Balancing risk? First year performing arts students' experience of a community arts event
Federation University Australia
This study examines participants' responses to first year students' street performances as a non-placement work-integrated learning (WIL) activity over a two year period. The purpose of the study was to determine: (1) community perception, (2) continuous improvement, and (3) future needs. Data was collected through surveying participants' post-viewing of the street performances, students' reflective notes, and a recorded focus group interview. The findings indicated that audience members require additional assistance to value the students' street performances. The results revealed that students require more guidance around researching the sites of practice, understanding group work dynamics, relaxation methods, intra- and interpersonal skill development, conflict resolution and how to effectively build community relations with the local government Council. From the findings, specific recommendations for continual improvement are made. These include offering an explanation of the street performances' historical and aesthetic connections to the building sites for audience members, affording battery operated body-microphones and light rostrum for improved sight lines, delivering group dynamics information and arranging opportunities for students to engage more effectively with the Council. While the recommendations in this study are intended to advance the field of research that evaluates non-placement WIL performing arts curriculum in higher education, the findings are relevant to any group-based performance activity in learning and teaching.
Here were young performers in pancake make-up mixing with Saturday and Sunday crowds, their words jostling with rev-heads on motorbikes, brass bands pumping it out from a pub balcony and the crash of peeling bells. Students blossomed. (Ryan, 2014).The creative industries are increasingly recognised as important to the economic growth of Australia (Australian Government, 2013; Bennett, Wright & Blom, 2009; Ewing, 2010; Giles & Drewes, 2002; OECD, 2002) and the development of "social and cultural well-being" (Bridgstock, 2011, p.9). This importance gives urgency to the development of educational responses which recognise that performing arts students need to develop individual artistic practices, as well as a variety of professional skills (Bridgstock, 2011; Pollard & Wilson, 2013). Such an educational development focus should move beyond creating and mapping graduate outcomes for the creative industries and offer a broader range of professional capabilities for work readiness (Business Industry and Higher Education Collaboration Council, 2007; Department of Education, Science and Training, 2002; Green, Hammer & Star, 2009).
For the performing arts, audience participation in theatre marketing, theatre studies or "visitors" satisfaction (Boerner & Jobst, 2013) as well as "subjective experience in theatres" (Boerner, Moser & Jobst, 2011, p. 877) have also arisen in the area of evaluation research. Empirical research on the importance and impact of audiences' responses when visiting multiple types of theatre is rare (Boerner & Jobst, 2013; Boerner, Moser & Jobst, 2011). Other areas where evaluation research is implemented is around the student learning experience, such as investigating specific evaluation instruments or practitioner-based learning outcomes (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004; Jones, Higgs, De Angelis & Prideaux, 2001; Richardson, 2005) and assessment for learning (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004; McDowell, Wakelin, Montgomery & King, 2011). A closer review of the literature highlights the use of evaluation research in relation to reviewing assessment for learning. This area focuses primarily on primary and secondary education (McDowell, Wakelin, Montgomery & King, 2011; William, Lee, Harrison & Black, 2004) and undertaking commissioned evaluation reports on key programs (White & Conventry, 2000; White & Mason, 2003; Wilson & Wright, 1993). Alternatively, the literature positions work-integrated learning (WIL) as a key contributor for evaluating assessment for learning (Billett, 2009; Boud, Cohen & Walker, 1993; Calway, 2006; Coll & Chapman, 2000; Eraut & Hirsch, 2007; Orrell, 2011; Yorke, 2006). However, minimal reference has been made to performing arts WIL and non-placement WIL in these studies (Bruns & Brien, 2002; Hains-Wesson, 2012; Orrell, 2011; Pollard & Wilson, 2013).
In this study, first year performing arts students were offered an opportunity to present street performances to a 'live', diverse and roaming audience. The non-placement WIL assessment task was a complex learning experience that had real world value (Billett, 2009; Boud, Cohen & Walker, 1993; Calway, 2006; Coll & Chapman, 2000; Eraut & Hirsch, 2007; Orrell, 2011; Yorke, 2006).
The following research question guided the research process and assisted the authors to identify what was being evaluated (the street performance task), why it was being evaluated (impact and effect), and who the evaluation was for (students and audience members). The research question was:
How can responses to students' street performances influence the re-design of a non-placement WIL activity for enhancing first year performing arts students' learning experience?It is important to note that bias around the evaluation process was possible. This is due to one of the researchers being the curriculum designer and lecturer of the unit under investigation. To minimise potential contamination of the evaluation data, all efforts were made for the first author to act as an external evaluator, collect data and prevent any data being released to the second author until students' grades were finalised.
In the following section, the project and the assessment task under scrutiny are explained, preceded by the methods used, and followed by a results and discussion section. A conclusion section is then presented which focuses on the seven recommendations for continual improvement of the WIL activity, elicited from the findings.
The street performance assessment task formed part of a regional community arts event titled, Heritage Weekend on 11 to 12 May in 2013 and from 10 to 11 May in 2014, in the City of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. The Heritage Weekend event is an annual tourist attraction that celebrates Ballarat's gold rush history and architectural heritage, for and by the community. The event usually attracts around 14,000 visitors (see http://www.ballaratheritageweekend.com/ for more detail).
The street performances (titled Living Heritage) required eight groups of five students in 2013 with the same number occurring in 2014 to devise 5-7 minutes, site-specific performances for Heritage Weekend. Student groups developed characters, scripts and created street performances around historical narratives connected to the sites that they were allocated to by the lecturer. The street performances were presented in weeks eight and nine during the first semester. Each student group performed four times over two weekends. During the creation phase of the street performances, students were required to research historical material, and plan and develop the shows, which were based on the research findings. Students were also required to negotiate and collaborate pre- and during the performances with the local community and Council members as well as manage technical requirements and crowd control. This was often challenging for students due to the public outdoor space environment which is often associated with street performance.
A designer was commissioned to help students create a unified performance aesthetic. For example, in 2013, students' presentations were linked through design by the incorporation of a white, web-like fabric destined for landfill but reclaimed. The design technique encouraged students to explore ecological impacts and cultural consumption (Beer, 2013). In 2014, students were allocated a third year visual communications student to assist them with the design of the shows and the development of the groups' artistic identity for the street performances (Figure 1).
Students' ideas and experiences were filmed by a professional camera person for wider audience distribution and for post-performance publicity beyond the project (for more detail see https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4r2ELVSxx09cEVSMks0Z19qRzQ/edit?pli=1 and https://vimeo.com/72618852).
Figure 1: Students take part in the Living Heritage event and showcase
the overall design of their show (Photo: Chrissie Smith, 2014)
|Item||Assessment task||Assessment type||Weighting|
|1||Attendance and participation.||Attendance and participation at lectures, tutorials and excursions.||10%|
|2||Class presentation of mood board/ performance of Living Heritage||Presentation of practice-led research, including a verbal report.||50%|
|3||Casebook, including library task (20%), reflection and test (20%).||Research, analysis, reflection and documentation on an area of study based on the practice-led research.||40%|
Students were required to present evidence of research, historical and theatrical reflection, critical thinking and creativity regarding the non-placement WIL activity. Marks were allocated according to a mixed grading approach (formative and summative), which included quantitative and qualitative feedback. This approach aided in providing a clear indication of students' progress towards meeting the unit's learning outcomes. The unit's learning outcomes were:
Students' contributions (process and product) of the creative work were graded according to a Likert grading scale where 5 represented 'always' and 1 represented 'never'. The following lists the guidelines that the lecturer used to determine students' grades.
University ethics approval was obtained and information was provided to participants, inviting them to take part in the study. No incentive was offered. A modest number of students (n=80) and audience members (n=69) engaged in the process.
The audience survey was administered after they had viewed the street performances at the Heritage Weekend community event in 2013 and 2014. Closed-ended questions were calibrated on a Likert scale 1 to 5 with a score of 5 indicating that audience members believed that the 'live' performance met their 'entertainment' expectations and to be of a high quality (see Appendix A).
Five distinct themes arose from the codes which aligned to the researchers' non-placement WIL framework and the research question for this study. For example, the development and understanding of the following WIL related outcomes such as theory to practice, group work, intra- and interpersonal skills and lifelong learning are important factors for effective learning during WIL placements (Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick & Cragnolini, 2004, p. 1). When WIL activities are incorporated into learning it is a key opportunity for improving the work readiness of all graduates (Govekar & Rishi, 2007; Rossin & Hyland, 2003). This includes students studying in disciplines that have not traditionally been linked to clear employment outcomes such as performing arts and creative writing (Haigh & Clifford, 2011; Hains-Wesson, 2012; Lee, McGuiggan & Holland, 2010). The themes were:
The majority of audience members either 'strongly agreed' or 'agreed' to the questions being asked about the street performances in relation to 'authentic', 'engagement' and the 'quality' of the shows. This result indicated an overwhelmingly positive response to the student street performances in 2013 and 2014.
The following section highlights the audiences' quantitative responses in detail. A visual representation of the quantitative data sets, using bar graphs, is shown in Appendix A. The data is presented in the same order as the survey questions that were asked.
It is worth noting that the volume of data illustrating "neither agree nor disagree" in the qualitative data sets may have been due to the nature of street performance per se; for instance, where overall engagement and entertainment with the event is not always dependent upon a single element of performance such as acting techniques, lighting or design. As a result, it is possible that participants may have answered the questions in this fashion (such as choosing "neutral") due to the complex 'nature' of effectively evaluating street performance.
A further and detailed analysis of the audience' and students' responses is presented in the discussion section of this paper. In the following section, the students' qualitative responses from the survey, reflective notes and recorded focus group interview are presented. The data is presented in order of the themes that emerged from the analysis.
I never used to rely on research all that much and used to go into a performance head on which only caused a lot of worry and sleepless nights. But now that I understand the benefits of research I can apply this method of work to all of my work as a performer.
It was expectantly rough, but I learnt a lot about how much I can cope with and my ability to deal with added pressures through interaction within my own group and the live audience from the experience.Other students noted that they felt "even more pressure" to perform "live" on the street, which brought about an intensity to the performance, especially when "some audience members walked through our space" and "even to the point where they couldn't move because we were performing" or "a scary biker man threatening us". Another student expressed the following:
The biggest complication for me was the traffic lights. Having to improvise while waiting for the lights didn't aid the performance but broke the proverbial fourth wall.The majority of students stated that they were able to "stay in character and continue as normal" and that they "learnt that as a street performer, I can continue and the audience will pay attention, even if it's not their intention to do so".
Students felt highly motivated when they heard comments from the audience such as "being genuinely moved by our piece". It was these types of verbal reactions from the audience members that validated many students' beliefs about themselves in a positive way, even though they experienced considerable stress managing the creative task and the audience members.
Students viewed the task as "risky". Students felt overwhelmed and did not know if they could achieve the required outcome. One student noted, "I haven't worked in front of a live audience on the street before. It was a new experience and honestly, I didn't really know how to react to some of the situations that came up". Many students found opportunities through the complex and "risky" assessment challenge by discovering new ways to link their particular learning style to future everyday life experiences such as:
I am starting to realise now that I don't have to go searching for something clever or creative when devising a performance because it's already there. I think I can also apply this to my everyday life.Overall, students felt tested by their peers' learning styles but they were also able to become more flexible with how they worked with their peers such as, "I had once thought of myself as a very individual 'pen and paper' type learner but the attitude of my group helped me to find new ways of learning and accomplishing tasks".
Another student said:
So much of what I learn in all my classes is about awareness and connection - bringing it outside of yourself to the people around you and I think that this sort of focus on others helps us to get along better with people in both acting and life.
Another student wrote:
In life, we would always be faced with the prospect of working with difficult people or people who we may not feel comfortable to work with. But in an ironic way, these are also the people that we would mostly likely gravitate towards as a means of confronting our habitual ways of dealing with things.Other students proposed that the experience was a means to "test themselves" in order to gain knowledge about the areas they needed to improve on such as preparing themselves for professional work: "if we do not feel brave enough to take on the challenges presented to us in life, we will never know what possibilities lay out there and we will never learn from them"; and, "I can apply these principles to many aspects in my life because I am always going to be working with people and so I need to understand how to deal with issues that arise in order for me to work effectively".
A number of students said that they "learnt more" about themselves as a developing professional due to being involved in a complex and difficult WIL assessment task. One student said:
There will be differences in opinions and people who will get on your nerves but there are ways to manage these issues and as long as it is achieved in a professional and respectable manner then the work shouldn't be too difficult.No matter the experience from students' perspectives, the weather, audience interference, nerves or a lack of confidence, students felt that they had completed an effective performance, learnt something new about themselves and their peers as well as acquired a range of transferable employability skills such as:
If I can apply the positive interactions with other team members and proper forward thinking and commitment to a piece of work to other scenarios in life, such as working in a company and jobs that involve working with people and reacting and responding to the general public, then I think that some of the skill sets that I have gained over the experience of Heritage Weekend will have given me a positive and long lasting basis for my future.
With this in mind, it could be argued that curriculum development for non-placement WIL activities is dissimilar to traditional types of learning, especially for the performing arts. Firstly, the need to provide students with non-traditional resources to help support them with their individual learning experiences, managing stress and integrating theory to practice is crucial. Secondly, the findings from audience' and students' responses have helped the research team to unravel practical areas for continual improvement around the WIL activity, especially when the learning is "complex and occurs outside the classroom environment" (Fitch, 2011; Herrington, Oliver & Reeves, 2003). Thus, a set of seven specific recommendations for central planning for the activity have been developed. These are:
The study presented here is limited in that it is specific to a performing arts discipline in an Australian university context. However, the recommendations developed from the findings are relevant to teaching and learning across the creative arts industry, locally, nationally and internationally, and to any non-placement WIL group-based assessment activity that has a 'performative' component.
A similar research method at other universities would be useful in order to compare findings and differences. Therefore, the results from this study need to be interpreted with caution due to the modest sample size. In addition, undergoing qualitative interviews with audience members to gather similar data that was collected from students may have gained wider understanding. Time and opportunity did not permit the research team to undertake such a task. This was mainly due to the mobility of the audience members as they roamed from one performance site to another, creating difficulties for the researchers to capture data.
Students' and audience members' responses, beliefs and opinions around the creating, performing and/or viewing of students' street performances for a community arts event (as a non-placement WIL activity) illustrates a major concern for the teaching of this unit. Firstly, audience members require specific assistance in order to value the shows more effectively, and secondly, students often viewed the street performances as a 'risky' activity, which was complex and stressful. This in turn, emphasises the urgency for the teaching team to implement a variety of non-traditional learning support resources to enhance and support participants' learning experiences without necessarily 'watering down' the authenticity, proximity and complexity of the opportunity. Students often expressed that despite the assessment task being 'risky' it was important for developing self-directed learning and professional skills via a life-changing event. Therefore, the implementation of the seven specific recommendations will provide students with crucial and needed support. Finally, a future mixed method evaluation process is planned for this unit in order to identify whether or not the recommendations aided in achieving such an outcome.
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Audience survey questions and overall percent scores of audience' responses and perceptions about the students' street performances in 2013 and 2014 where SD=Strongly Disagree, D=Disagree, N= Neither Agree nor Disagree, A=Agree and SA=Strongly Agree.
Extremely effectivePlease state why you have answered this way
Not at all effective
Extremely preparedPlease state why you chose this answer
Not at all prepared
|Authors: Rachael Hains-Wesson is a Lecturer in Blended Learning at Deakin University in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment. She provides support and expertise around blended learning design and evaluation. Her research interests include: curriculum evaluation, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education, reflective practice and work-integrated learning. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela Campbell is a Lecturer in Critical Studies, Performing Arts at Federation University. Her teaching, research and published work incorporates both practical and theoretical investigations into theatre and performance. Her current research includes the connections between history, heritage and performance, methods of practice-led research and work-integrated learning in creative arts. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Hains-Wesson, R. & Campbell, A. (2014). Balancing risk? First year performing arts students' experience of a community arts event. Issues in Educational Research, 24(3), 320-342. http://www.iier.org.au/iier24/hains-wesson.html