Drama in the laboratory

June 19, 1998

Olga Wojtas reports on a Scottish initiative that is investigating the research potential of the performing arts

The nation's conservatoires have traditionally had a low research profile, concentrating on teaching even at postgraduate level. There have been signs, however, of a shift in outlook, with several conservatoires successfully taking part in the most recent research assessment exercise.

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama decided it was not yet ready for such a move, but it has quietly been investigating its research potential as a specialist institution. And it has now won a Pounds 300,000 seedcorn award from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to create a national centre for research in the performing arts.

The award comes under the latest Pounds 7.5 million tranche of SHEFC's research development grant. The other 16 projects in the scheme are more obviously utilitarian, ranging from boosting rural economies to improving the prevention and treatment of disease. But John Sizer, SHEFC's chief executive, argues that the development grant "seeks to meet society's longer term needs, which includes the continuance of a high quality of living. Scotland's vibrant cultural life contributes to that high quality."

Rita McAllister, vice-principal of the RSAMD, says: "I think it's fantastic that SHEFC have recognised that this is worth supporting. They encouraged us to be imaginative in our submissions, and this is giving us permission to use our imagination.'' The RSAMD does not see itself replicating the approach of the universities. While they would be expected to carry out research in the performing arts, the RSAMD anticipates that it will effectively be a laboratory for the performing arts.

This could lead to investigations of how a performance or production actually comes about, particularly in a touring or community setting. Researchers could take this back to the very creation of what is being performed. If Scottish Opera, for example, commissions a work, neither it nor the composer has the chance to see how the opera is evolving until the first night, says Dr McAllister. "We would hope to create the potential for a composer to come and try things, and for us to observe the process of a work being created.'' Even the very greatest composers would have valued finding out whether their inner imagination was working in the way they wanted, she says. And while work by community groups may not be given the elevated title of composition, Dr McAllister believes their music and drama offers an equally important arena for research.

"That process is just as important to art as the famous symphonies of the world, because it's to do with people's participation, and gives people a sense of identity," she says.

Collaborative research with outside groups could include the role of the arts in health and welfare. Music and drama are being used in a bid to help such diverse groups as children with special needs, prisoners, and people with mental health difficulties, but Dr McAllister says this is being done in a random, uncoordinated way, pointing to the need for solid research.

"Increasingly, the performing arts are being used in work with mobility, concentration and imagination, but nobody is monitoring very much whether they have the benefit that people would love them to have," she says.

"The whole question of health promotion, like preventive dentistry, is in its infancy. What would the effect of the performing arts be on well people, who are looking for something better in their lives?'' The RSAMD plans to set up a consultancy arm, aptly named Aria, Applied Research in the Arts, to investigate social and professional needs, and develop partnerships with outside bodies.

Meanwhile, a head of research will be appointed to stimulate staff projects. Dr McAllister believes research is a natural progression from the RSAMD winning its own degree-awarding powers in 1994, "giving us a more distinct sense of our own identity''.

SHEFC's research development criteria emphasise interdisciplinary research, and the RSAMD's twin schools of music and drama lead to an interdisciplinary approach "by nature rather than by contrivance,'' Dr McAllister says.

The Scottish Universities Research Policy Consortium recently called for a watchdog group to look at interdisciplinary research in any future RAE, working alongside single subject assessment panels to ensure that RAE criteria are applied fairly. It also wants to see yardsticks to enable interdisciplinary research to be evaluated.

"We hope that by the end of our three-year SHEFC funding, we will have a research culture and be able to go in for the RAE with confidence,'' says Dr McAllister.

There is a growing staff interest in research, with other prospective projects including experimental musical and dramatic composition, applying computer technology to the production and presentation of sound and vision, using information technology in specialist performance training, traditional music and ethnic theatre. These may not fit common beliefs of what constitutes research, but Dr McAllister believes they pose as many intellectual demands as mainstream projects.

"But research and the means of expressing research may not always be bits of paper. If we are talking about following through the processes of the performing arts, we may not document it in writing, but may have to find a combination of ways of expressing it, including visually or on stage.''

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