Interview: Strong tradition, new moves – RealTime Interview by Keith Gallasch


Written by Keith Gallasch in August/September 2014 edition in print and online.

Keith Gallasch: VCA, University of Melbourne: Robert Walton, Alyson Campbell

The Victorian College of the Arts has a long history of influential teaching in theatre yielding many professional actors, directors and other theatre artists, including the animateur, a highly motivated creator able to work across discipline boundaries and bring diverse practitioners together to generate all kinds of work, including new forms. Although the specific diploma course that nurtured this role will no longer exist at the end of this year, the principle strongly persists in VCA’s new degree offerings.

When I ask Robert Walton, Head of Undergraduate Studies in Theatre, what is distinctive about the school’s three-year undergraduate program, he pinpoints with clarity “a kinaesthetic approach to acting through the actor’s body drawing on various techniques,” “a focus on what is already strong in the VCA” and “looking to Melbourne as the inspiration for our course with its vital and exciting theatre community—acting, writing, devising and initiating projects and seeing them right through to production.”


The actor as originator

Walton says, “We’re looking at an expanded vision of acting. We don’t make a distinction between interpretative and generative acting; instead we aim to create a well-rounded artist who is an actor and can contribute to the most exciting work in theatre, film and emerging media possible. From the beginning we develop each individual as an author and originator of work as well as an interpreter.”

Walton describes a key part of this process. “We work in adaptation a lot; some of our graduates are famous for it. The first part of the students’ second year first semester is dedicated to Chekhov, to learning an approach which ends in a presentation of a Chekhov play. Here students continue a deep approach to text, exploring how fantastic this language is and learning traditional naturalism. In the second part of the semester we ask the students to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways, one of which is adapting the work into a mediated performance piece—they might make a short film to delve into the characters in the text—an adaptation with the Master of Writing students in which they write and also perform. Then they make a small ensemble response—creating a new piece based on their experience of Chekhov.” So, says Walton, the division between interpretative acting and devising is replaced by a spectrum.

Ensemble strength

This approach, Walton emphasizes, underlines the school’s commitment to ensemble practice, “which is the context in which students learn and we choose those we think will be good ensemble members for entry into the course. We establish a strong group, give it power and ways to look after itself with agency—that’s where students learn, even more than from the amazing teachers we have. It shapes how they see each other and allow each other to get better and better and become brilliant actors.”


In third year, says Walton, “we respond to the ensemble in terms of what they need most.” He describes a new component of the course as a response to Melbourne in the form of a festival of new work titled FR!SK. “In the first week of third year the students take part in an intensive pitch development project where leaders of local major institutions talk about what they’re looking for in new work and offer students advice. This year we had Emily Sexton, director of Next Wave, Sarah Neal, executive producer at Malthouse, Daniel Clark, Creative Producer Theatreworks and Angharad Wynne Jones, Creative Producer Arts House and two regional artistic directors. The students then have a week to prepare a pitch for a work to the same people; eight works are selected, developed (while other course work goes on: performances in contemporary plays, film scenes and screen tests) and then FR!SK is performed at the end of September. After third year is completed FR!SK is then taken on a regional tour funded by Arts Victoria. The works range from solos and group works to multimedia pieces—whatever is most urgent to the students. In this way they graduate with works to show in festivals.”

Walton adds that third years also work on 12 new plays in conjunction with the Master of Writing for Performance degree course which is led by playwright Raimondo Cortese. This provides “further opportunities for integration, with those you might work with in the future. We are creating a generation across disciplines with a shared vocabulary and their own distinctive, creative personalities.”

Mastering directing and dramaturgy

A buoyant Alyson Campbell, Head of Graduate Studies, tells me “this is the first time I’ve been able to say publicly that we’re changing our graduate offerings completely. The long running Postgraduate Diploma in Performance Creation for directors and animateurs is ending this year and we’re introducing two new Masters courses—a two-year course work Masters in Directing for Performance and a Masters in Dramaturgy.” She says of the latter that it is unique in Australia: “I was attracted to the VCA because of the possibility of introducing this course so I’m really thrilled.”

Like Walton, Campbell is determined to maintain the VCA’s tradition of interdisciplinarity. New Masters of Design for Performance and Dance will offer great collaborative opportunities within the school. She says the new Masters in Directing for Performance will offer “a very expanded notion of directing, from classical texts to performance creation from various starting points, nurturing the autonomous, free thinking, self-driven creative artist distinctive to the VCA.”

I ask why “performance” instead of “theatre.” Campbell replies, “It’s deliberately so; performance is a broad ambit and we already have Raimondo Cortese running the Masters in Writing for Performance, not just playwriting.” This common nomenclature resonates with the variety of forms delineated by Robert Walton above. “The two-year course in directing will allow people to get a lot of intensive training and research skills and, in their first year, they can also choose electives to help them select individual pathways. A very self-directed second year follows, leading to an independent project that might be a solo piece or directing undergrads in a text-based work as part of FR!SK.”

Discussing the inspiration for arguing for the Masters in Dramaturgy degree, Campbell tells me that she taught “Dramaturgy and Live Performance” at Melbourne University with Peter Eckersall (now at City University New York and co-chief investigator for an international research project titled New Media Dramaturgy). and then taught it at Queen’s University Belfast. When she came to Australia to do her PhD she felt that Melbourne was a “great epicentre of dramaturgical thinking.” As part of Paul Monaghan’s Pedagogy Working Group the idea of “a dramaturgical consciousness” turned to a discussion of the possibility of a “pedagogy of dramaturgy.”

The prospect of Masters directors, choreographers, designers and writers coming together and working with undergraduate performers evokes for Campbell “an ecology of overlapping skills, mutual support and an egalitarian spirit” in which something may well be learned about the teaching of dramaturgy. Campbell feels “this is an exciting time in which we are doing something very important.”
Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne,

Photo: VCA Company 2014 (1st, 2nd & 3rd Year Production Students), UN/clean, directed by Noel Jordan, part of ENUF is Enough*
photo Giulio Tami

*ENUF is Enough, two major new works based on the stories of Victorians living with HIV and AIDS, in collaboration with Living Positive Victoria’s ENUF campaign and coinciding with the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 14


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