The footlights are farmore than a footnote

March 2, 2007

UK drama departments are world leaders in combining the theory and practice of acting. Chloe Stothart reports.

A group of strangers gather in a street. They stand still, bow their heads and stay silent for two minutes. But this is no memorial service for war veterans or terror victims. The silent mass are commemorating a lost hat.

The group of silent people are part of a theatre research project run by Ross Brown, head of undergraduate studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama. The project looks at the relationship between silence and noise, and stillness and movement.

The experiences of those taking part in conventional and unconventional minute silences - how they act, what they feel and what they think as the sound of a siren or a person chatting on a mobile phone breaks their silence - will feed into a performance devised by Mr Brown.

This is research, but not as most academics outside the performing arts would know it.

Research into acting tends to fall into two groups: conventional library-based work, perhaps into the history of types of acting; and work, like that of Mr Brown, that incorporates an element of performance. In the second group, the amount of written work varies enormously - some pieces include almost no written material, while others generate conventional papers and, perhaps, video, script or soundtrack.

As a field, research into acting has grown steadily, but several events in the past few years have helped boost its stature. The first PhDs in practice as research - as research with a large element of performance - began about six years ago. The Central School, which is renowned for training actors, joined the University of London in 2005 and became the first of the famous British conservatoires to take on doctoral students from September 2006.

The UK is now one of the world leaders in this area, partly because UK universities tend to unite theory and practice much more than their US counterparts.

"In the UK, any (academic) drama department would expect students to stand up and try ideas practically, but with a different agenda from [the more purely vocational] drama schools," said Sophie Nield, head of the Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre at the Central School.

But, despite the UK's prowess in this area of research, there is still debate in the theatre world over its value. Some actors think that the more theoretical research is of little relevance to them.

Tim Crouch, actor, writer and co-director of An Oak Tree , a play that has had rave reviews and stellar guest stars including Frances McDormand and Christopher Eccleston, is one sceptic.

"The performance theory stuff - finding stacks of words and describing what actors do - doesn't help me as a performer," he said. "I get inspiration from tangible sources, not from books about acting or making theatre. If you become too aware of working in such an intellectualised way, you lose the heart of your work."

But Harriet Walter, a renowned Shakespearean actress, finds some research into acting useful. "Theory of acting crosses over into drama, and the other way round. They seed each other," she said.

Some drama schools, which traditionally provide vocational training for actors rather than offer a platform for research, are sceptical about the value of theories of acting.

"Many established drama schools argue that vocational practice involves doing rather than theorising," said David Shirley, chair of the research forum at the Conference of Drama Schools. "The comparatively high teaching hours leave only limited space for research, but things are beginning to change."

Some practice-based researchers also doubt whether work that is not entirely written will be deemed acceptable for the research assessment exercise even though performance-based work is permitted.

Mr Brown said research must be rigorous and backed by theory, criticism and peer review. "You cannot just emote into the atmosphere and say 'That is my research and I do not need to explain that'." But this did not mean it all had to be written, he said.

"We are fighting a literary tradition that demands things are written up.

There is a strong feeling among practitioners that to write things up diminishes the practical nature of them. If something demands being dealt with practically, it is because it cannot be dealt with in a verbal model."

Defenders of practice as research argue that it takes theatre into new areas and increases understanding of the world in a similar way to work at the cutting edge of the arts and social sciences as it grapples with philosophical questions about the nature of reality and performance in life.

As practice-based research grows, its benefits will be more widely recognised, Mr Shirley predicted. "As more trainers and practitioners emerge from this tradition, it will diminish people's fears and enrich the quality of the theatre. It is slow journey, but it is definitely changing," he said.


How much research is being conducted

About 50 to 100 PhDs have been done in practice as research in theatre over the past five years, according to Robin Nelson, professor of theatre and TV drama at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Most universities in the UK offer something in this field, he added.

A practice-based PhD includes a written thesis of about 30,000 to 40,000 words in length that complements the performance element, which forms about half the PhD.

He stressed that the writing is equal in status to the performance element and is not just a way of "apologising" for it.

The performance part can vary enormously from performing to devising or observing performances, while the writing is likely to set out conceptual and critical issues.


Universities doing practice-based research in theatre include: Birmingham Manchester Metropolitan Central School of Speech and Drama Lancaster Sheffield Hallam Roehampton Napier Chichester University of Central Lancashire Leeds Abersytwyth Reading

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