Resilience – messy reality, and knowing and not knowing

So I performed the Waiting Room this week. It was put on at the New Adelphi Theatre on campus last Thursday. I previously blogged about the production here. I think the production went OK. But it certainly (for me anyway) didn’t go to entirely to plan. (First photo below is from the performance itself, courtesy of AJ Handley-Rowe, aka @AmyJayBird, third is from Dr Kirsty Fairclough aka @DrFairclough)

It started with a full day – meetings starting at 8:30 am, as per usual and then ploughing straight through without pausing until 4:30pm, at which time I was supposed to then do a quick dress rehearsal, to allow some downtime before the actual performance at 7 pm. A somewhat hectic day. However, meetings did as meetings do – over run, which meant a delay getting into the theatre which meant everything was a little pushed for time. We got there, but from the perspective of a personal routine before a performance, it was a little tight. This slight wobble in the smooth machinery of pre-prep was also compounded by me knowing that a number of friends, relatives and colleagues were travelling from far, wide and near to be in the audience – 20 minutes from curtain up I found myself wondering if they’d made it, or wondering if… just generally wondering. Suffice to say the lead up to the performance was not as I’d wish it to be in an ideal world.

However, the play went fine – several colleagues who had seen it before commented that this telling was better than the last, and I received a number of very kind comments from staff and students alike – all good.

But immediately after the performance, I wasn’t really happy. Several sections had not turned out well in my internal estimation and, through a discombobulation of the relationship between brain and tongue/ vocal chords, I’d performed unintended linguistic acrobatics with some of the lines. (It’s a good job the playwright is a friend and is not of the precious persuasion when it comes to carefully worded performative text…)

Perhaps partially as a result of the personal pre-show day, what I see here (amongst many other things, mind…) is a loosening of my personal control on the performance (as an aside its interesting that the Waiting Room essentially chronicles the disintegration of control for Thomas, the central character), which resulted in a somewhat different performative experience than I had intended. Not generally better/ worse, just different.  At several points in the performance I found myself exploring different facets that have not popped up before, or perhaps imbuing a section of text with a different quality. Importantly, in the moment of doing, I wasn’t entirely sure why. Sometimes the doing-it-a-different-way resulted from internal mistakes, or the fact that, by dint of said mistakes, I was holding onto the performance by only the most slender of threads – It was a creative, teetering state of (if I’m being totally honest here) not really knowing or consciously steering things along, but rather being steered by the character and the play itself – essentially getting out of my head and relinquishing control to what will be….

This creative state, in this instance partially caused by the collision of a packed day with the performative necessaries, is not entirely comfortable. However, having experienced it numerous times before in performance, its very positive. It is a state where not knowing, but intuiting with a certain amount of experiential intelligence is essential. In the example of a scripted play, there’s the facts, and the given circumstances of the character, but then the rest is perhaps a process of knowingly stumbling in roughly the right direction, nudging oneself in each performance this way and that depending on directorial (or other) feedback.

It strikes me that this creative journey or experience; essentially a journey of guided exploration, fosters a certain aspect of resilience – it’s not the whole picture of personal resilience by a long shot, but its certainly some of it – being comfortable with being uncomfortable in not entirely knowing, as one (hopefully) meanders in the right direction. And its valuable – very valuable – even the experience of heading (again, hopefully temporarily) down an unprofitable path of investigation is, in itself, a valuable learning experience – anyone who has completed a large piece of investigative work will have had those moments where a thread has been diligently pulled at only to result in the jumper to which it was attached disappearing as the thread runs out – there’s nothing to be found. (During my PhD there were many 3am library sessions in which I drowned in the muddy waters of what turned out to be useless (to me) cul-de-sacs and dead ends.)

My point, oh ever-patient reader, is that having the sheer unpredictability of a live situation pull the proverbial rug out from under my feet, and that not knowing, not having the certainty of outcome, not having a comfortable path to resolution and result, not being able to knead the dough and know, know the bread will rise as expected, is a brilliant opportunity to build personal resilience – and such opportunities, (each of which carries the beautiful possibility of productive failure) can be found everywhere.

The problem is (you knew this was coming, didn’t you…) dominant modes (not all by any means) of assessment in compulsory and higher education are risk-averse and deny this real time experiential discovery and tussle with control for the learner. The very fabric of the structures sitting around education are designed to deliver an outcome, biased towards the safe acquisition of disciplinary knowledge; ‘upon successful completion of this module you will be able to/ will have demonstrated….’ through which, valuable ‘soft’ skills and abilities (resilience amongst them) are also assimilated, but not always acknowledged. I don’t for one moment deny the need for pupils and students the world over to develop disciplinary (and more importantly interdisciplinary) knowledge, but in the real world, (that bit beyond the classroom which doesn’t use the cipher of marks/ grades to attribute value – remember?) knowledge in application is messy, and it goes a little pear-shaped simply because of the number of variables at play in any one time in the real world.

So how about, where opportunity arises, we reconsider knowledge outcomes and develop a re-emphasis towards messy learning, some of which isn’t necessarily entirely predictable in advance (heretical, I realise). So if the Waiting Room were to be a modular vehicle, and, with the benefit of hindsight…

By the end of the performance run of Waiting Room, you will have;

  • Learnt to control panic/ find creative solutions when presenting in public and the path forward isn’t entirely clear;
  • Learned to work productively with the unexpected;
  • Become increasingly comfortable with being uncomfortable in a live industry setting;
  • Recovered from minor failure in a live industry setting;
  • Delivered to broad expectation, despite any unexpected/ minor failure
  • Relied on a co-created combination of criteria to ascertain levels of personal/ professional success, including personal perception of performance and end user feedback;
  • Not received any marks or grades.


See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

One thought on “Resilience – messy reality, and knowing and not knowing”

  1. It’s interesting to hear you talk about your experience here Sam. As I get older I tend to lean more towards slowing the performance to go where it will, more important in this process is allowing it. The script will always bring you structure but live performance by its very nature wants to be unstructured and messy. You comments about messy learning also chime with a practitioner called Alexander Bryce Clegg, look him up if you don’t already know him. Very interesting theories and practices around the Primary education setting.

    Liked by 1 person

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