Some Thoughts on Teaching

My approach to teaching is one that understands performance as both an object of study and a method of learning. At UC Berkeley, I have had the opportunity to develop semester-long, studio-based courses on acting technique, theories of dramatic adaptation and devised theater, and histories of radical performance. I have also developed writing-intensive seminars at both UC Berkeley and the Freie Universität Berlin on the theater of Bertolt Brecht, on Berlin’s off-theater scene, and on the politics of the international performance festival. This evolving pedagogical practice stems from my experience as a theater maker, as well as from my graduate work in performance studies and undergraduate training in philosophy and English literature.

In both the studio and the seminar room, I work to achieve a balance between an emphasis on interdisciplinary forms while also maintaining a rigorous commitment to the methodologies, literatures, and practices of the disciplines I engage. Through a combination of workshops, lectures, individual and collaborative assignments, I help students to situate dramatic texts, theatrical productions, and theoretical interventions in their larger socio-historical contexts. I challenge them to examine how our varied roles are inflected by intersecting categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability. I am emphatic with my students about the primary importance of close-reading skills: be it marking the beats of a dramatic scene, deciphering important directorial choices in a live performance, or pinpointing the logical moves and rhetorical shifts of an argument. And I am also adamant about the fundamental importance – no matter the choice of major, or of future life goals – of learning how to write critically, effectively, comfortably, even adventurously. I help students to see that writing well – like acting, directing, and devising – greatly benefits from a deep familiarity and fluency with a particular set of rules and guidelines, and I encourage them to develop the necessary knowledge and expertise so that they feel permitted ultimately to break those rules.

 As an acting instructor, I bring a Stanislavski-based approach that also engages physical-theater traditions inspired by my own encounters with Grotowski, Brechtian Gestus, Viewpoints, and current European practitioners like Frank Castorf and René Pollesch. When teaching directing and devised (or ensemble-based) performance, I emphasize a detailed historical focus on important figures in twentieth-century directing theory, while also provoking students to explore a range of contemporary practices that engage the shifting role of the text, site-specificity, street performance, music, spectacle, as well as a repertoire of “postdramatic” paradigms: collage, surreal experience, vaudeville, dream image, and simultaneity. From the first day of the semester, I place a great amount of emphasis on generosity, personal responsibility, and the importance of ensemble. I believe – and I communicate this over and over again – that good theater depends on the individual’s ability to react to others and to the world at large with openness and presence. I help students to discover that the optimal conditions for reaction – poise, spontaneity, and specificity – are themselves predicated on mutual trust and respect, leaving very little space in class, or in the creative process more generally, for self-absorption.

As a means of modeling this point, I work to establish the classroom as a safe space and as a dialogic space. Rather than relying on a model of teaching in which the teacher merely deposits knowledge, I aim to construct an atmosphere of critical inquiry where students participate in the processes of knowledge creation. My goal is to help students make their own discoveries and to equip them with the resources, contexts, and confidences to do so. In order to build this confidence, one tactic I employ is to introduce materials – be it avant-garde texts, obscure performances, dense theoretical analyses, or controversial political events – that often push students (way) beyond their comfort zones, while also being careful, encouraging, and compassionate in greeting the fear and frustration that sometimes comes from being pushed in new ways. When I was an undergraduate, I was very fortunate to have a few instructors who were insistent on the importance of tackling these kinds of challenging materials as a means of emphasizing – instead of tabooing – that there are many individualized ways of accessing and generating ideas about a text or performance, while also remaining patient, understanding, and supportive of the resistance I had to being challenged to think beyond the notion of a “right” answer. I am very open with my students when I adopt this approach, and I assure them that I am always available to discuss and work through any concerns they might have. In their evaluations of my teaching, students consistently note that my classes are filled with passion and enthusiasm, and that they find me to be open, patient, and accessible. As one acting student wrote at the end of our semester together: “I felt more comfortable with myself in Room 7 and with Brandon than I ever have in my life. Not only does this class provide solid foundations for a beginning actor, the experiences in this class have been a unique journey.” And as another student wrote: “Brandon did an excellent job of guiding us through this course. He cultivated a warm learning environment. I have taken acting classes in the past, and this has been my favorite by far.”

In the classroom, as in my research and theater practice, I am committed to exploring the interrelations of theory and practice, scholarship and public engagement. Whether I am teaching acting, directing, theater history, or performance theory, I encourage my students to make connections between the university and the surrounding community. For example, at UC Berkeley I co-directed a departmental production of Günter Grass’s The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, which also served as a launching point for a semester-long investigation of the possibilities and limitations of the conjunctures of performance and political action. Grass’s play is a fictional account of Bertolt Brecht’s response to a historic series of workers protests against the Stalinist East German government in June 1953. The play is also about the politics of theatrical adaptation and is an attempt by Grass to “adapt” Coriolanus by means of engaging Brecht’s own adaptation of Shakespeare’s adaptation of the tragedy. During the summer of 2008, a colleague and I undertook a new translation and adaptation of Grass’s play, and we co-directed undergraduate students in a production of the play in the fall. The production itself served as a vehicle to guide students through deep analyses of the source texts and to discuss varying theories and practices of theatrical adaptation using our own as a case study. The production was also a starting point to engage a history of other theorists and artists interested in the relations between performance and activism. These historical and theoretical explorations informed the aesthetic choices that we helped the student actors and designers to make in the production. Simultaneously, the production became a springboard to help students consider their own roles as activist-artists and to think – for the first time for many of the students – about what an “aesthetics of protest” might look like and how tactical performance could be useful both on campus and beyond.

When teaching aspiring artists, I also find it especially useful to help them think about and work through the practical (and often less glamorous) side of artistic labor and the ways these practicalities inform and affect that labor. For instance, in spring 2012, I co-taught an upper level seminar at the Freie Universität Berlin about Berlin’s off-theater scene. As a class, we charted a theoretical trajectory from more classical debates about aesthetics and politics to more contemporary questions about precarious labor and project-based work. Through trips to the theater and classroom visits from artists like Gob Squad and the artistic directors of Berlin’s two largest off-scene performance institutions, students also developed a vocabulary to analyze the aesthetics of this ensemble-based, often-devised, mostly-postdramatic mode of performance. Together we developed a familiarity with the funding instruments and policy decisions that impact the kind of work being produced in Berlin. Students also collaborated on and submitted grant applications for (fictional) performance projects and were asked to serve as jury members in a mock selection process. This examination of the paradoxes and hidden assumptions behind those (ever-dreadful) grant applications helped students develop a deeper understanding of the infrastructural and administrative dimensions of making work in the off-scene. This strategic interweaving of theoretical debates, aesthetic approaches, and hands-on practical administrative and artistic work sought to fill a particular gap in the teaching curriculum and resulted in extremely positive student evaluations, saying things like: “Thank you very very much! One of the most meaningful seminars until now, especially in exploring the complicated relations between academics and artistic practice.”