- A Note from the Editor:Special Issue on Practice-Based Research
This special issue of Theatre Topics addresses a burgeoning area of research that I have designated “practice-based research.” Some of the authors collected here use that phrase; others prefer the term “practice as research.” Elsewhere, similar methods have been dubbed “practice-led research,” or simply “arts research.” Perhaps these terms are interchangeable, perhaps they are not. But what unites such projects, or at least gathers them into a coherent set, is a way of seeking knowledge. Researchers enlist theatrical practice as a mode of inquiry, an investigative process to learn something of import that they did not previously know. They then disseminate their findings in a variety of ways: sometimes via performance, sometimes via writing, but most often by using multiple formats keyed to particular goals and audiences. Practice-based researchers often challenge rigid divisions between art and scholarship, thus forging new paradigms for the production of knowledge.
Barnaby King, in the first essay of this volume, identifies a pattern that might be charted across all of the essays: “trying out multiple permutations, failing often, and occasionally stumbling upon discoveries.” With this serial list, he articulates a fundamental and valuable posture toward research. King models a pained embrace of failure as a necessary phase of learning. Genuine inquiry includes seeking what one does not know, and starkly, sometimes horribly, encountering the limits of one’s ability to see or say what is there to be seen or said. King refuses to anchor insight in a tidy causal chain; perceptions arise less as the result of neat, predictable logics, and more through patience, doggedness, and the courage to keep at a task even when the world proves obdurate. My favorite moments in this volume—and they are numerous—detail experiences of not-knowing that unexpectedly reveal vital matters of history and culture. I am heartened by the curiosity and generosity displayed by these authors; in the messy affect of bodily doing, they strive to learn and share something that matters.
King’s “Close/Clown Encounters with History: From Mimesis to Kinesis in Practice as Research” begins the issue, which excavates the historiographic and ethical problematics of an extended research project into the work of nineteenth-century comedian Charles Matthews. He and five other researchers investigated fragmentary archival documents pertaining to Matthews’s 1824 virtuosic multicharacter monologue A Trip to America. As a trained clown, King’s primary role on the team was to embody key moments of Matthews’s performance—to figure out on his feet how the jokes “worked.” To some degree, the essay examines the challenges of reconstructing a historical performance from partial, often contradictory documents; but more essentially, King attends to the discomfiting ethical questions raised by embodying Matthews’s frequent use of derogatory, racialized humor for contemporary audiences that are appropriately wary of the material’s overt racism.
The next essay, Ann Shanahan’s “Playing House: Staging Experiments About Women in Domestic Space,” describes ongoing research into women and houses. Shanahan is staging a series of workshop performances of historically significant dramas that address women and domestic space in a large mansion on the campus of her home institution, Loyola University Chicago. The restored 1909 building hosts Loyola’s women’s studies and gender studies program and the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership. Working with students and colleagues, Shanahan staged scenes [End Page ix] from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Her feminist performance research unfolds the complex resonances that the space conferred upon those canonical texts—in particular, upon the ways they render domestic space as a private sphere that constrains middle-class women.
Dani Bedau and D. J. Hopkins describe a bold though carefully theorized approach to researching Shakespeare through performance. In “The Shakespeare Laboratory: Intercepting ‘Authenticity’ through Research, Pedagogy, and Performance,” they eschew an approach to Shakespeare performance grounded in the necessarily dubious reconstruction of historical practices. Instead, they seek to engage with Shakespeare’s own proliferate use of then innovative communications media, including, most obviously, theatre. They assign students to devise performance compositions that investigate three questions: What...