The practical aspects of The Practical Essays

As the technical and production manager of the Workshop Theatre, Lee Dalley gives an insight into part of his role in the School of English.

Image of the outside of the Workshop Theatre

As I write this, I’ve just started working with our third-year students on their Final Year Projects (otherwise known as The Practical Essays). The module itself runs across both semesters of a student’s final year and concludes with their presentation of a twenty-minute live performance to an audience made up of staff, fellow students, family and friends. This is, essentially, a conventional essay, the difference being that exploration and realisation happens through theatrical means.

As the module progresses, I’m keen to reinforce the message that the final-year project is (or should be) an exciting prospect.  Students are researching an area of particular interest to them with the support of both academic and technical staff, and working with their fellow students in a tried and tested collaborative environment.  I’m at pains to point out that this might not be something they have the opportunity to do again, and that previous students generally regard this module as the highlight of their degree. So, despite any apprehension they might be feeling, they should approach the process with a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm. This is, after all, what the previous two years have been leading to.

The performances themselves will run across a weekend, just before the Easter break and, typically, we will see around twenty to thirty performances presented between two venues. Logistically, this is no small undertaking and we anticipate students will develop a good knowledge of project management and time management - tackling independent as well as collaborative working, with no small amount of negotiation thrown in.

As the module’s production manager, I strongly encourage our students to engage with the technical elements of their project early on. Aside from the obvious advantages this offers in terms of time available, the main reason is that an early start offers students a chance to be free to fail (for want of a better expression) and to fail without fear. To experiment safely without any particular agenda or result in mind, to become confident and proficient in areas that they were previously unsure of, to confirm what works and what doesn’t, to see how ideas and imagination match up against reality and where appropriate, to develop these ideas or to move on completely. Frequently, we find exposure to the potential new equipment, systems or software offer is all that’s required to start a conversation and promote further experimentation. A springboard so to speak.

I’m available to discuss any aspect of the Practical Essays with our students but it is made absolutely clear that I have no input into marking and assessment whatsoever. We stress that everything they discuss with me can be considered confidential and that I don’t, in turn, discuss their progress with examiners. This means the students have a member of staff on hand with whom they can try out new ideas, without (we hope) any sense of assessment in the air. Mistakes and misfires are, after all, as much a part of the process as anything else.

My first objective is to assess what a student is looking for. Are they essentially clear on their needs and want nothing more than a simple editing or recording service and a technician to take care of the work for them (which is fine), or are they looking for more guidance and want to draw on my experience? Would they rather take care of the work themselves and are therefore looking to acquire new skills and training, or are they still in the experimentation phase and exploring?  The answer, more often than not, is all of the above. I need to be open to all options - prepared to work with students, only to put that work in the bin and start again when things take a new direction. After all, we’re asking our students to do the same.

The Practical Essays require our students to engage with areas they are not particularly familiar with. Whilst there are always some within the cohort who have dedicated a substantial amount of their time at Leeds to extracurricular theatrical projects (with societies such as theatre group), the majority do not. In either case, technical theatre practice will be a bit of a mystery to most and, as the module requires each student to present their work independently on the day, it can’t remain a mystery for long. Ultimately, it is the role of the student to exert creative control over the whole process, to act as artist-researchers and to mix the distilled feedback and suggestions from peers with the results of experimentation - then to incorporate these elements in to their work where appropriate, presenting their findings via a variety of methods over which, again, they have full artistic control. My role is simply to facilitate that process as best I can - offering guidance, reassurance, and thirty years’ worth of experience!

J.Lee Dalley

Technical & Production Manager, Workshop Theatre, School of English.

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