write, co-incidentally, on a day of teacher strikes. For me, as the old hymn has it, 'the strife is o'er, the battle done' and I recollect in Wordsworthian tranquillity. So, for what it is worth:-

It appears fortunate now that I read the Brook before becoming a teacher for what I absorbed without reflection sustained the arterial flow of a whole career.

On one level the notion that any empty space was potentially a platform for performance informed all I did in amateur theatre, school productions and classroom drama. There's a clump of trees in a field set apart from a West Midlands school that stands dumb witness to several generations of children filming scenes from Bugsy Malone and enacting Shakespearean and Black Country versions of The Rude Mechanicals. The same school no doubt still uses the classroom in which two 12 year old boys improvised on one word, plank, with Laurel & Hardy artistry. 30 children and a teacher were physically in a Black Country classroom - but patently elsewhere.

Brook's inspiration applies more profoundly I realise to the provision of meaningful life-enhancing experiences.

A shared absorption in the invisible seems now to me the litmus test of living (hence worthwhile) experiences in three apparently disparate settings: the church, the theatre and the classroom. It is the only 'common core' I could ever, hand on heart, subscribe to.

Preachers, actors and teachers operate in familiar, traditional settings in which they encounter audiences. Much of what transpires is tried, tested and repetitious. Consider: which attentive congregation, audience or class has not tolerated (often welcomed) the standard, the predictable, the workmanlike, the pedestrian in the best sense of the word?  

Religious ritual, a sense of tradition, the comfort of the familiar imply stability and pattern, sooth the troubled spirit. Brook illustrates in his first lecture on 'The Deadly Theatre'  that many an audience wouldn't thank you for any 'surprise' that was too raw and real to predict. This is an entirely human conservatism shared by children in school with those who teach them and I do not underestimate its value. Let the preacher try some radical revamp one Christmas Eve service and see what forgiveness he accrues for his heresy. To everything there is a season.

We are all human. Those charged with the structuring and repeated presentation of all such communal experiences draw considerable powers of endurance from settled patterns and predictably viable, relevant content. I was certainly glad of a detailed departmental scheme of work in my two probationary years.

The Illusion of the First Time in Acting.

I suspect it is the actor who notices first (ahead of teachers and preachers) that the attempted reproduction of what 'worked' before unaccountably flops. I think this because the actor is most likely to encounter the spectre of repetition early, even in the shortest of performance runs.

William Gillette, the American actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, makes my point. He saw acting, drama as a 'great Life-Class' with Hamlet's advice to the Players the definitive expression of Gillette's 'Life Simulation'. As I read the following extract, I realise teachers (and preachers) must contend with the toll demanded by that Porter, Repetition:

"...unfortunately for an actor he knows or is supposed to know his part. He is fully aware - especially after several performances - of what he is going to say. The Character he is representing, however, does not know what he is going to say, but, if he is a human being, various thoughts occur to him, one by one, and he puts such of those thoughts as he decides to, into such speech as he happens to be able to command at the time. Now it is a very difficult thing...for an actor who knows exactly what he is going to say to behave exactly as though he didn't ...even though these words are at his tongue's very end...audiences...without knowing the nature of this fatal malady (know) when the actor...fails to do this." 

There can be few theatre-goers who have not felt that sinking feeling that accompanies the 'safe' performance, the sure knowledge the actor is intent only on conserving energy in a taxing run. Theatre audiences pay and do not tolerate this for long. Successful actors, by necessity, use every trick in (and beyond) the book to create "The Illusion of the First Time". Gillette is right when he notes the play does not exist until (every new performance) it is imbued with new life. The script is analogous to the music score which we never mistake for the music.

As George Arliss says in his Introduction to Gillette's book:
"...the mental machinery of the actor is even more delicate than the record of a phonograph. That mental needle which acts upon the record of the author's words is influenced by...a thousand influences ...apart from the ever-varying pulse of the audience."

And as the American comedian, Joseph Jefferson, put it to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1897:

"A writer does not write the same book...but you have to play the same part very often - night after night - and yet play as if you had never played before".

Which brings me to teachers and preachers for they, especially, cannot rely on past laurels. How do they preach and teach as if for the first time when it all becomes second nature? 


The Illusion of the First Time in Preaching.

Imagine, if you will, a Methodist chapel.
A white-haired supernumerary (a retired minister) is about to deliver the sermon.

Enter side-door left: the Sunday School - all 40 of them - oblivious of the service in progress. Oh, and two very embarrassed teachers, chasing one little girl who turns down the wrong aisle.

Rev. Whitehair: (smiling, benignly, as the children exit church right) "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Amen."

A beat.

Brandishing the unread sermon, he looked from the papers in his hands to the congregation to the empty space where the lost child had just strayed.

Rev. Whitehair: (replying to the invisible, palpable, living moment) "Indeed, God sent in his bounty a far better sermon than this. I shall keep it for another occasion. Hymn number..."

Over the years I think this memory (I was about 14) subtly contributed to a realisation that if you could still be alive to the moment after many years of professional experience you remained open to invisible unpredictable opportunities that, bravely embraced, calmly trusted, enriched everyone present more lastingly than the most thoughtful preparation may achieve. Mr. Whitehair acquiesced in what his congregation knew - that his planned sermon had been rendered superfluous.

The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.

In retrospect, I think I can see how circumstances lead me (mostly by necessity) to value and respond (if I had the wherewithal) to the given present employing the past as a flexible resource. Such an approach is impossible to maintain day in day out. But if there are enough moments of this nature with a class, they are absorbed and cluster as tributaries of silent sea-change. I'll come to some examples in a moment.

Those circumstances?

Happening to be a teacher of English literature, amateur actor and director. (Imagination matters).

Spending two probationary years on full timetables without prior or in-service training. (Your own resources and powers of observation matter).

Teaching (11-18) English in every school space imaginable, sometimes at short notice. (Flexibility, improvisation and a 'portable' English classroom matter.) If you have ever taught A level Literature ("Paradise Lost"!) in the Woodwork Room for a year, you know what I mean. Imagine Year 9 drama once a week in a Science Lab with gas and water taps and a technician setting up experiments for real lessons. And you can't even move the benches in such specialist rooms. 

Teaching a lot of A level. (The slow cycles of set texts ensure you frequently teach the same book again, sometimes to parallel groups - I lost count how many times I taught 'Hamlet' - freshness matters.) 

Such were the exigencies that conspired to develop my valuation of imaginative absorption, the notion of an empty space and teaching to the moment. This did not come as 'a philosophy': it was very practical survival. In a nutshell - if I had a novel, a short story, a play or a poem (and a little faith in their imaginative powers) these classrooms of the mind were all I needed and superior to the plushest "English suite". I would lure students there by any means that presented itself wherever we were physically timetabled. 

I don't remember precisely when I began to enter every lesson thinking of the empty space. Sometimes it was useful to reveal explicitly. If, by chance, an A level group was timetabled in a room where tables were conference-style (myself one side of a square), the visible empty space was too handy a visual metaphor for that inner imaginative stage I said I would 'meet' them upon in the course of the lesson.

You are either totally imaginatively absorbed or you are not - there are no degrees. Few moments are as dear to the teacher of literature as the slow dawning of communal realisation (usually prompted by a bell) that for x minutes we have all been somewhere else.

The Examples?

The Empty Space & Imaginative Absorption - read the 'Making History' anecdote in my previous post CLICK HERE. 

Teaching in the Moment -

eg1. I'm reading a passage of 'Frankenstein' aloud as the A level class follow the text. (I always read the whole text with classes)
A student's hand goes up: "Sorry, sir, do you do that? I can't do that!"


"Read like that. You're hardly looking at the book. Do you know it by heart?"

[English teachers reading will know the implications of this spontaneous interruption. In private reading this A level student probably did not take in more than a phrase at a time. What to do? How to respond? The A level trainer in me tempted a throw away response so we could 'get on with the lesson'. I nearly replied, 'Could be! Taught this so many times! Besides, teachers get used to reading with one eye on the class' (wink). I didn't.]

The rest of the lesson developed into a crucially valuable whole class discussion of advanced reading skills, based on my initial prompt that if (as we all know) sentences are units of sense - is it not logical and indeed inescapable that you cannot read anything aloud before you have made some sense of it? With the charitable care of more advanced students the original questioner (and others) were blithely reading, understanding, remembering then reciting aloud complex sentences.

"Great lesson, sir!" It was - a sea-change had happened. Not only was silent reading changed for ever - Shelley began her work too.

eg2. I've taken over an A2 class for the final run in to external exams at very short notice. They're expecting a Chaucer lesson. It's 'The Miller's Tale'. I haven't read it since university. I recall next to nothing. I'm floundering before we start.

They're patently one of those pleasant, hard-working, eager-to-do-well-in-the-exam groups. I feel inadequate. I improvise, based on the saving grace that lessons are not infinite in length. Perhaps someone might lead a discussion by reading a recent essay so I might get to know people and get an idea of where you're at?

Ian will remember to this day, better than I, what transpired from his generous offer to read an essay on Chaucer's Humour. I knew him to be in the top third of the group.

Ironically, not knowing the text, I listened with (disguised) wrapt attention, gathering what crumbs of story, theme and character I could. He'd been...well trained. Structure, argument, illustrative reference, relevance, know...all there. Except...  

It dawned on me as he moved to conclude that not once had he in or out of the essay smiled, chuckled or laughed.

"Here we have Chaucer's humour" (quote) - statement after statement with a straight, earnest exam face; no hint of infection from Geoffrey's wit.

He revealed he needed a high grade for his preferred university course. He wasn't going to get it. Unless...

I took the only plunge possible and brought the matter right into the open. We spent the rest of that lesson finding and giggling over things we actually personally really found funny. They were there, but they weren't always what Coles or teacher had signposted.

Ian and the others thankfully cottoned on that an essay was better if you actually said what you thought and allowed something of the author's style to permeate your own. Imaginative engagement.

NB: Reader, if you feel like a break - this is fun:


eg3.I'm reading a text aloud (I forget which) & occasionally commenting and observe the whole class is either writing notes or watching me, pen in hand, for the next idea. No one is reading the text. No one is imaginatively engaged. Everyone is exam-answer collecting.

Apart from shortcomings in the appreciation of imagery and the uses of natural description, the greatest problem I have encountered in A level teaching is the understandable anxiety to pass the exam. This leads to demands, expectations of notes and specimen answers that give comfort, confidence and something concrete to revise. Teachers rightly provide these. But they'll only take you so far.

I stopped this particular class, to stress the superiority of direct imaginative experience of a literary text over the collection of other people's ideas about it. You remember significant experiences; you absorb how you felt when you stood inside Elsinore Castle; you can respond to any exam question more honestly, relevantly and fluently if you move from one imaginative world into the next as the exam paper invites.

Only then do you really know what you want to say and are confident to tell that to the examiner who asks "What do you think?" Why on earth should you prefer to repeat received opinions when it's much more fun to describe your unique experience?  

Speaking of unique experiences brings me to 'Lord of the Flies'.

"The Potted History of Man"(Peter Brook on the fable that is 'Lord of the Flies').

Currently, for the first time in my life, I'm reading Golding's novel without teaching it and I have to conclude there's something about retirement that attunes the ex-English teacher especially to fable. When I first taught the novel in the early 70's I was aware intellectually of the genre; this time round the experience is deeply felt and profound. I find the potted history of my life and an apt emblem for the faith I profess in the life-changing potential in an unfettered imagination.

Long ago, the book and Brook's film took my Year 9's to the bare stage of a desert island and proceeded to hold the mirror up to our common natures in a safe, protective, vicarious, imaginative experience.

Some children went one step further when, in 1961, Peter Brook whisked a group of boys to Vieques Island in the Caribbean and filmed them living the novel's characters living through the story's events.

There's a scene in the film which does not occur in the book. Piggy tells the Littluns a story, the very image of an infants teacher. Here it is:

Observing these boys in a break on set, Brook had the cameras roll to capture the unscripted scene. It survived the final cut and impresses in two ways. First, it is impossible to distinguish actor from character. Second, it's a deeply ironic moment. My class observed that had this group been home in Camberley the story would likely have been about a desert island. Need I say more?

The imagination craves refreshment, provides invisible nourishment to the business of everyday life. Einstein valued it above logic and knowledge; empathy is a close relative. Imaginative experiences (whether through literature or myriad other routes) have their own time schemes. It took me years to fully comprehend what first I glimpsed of the novel's hidden depths - as long in fact as it took the actors in Brook's film to see with any clarity what effect the experience had upon their lives. Tom Gaman, who played Simon, movingly describes the 1996 reunion arranged by Peter Brook. CLICK HERE . It's abundantly clear those few weeks on 'fantasy island' enriched the lives of everyone involved.

Brook seems to me now to have been both director and teacher and I'd simply be satisfied if my own valuation of imaginative experience proves as positive to some of the students I've taught. I doubt I shall ever know.

As it is, 'Lord of the Flies', like any respectable fable, possesses a universality that finds ever fresh application. Right now, looking at education (and other spheres of human activity) I see the Jacks of this world busily, blindly, thoughtlessly hunting for meat, oblivious of the fire going out, neglecting to keep an altruistic eye on the horizon, ignoring the call of the conch and Ralph's despairing cry: "There was a ship!"


I am well aware of the quirky nature of this and most of my blog. "Markings" exists as a thought diary. You are reading a man trying to make sense of his life now he has time to consider. What I say and how it is expressed has the virtue of meaning something to me. For the visiting reader I append this quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet,
'To RB' (Robert Browning). 

'O then, if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation'.

To go straight to my next Education post please click Two Allegories About Education..







No comments:

Post a Comment