What does Cirque du Soleil have to do with teaching and learning?

Have you ever seen a standing ovation for a keynote speaker at a conference on teaching and learning?

This was the reaction of an audience of 500-plus academics to a presentation by the Vice-President of Casting and Performance of Cirque du Soleil at the recent International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) conference in Quebec City.

The choice of Bernard Petoit as a plenary speaker for a conference theme of “Nurturing Creativity and Passion in Teaching and Learning” was inspired. Not only was the presentation a visual feast but his experience in managing diverse teams to create the performances was fascinating and there are many lessons to be learnt if we wish to foster creativity in our own students.

Bernard’s main job is training, managing and integrating the work of small teams to make the cohesive whole performance. This involves getting the people creating the performance together with those concerned with costuming, lighting, stage design, music and so on and attempting to knit this together as a cohesive whole, whilst still pushing all participants to produce their best and most fantastic efforts. He fully acknowledges that there are creative and other tensions in such a job but suggests that this tension is the breeding ground for creativity.

One of the big problems he has to overcome is what he refers to as “beating the no”. Picture the manager of costuming and the manager of performance clashing over a beautiful costume that will not allow the performers to do all the tricks they need to do – lots of folded arms and pursed lips, lots of lines drawn in the sand. But somehow both creative visions need to be fostered for the sake of the final outcome. Sometimes this is just a compromise but sometimes it begets something entirely new.

Creative vision can also be a challenge. Bernard tells the story of commissioning a stage designer who drew his vision in two lines and then left. After much scratching of heads, the stage was finally built – it was a huge stainless steel platform on a hydraulic lift that allowed the stage to be manoeuvred into many different positions. Mostly the stage was set at 90 degrees to the normal position and performances had to be created to cope with this, whilst still looking fantastic. To make all of his happen, diverse ideas and views needed to be embraced and appreciated – not just tolerated.

visual representation of presentation on whiteboard
Visual representation of Bernard Petoit’s presentation by talented academic, Brianna Smrke.

The Cirque du Soleil teams are always looking for ways to increase diversity in their teams, including new performance types and new cultural approaches. None of this is without risk. The bottom line is that there is a duty of care for the performers and staff. Sometimes good ideas that can’t yet be made reasonably safe have to be left to the side for now. Nonetheless, it is impossible to eliminate risk completely, so the approach taken is to mitigate risk as far as possible.

So, what does this have to do with teaching and learning at Macquarie?

Apparently diversity, risk, chaos and tension are all part of the creative process. Are we really ready for this in our classrooms? Can we take at least some of the ideas and apply them? Can we cope with the “delicious uncertainty” that the presenter spoke about?

One of the audience members asked what advice Bernard could give to educators who wanted to promote creativity. His answer was that “instructors should stop talking”. He went on to describe how he manages the development of ideas – “let the students give their ideas, then let the students give the ideas a go, then have the students reflect on the ideas and discuss it with other students … and only then should the instructor talk with them and give feedback.” Bernard points out that it is all too easy to kill ideas in the early part of the process. This left me wondering if I do this to students by giving feedback too early and basically interfering in the creative process.

So, are we ready for this? I can hear all the breaths being drawn in. I can imagine the voices saying that you can’t do this in lecture theatres, that there is just too much content to cover, how would you assess it … But imagine what might happen if …….?

Feature image photos by Marina Da Gloria © 2014