How Might We Write About (Early English Theatre) Practice as Research?

Rob Conkie

Citation: Conkie, Rob, ‘How Might We Write about (Early English Theatre) Practice as Research?’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context,

I hate it when academics cite themselves (excessively). I say this, of course, to excuse myself this privilege in the paper that follows. In order to offer some answers to the over-arching question I am posing – how might we write about (early English theatre) Practice as Research? – I’m going to refer both to some of the academic Practice as Research I have conducted and to some of the follow-up (and, in at least one case, preceding) and inter-related writing about and around that practice. Moreover, I’m going to make occasional connections to pedagogy and how, at least in my work, practice, writing, and pedagogy have tended to interweave.

Practice-as-Research discourse offers multiple examples of self-citing. In a recent publication, I reflect on fifteen years of directing Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) with students on campus.1 This is practice-writing-pedagogy: were I to refer more to this publication in this paper I might be accused of meta-self-citation. But it’s not just me; there is example for it elsewhere. In ‘Interest: the Ethics of Invention’, the first chapter of Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt’s edited collection, Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, Paul Carter returns, via several lengthy quotations, to his earlier monograph, Material Thinking.2 And in the similarly titled Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, Robin Nelson, also reviewing and recycling earlier material, even has a self-citing subheading, ‘Unpacking and using Nelson’s PaR models’.3 The practice and related publications I will be reviewing, recycling, and reflecting upon in this essay are given in two-column tabular form below:

Practice (theatre productions) Publication
Othellophobia (2003/04) ‘Sudokothellophobia: Writing Hypertextually, Performatively’ (2007)3
‘Sudoku Shakespeare’, chapter 2 in Writing Performative Shakespeares: New Forms for Performance Criticism (2016)
Titus (1999); Two Gents (2000); Errors (2001); Much Ado (2002/3); The Antipodes (2008); Bart Fair (2014) ‘Holofernes, Peregrine and I: Australian campus Shakespeare’ (2015)
Henry IV, Part 1 (2011/12) ‘Rehearsal: The Pleasures of the Flesh’ (2012) ; ‘Engaging Shakespeare’, chapter 5 in Writing Performative Shakespeares (2016)
Hamlet: Remember Me (2013) ‘Remember Me’3 [2012; NB. This writing preceded the practice]; ‘Ghosting Shakespeare’, chapter 6 in Writing Performative Shakespeares (2016)
Othello (2013) Photographic Essay for conference seminar (2014); ‘Sudoku Shakespeare’, chapter 2 in Writing Performative Shakespeares (2016)

The remainder of this paper will be divided into three sections in order to offer some answers to the question of how we might write about (early English theatre) Practice as Research: one, a series of reflections on, and suggestions from, my experience of the practice-writing nexus (with occasional comments on pedagogy); two, a teasing out of the implications and significance of research questions within this nexus; and three, given that my work has been predominantly concerned with how and what early English theatre might mean today rather than in its own context, an application of these ideas to what practice-as-research might offer, focused by the materialities of archives and embodiment, for studies of theatre history.

I. Embrace/Explore

Embrace/Explore … Form

Of the six discrete publication outcomes mentioned above four exploit creative form in order to express their content. Adam J. Ledger writes, in ‘The Question of Documentation: Creative Strategies in Performance Research’, that ‘some research practitioners have developed new approaches to writing creatively – sometimes collectively called “performative writing” – about their practice’.7 Though I didn’t realise it at the time, and though I did not have this label, this is the sort of writing I have sometimes deployed in order to interrogate my practice. Part of the appeal lies, for me, in the implicit challenge laid down by Pascale Aebischer’s now-commonplace description of theatrical performance – though not explicitly theatrical Performance as Research – as ‘characterised by its ephemerality, spontaneity, productive interaction between spectators and actors, and the subjectivity of its reception’. Aebischer continues, and here lies the challenge, that in ‘writing about performance, a physical, three-dimensional medium is flattened into two dimensions, leading inevitably to distortions and misrepresentations’. The performative writing I have practised has attempted to provide perhaps two and half dimensions of the performance-as-research event and therefore to have ameliorated (or at least to have been more reflexively engaged with) those distortions and misrepresentations.8 Thus, where Jacqueline Jenkins writes of practice as an emerging ‘antidote to the ephemerality of much practical theatre history [and] to the variability of audience responses’,9 this type of writing celebrates and even foregrounds such ephemera and subjective variation. Della Pollock’s seminal essay ‘Performing Writing’ (1998) describes the first such excursion, ‘performative writing is evocative’, thus:

It operates metaphorically to render absence present – to bring the reader into contact with ‘other-worlds,’ to those aspects and dimensions of our world that are other to the text as such by re-marking them. Performative writing evokes worlds that are otherwise intangible, unlocatable: worlds of memory, pleasure, sensation, imagination, affect, and in-sight.10

This, and each of the other excursions – performative writing is also, Pollock lists, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational (thankfully), and consequential – is definitive of my attempt to write about the meanings generated by my quite polemical adaptation of Othello, which imagined the play as Brabantio’s monster and beast-filled nightmare.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

The form I finally settled on in order to try to illuminate how the production made its various meanings was a Sudoku puzzle. Here is a single box from the puzzle. These boxes contain 100–150 words, a metonymic reflection on various aspects of the theatrical meaning-making process. This box is ghosted by a number 6, which means that its content concerns what happened on stage in the finished production of the play. The other numbers refer to: text (1); theory (2); culture (3); rehearsal (4); production history (5); reception (7); pedagogy (8); and visual imagery (9). Nine of these boxes, arranged 3 x 3, make up a page:

Here is a single page from the puzzle. The nine pages each have a theme (this is the sexuality page. The other themes are: emotion; history; stereotypes/binaries; animals; nightmares/monsters; race; stupidity; Desdemona) and the boxes 1–9 must be included on every page. In many cases the boxes, because of the limited information they impart, only make sense in relation to other boxes, either on the same thematic page, or across other pages and boxes.

Fig. 3

And just below is the whole puzzle, at least as it existed in its first iteration (I added three extra pages, which does mess with the mathematics of Sudoku, to a subsequent iteration). It doesn’t exist like this in print form but the separate pages can be copied and laid out (on the floor or a wall) like this, which emphasizes the intention that boxes should cross-refer and comment, each upon the other. There are various ways to read the puzzle: a single page at a time (easy); following a number across pages (moderate); re-assembling the chronology of the production from conception to reception (difficult); finding cross-references (fiendish):

Fig. 4

I reflect further on this project via two more recent (one, very recent) insightful commentaries. The first is Ross Gibson, who characterizes the research practitioner as ‘a narrator [who] offers a web of insights about the tangle of causes-and-effects, actions-and-reactions that occur when someone ventures into a particular experience in a world of interconnecting contingencies’.11 Writing about practice as research, Gibson’s analysis implies, means telling a story (narrative) about two interrelated webs, those of the practice itself, the interconnecting contingencies of causes-and-effects, actions-and-reactions, and of the web of insights that emerge from this process. This is a very complicated series of webs, only navigable by the twin Practice-as-Research processes of immersion and extraction. The form of Sudoku Shakespeare is intended both to represent this interconnecting contingency via visual and structural form and to offer a reading experience of interconnecting contingency, intended to facilitate engagement and interpretation. The second commentary is Kevin Quarmby’s challenge to present the archive of this [the Three Ladies of London conference event] project in ‘openly-accessible, reproducible, and imaginatively interrogable form’.12 I find this last phrase, ‘imaginatively interrogable form’, and I concede I’m probably appropriating it, perhaps with a degree of distortion and misrepresentation, extremely powerful and useful. It sums up my challenge to explore and embrace creative form in order to disseminate the outcomes of Practice as Research, but it also subverts the notion of challenge. Perhaps it’s the coupling with imaginatively, but I find in the use of the word ‘interrogable’ here the opposite of the aggression that to interrogate typically implies (incidentally, I think this relates to my use of the word ‘might’ in my title; provisional and contingent, not forceful). This interrogability, organized or facilitated by imaginative form, offers an invitation and an openness: here are the written and recorded reflections, expansions, digressions, and problematizations of this Practice-as-Research project – play with them.

Embrace/Explore … Iteration

One of the ways practice-as-research discourse grapples with the challenges of form is to represent emerging methodologies via diagrams. Here is Robin Nelson’s ‘Modes of Knowing’ model for Practice as Research, an illustration used to explore the relationship between practice and its articulation through writing. Nelson even reveals that feedback received on this diagram has suggested that ‘in its multi-dimensionality, the model might be prismatic rather than triangular and located in a sphere rather than a circle’.13

Fig. 5

Here is Baz Kershaw and Helen Nicholson’s visual explanation on how to read their Research Methods in Theatre and Performance.

Fig. 6

And perhaps most complex of all, here is Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean’s Iterative Cyclic Web, which, mirroring Nelson, has a triangle within a circle. I’m especially interested in this model because the term iteration accurately represents my practice-writing-pedagogy. Smith and Dean write that:

[t]his model combines the cycle (alternations between practice and research), the web (numerous points of entry exit, cross-referencing and cross-transit within the practice-research cycle), and iteration (many sub-cycles in which creative practice or research processes are repeated with variation).14

Further, ‘a creative or research process may start at any point on the large cycle illustrated and move, spider-like, to any other. Very important in the model, with regard to the sub-cycles [I find people take their diagrams very seriously], is the concept of iteration, which is fundamental to both creative and research processes’.15 Notwithstanding the sometimes-observed problem of splitting ‘creative and research processes’ and of delineating ‘academic research’ from either practice-led research or research-led practice, this model explains me to myself.

Fig. 7

My work, and I will come back to this specific word, on Henry IV, Part 1, featured the following iterations:

The Othello/Sudoku work was similarly iterative (and over a longer period of time):

Neither has this iterative process always began with practical work in the theatre. ‘Remember Me’ began as:

This might also be a way to think about this current work:

I keep using the word work as an application of M.J. Kidnie’s characterisation of theatrical adaptation as revelatory of the ‘work [of a play] as an ongoing process rather than a fixed object’.16 We might think of the work of Practice as Research – and, indeed, could it be any other way? – as an iterative process constituted by a succession of extra-generative outcomes in various, evolving, and sometimes surprising forms.

Embrace/Explore … Surprise

Jacqueline Jenkins and Andy Kesson cue this section on surprise: the former, by confessing that she and her co-organizer of a practice-led research workshop ‘were truly astonished to discover’17 that a silent character remained onstage, something not unavailable to a close reading of the text but made manifest for them in the moment of theatrical embodiment. And, on the theme of discovery, the latter playfully characterises the Practice-as-Research workshop as a ‘discovery space’.18 Almost in such a space, Tom Considine, the actor playing Othello in my second, ‘originalish practices’, attempt at the play, wrote to me (and became incorporated into the latest iteration of the Sudoku work):

Dear Rob,
just a reflection on the Othello experience. I was struck by the experience of being in the tiring house. The fact that it was directly behind the stage gave you a feeling of being connected to the energy of the playing space, unlike the experience of being in the wings. All the screens and flats (and the bed) as well as the light gave a sort of domestic feeling and the two doors provided interesting traffic, a kind of negative image of what was happening on stage. Cheers Tom

These are what Brad Haseman and Daniel Mafe call ‘emergent novel outcomes’19 of practice-led research. They are in agreement, I think, with Estelle Barrett, who argues that ‘within the context of studio-based research, innovation is derived from methods that cannot always be pre-determined, and ‘outcomes’ of artistic research are necessarily unpredictable’.20 All of these insights suggest that the Practice-as-Researcher needs to be open to surprise and to resist the pre-determined. This goal can perhaps be difficult in early modern Practice-as-Research projects where theatre historiographers might desire to have their pet theories tested and proved. My approach has been to go the opposite way. I’ve not yet chased up Tiffany Stern or Gabriel Egan’s work on tiring houses to see if it accords with or contradicts the embodied knowledge Tom articulates above, but this production’s hectic and constant flirtation with failure, a series of failures which aggregated into success, prompted an engagement, between practical and theoretical research, with Jeremy Lopez’s work on early modern theatrical incompetence. In Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama, Lopez writes that ‘Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was extremely self-conscious, but ... demanded an equal self-consciousness from its audience as well’ and, further, that this audience was ‘very much aware of the limitations of the early modern stage, and that the potential for dramatic representation to be ridiculous or inefficient or incompetent was a constant and vital part of audiences’ experience of the plays’.21 Here follow three examples, I think, of these ideas working in practice.

Fig. 8

First is Damien Millar playing the Herald (2.2.1-8). This is text I would usually cut (and did so the first time I directed this play). I don’t remember hearing it much in productions of the play that I have seen (probably double figures). I certainly wouldn’t have directed Damien to play the part the way he did, but with the rush of rehearsals I wasn’t keen to intervene too much in the individual contributions of the actors, nor to smooth out inconsistencies of tone. Damien played the Herald pretty much as the Clown (who was cut), with celebratory party blower (lying around in the rehearsal room) and streamers. There were a lot of laughs and it struck me how beautifully this approach served the dramaturgy of the play, providing a caesura between the relentless pace – and the whole production was very fast – of the war council scene and of the hyper-charged emotional scenes that were about to unfold.

Next is the kiss. That I didn’t anticipate this moment is a testament to my clown-like capacity to be endlessly surprised. After Othello was reunited with and kissed Desdemona, they left very visible make-up smudges, each upon the other. And not only this, but Othello, with one especially marked smudge right on his nose, looked, like me, like a clown. The audience laughed a lot. It was visually definitive of my prescient program note quotation of S.E. Ogude:

A black Othello is an obscenity. The element of the grotesque is best achieved when a white man plays the role. As the play wears on, and under the heat of lights and action, the make-up begins to wear off, Othello becomes a monstrosity of colours: the wine-red lips and snow white eyes against a background of messy blackness.22
Fig. 9

Was the production (or play) destroyed or marred by this moment of unintended hilarity? Not as far as I could tell. My feeling in the room at the time was that the audience was swept up in the joy of the Othello/Desdemona union and that their laughter became a celebratory confirmation of this marriage. And soon after came one of the most powerful moments of the production: Desdemona smoothed the smudge on Othello’s face. It was, at one and the same time, the actor Andre taking care of the actor Tom, but also, quite beautifully, a young bride taking care of her new husband.

A final production misfire that provided an unplanned reward: in the unpinning scene (4.3), it took Bob, the actor playing Emilia, a long time to unlace the corset. It not only didn’t matter, but also enhanced the scene and production considerably. Desdemona was very definitely the centre of this all-male production and not just because of Andre’s beautifully controlled (amongst the chaos, perhaps there’s the rub) performance. Maybe I was unconsciously placing her/him centre stage for many of his/her scenes, but there wasn’t too much deliberate blocking going on. As Emilia/Bob laboured with the untying, Andre just kept singing ‘Willow, willow’. Still untying, still singing. It highlighted Desdemona’s beauty and serenity (against all odds) and vulnerability. Like the Herald earlier, this moment demonstrated the dramaturgical ingenuity of this scene as everything slowed down and took a deep breath for what was about to unfold. When I first directed this play I largely cut the unpinning and singing, partly because I had a young, female student actor in the role that I didn’t want to over-expose, partly to facilitate a 90-minute physical theatre adaptation, but mostly because I am an idiot. The scene, and its unintended lengthening, was crucial to the overall production’s affective force.23

Fig. 10

And there was another moment, and this one was only possible because it was a staged reading, rather than a full production. Whilst Bob untied, Andre held both of their scripts and held Bob’s so that he could see it to speak Emilia’s lines. It was another moment of the actors helping each other. Later Bob described the production as flying by the seat of his pants, a moment most summed up by having to come on carrying, rather than wearing, his dress in 5.1. I like to think of Lopez’s argument in terms of stumbles. If the actor does not stumble then there is no possibility to help him (or her in another production) up. Sometimes it is the fellow actor who helps, as in the case of fixing the smudge or holding the script and sometimes it is the audience who lifts the actor (or production) from a stumble, as in the generous response to a ridiculous or untidy moment, and they – I’m going to stick with collective here for all its complications – are further drawn into the production as assistants in its success (via failure). If an actor dries on stage and their fellow comes to the rescue, that helping up from a stumble is a demonstration of individual virtuosity (and ensemble solidarity) impossible without the stumble.

Assuming the deliberate naivety of the clown in order to facilitate an openness to the rewards of practice-based surprise (including failure) is akin to Andrew James Hartley’s notion that performance ‘[s]cholars have to learn to leave their preconceptions at the theatre door’,24 but here’s another metaphor of embodied surprise to consider. What of characters such as Proteus, Olivia, or Angelo, bent very certainly in one direction, but undone by sudden and seemingly irresistible desire? Might, and I haven’t worked this through yet, latent sexual desire provocatively figure the Practice-as-Research enterprise? In any case, embodied surprise is a reminder that theatrical production is material, and not ideal.

II. Research Questions

In this second section I am going to offer a comparative overview of the research questions – Nelson prefers the broader phrase ‘research inquiry’25 – for both the practice and writing outcomes I have sampled above. Sometimes, in accordance with more traditional research methodologies, these research questions were generated before either the practice or the writing was undertaken but also, as I hope will become clear, different kinds of research questions were generated or developed throughout (and, indeed, sometimes subsequent to) the various iterations of the work. Here is a table summarizing the respective research questions of the separate-but-entwined practice and writing phases:

Project Theatre Practice Writing
Othellophobia Can grotesque comic exaggeration be used to critique the racial politics of Shakespeare’s Othello? How does theatrical performance make meaning/s?
Henry IV, Part 1 Can an ‘Original Practices’ (OP) English History play resonate for Australian audiences? How does the practice of rehearsal function as a means of as textual engagement?

How does theatrical affect (in an OP production) work?
Hamlet, Remember Me What happens to Hamlet (Act 1) if the play is Indigenized? What happens to Hamlet if the play is Indigenized?
Othello Can an OP Othello generate the sort of audience response recorded by Henry Jackson’s (1610) letter? How does the in-built failure of early modern drama/turgy aggregate as success?

At first, clown-like, I was surprised by the discrepancy between the initial research questions or inquiry and those that shaped the related publication. Why hadn’t I returned, in print, to explicitly consider the question or questions that initiated the work? If, for example, the application for a research grant which funded each of these projects contained, as part of the authenticating protocols for Practice as Research, a research context, research question/s and research methodology, was I not responsible to that funding body to offer an answer to those questions? The rather obvious solution to this problem is that the practice itself answers, or should have answered, the initial research question. Can grotesque stereotype resist and critique early modern ideologies of race? Take a look at the production. Might an originalish practices English history play work in an Australian context? Take a look at the production. Answering this question in print offered little to delight in because the practice offered its own answers. This is not to say, though, that Practice-as-Research projects can or should stand on their own without the need for a subsequent, iterative publication outcome. Indeed, such outcomes are imperative because the Practice-as-Research project invariably, perhaps inevitably, generates a whole series of further questions, questions that might be addressed in what Robin Nelson calls ‘complementary writing’. ‘The aim of complementary writing’, he cautions, ‘is absolutely not to transpose the artwork from its own medium into that of words … By way of complementing the practice, writings assist in the articulation and evidencing of the research enquiry’.26 And Ross Gibson writes that

there are undeniable benefits associated with the cognitive ordeal of hauling out and translating the implicit knowledge from one set of semantic and affective structures over to a linguistic set. This is because the explication coerces in the artist a series of cognitive shifts inside and outside the palpable and cerebral memories of the studio experience. In other words, the act of linguistic explication exhorts the artist-researcher to oscillate between seeking the insider’s ethical authority, derived as it is from studio-founded conviction, and seeking the outsider’s stance of critically distanced disquisition, wherein the validity and efficacy of claimed knowledge can be challenged and endorsed in extensive discourse.27

I have a couple of observations on this lengthy quotation. First, I have no experience of a ‘cognitive ordeal of hauling out’: this sounds very painful. Perhaps for some artists-turned-researchers, for whom the writing process is less familiar and the studio the environment where they feel more at home, this is the case (and several of my practice-based PhD students are like this), but for me, rather than trying to haul it out it’s been more a case of trying to keep it in, of being desperate to write and being full of words. Sometimes when I’ve written about practice I’ve felt guilty because it has seemed to flow quite effortlessly and I haven’t spent weeks and months poring over texts, but the reason is that the research has been intensive and embodied, the studio no less a site of labour than the office, library, or archive. My second observation is about the insider-outsider dynamic Gibson describes and the privilege it affords the Practice-as-Researcher. Here is another table locating my practice and writing in terms of insider-ness:

Level Relationship to Practice Production Publication
4 Audience member; observer of production Roman Tragedies, Adelaide Festival (2014) ‘Graphic Shakespeare’ (2016)
3 Observer of rehearsals and production Romeo and Juliet/Pericles, Victorian College of the Arts (2013) ‘Materialising Shakespeare’ (2016)
2 Director of production Othellophobia (2003/4)
Othello, Hamlet: Remember Me (2013)
‘Sudoku Shakespeare’, ‘Ghosting Shakespeare’ (2016)
1 Director of and performer in production Henry IV, Part 1 (2011/12) ‘Rehearsal: The Pleasures of the Flesh’ (2013); ‘Engaging Shakespeare’ (2016)

The inner sanctum, the level 1 clearance, affords a special insight, the adoption of what Bert O. States calls a ‘phenomenological attitude’.28 The observations I make in ‘Engaging Shakespeare’, about the affective reciprocity between an OPish audience and a struggling performer, could have been made if I had not been in the privileged, physical position of the performer. The question is: if you don’t have a level 1 clearance, but would like occasional access to this Practice-as-Research domain (and I do not intend to tread the boards again, no matter how instructive it might be), how do you get it? And if there was some way of approximating or surrogating the phenomenological attitude what new types of research questions (and perhaps answers) might it afford?

III. Emphasizing the Early

I’ve mentioned that most of my practice-writing-pedagogy has been concerned with how early modern drama might work today, even if that concern with present day working has been shaped or informed by originalish practices. Indeed, when Lloyd Kermode asked me about seeing Maid of the Mist I figured it must be some 1580s play I’d not yet read and if you’d mentioned Robert Wilson and theatre to me 12 months ago I would have thought of those eight hours I sat with Einstein on the Beach or of the Hamlet monologue (incidentally, it seems to me, also, that most of the historically focused papers for the conference are driven by present, perhaps even personal concerns).

Fig. 11 Left, not a play from the 1580s; right, po-mo re-authoring of Hamlet.

Those times where I have surmised about early modern theatre as a result of the practice-based work I have conducted have come about as a surprise, as hints about how the plays might have worked in their own context have crept up on me and my collaborators. But in this final section of my paper I will propose building two bridges between our moment and that of the plays we study, bridges that might afford a crossing into future Practice-as-Research projects and related publication outcomes.

Bridge #1: Archives

Following Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Maggie B. Gale and Ann Featherstone argue that ‘the archive is a place of creative possibilities’,29 a point proven by several of the conference papers, such as those by Kirk Melnikoff, Katrine Wong, and David McInnis. Wanting to excavate and then (to some extent, at least) re-animate the materiality of contemporary performance of Shakespeare, I, and many others, have chosen to consult the sometimes brilliantly kept archives of contemporary Shakespearean theatre companies. These documents of performance include, of course: prompt-books; video and audio recordings; photographs; program notes; production and show reports; actors’ journals or correspondences; theatre reviews; and more: but what to do with them? Bridget Escolme, for one, recommends a specific kind of engagement with and deployment of this significant, but potentially unwieldy, treasure of resources. She writes:

Make dialogic archives ... Use archives dialogically ... [in order to create] a conversation between actor testimony, scholarly voice and journalistic critical response that endeavours to acknowledge that each comes from a different perspective and set of discourses. Try to find ways of making archive usage dialogic by critiquing your own position alongside that of the actor; be transparent about the ideological underpinnings of your own discourses in the analysis of those of others ... Where full archives exist, use all their elements in dialog.30

Escolme does not, however, offer any advice about the form of such dialogue, about how such a multiplicity of items might be made to speak to one another, and for this I take inspiration from John Law’s creative analysis of responses to the UK’s foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, an archive representation in the form of a pinboard. Law uses the pinboard form in order ‘to choreograph a set of juxtapositionary practices’ and argues that the ‘paradox is that a two-dimensional but otherwise unstructured surface is potentially quite permissive about the character of relations between the pieces arrayed upon it’, and that its ‘two dimensions produce not two dimensions but many’.31

Fig. 12

Here is a miniaturised snapshot of what I did with these ideas, the pinboarded archival traces juxtaposed in the upper two-thirds of the page – here, there are rehearsal and dress rehearsal photographs, a stage manager’s rehearsal report and an excerpt from an interview with one of the actors – and a commentary on this process, sometimes with specific reference to the archive materials, but not always, in the lower third.

The bridge I propose to build is between the kinds of archives that contemporary theatre generates and those, receiving more and more focus and exposure, of the early modern theatre. Or, to use Escolme’s metaphor, to extend the dialogue she encourages across the historical divide. Might, for example, a fruitful conversation emerge from juxtaposing the archive document produced by a contemporary group of actors, perhaps such as those preparing an Actors’ Renaissance Season production at the Blackfriars in Staunton, which divides the play into (Stanislavskian) units, with a backstage plot, such as that for the Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins? I’m not sure what the form of such a dialogue might be but I find it intriguing that the front cover of Tiffany Stern’s Documents of Performance in Early Modern England should so closely, and this is a book which repeatedly invokes modern parallels of the historical documents it exhumes, resemble a pinboard.

Fig. 13

Bridge #2: Bodies

The co-written chapter ‘Researching Theatre History and Historiography’ by Jim Davis, Katie Normington, and Gilli Bush-Bailey (with Jacky Bratton) – and I’m going to return to collaborative authorship – should be recommended reading for those interested in the Practice-as-Research theme of this conference. Normington’s section introduces dance historian Susan Foster and the notion of ‘bodily writing’:

She postulates that physical traces of the past are embodied within our contemporary somatic expression. In Choreographing History she introduces the notion of ‘bodily writing’ (Foster 1995: 4). She posits that whatever a body is doing – sitting writing, standing thinking, walking, talking – it is a body that is engaged in cultural practice. Foster goes on to ask, ‘What markers of its movement might a bodily writing have left behind?’ She muses that in the past the movement of bodies meant they must have touched buildings, clothing or objects. Other indications of past bodies are given through records that denote how bodies were supposed to look or what they should wear. In other words, there are a series of ‘material remains’ through which a historian can reconstruct the bodies of the past (87).32

Lyn Tribble’s recent work on Distributed Cognition represents an application of these ideas to how bodies were written in the early modern theatre. Drawing on a range of cognitive studies, she insists that cognition is not a brain-bound activity, but rather is ‘unevenly distributed across social, technological, and biological realms’ and that thinking is embedded within ‘embodiment, affect, and the environment’.33 I’m going to return to Tribble in a moment, but the bridge I propose building is between present Practice-as-Research bodies and their early modern forbears, such that the ‘physical traces of the past’ that Susan Foster claims ‘are embodied within our contemporary somatic expression’ might have clearer access to each other, or that we might have clearer access to them. Of the embodied nature of Practice as Research Ross Gibson writes that: ‘these interactive, immersive and ever-emerging works … give us a chance to sense directly how complexity works’.34 This is what I think happened for me playing Hotspur (at a Level 1 clearance) in a reconstructed theatre space and sensing directly the complexity of theatrical affect. With these thoughts in mind (and body), then, I read The Three Ladies of London (having read all of the conference papers on it first) with a particular focus on embodiment and materiality. The things that caught my attention were:

Here are some of the things that surprised me about the production:


In conclusion I return to the question of ‘How we might write about (early English theatre) Practice as Research?’ with an emphasis on the we. Written form that does justice to the multiplicity, variability, ephemerality and materiality of theatrical practice need not be crazily post-structural, nor visually gimmicky. Form can be creative, too, via collective and collaborative authorship. My initial forays into performative writing as articulations of my practice as research were, I look back now, almost like staging a conversation with myself. This is the third time in this talk I have identified as a clown, for Valentine asks Speed in Two Gents, ‘How now, sir? What, are you reasoning with yourself?’ (2.1.128). But then Speed is a lot quicker than Valentine. Later efforts, such as ‘Engaging Shakespeare’, have put other voices on the page and in ‘Graphic Shakespeare’ (miniaturised excerpt right) with Christian Billing in conversation with several others, I have staged a round table conversation.

Fig. 14

I can imagine, for example, a further Sudoku page or series of pages, populated by excerpts from the conference papers and with images from the production and from its archives. And, of course, this is already what the conference dissemination, in its myriad and iterative forms, is achieving. My closing suggestion, though, would be for each of the participants to revisit their individual contribution and to produce a coda informed by the experience of seeing the production. Seeing a production is not to be immersed in the practice, but having been immersed, at least, in the play, perhaps you, as was I, were made to think differently (or not) by seeing it embodied. It would be a disaster, though, if everyone wrote, well, I liked the production but they didn’t quite place enough emphasis on (insert individual preoccupation). The process of complementary writing is perhaps to self-reflexively sidle up to your own paper and its preconceptions and to try to take them – indeed, to take yourself – by surprise.

How might we write about (early English theatre) Practice as Research? Together.


[1] Rob Conkie, ‘Holofernes, Peregrine and I: Australian campus Shakespeare’, Andrew James Hartley (ed.), Shakespeare on the University Stage (Cambridge, 2015), 153-67.

[2] Paul Carter, ‘Interest: The Ethics of Invention’, Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (eds), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (London, 2010), 15-26.

[3] Robin Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances (Basingstoke, 2013), 38.

[4] Rob Conkie, ‘Sudokothellophobia: Writing Hypertextually, Performatively’, Shakespeare Survey 60 (2008), 154-69.

[5] Rob Conkie, ‘Rehearsal: The Pleasures of the Flesh’, Shakespeare Bulletin 30.4 (2012), 411-30.

[6] Rob Conkie, ‘Remember Me’, Australian Studies 4 (2012), 1-21.

[7] Adam J. Ledger, ‘The Question of Documentation: Creative Strategies in Performance Research’, Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, Baz Kershaw and Helen Nicholson (eds), Research Methods in Theatre and Performance (Edinburgh, 2011), 163.

[8] Pascale Aebischer, Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (Cambridge, 2004), 17.

[9] Jacqueline Jenkins, ‘Practice-based Research and Early Period Theatre Histories: A Performance Methodology’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context,, 3.

[10] Della Pollock, ‘Performing Writing’, Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (eds), The Ends of Performance (New York, 1998), 80.

[11] Ross Gibson, ‘The known world’, Text, 8 (Oct 2010), 10.

[12] Kevin Quarmby, ‘Enactment and Exegesis: Recontextualizing Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London through Performance as Research’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context,, 8.

[13] Practice as Research in the Arts, 39; the diagram is on 37.

[14] Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, ‘Introduction: Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice – Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web’, Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean (eds), Practice-led Research and Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts (Edinburgh, 2009), 8.

[15] Smith and Dean, ‘Introduction’, 19.

[16] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London, 2009), 6.

[17] Jacqueline Jenkins, ‘Practice-based Research’, 8.

[18] Andy Kesson, ‘Acting out of Character: a Performance-as-Research Approach to The Three Ladies of London’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context,, 4.

[19] Bradley Haseman and Daniel Mafe, ‘Acquiring know-how: research training for practice-led researchers’, Practice-led Research and Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, 219.

[20] Estelle Barrett, ‘Introduction’, Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (eds), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (London, 2010), 3.

[21] Jeremy Lopez, Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, 2003), 2.

[22] Cited in Lois Potter, Othello, Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester, 2002), 175.

[23] Carol Chillington Rutter writes beautifully on this scene (in practice) in ‘Unpinning Desdemona (Again) or “Who wold be toll’d with Wenches in a shew?”’, Shakespeare Bulletin 28.1 (2010), 111-32.

[24] Andrew James Hartley, ‘The Schrödinger Effect: Reading and Misreading Performance’, Shakespeare Survey 62 (Cambridge, 2009), 227.

[25] Practice as Research in the Arts, 30.

[26] Practice as Research in the Arts, 36; italics original.

[27] ‘The known world’, 7.

[28] Bert O. States, ‘The Phenomenological Attitude’, Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach (eds), Critical Theory and Performance (Ann Arbor, 1992), 369-79.

[29] ‘The Imperative of the Archive: Creative Archive Research’, Baz Kershaw and Helen Nicholson (eds), Research Methods in Theatre and Performance (Edinburgh, 2011), 18. Italics original.

[30] ‘Being good: Actors’ Testimonies as Archive and the Cultural Construction of Success in Performance’, Shakespeare Bulletin 28.1 (2010), 89.

[31] ‘Pinboards and Books: Juxtaposing, Learning and Materiality’,¬Books.pdf, downloaded on 18th May, 2014, 1-11.

[32] Jim Davis, Katie Normington, and Gilli Bush-Bailey with Jacky Bratton, ‘Researching Theatre History and Historiography’, Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, 87.

[33] Evelyn B. Tribble, Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (Basingstoke, 2011), 2.

[34] Gibson, ‘The known world’, 8; italics original.

[35] Tribble, Cognition in the Globe, 105.

[36] Peter Cockett subsequently proposed an exception to the circular rule that when a character goes off in the middle of a scene to collect something they might go back through the left door.