Dramatic role for research

May 24, 1996

Drama research is taking its place on the European stage with academics locked in debate on its merits.

A clutch of publications is set to appear, giving drama researchers a forum for argument on drama, dance and performing arts. A quarter of departments teaching these subjects in higher education were awarded ratings of 4 or 5 in the last research assessment exercise.

John Somers, senior lecturer in drama education at the University of Exeter, is editor of Research in Drama Education, which came out in March. He is hoping to promote drama research in its own right, rather than as as an adjunct of other subjects such as English, sociology, philosophy or psychology.

He has also set up an international database of names of hundreds of researchers worldwide, and is running an international conference at Exeter every other year.

"There have been some big changes over the past few years with people making new kinds of investigations, looking at how drama can be seen in the context of cultural trends. They are now analysing performance in its own right rather than just scrutinising the literary text," he said.

Academics are divided over the feasibility and desirability of what is known as "practice as research" whereby they study actual productions, looking at anything from the acting to audience reaction and then document their research.

Though RAE documents include a section called Research Through Practice, there is still little agreement over how this should be defined. Christopher McCullough, lecturer in drama at Exeter, says that internal productions face particular problems in this respect.

"It is not so difficult in terms of outside assessment if we are commissioned to produce a play from outside the university, since that is viewed as being analagous to getting an article published. Internal productions are another matter," he said.

He is co-editing a journal called Studies in Theatre Production, backed by the Standing Committee of University Drama Departments, which gives researchers involved in internal productions an outlet for their work.

Some institutions see the debate over practice as research as an issue for all the arts. Glasgow University drama school is working on a feasibility study with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Glasgow College of Art for the creation of a research centre for performing arts.

But some academics are sceptical about much of the leading-edge work in production research. Claude Schumacher, reader in French theatre studies at Glasgow and editor of Theatre Research International, says: "The problem is that there are people who are using the word research very loosely. They talk about the science of the theatre, but of course there is really nothing scientific about it."

Baz Kershaw, professor of theatre and performance at the University of Lancaster, believes there are clear demarcation lines between those departments taking an historical approach to drama research and aligning themselves with other disciplines such as English, and those with staff doing practical projects and working with performance companies.

"The whole issue is tied up with the question of documentation and whether, through that, you are losing some of the core qualities of performance. At the heart of the debate is also the question of how new technology can be used to document aspects of performance. While you still may not be able to capture performance, you may end up with material which would show elements of practice which uncovered new knowledge and insights," he said.

Simon Trussler, reader in drama at Goldsmiths College in London and editor of New Theatre Quarterly, says one of the common themes of drama research today is the search for a universal language of performance.

"My rule of thumb is that if it does not make sense to the practitioners, then I do not think it can be of much value," he said.

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