Friday, March 6, 2020

The Complexity of Performance Tasks

It's spring musical season here in NW PA, and I am back in a small way playing in the pit orchestra for a production of Seussical being put as a co-op between my old school and a neighboring high school. This is an annual enterprise I was part of for years. I've been doing school and community theater in a variety of capacities for almost forty years now, and it's still pretty exciting.

There really isn't a much purer version of a performance task than performing arts work. But they're also as reminder of how complex performance tasks really are.

First, there's the actual preparation for the task. Whether we're talking music or theater, there's a wide range that a teacher/director can land on. On one end of the scale, we get very specific preparation for this very specific task. On the other end of the scale, preparing for this task while also noting the larger ideas and principles behind whatever you're doing. For example, you can teach a young actor how to play this one character, or you can teach her about the acting that can be used in this one particular application. You can teach your band how to play "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine" or "Take The A Train," or you can use those pieces to teach them about the stylistic features of playing marches or swing.

It's a challenging choice because sometimes, given the limits of time and aptitude you're working with, you may get a better final product by providing less actual education. You can see this in the world of performance competition, where you will find, for instances, band musicians who can deliver a dynamite precision performance of this year's show-- and nothing else.

But then we get to the performance itself.

A stage musical involves a gazillion moving parts, and every one of those parts effects the other parts.  Folks like to talk about all the magic and mystery of theater, but for magic to happen, a lot of basic nuts-and-bolts mechanics have to be taken care of first. We have to move two set pieces and six actors through this tiny space in two seconds-- how exactly are we going to do that? Where do each of the twenty actors on stage need to stand for this picture to work for the audience? How do we get all the lighting effects we need with just six circuits and ten lighting instruments? Should you pick up the prop with your left hand or right hand? Where is the best place to take a breath on that song, and should you lift your arm ten bars in or wait another six? How do you make that movement now that you're wearing a costume with a giant hat? An awful lot of rehearsal time is spent on things that are neither magical nor fraught with feelings.

And all of these things are interdependent, like a ten million piece game of pick-up sticks. One actor's new line reading changes another actor's reaction. Adjust one thing, and ten others need to be re-adjusted. And that includes adjustments that have to be made on the fly in performance. There are a million relationships, a million strings tied to each other; pull on one, and a thousand others move. And they all need to be as flexible and loose as string, because otherwise when adjustments are needed, things just break instead.

You make choices of necessity and new features present themselves. Like many high school productions, we occasionally switched genders of characters to accommodate the available acting pool. Sometimes that gets really interesting; there's a different vibe to Beauty and the Beast when Belle has a crazy inventor mother instead of a father. And sometimes the available student talent is, well, still developing. Your job as director is to find a way to make that student look good out there (there is a special corner of hell for directors who send their young performers out on stage to embarrass themselves).

Then you toss in the audience, and everything changes yet again. This is particularly tricky with comedies, because after six-to-eight weeks of rehearsal, your cast has forgotten that the show is funny. Holding just the right amount for audience response is yet another factor, and almost impossible to prepare for because every audience is different (and that in part due to the mix of individuals in it).

On any given night, all the factors can line up in unexpected ways. A few years back, our high school production was the Addams Family, and during performance a series of performer choices and reactions combined with a really warm audience to absolutely stop the show. You couldn't make it happen on purpose if you tried, and I've only seen it happen twice in all these years. It was just a perfect pure moment, but only in that moment could it be created. All the priming and preparation and skill and tech and etc etc etc make it possible, but nothing could make it certain.

Year after year I watch these beautiful complex performances unfold and a part of my teacher brain asks, how could you possibly grade the individual students in their performance task? There are so many factors involved, and so many of them are outside of the student's control. Yes, I can point to certain performers and say, "She's really solid" or "He's absolutely awesome." But matching the right performer to the right role is crucial--and it's the director's job. Someone who does a great job as the Cat in the Hat might make a terrible Horton.

So I could sort the students into accomplished, developing, and just getting started, but I wouldn't be confident that I was absolutely right. I could just grade that particular performance, which is more in line with a performance task assessment, but again-- there are a uber-gazillion factors. How would I even start to create a rubric or score guide?

There are a couple of options, and they're problematic.

I could pretend that each of the factors can be assessed in isolation, as if they are unconnected to te rest of the performer or the circumstances and people surrounding her performance. But that's incomplete at best and distorting at worst; after I break performing into all these items, how do I weight them. Should "accurately repeats lines in script" carry the same weight as "moves fluidly on stage" or "conveys emotions convincingly." And how do I even assess things like "conveys emotions convincingly"? And what do I do with a list of 600 different "skills"?

I could simply reduce the assessment to a few measures and throw out the rest, focusing strictly on things that can be objectively measured. Her performance was flat and lifeless, but she said all the lines just as they appear in the script, and she hit her blocking marks and moves with integrity, so she gets a 4 or a proficient (or whatever we're pretending isn't another name for an A).

I am assured by some folks who would know that there are professional psychometric test folks who ably deal with these issues. But my experience at the classroom level is that such instruments are not making to the local school level.

These aren't just problematic because they provide an incomplete or even inaccurate measure of a complex task; they become problematic because they then drive the task itself. If these shows were all about the grade, actors would be tempted to go through the process with the rubric in hand, focusing on what "counts" and ignoring what doesn't. And because a performance task assessment is inclined to cut out the complex and subjective measures, that rubric ends up pushing a shallow and mediocre version of the task. As I pointed out to my own students over the years, when discussing the performance task of writing, you can make zero mistakes and still produce mediocre work.

Of course, real performance tasks are assessed by audiences in the moment. Last night we opened; the audience laughed, applauded, sat in moved silence, and at the end of the night, as casts do, our actors presented themselves for a public assessment which the audience delivered loudly and enthusiastically (which, like most authentic assessment, does not lend itself well to comparing this performance to other performances of other shows in other places).

The cast was excited and proud, and as always, there has been plenty of personal growth. It's one of the ironies of high school theater-- students learn a lot about themselves by pretending to be someone else. I don't know how you put that on a rubric, either.

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