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The Rhodes University Community Newsletter
Special Staff Edition
Practice as Research
Ms Juanita Finestone-Praeg's office is both business space and sanctuary, with desk and computer offset by theatrical props and mementos. The Senior Lecturer in the Drama Department and Acting Artistic Director of the renowned First Physical Theatre Company is this year's recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award.
But the award required hard work, she says. "It's quite a process. Once nominated, you have to accept and then compile a teaching portfolio, which spans the entire oeuvre of your work." Initially she wondered if her schedule would allow this but is pleased it all came together. "I learnt so much putting together that portfolio, by having to articulate and reflect on exactly what it is that I do." Body of Questions- Teaching as Research or Towards a Democratised Performance, was submitted. She was called for a panel interview for which, she says, she was very nervous, but which ended up as a "rich, fruitful" discussion. Historically, she believes there is a sense that theatre has an awkward place in the academy. The perception that it is all practical work persists - something Ms Finestone-Praeg absolutely refutes. She says there is a "vibrant and rigorous scholarship and discourse" associated with theatre studies. She refers to it as "Practice-as-Research". Physical theatre which, as a choreographer and theatre-maker is her métier, is an embodied discourse, both experiential and experimental. The dynamics one has with one's students, she says, are very different to those found in the Sciences. The work is exciting, challenging and provocative. It encourages curiosity and enables people to push the boundaries. The award, then, has been for her a validation of the body of work she has produced over 20 years, in collaboration with the Drama Department, with the renowned Prof Gary Gordon, and particularly in her association with the First Physical Theatre Company.
often the work that you are creating is also researching an aspect of theatrical production and raising theatrical questions. Practice-as- Research has become a new way of validating creative research."
There is much exploration and research around this concept and Ms Finestone-Praeg is very involved in it.
A Rhodes University alumni herself, she initially studied industrial sociology, with the intention of becoming a trade unionist. While studying drama in her final year, she realised that more could be achieved in a smaller, more intimate space. She calls it the "power of the small". Change really happens at this micro-level, she believes, and gets carried out into the wider world. "There are not many places in our society where there is that kind of agency left," she says. "The real world can be quite brutal, and this provides a safe space; I feel very privileged to be able to work in that way with students and help them to find their own voices, which they will take forward into their futures." Her students consider themselves equally privileged for having worked with her. Alan Parker, current Company Manager of the First Physical Theatre Company, credits Ms Finestone-Praeg for significantly altering the course of his life. "I arrived at Rhodes ten years ago not intending to pursue a full-time career in the performing arts. I now find myself working as a full-time performer, choreographer and teacher and this is due in a large part to the inspiring, dedicated and invigorating learning experiences I had with Juanita Finestone-Praeg." He says her students leave Rhodes University with a "broad knowledge basis that is both embodied and experiential, paired with a willingness and a drive to push artistic boundaries and strive for artistic innovation." Danielle Bowler agrees. "Juanita is sensitive to her students, displaying a keen and genuine interest in each one, on both an academic and personal level. She is always willing to give of her time, with a level of mutual respect and reciprocity that is not common among lecturers. She possesses a fierce intelligence and a dynamic presence, and has consequently challenged and pushed me beyond what I perceived to be my limits - and she has had a similar effect on many who come into contact with her." Special Staff Issue | March 2011