Awakening brain cells

Melbourne International Comedy Festival

I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells!

Dr Seuss

Awakening brain cells

As a teacher, theatre director and writer, I have experienced the tension between working in a 9 to 5 job and the more precarious style of work of securing my next ‘gig’, in directing a play or getting a book contract.  I know that the former has its own history of the hard-fought struggle for an 8-hour day with all its accompanying benefits, like annual holidays. Conversely, I’m aware that securing my next ‘gig’ also has a history in which fair work contracts were to be put in place for seasonal and experimental creative work, like a festival or an exhibition.

Collectively, the Creative and Cultural Industries hold hundreds of years of experience of amateur and professional performing and visual artists. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of a mass entertainment industry was transformed by theatre entrepreneurs navigating the tensions between risk-taking and opportunity-seeking businesses and fair and safe employment conditions.

Today, the implications of these two contrasting ways of working have been brought into sharp focus by the digital disruption of the workplace which has given rise to a ‘gig economy’.  Ironically, for me and other artists, ‘our’ way of working is fast becoming the norm. 

Michelle Wright, Founder and CEO of fundraising and development enterprise Cause4 puts it like this:

The way that we work has become very different in recent years. It used to just be musicians and actors who organised their lives in a series of ‘gigs’, but the practice is now becoming the norm for much of the working world. The very notion of the stable 9 to 5 job with a fixed salary each month is becoming rare… None of this is new for those working in the arts. This has been the reality of working life for years, and with the emergence of more complex portfolio careers for artists and musicians, the need to be savvy in managing life with a degree of entrepreneurial flair has become the norm. The very nature of working as an artist means that we have to tolerate high levels of ambiguity, perform and take risks – many of the hallmarks of entrepreneurship.

This got me thinking even more.

As a writer in arts education, I acknowledge the message about enterprise skills by Jan Owen and her visionary work through the Foundation For Young Australians. However, as I know schools are time-poor places, I wonder about their capacity to implement the Foundation’s compelling case for teaching ‘the new basics’ (2014, 2015 and 2017).  Nonetheless, the FYA has made a remarkable start through their research reports to both identify the skills needed and contextualise how they should be viewed through a ‘new work mindset’ of transferable career options.

Solutions can be in plain sight.

The Queensland University of Technology’s specialist Creative Industries Faculty website points out, that the Creative Economy is already leading the way forward in the digital disruption of the traditional workplace.

The creative industries are innovation-led, knowledge-intensive and highly exportable, and make a larger contribution to GDP than a number of traditional industry groups. Cultural and creative industries provide US$2.25 billion in revenue, 3% of world GDP, and 29.5 million jobs worldwide.
Creative workers are highly valued, with higher than average incomes. The creative industries represent 6.2% of total Australian employment. Employment in creative industries is growing 40% faster than the Australian economy as a whole.”

With regards to drama education specifically,  Nicholas Waxman, Head of Visual and Performing Arts at Eltham College reported in November 2017 in Education HQ, that the drama curriculum helps develop the enterprise skills identified by the Foundation For Young Australians (FYA). This is because in drama classes

…students need to be able to organise, plan, and research their work (problem solving); they need to be clear on the purpose and intention of their written work (communication and teamwork); evaluate the effectiveness of the script and its theatrical intent (critical thinking); bring the story to life with engaging character and stagecraft (creativity); work with projection, lighting and sound software and more to effectively present their finished product (digital literacy) while presentation skills are evident throughout the exercise. The obvious outlier is financial literacy, but most drama programs include student input. That could be a student production, house drama festival, house music performance, ensemble performance or a scene study.

Obsessions that rattled my brain

In 2002 I began to seriously ask myself the question as a teacher about how knowing nonsense woke up brain cells. There’s a whole story I could tell about how I set up the Biscuit Factory Arts Centre in South Freo (WA) and became obsessed with putting on NONSENSE PROJECTS blending Philosophy, Drama and Animation. In 2003, I ran the first ‘Drama and Philosophy’ workshops with philosopher Dr Laura D’Olimpio. Laura later wrote about our approach.

We started the workshops with a series of problem-solving activities and get-to-know-you games centred on the notion of questioning. Questions are crucial to the thoughtful mind; many philosophers would argue that they are even more important than the answers, as Howard Gardner (2004) argues. To ask questions is important as a practical tool that assists us in life: it is the way we process information, discover new information, and expose any problems with arguments or ideas. To introduce this topic to the children, we showed a series of images that were taken from the Wearable Arts Festival, which is held annually in Nelson, New Zealand. The Wearable Arts display their entries in a theatrical, fashion-show production that incorporates music, lighting and choreography. Prizes are given for the best creations. We asked the children to think of any questions, besides ‘What is it?’, that they would ask about the object or to the object. The intention behind this activity is to generate lots of different kinds of questions, not to answer them. We shall see that some of these questions may have answers and some may not, and some may have many answers.

We intentionally attempted to create a community of inquiry (a term used by the Philosophy In Schools movement) through our work. So, instead of getting students to ‘make up a scene’ through a free-flowing improvisational activity, we strategically intervened into their creative process by placing different swatches of coloured cloth on the floor as a way of embodying conscious decision making into their creative process. 

The children used our questions as provocations to reveal both the environment and atmosphere of their stories and its characters’ motives and moods. In turn, we observed how the children got better and better at asking each other questions and attributing specific meanings to the narratives.

To laugh or not to laugh? It’s not a silly question!

Asking questions is the foundation of all good jokes… Did you hear about the one…? What do you get when you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? Riddles and jokes are parented in the human brain in order to actively grapple with making meaning. The verb ‘to read’ is etymologically related to the verb of ‘to riddle’.

From Middle English redel, redels, from Old English rǣdels, rǣdelse ‎(“counsel”, “opinion”, “imagination”, “riddle”), from Proto-Germanic *rēdisliją ‎(“counsel, conjecture”). Akin to Old Saxon rādisli, rādislo, rēdilsa (Low German Radels, Dutch raadsel), Old High German rātisla (German Rätsel ‎(“riddle”)), Old English rǣdan ‎(“to read, advise, interpret”)

Of course, it’s even more complicated than that, but being comfortable and brave enough to question what ‘is’, including one’s own perceptions and the status quo, is a great place to start being a thoughtful activist.

Years later, I’m still gripped and fascinated with how Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss, Shakespeare and other writers of comedy tapped into the benefits of laughter. In recent times, we have added a neuroscientific perspective as various educational and business publications point us to the power of comedy in classrooms and the workplace. Opinions like the following support the physiological and psychological importance of laughter for human cognition.

When we laugh, we relax. As anxiety decreases, our capacity to retain information expands. Jokes also prompt what experts call “expectation failures,” memorable instances of cognitive dissonance that, in forcing us to grapple with what’s just been said, aid retention. In other words, the heightened emotion that humour evokes doesn’t just make it easier for us to hit upon insights we otherwise wouldn’t–it also helps us remember them. Fast Company (2016)

My brain cells in overdrive!

Do we really understand why humans have a sense of humour? Do we understand the importance of having opportunities to laugh together, in our communities and as a society in general? Apparent we rarely laugh when we are alone!

Do we appreciate the role of comedians in building a healthy and tolerant culture? Do we notice the profound effect that comedy plays when autocrats, tyrants and bullies change humour into ridicule and humiliation?

Do our schools allow staff and students to experience performances, events and publications by which they can access the psychological and physical benefits of laughter?

Strangely enough, in 2002, these questions were prompted by another obsession that had begun ten years earlier around the fact that, like myself, my students were constantly facing poor employment prospects whenever they imagined trying to make a living in the theatre or another creative industry. I was constantly asking myself why was I teaching in a subject in which few would reach success in full-time employment.  Like me, they would need to base themselves in another profession (teaching, journalism or hospitality were usually chosen) and move back and forth according to securing a gig in the business.

This led me in 1991 to start my doctorate on the formation of the Australian theatre industry under the influence of theatre entrepreneurs. In Entrepreneurs, Empires and Pantomimes (1997) looked into the work of J. C. Williamson who, between 1879 and 1913, formed the largest theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere.

What struck me more than anything was the fallacy of constructing the practices of theatre entrepreneurs as a ‘one-man-band’.  Not only did Williamson have constant competition from other managers such as George Coppin, Alfred Dampier and William Anderson, as well as his own former partner, George Musgrove, but he was also part of global networks of theatre managers that were expanding the popularity of theatre in ways that were unthinkable before the Industrial Revolution.

In the role of the theatre manager, they source theatrical content (scripts, musical scores, props) and personnel (leading actors, musical directors, choreographers, set designs etc) across the English-speaking world. They could access newspaper advertising and steam printing for theatre programs, postcards and other theatre merchandise, steam trains and steam-powered ships to transport performers, crew and production equipment

The key question for Radical Pantomimes and its all-out support of young comedy writers

How can we utilise the 200 hundred years of work experiences in the Creative Industries to enable students to succeed in a gig economy?

Logically, there seems no reason why we cannot benefit from two hundred years worth of evidence on what it’s like to work in a ‘gig economy’ by just listening to the stories of what happened is not enough.

It’s also true that we generally fail to change much through the ‘big history’ lessons, for instance, how the death of 11 million people in concentration camps has not stopped ultra-right racists marching once more on the streets of Charlottesville, USA.

It is important, therefore, to work out why it’s hard to learn from historical stories and the evidence that comes from historical sources. Instead, engaging in problem-solving in the present is usually much more successful in changing the course of action. At the basis of decision making, I believe there exists thinking and writing.

This website has been created around what I believe to be a more productive question to ask in an Information Age, and that is how can writing bring me and my students into the world of work in creative and mindful ways?

I believe that writing comedy in such a context is particularly powerful. This website offers programs and projects that show why and how this is so.

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