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"That was boring. Tell it again."

02 July 2009

Live blogging from the Teachers' Academy in Sofia, 1-4 July

The 4th ELIA Teachers' Academy started today in Sofia, and from this blog, we'll be covering the event. It's been eleven years since the conference Strangers and Brothers, when we were just beginning to think of Eastern Europe as Europe, and a lot has changed. Then we were talking about defining a new collective future. Now we're living that future, and ELIA and NATFA – the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia – are running the artesnet network together. The discussion is now about wikis and texting as tools for teaching, there are African and Chinese perspectives, and discussions about artistic research and the creative industries are never far away. But the NATFA building and the lecture hall are still unmistakebly communist.


What is a “Teachers' Academy”, really? Basically, it's a meeting of old friends and new ideas. The idea came up at the 2002 Biennial Conference in Dublin, when it was perceived that such large-scale conferences (our Biennials draw 400-500) were not the best place for art teachers to learn more from each other about teaching. So we have a more informal event with three days of workshops and presentations, and without EU officials and fat cats. We call it TA for short. Previous ones were in Barcelona, Rotterdam, and Brighton. Now it's part of artesnet, which is also a novelty: originally, our 'thematic networks' were concerned more narrowly with the Bologna process, but now they are developing into 'communities of practice'. (As someone whose anonymity I shall respect says, the Bologna discussion is 'tempi passati' and cold coffee.)

I haven't seen much of Sofia so far. The reason is prosaic: it rains. And it rains badly. Stanislav, the NATFA dean, tells us to be glad that it isn't burning hot and dusty, and I guess he's right. But three meters from the cab to the hotel were enough to get soaked. So that is what opened all the opening speeches: it rains. It isn't likely to get any better. This may sound like the beginning of a very boring story, but in fact there's more to tell about what went on while it rained.

Storytelling is the TA's theme. Dick Ross, emeritus film professor and script writer, tells us that without stories, we'd know less. This is of course an understatement: without storytelling, he proceeds, we'd be left to the pedants. But it's not so easy to tell a good story: you don't get there by pursuing an idea for a brilliant story. Storytelling, Ross claims, is a partnership: the story's doomed to failure if there's a significant gap between the teller and the audience. It's not about having a narrative structure worked out and filling it in – in fact, the narrative structure comes only when the story is there. The story is not in the outline – “I guess it's in between”.

Ross recalls his aunt Clara, 'may she rot in hell', who asked him to tell a story when he was six. The story was about coming home from school. When he was finished aunt Clara said: “Now that's boring”. Indeed, his mom said, that was boring; he should tell it again. That was 1939, and it's a method that has lasted through his live.

Kristin Linklater's first deed is to have the microphone removed. She is a voice trainer, and so microphones go against her faith – “freeing the natural voice”. The human voice, she claims, remains the prime medium of teaching – in spite of all textbooks and e-learning. The manner of the telling determines if the story is succesfully communicated; and here the method is teaching. Kristin is somewhat baffled by the change in what is said, looking at the cynicism which great passions from a century ago now meet. We don't “do” in soul and nature anymore. The change is not all for the better: the voice, Kristin claims, has become largely utilitarian. When passion is in brackets, storytelling becomes unconvincing, and hence teaching.

Yours truly remains sceptical. Storytelling is not a fix-it-all mental glue; in getting information accross, it is at best a memory aid. Yes, if we want to reach and teach someone, we'd better not be pedantic, and teachers can possibly profit more from learning to tell a story than from analyzing cross-reference structures. But learning is first of all something that you have to do yourself, and not by hearing other people talk. So education will probably not be improved if telling stories becomes an obligation, and less so if it comes with metaphysical claims.

Another comment comes from the students in the audience: do web 2.0 communication tools also count as storytelling? This is something Dick and Kristin admit they cannot judge, but both are inclined to view twitter and facebook as a passing phenomenon. In this context, that question means: do they qualify as forms for teaching? And since there are people in the hall who are going to give workshops on just that, it is a controversial question. But if you drop the metaphysical claims about storytelling ("stories are life itself, and life is the stuff of stories") it is not such a big deal whether they qualify as Storytelling. The real question is: are they interesting enough? And there, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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