September 2012

Scene4 Magazine: Cui Bono? | John Freeman | September 2012 |

John Freeman

Practice-led Research, Careerism and the Myth of Significance

Practice-led activity is undoubtedly the fastest growing research approach in the broad field of performance studies and, as we know it has already become something of an industry in itself; to the extent that it is rare now to find any PhD or HDR student who is not pursuing a practice-led methodology … led into this new default approach by supervisors who view themselves, almost exclusively, as innovative members of the practice-led battalion.

This paper forms something of a provocation inasmuch as it will suggest that the ways in which research carried out by university theatre lecturers is increasingly problematic in terms of what is achieved. In so doing it will question and challenge the ways in which knowledge and understanding are articulated; how ideas of truth are bought and sold; how significance is sidestepped; and how much of this moves the researcher towards the type of career-orientation that takes lecturers away from face-to-face contact with students instead of feeding into and informing undergraduate work.  

Addressing this aspect, not least in an article that sidesteps some of the rigours of academe in favour of tub-thumping rhetoric, is unlikely to win me many new friends within university theatre, and it may well lose me a few old ones. Nevertheless, it is an address, offered here as something of a position paper or muse, that needs making, and I can only hope (if not quite trust) that colleagues will recognise my concern with practice-led research as one-size-fits-all rather than with its many methodological values. Despite its manifesto-like tones, the article is above all a call to query and to conversation rather than to arms, and a plea for common sense to prevail over university theatre's occasional self-delusion. To this end and in no small way because I am aware of my own drift towards the careerism I will shortly critique, these pages will be laced through with sub-textual uncertainty, with an awareness of the possibility of different agendas and arguments; and if the personal pronoun is used heavily in the next few thousand words then this preference for 'I' over 'we' or 'one' is a means at least of making the tone more confessional than accusatory.  

In other hands this article might make its autoethnographical aspects more overt and at the same time more seemingly legitimate; in my own the self-referencing is likely to be more haphazard. In essence, my intention is to remind readers (no less than myself) that not all practice is creative and that not all creative practice is research. Pinning the Research label to practice does not ipso facto make it so and whilst in the short term context of keeping academic managers off our backs every research outcome is a plus, in the longer term we may well be doing our subject a damaging disservice.  

I am not going to give you what you want if what you want is a lie.

These words have started to haunt me; not least because I have come to believe that the places where truth matters least are in performance generally and in my own research outcomes in particular. No great invitation for a reader to invest any particular trust then in the words to come. A fictional Oxford policeman once said that academics and detectives are bound by their common concern of wanting to know. This sounds fair enough, but what is it that I want to know? And what is it, come to that, that most of the researchers in my field want to know?  

I asked similar questions at a recent Australian seminar in which I had been asked to speak for an hour or two about my current research. (Freeman, 2011) Rather than focusing on publications I began by talking of failures: of articles rejected and of books not widely read; of old wine in new bottles theatre productions that were banal, and not just in hindsight; of conference papers delivered to small gatherings of half-sleeping delegates. These seemed to me to be the realities of much of my own research and many of my so-called research outcomes: the realities of being oftentimes lost in a scrabbling about within the language of research without always knowing what it is that I am wanting to know … of being less like a detective with a crime to solve as I am a faux researcher leaving half-smudged fingerprints on other people's thoughts.

The Lure of Truth

'Truth is what theatre is all about', goes the apocryphal quote, 'and if you can fake that you'll go far.' Wanting to know is a worthless aim if the aim is not to know the truth. And nowhere is the word truth used with less discretion than in the theatre, so that Brecht is truthful, so is Stanislavski, Shakespeare, Beckett, Grotowski, Kane, Mitchell, Artaud and so on. Actors speak blithely about giving truthful performances, whilst directors urge them to find the truth of the moment/truth of the scene/truth of the text. In a relativist-obsessed world where the legacy of postmodernism puts truth always in inverted commas the word is alive, well and unhindered by the Punctuation Police in countless university rehearsal studios, as well as in every theatre critic's cut and paste. But what is truth in theatre if it is not the lie well-told? When David Mamet writes that theatre is the one place in the world (the last place in the world) where we can go to hear the truth, the words seem profound, as well as profoundly true, but really, what life could be worth the living if things were so? (Kane, 2001: 33) Is it true, as we like to believe and as we like to tell our students, that theatre changes lives? Some lives perhaps: just as marathon running might change a life, or fishing, or cage fighting or dirt bike racing or stamp collecting or jazz.

The spin of programme-speak aside it is not most theatre makers' intention to bring about social change and with very few exceptions, making theatre is not an act of heroism; neither does it have a great deal to do with community or even connection. It is as generally self-indulgent a means of passing one's time as it is possible to find. The best political plays work on a great many dramatic levels and yet singularly fail to change the minds of any audiences. The art is pure, the agenda is careerist.  

It is worth saying here, and not least in the light of this paper's subsequent address to university lecturers' practical outcomes, that I am referring to practice that is based on making work to, or even at spectators rather than that which stems from community and educational principles of making work with and for participants. Made necessarily brief in print this distinction may seem crude and unworldly, but it is premised on the gap between an approach to drama that makes play of its relationship between professionalism, pedagogy and the authenticity of the group, and the type of theatre which seeks primarily to emulate professional theatre-based product.

Questions of truth go hand in hand with authenticity: another word that is often glued to research that is practice-led without much real regard for why. The question of what it means to research with authenticity should be laced through every work; instead, it is often offered as a given: practice-led research is concerned with authentic experience, ergo practice-led research is authentic. It would be a circular argument, were it to be argued at all.

Perhaps the act of saying it in print will through some act of writerly transference make me believe it less to be so, but for the moment (and perhaps I write from a moment of jaded belief) I fail to see that theatre reveals any great truths. It simply stops us thinking for a while about the truths we need to face when we leave the theatre, or else it allows us to luxuriate in the travails of other characters' lives, believing them to chime fortuitously with our own. 'I am like that' we like to tell ourselves when the unassuming hero steps up to the plate. 'That is what I would have done had I been that man.' Having spent a long time reading and writing about the currency of truth in performance, I wonder now whether lies are not only the subject of theatre, but that they are perhaps its complete and only rationale. That we might in certain forms use performance as a means of telling our secrets to strangers does not turn those secrets into the truth.  

A Conflict of Interest

Lest this sound too much like immersion in the postmodern language I have until recently found myself locked in, so that the language of expression began to dictate not only what I wrote but much more importantly what I believed, this is not about any blanket denial of truth. My life is as almost filled with truths as it is with lies and I am old enough to know the difference, even if I am not yet wise enough to always swing the balance towards a favourable outcome. What I am saying, what I am admitting, is that the place where truth matters least to me is often in and through my own research. I do not particularly want my work to matter to my peers in the outside world, although that would be nice, so much as I want it to matter to me.

If successful theatre stills external conflict through some notion of cathartic release then perhaps the job of research is likewise to still conflict: to settle an issue, if only temporarily. If that is the case then my own research outcomes have fallen woefully short, because not only have they never come close to settling an issue that matters, they have rarely, to the best of my knowledge even significantly stirred the waters of debate. And when our work neither settles nor stirs it is healthy to step back and take some stock of what it is that we are actually trying to do and what it is that our work achieves. If many of us are pseudo-researchers – and I often feel that I am a founder-member of this widening group – is this because our work is research in name only, that the arguments we make are never quite cogent enough, never quite heavy enough to stir the water in the pool? Or is it a recognition, an act of critical reflection we might say, that shows my own intent to be somehow dishonourable ... so much so that in its pursuit of outcomes it adds nothing to that pool but a tiny drop of poison? And tiny it might be, too tiny by far to damage anybody else, but perhaps it is enough to damage he who is secretly using it. Who knows?

Masturbation, Naturalism and the Prostitute's Embrace

Charles Marowitz said that writing about theatre is always an act of masturbation. That it serves no fertile end … he said it, of course, in a book. (Marowitz, 1991) Maybe he is right. And if writing about theatre (creating assessable research outcomes from talking about art) is masturbatory, maybe the offering up of creative research outcomes is no different to advertising our wares in an Amsterdam shop window. Maybe we are doing no more than giving that male customer that which we think he thinks he wants. And just like the chances of finding love in a prostitute's embrace are highly unlikely, so I wonder, apropos of these words, whether creative practice, when driven by the need for research outcomes, and research outcomes let us not forget that appear in certain privileged sites and venues, deny the very thing they/we purport to seek. When we search for research outcomes, we can lose sight of the principles of research in false pursuit of the prize of promotion. It is a trap we do not so much fall into as seek out and throw ourselves upon with abandon.

The explorer Richard Burton wrote:

    Do what thy manhood bids thee do,
    From none but self accept applause.
    He noblest lives and noblest dies
    Who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

It is a long time since any of my laws were self-made: they have been made by the world of the university for a quarter of a century. I am comfortable with that. More comfortable, I often feel, than many of my colleagues. But perhaps that lack of discomfort is the result of a lack of care. Maybe it does not matter to me that it is a transaction rather than an act of love, because I have not really fallen in love with the things that I do. It is a feeling not unlike being in a naturalistic play and suddenly becoming massively aware of your own act of pretence. This happened to me once many years ago and it was the last time I was able to generate enough juice to engage in any kind of sustained theatrical pretence. Not because I was any worse at it than anybody else I was performing with but because once I saw myself as a liar there was no turning back. I could not shake the feeling, the knowledge, that I was engaged in an act of posturing, posing, pretending; an adult playing at a child's game of make-believe.  

This article is in one sense a way of acknowledging that and of shaking those lies out into the light. I have acted since that moment, and acted many times. But it was one of the two moments in my life when I knew with an absolute certainty that I was not an actor. The second moment shall remain a secret. The third, perhaps, is yet to come.

In the same way, I have carried out many acts of research, and come up with my share of research outcomes, but I have done this with the feeling somewhere deep where a soul might reside that I am playing the part of a researcher: that whilst I might occasionally convince others, I singularly fail to convince myself. The result is a significant body of research outcomes at the same time as it amounts to a body of insignificant research. Looking around me at the outcomes of colleagues it is hard to believe I am alone in this situation, even if the silence from those same colleagues is deafening.

Cui Bono?

Karl Marx believed any question could be answered by asking 'who benefits?' In performance studies now to have reached a certain age and to still be teaching undergraduates in any great numbers is to wear a sign that says 'I am not a researcher'. It is a curious world for those of us who came into teaching to teach. And if we did not quite make this world then we were at least complicit in its design; and we could perhaps be more honest about what ends our research most usually serves. About who benefits … because increasingly I am coming to believe that in all but the rarest of cases the people who benefit most from research outcomes in university theatre are the researchers themselves.

Practice-led research in performance suggests parallels with J.L. Austin's speech act theory inasmuch as practical research in and through performance sounds suspiciously like performative research, as a brave alternative to the old-fashioned and inadequate qualitative and quantitative paradigms and as investigation that makes something exciting happen in the act and process of discovery.(Austin, 1975) As his title suggests, Brad Haseman's Manifesto for Performative Research makes much of this linguistic causality, telling us that established research methodologies frame what is legitimate and acceptable, whilst at the same time failing to meet the needs of an increasing number of practice-led researchers within art and performance. (Haseman 2006: 98) Drawing on Austin's take on performativity and Donald Schon's situating of practice as that which is complex, uncertain, unfixed and unique, (Schon, 1983: 14) Haseman's manifesto locates practice-led research as the Brave New World of performance, rather than as a methodology: as one way of investigating a topic. Dangerously, his words carry the implication that other forms of research are simple, static, convinced and ubiquitous. In a similar vein, Jonathan Bollen sees practice-led researchers as 'brave, new reflexive artist-scholars'. (Bollen, 2007) In cases like these we are invited to read practice-led research as a form of resistance, and we (for I too am part of the problem) perpetuate this further by locating ourselves as methodological outlaws, unloved and unwanted, misunderstood and misaligned. That practice-led research remains resistant to a fully mainstream majority is not in doubt, but within our own fields of operation the approach quickly became more than accepted: it became expected. Hard to locate one's work as in any significant way 'outside' when it is invited to journey along the same corridors of power it purports to resist.

Because questioning practice-led research has come to be seen as opposing it, few balanced arguments emerge. One is either seen as being pro or anti and publishing in one of the journals that has been set up as a home for contemporary performance research will often mean toeing a largely positive line.  

An Unspeakable Truth

This paper comes at a time when ideas of practice-led, practice-based and artistic research are at once both fiercely fought over and ubiquitous. At worst this ubiquity has threatened to turn the search for appropriate and effective university theatre research methodologies into a type of fashion statement, so that daring to engage in research in ways that do not amount to a practice-led methodology is both a glaring cultural faux pas and an ignominious form of career suicide. Despite the fact that we know that every act of research into practice does not need to be through practice it is, as already mentioned, becoming rare to find a postgraduate student whose research into, for example, directorial performance strategies is not focused on their own studio-based trials. It is becoming rare too to find an academic member of university staff (certainly in the UK or Australia) who teaches theatre and does not cite artistic research as their prime activity and outcome. The UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is 'committed to supporting and encouraging research where practice as an approach is integral', offering dedicated grants for research in this area, and taking support and encouragement to a higher level: 'The AHRC remains dedicated to this area of research, and continue to provide many opportunities for researchers in the practice-led area.'(Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2012). Great news if one is working in this way; but what of those who are not … or who would wish to work in other ways, were these ways not considered reactionary? Why support one methodology over, above, and inevitably at the expense of others? Where funding goes universities follow and almost all UK university theatre departments now foreground practice-led work on their web pages, with many establishing their own practice-led research centres. It is a bad time for a postgraduate student or member of staff to swim against this strong a tide.

Might we not discover as much, or dare we say more, through studying somebody else's practice and by disseminating our findings in words? A key word here of course is might. Another is findings, and the idea of practice-led research resulting in findings, rather than articulate reflection morphed into exegesis is a statement that would seem to mark this writer out as conservative, out of touch and anti-art. This is the new truth: that any research approach that is not through practice dare not speak its name.

My own platform for speech is generally solid enough, but would my articulation of concern (a sort of hopeful skepsis) read as contradictory for someone connected to a university subject that prides itself on the idea that doing is knowing, and that knowing about is all but redundant without evidence of also knowing how? Furthermore, would these concerns effectively debar me from my academic function; not in the sense of undergraduates having a particularly potent investment in practice-led research so much as in my own part-suggestion of an incompatibility at core, in postgraduate students feeling that my concerns render me redundant as a supervisor and/or examiner, or in colleagues at other universities feeling I have no continued place on research advisory boards? And yet, if practice-led research is not robust enough to defend itself against the concerns raised in this article then its future is not likely to be a happy one, for once the fashion fades some hard questions will inevitably remain.

Significance and Visibility

Significance has become a misused word in university research: it has come to mean publication and citation, but this is not primarily how significance works. Certainly academic research within the arts is often difficult to measure in any simple or precise manner, and in performance if we are dealing with ideas then we are also dealing with emotion and with resonance and the impact of one's work, or the absence of impact, may only emerge over time. In this way, productions I saw many years ago and which passed me by at the time have taken root to the extent that they now seem hugely significant in terms of the way I think and behave and believe. But who can measure that? If practice-led research (practice as research outcome) has problematized the role of text, it has also problematized issues of quality and significance ... not least because our medium of live performance is one that thrives on ephemerality and which, black and white production photographs, photocopied programmes and scratchy recordings notwithstanding, tends to be resistant to archival permanence.

Issues of significance are all-too easily sidestepped by experienced academics. Having a publication record makes subsequent publication easier to come by, just as a track record of stage work makes it easier to secure a theatre prepared to house our new work. Securing internal and/or external funding, which again becomes easier once one has received funding in the past will often cover not just rehearsal (research?) costs but the cost of hiring a venue, so that research money allows for both preparation and dissemination. Like vanity publishing that leads to books on a shelf that the author has paid to have printed, funding for practice-led research can easily create the illusion of significance. This is not to say that any work staged or published in this way is without worth – the results may well be wonderful – but it does create a cycle of fairly obvious illusion. If this situation is relatively common in the UK it is considerably more widespread in Western Australia, where we are able and encouraged to apply for publishing assistance grants to cover those very costs of buying space in books or theatres that a work's quality might otherwise earn for itself. (Government of Western Australia, 2012)  

I am limiting my comments here to Western Australia, the country's largest state, rather than writing about the situation in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide etc., with no more qualification than that I currently live in the same country as these cities; and I am deliberately avoiding references to mainland Europe, where the traditions of university theatre are very different to the Anglo-American model I am working from. Theatre venues in Western Australia are few and far between, as are potential spectators. For example, Europe allows often for work to tour with relative ease: from a base in the UK one could perform in Leeds on one night and London the next without much by way of discomfort and cost, and play in Brussels the following night and Paris on the fourth. In Australia, a huge country with a tiny population, touring theatre has a very different provenance and, in fairness to those who do tour work it is hard to conceive of anything other than a very mainstream professional work with a cast of well-known television performers being able to undertake a national tour without the type of subsidy I am decrying when it comes to university research.

Guilty Secrets

And here is our guilty truth, our guiltiest secret, even when it is not really a secret at all. University theatre lecturers are neither necessarily nor automatically good theatre practitioners. In fact, they/we are often pretty poor. Now this is said – and said in the dread permanence of print – the words need some qualification, not least because teaching is its own practice and the directing of students shows is an art in and of itself. Within the context of this article, theatre and/or performance practice is taken to mean the type of practice-led creative research that university lecturers are increasingly wont to do. Indeed, they/we are encouraged to work in these ways. The university I currently teach at in Australia has a strong record of creative research, and almost all of our Higher Degree by Research (chiefly PhD) students in Art and Humanities are working on practice-led projects. At a time when our research methods have become more important than the subjects they are used to scrutinise and when methodology wars are fought as passionately as they are it is prudent to step back for a moment and look at this situation without the confirmation bias that sees research where none exists, confuses feelings with findings and production with impact. In doing so, opportunity is taken to locate practice-led research as what it is: a way of discovering and a way of describing. That many university lecturers commonly refer to themselves as practice-led researchers ultimately does no more than muddy the waters, for whatever practice-led research is it is not at its best when it reads as a self-promotional club one can join and as a career bandwagon one can climb aboard.  

To call oneself a feminist, postmodernist or Marxist rightly suggests an overtly politicised way of viewing the world, and it does so in ways that denote causality between viewpoint and description, between seeing and telling. Whilst working through practice-led research is in no way an apolitical choice, it is a choice and its value lies in its fitness for purpose. One intention of this article is to sound a warning for those colleagues who find themselves increasingly drawn towards practice-led research as a means of gluing bad art to shaky scholarship and calling it art scholarship. The problem is that we lecturers have come to fear the label of mediocre artist much more than that of bad teacher … despite the fact that we are by definition and almost exclusively professional teachers and amateur practitioners.

We well know that this is not the case for every university lecturer; but we know too that for every practitioner that carries their professional experience and expertise into university studios there are dozens of us who know in our dark and secret hearts that few people in the world would pay to see our practice and that the work we make is made solely because of the academic contexts we are fortunate enough to operate within rather than in spite of them.  

The Lure of Practice

In following the zeitgeist to the extent that our default methodology has become practice-led, and when that practice masquerades as professional with none of the demands of quality associated with that term, we have at once deluded ourselves and reduced research to a catch-all term bereft of currency. The result has been a drastic reorientation of large swathes of research, which has undermined the integrity and independence of the academic community. Brave are the job applicants now who do not describe their research as practice-led and rare are the applicants whose work would pass muster beyond the safety net of university support.  

Another point to stress is that I am in no way against practice-led research: just the opposite in fact. My concern is not with practice as a means of knowing so much as with the ways in which knowing has been ambushed by practice. It is possible to be supportive of creative research at the same time as we are aware of the ideas of superiority that are wrapped up in the language we use and in the ways we describe ourselves. In Australia we read now of 'Live Research', with all of its attendant view of the flipside as somehow inert, out of date ... dead, even; of practice-led research and its researchers as being innovative, trail-blazers, engaged in precarious activities. These are the terms that we commonly use. 'Artist-Scholar' is another, as is 'Creatives'. We need to be careful that we do not use descriptions like these to disguise bad art and weak scholarship at the same time as the descriptions serve to provide their own misleading guarantee.  

Writing these words I look around my office and note that I am fortunate enough to have many theatre books on my shelves, and note too that the most useful in my field have generally been written by academics. That is what they/we tend to do best. And this is not just about having the time to write, relative to other industries. Actors are generally out of work, about 90% of the time according to Equity, and yet with a few notable exceptions books about acting or directing by actors and directors tend not to read well. The exceptions to this rule: Brecht, Brook and Boal spring as quickly to mind as Grotowski, Stanislavski, Barba and Mamet, but these giants aside, books by practitioners about practice tend not to illuminate much. Perhaps the logic is that, like the ideal of practice-led research, art forms its own articulation and artists do their best speaking in and through their work. And logically so: theatre is in and all about the moment, whereas books are acts of reflection; theatre is about the immediacy of now and writing is about the possibility of then: the possibility that our words will be read by others at different times, in different countries. Theatre is not about description. Writing is. This is not a critique of ability so much as it is about fitness for purpose.  

And why would it be otherwise? Why would I think for one minute that my practical work, steeped in a quarter-century safety of seminar rooms and a secure salary, would be likely to stand comparison with the best, or perhaps even the most ordinary professional practice? Other than as my own vanity project and as a means of showing current and potential employers that I have knowledge through doing, what purpose, value and significance does this form of research usually have; and what distinguishes practice as research from practice? When we spread the net as wide as we do we catch a lot that could usefully be thrown straight back. But little is. This is not about denying lecturers the right to practice (and I am not just talking here about performance) ... It is about being honest when it comes to significance.

Subjectively Speaking

Looking more closely at the names on the spines of books written by full-time theatre lecturers, I see the names of people who have written expertly on and about practice and yet, as I have often witnessed, make theatre so badly as to make time crawl. These writers will remain unnamed here through professional courtesy rather than any sense of ethical proprietary; and they comprise a few names on a very long list. If my use of the word 'badly' reads as an act of outrageous subjectivity, it is no less valid than the subjectivity we bring to bear when assessing student work. Subjectivity acknowledges meaning as an act of personal interpretation rather than collective understanding; seeing responses as being generally rooted in a state of mind, whilst objectivity is beyond interpretation, existing instead as something shared to the point of common acceptance; as professional assessors our personal subjectivities are always harnessed to a modicum, at least, of objective reasoning whilst as subject specialists our reasoning is by definition reasonable. This is not to suggest that we all respond to the same work in the same way (I would rather suffer death by a thousand cuts than sit through another half-danced, Laban-inspired Ibsen) but it is to say that a work's qualities are usually discernible even when that work is not entirely to one's own taste: not quite then a charlatan's faith in relativism so much as a championing of the individual's right to hold his or her views on performance ... with the proviso in our case of those views being informed

Many readers will be familiar with being the seemingly sole voice of dissent in response to a production that everybody, including everybody whose opinions we value, hails as glorious. When the world is so emphatically against us it would be foolish not to wonder if the world might just be right; and foolish too to abandon our views completely because they are so singularly held.

External Validation

With the exception of academics writing about their own theatre practice (and I speak throughout as one of the guilty many) I can think of no examples of full-time theatre lecturers' practice that has been subject to any considered, in-depth and in-print critical analysis. Of course universities throughout the world contain numerous already-distinguished practitioners that we have brought in to boost our research standing; but this is often no more than renting a professional theatre maker's curriculum vitae and it does nothing to dilute the argument.

So why are so many of us so desperate to have our practice seen as of a professional standard? Even or especially when it is being played at venues bought and paid for out of research grants or internal university funding? It is vanity publishing, with even less guarantee of quality. Quality here can be taken to stand for significance and vanity stands for the activities of teachers who seek to elevate their work to the status of professional solely by dint of its research-acceptability. And this is a vanity I have no wish to add to my own already-too-long list.

I know that if I write a book or paper that does not advance or challenge extant views that I will find it hard to find a publisher willing to take it, and to pay an advance. Even though I know, as know I do, where my own work comes in terms of its own significance. But here's the thing: I suspect strongly that even the most ordinary university-written article has more weight of significance, both within and beyond the university sector than almost any lecturer-created performance.  

We know these things:

1: Describing practice-led work has become its own industry.

2: Not since the rise of semiotics have so many conferences been dedicated to one methodological approach as we are currently seeing with practice-led research.

3: Practice-led research is often linked to dramaturgy, to the extent that these twin towers are taking over our field. Neither in the UK nor Australia was the term 'dramaturgy' widely used until recently. It is so widespread now that many readers of this paper will have met more self-describing dramaturgs in the last 18 months than they might in the previous 18 years. More significantly, many readers of this will regard their own practice as dramaturgy. Like 'practice-led' and 'practice-based' it is a funding- and tenure-attracting term that dresses everyday practical activity in the guise of research rigour.

4: UK and Australian university theatre has developed a peculiar siege mentality, despite the fact that practice-led research has become the methodology of choice by the vast majority of HRD students in Art/Humanities subjects and beyond.

5: A great many of us see this as an opportunity to reinvent our pasts: to reframe practice as research outcomes ... as though the application of a label saying 'Practitioner' makes it so.

6: We are, most of us, and despite our claims, professional teachers and hobbyist practitioners. Whisper this soft around dramaturgs.

The question with research is who gains from our work and how is its value defined? If our critical analyses are not published they remain insignificant; if our practice is insignificant then it remains critically invisible and self-serving. What remains is confirmation bias linked to the lure of practice.  

If practice-led research is to function as more than an act of smoke and mirrors, then a stepping back from delusion is necessary. Without that, practice-led research can only erase its own intent and value, promising more than it delivers and delivering no more than the empty promise of me, me, me …. Descartes' 'Je pense donc je suis' says one thing; 'I practice therefore I am a practitioner' says something else, and something, I fear, rather less.

Works Cited:

Art & Humanities Research Council "Funding Opportunities: Research Funding," accessed August1, 2012,

Austin, John L. How To Do Things With Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1975.

Bollen, Jonathan. 'Precarious Balance & Extra-Daily Effort' Realtime Arts MagazineVol. 80, August-September 2007, accessed February 18, 2012,

Freeman, John. 'Getting it Wrong for the Right Reasons' (paper presented at the Symbiotica Public Lectures: University of Western Australia. November 8th, 2011).

Freeman, John. Blood, Sweat & Theory: Practice through Research in Performance. Libri: Oxford. 2010.

Government of Western Australia Department of Culture and the Arts "Publishing Assistance Program," accessed July 9, 2012,

Haseman, Brad. 'A Manifesto for Performative Research' Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, theme issue "Practice-led Research" No. 118. 2006. pp. 98-106.

Kane, Leslie. ed. David Mamet in Conversation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 2001. p33

Marowitz, Charles. Recycling Shakespeare. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 1991.

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©2012 John Freeman
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

John Freeman is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication & Cultural Studies at Curtin University Western Australia, joining from Brunel University West London where he was Reader in Theatre and Deputy Head in the School of Arts. He has written on contemporary performance and creative learning in over 80 international publications and has authored and edited five books: Performance Practice; Tracing the Footprints; New Performance/New Writing; Blood, Sweat & Theory; and The Greatest Shows on Earth: World Theatre from Peter Brook to the Sydney Olympics. His next book, Remaking Memory: Autoethnography, Memoir and the Ethics of Self will be published in 2014. He is a peer reviewer for the Australian Research Council in seven areas of expertise, a member of numerous steering committees, the International Research Centre for Development and Training, the International Association of University Theatre and the International Society for Education through Art.
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September 2012

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Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2012 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved.

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Gertrude Stein-In Words and Pictures - Renate Stendhal