Dramatically good: the ethics of performing arts in further and higher education

Damien O’Keeffe is Curriculum Team Leader for Media, Music and Performing Arts at Bradford  College, where he lectures in performing arts to further and higher education students.

Damien O'Keeffe (left) in the PaperZoo production of 1984, with former Bradford College student Ben Eagle, and John Hurt.

Damien O’Keeffe (left) in the PaperZoo production of 1984, with former Bradford College student Ben Eagle, and John Hurt. Ben is now studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Damien started by outlining two main strands to the ethical debate concerning performance:

“There’s what we put out and our responsibilities as artists and communicators – because live performance is very immediate and visceral. And from a teaching point of view, we have to consider the material that we offer to our students, how we guide them in what they want to express.”

Creating a safe space
One of the key things is to create a safe environment for students and staff. “A rehearsal studio has to be a space where you can explore without embarrassment,” Damien explains.

The staff increasingly find that young people want to create drama that explores big issues such as body image, sexuality, addiction, family difficulties. “All drama is conflict,” Damien says. “The ancient Greeks knew that – and it means that drama can be a place where you can explore things that are happening in the world that you don’t understand or are frightened of. However, less experienced students sometimes act out very personal conflicts, and this can make them vulnerable.”

Expletives deleted (sometimes)
It also means that the lecturers have to be prepared to challenge things that are potentially offensive or difficult. “This is not as censorship,” Damien explains. “It is about enabling students to understand the impact of how they express things. If you swear all the time, it becomes meaningless – yet a well-placed expletive used carefully has major power.” The students are given a short history of major media landmarks in the use of obscene language, and they are introduced to some Shakespearean insults. “We aim to enrich vocabulary and improve the effectiveness of the drama our students create.”

The YouTube effect
Up to a few years ago, drama students would only be seen when they put on a live performance. There might be the occasional video or audio recording, not easily available. Damien and I discussed the fact that now a drama student can go home, put themselves on YouTube and broadcast to the world.

“We have to cover netiquette on all our courses,” Damien explains. “If you put your work out there, you must expect criticism, and it’s on the record. We don’t want to curtail freedom of expression or the embracing of new technologies. That can be good: casting directors, other performers and professionals may see what you do, and it can lead to good things. But the whole population can see it and you have to be careful about that.”

The College’s drama courses also explore self-presentation as a way of empowering the students. “They need the space to be themselves but also they need to understand that your ‘self’ changes according to the space that you are in. We teach students how to centre and be strong in themselves. This is the kind of thing that can help you throughout your life, whether you have a career in drama or not.”

The drama curriculum – a fine judgement
The courses take on a wide variety of students – some have been drama enthusiasts for years, taking part in lots of performances. Others have had almost no experience of theatre.

“We try to give students what they need rather than what they want,” Damien says. “It’s a fine judgement; you don’t want a hidden or assumed curriculum. It would be easy to let the students carry on doing what they know and like – ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘Grease’, ’The Little Shop of Horrors’ and so on. So we give them new challenges – anything from ancient Greek drama to contemporary playwrights.

“The studio is a way to explore difficult things, but there is so much that is dangerous in the world – the studio is also a place where the students can discover beauty, redemption and light because that is what is often missing from the students’ lives. All this makes teaching drama a wonderful job.”

Damien in rehearsal for the summer 2013 production of Hard Times.

Damien in rehearsal for ‘Hard Times’.

Damien is from Bradford. He went to local schools, where two inspirational teachers gave him and many other young people a passion for drama and the opportunity to take part in it. He studied drama and media studies at Manchester College, and then gained a degree in performing arts from Middlesex University. He has worked as an actor, and in theatre education outreach at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and Leicester Haymarket Theatre. He is a founder member of PaperZoo, a theatre company set up and run by teachers and students.

Useful links
Bradford College students: Oh What a Lovely War, 13 and 14 June 2013.
PZ LogoPaperZoo’s next production: Hard Times, showing in Leeds, Bradford, Saltaire, Otley, Settle, Halifax and Bury.
Damien’s personal blog: Flawed Monkey
Photo: Damien in a performance of ‘Ruffian on the Stair’ at Bradford College’s Yorkshire Craft Centre, with Julia O’Keeffe.
Interview and text: Ruth Wilson, Bradford College