Tessa Buddle is a second-year PhD student in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her practice-as-research project is titled ‘Utopia on Tour’ and involves creating a new touring theatre production in collaboration with Tessa’s theatre company, The Suitcase Ensemble.
For more information about Tessa’s research project visit: utopiaontour.tumblr.com
For more information about Tessa’s practice visit: http://www.suitcase-ensemble.com
Thanks to SGSAH Student Development Funding, I was able to undertake some essential research trips in December 2017 and April 2018. The research trips straddled primary field work, training, career development, and public engagement, all in the course of a couple of weeks. To encompass such a range of activity types is not unusual for the methodology I am engaged in: practice-as-research. This is even more true for practice that is public-facing – i.e. that encounters an audience as part of its research. In this post I identify some of the strengths of this all-encompassing methodology, but go on to recognise the challenges that can arise when the distinction between research, training, and dissemination gets murky.
What public-facing practice-as-research can achieve:
- Primary Research
My research project investigates how utopia might operate within the practice of creating and touring collaborative theatre. I applied for Student Development Funding to undertake a ‘touring experiment’, working with two other artists to create and tour a performance to four different locations, to test out some initial ideas.
As primary research, the project enabled me to test my hypothesis, refine it, extend it, and subsequently re-write my overall research aim and questions in a more concise and focused way. I actively tested out both the creative methodology that my thesis investigates, and the research methodology that will allow that investigation to proceed. I came away knowing a lot more about both.
- Professional Development
I developed skills and professional networks, extending this into unexpected areas. After several performances in relatively familiar contexts, my fourth performance took me to a rural venue in the Scottish Borders. This was a geographical location I had no knowledge of and a context – rural touring – that I had never worked in before. This was an invaluable experience for me as a theatre-maker and producer, enabling me to learn more about the rural touring network via direct experience.
- Public Engagement
I not only shared the performance with public audiences, but was able to discuss the research in post-performance discussions. This helped me hone my research questions and better identify the knowledge that is contained within the evolving practice. I learnt a huge amount from verbally articulating the research in non-academic and informal environments – for example, discussing the project over dinner with my fellow artists and venue hosts. These are people who create, watch, produce and programme touring theatre: exactly the people the research is intended to impact. Finding ways to explain what the project is and why it might be important, and in turn hearing what resonates in it for them, reminded me why I am doing this research and helped me think about what to foreground as I move forward with it.
The touring experiment fed into a forthcoming journal article, representing my first steps into academic publishing, and I will share the research at the International Federation of Theatre Research annual congress in Belgrade this summer.
There have been many more outcomes and developments I could list. But just these few demonstrate how multifaceted practice-as-research is, and how many opportunities it presents for ongoing training and development, public engagement, dissemination and impact, at the same time as carrying out the primary research itself.
However, the cross-cutting nature of practice-as-research is not without its problems. At times I felt overwhelmed by trying to make the most of the project as a professional development opportunity, as research training, and as public engagement, and risked side-lining the main purpose of the experiment, which was to undertake primary field work. It is certainly possible to keep all of these aspects in play, but it is important not to lose sight of the main purpose.
Some challenges and what I learned from tackling them:
- Foreground the research
In thinking about how the activity might develop my career, I worried that the performance did not have sufficiently high enough production values. I needed to be reminded that the research premise was not to create a commercially attractive product, and that this might even contradict ideas of process and contingency at the heart of my conceptual framework. I had to think as a practitioner-researcher first and a theatre professional second. In the end, this produced a more fully thought-through performance that has strengthened my practice and my understanding of it.
- On the other hand, foreground the practice
Conversely, in writing a press release for the performance I foregrounded the artistic product over the research. Although this was a potential opportunity to disseminate my research in the press, I concluded that at this stage of the project, dissemination was secondary to the need to attract audience members. My press release therefore focused on the forthcoming performance event, although I did manage to sneak in some of my conceptual framework. With help from the venue staff who distributed the release, I was delighted to gain two preview articles in local papers.
- Give the research time to breathe before talking about it
In one of my post-performance discussions I was lucky enough to have an audience of practice-based researchers. I had thought this would be an ideal opportunity to discuss my practice-as-research methodology, but when it came to this discussion I struggled. Having spent two days frantically putting a performance together, I was deep within the methodology to the extent that I had no idea what it was. As many researchers will attest – the methodology becomes clearer after the work, and from within the work I was not yet ready to discuss it.
When I let go of trying to cover everything and simply focused on the most relevant aspect of any task, my activities generated all sorts of additional benefits without being forced. The research opened up new possibilities for me as a theatre practitioner; liaising with venues generated opportunities to informally discuss and hone my research questions; hearing what audiences thought of the performance told me a lot more than my bungled attempt to discuss my research methodology with them. Public-facing practice-as-research can tick a lot of boxes in one go, but knowing when to foreground certain elements might be more important that trying to do it all.
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