Some issues in performance as research
SOME ISSUES IN PERFORMANCE AS RESEARCH
Alison Richards and Bill Dunstone
ADSA Conference, November 27 1992
This morning we have arrived at something of a historic moment. The debate within ADSA over whether or not it was appropriate to formulate a policy on performance as research, what issues should be addressed, how it might be done and more recently when it might be done – this process has taken a number of years and has been debated at a number of ADSA conferences, years before I became a member of ADSA.
The impetus of course comes from concerns that are both academic and to do with the reasonable self-interest of theatre and drama academics within universities and other institutions. These concerns are, by the way, shared by those working in other creative disciplines, although of course the detail and the vocabulary of the debate varies depending on the discipline and its traditional location and modus operandi within the university of which it is a part. Such staff have become more vocal in recent years There has been a generally greater orientation towards practice in the newer institutions,and, amongst those trained in the past twenty years, a dissolution of the strict division between practice ( the proper province of practitioners) and description and analysis (the proper province of the scholar). It is the achknowledgement that theoretical enquiry can take place through practice that has generated the change, and the entry into universities of scholars of that persuasion that has caused universities to have to attend to it. The recent amalgamations, which have brought many more staff working in ‘non-traditional’ disciplines into universities, has made universities themselves more aware of the need to address these issues seriously. In the world of theatre and drama studies, debate has organised itself around the question of whether, and to what extent, a) the work in performance that staff in the creative arts departments of universities do can be considered to be part of the research culture of the university, and b) can the resulting output be considered as equivalent to the refereed publication considered by the university as a qualification for promotion?
Following the discussion at last year’s ADSA conference, the Executive was asked to come up with a policy , and equally importantly an outline of procedures for instituting a system of peer review, for debate and adoption by the membership at this year’s AGM. A performance research subcommittee, consisting of Bill Dunstone, Geoff Borny, Jim Davis and myself, met in Sydney earlier in the year. We looked at existing policies on staff performance assessment and promotion in universities both here and in the US, and also discussed the research issues involved in some detail. In February this year I presented a discussion paper to the Executive; the recommendations before you are substantially those discussed and approved at that meeting. Bill will outline the proposals which you are going to be asked to vote on at the AGM; I will now run through for you some of the issues we addressed in their formulation.
Principles behind the proposed Performance as Research recommendations
a) Basic Assumptions
Attitudes about the proper place of performance practice within the university, and its proper relation to the business of research and publication, have run the gamut from the contention that it is not research (performance can be considered to be the raw material but not the research itself), that it might be research but that publication should continue to be text- and language- based, to the position that all performances are publications and that staff should be given credit for their work on that basis.
As so often happens, the issues once we began to look at them contained many more questions of substance within which distinctions needed to be made, than would at first appear to be the case. We have attempted to find procedures which will accommodate problems, some of which are probably not by their nature susceptible of single solutions.
Our recommendations to you are based on the following principles:
The first is that performance can validly be considered to be one of the communicative means by which it is proper to present research in demonstration/ as publication.
The second is that, while all performances can be considered to be publications, they are not all of the same type or published with the same intention. just as with written publications, it is proper to distinguish those which offer themselves for peer review and evaluation as research of a particular scholastic orientation and standard.
The third is that, within the performance work that theatre scholars do, the same work or different aspects of the same work might be considered to be research, teaching or in a category which we might call ‘creative enquiry’. As with work that scholars do in any discipline, the difference lies in the formulation of the research question itself. It is therefore up to the scholar to formulate the question clearly, and to convey to any potential assessors the terms, the modality and the vocabulary within which the performed work is being shaped.
b) Issues and choices in formulating a research program
In creative work, and particularly in a field as multimodal and as polysemic as performance, we may have set ourselves a problem which we think is going to be solved in one direction but which might turn out to have a better solution not only through a slightly different reformulation but by using other means. A classic example is the transfer of meaning vehicles from one modality to another, as recent reflexive performance practice demonstrates – think of the Sydney Front, the oeuvre of Tadashi Suzuki etc. etc. In the context of work in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Roma Potiki yesterday described to us the way in which her company’s search for an expressive vocabulary outside the domination of the English language while being confined by the imperfect accessibility of Maori to all in the intended audiences, has lead them to foreground a physical rather than a verbal vocabulary.
If we have reached a point in this process about which some conclusions can be drawn, a report or a demonstration which clearly articulates the choices and the results should properly be considered evidence of a research finding. Most frustratingly however, we may be in the middle of looking for something we can’t quite put our finger on, or we may be reasonably sure we’re on to something but the demonstration falls short of sufficiency. These frustrations are common to all researchers, particularly where the reliability and validity of an experimental design is at issue. We can be diverted here because most of us have been trained within a ‘show must go on’ ethic, and in any case the work on which we are basing our research may have its own dynamic. It may take several performance processes before the research aspect can be clarified; nevertheless, interim reports which contribute to clearer formulation of the problems involved should not be ignored as contributions to a longer term project.
It may be a matter of breaking down your research questions into smaller ones, or you may become aware that another problem entirely is being raised in the process. The researcher needs to have the rigour to be able to specify what questions are being addressed, how they are being answered and whether the performance work is a reliable enough indicator.
This is of course time consuming – one big challenge to us is to separate our professional desire to have the work we do given appropriate scholarly status, and our human desire to have the enormous amount of time it takes acknowledged, whatever the research outcome. We all know that the very ordinary (to us) student production which is nevertheless opening up important areas of exploration and learning for our students takes just as much time as the research production proper. Individuals may or may not choose to create a research program separate from regular teaching and scholarly work; in all cases, however, the formulation of research questions will require distinct creative and analytic processes, as in other fields of scholarship
The situation of the researcher may well affect the kind of research undertaken. There are many valid research questions which can be formulated in the context of regular academic employment, as the endless procession of psychology journal papers using first year students given course credit or paid $2 a time bears witness. Our colleagues in arts education have produced equally useful – and often more inspiring- research based on classroom practice or productions using not particularly highly skilled student performers.
Another challenge is attainment of a reflective distance appropriate for adequate evaluation of the principles and methods at issue. We are not, I would argue, aiming for ‘scientific objectivity’ – the passion of performance can be our ally as well as the subject of our research. Nevertheless, it is easy to substitute commitment for analysis, and to confuse personal predilection for general principle. The peer review process advocated here is not only an attempt to replicate the procedures used in assessing journal articles for publication, but intended as an additional stimulus to researchers to consider the means and methods they employ both to formulate questions and to demonstrate the results of the research process they have undertaken.
The researcher’s situation and access to resources may also affect the researcher’s choice of the balance between performance and written analysis or other forms of notation to be used in presenting the results of research. We consider this to be one of the creative challenges open to the performance researcher. The problem of reporting is another issue highlighting the need to distinguish between the kinds of performance work we undertake, in asking for recognition both from individual institutions and from federal bodies such as DEET and the ARC.
In our recommendations we have tried to clarify the procedures by which a researcher, and nominated peer reviewers, can come to a mutual understanding about the research question at issue and the means of its evaluation – in other words, what the peer review is looking at and how it will go about its evaluation.
We have attempted to set criteria rather than narrowly describe outcomes, since the variety of reseach projects possible and the different aims and modalities which we will come .across makes that undesirable. We are however fairly confident that we have arrived at a position from which we are able to formulate a policy that has the potential to work for members and to serve as a model for discussions with Australian universities.
I commend the recommendations to you for discussion and approval.