classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
2.3 Ethnographic methodologies and ethical balances
In adopting this PaR cycle as my core methodology, I differ from the majority of applied theatre researchers, who have tended to adopt methodologies drawn eclectically from the qualitative social sciences which emphasise the collaborative and community-based
dimensions of their work, such as participatory action research or ethnography (Hughes et al 2011).5 In contrast, I have not chosen to engage participants explicitly as co-researchers, or label my research methodology ‘practice as collaborative research’ (although some of its most powerful moments of learning occurred when particular participants did move into this role). However, I have found ethnographic approaches invaluable in navigating the power relations and ethical challenges inherent to research with young participants. These include concerns such as research reciprocity, the instrumentalisation of relationships, and the representation of participants’ voices. Such questions cannot be simply resolved through formal ethics clearance procedures; they are balancing acts, bound up in complex and ongoing social interactions. Both arts ethnography and performance ethnography have advanced stances and strategies to help me stand more firmly on the shifting sands of participatory research.
2.3.1 Arts ethnography
The principle of research reciprocity originated in feminist ethnography but has since become widely accepted. As put by O’Connor and Anderson, the research should be a ‘symbiotic’ rather than a ‘parasitic’ experience, ‘that benefits everybody involved’ (2015:60). I would like to suggest that long term PaR has, on the whole, enabled me to honour this principle to an unusual degree.
However, sharing social space with research participants over long periods of time raises the question of how to represent them in the documentation and analysis of research. Complex and multifaceted relationships develop, only parts of which are relevant to the research
5 This situation may be changing, as evidenced by the March 2016 on practice research held by the Applied and Social Theatre Working Group of TAPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) on ‘Practice and Research’, and the awarding of TAPRA’s annual David Bradby Prize for outstanding research to Prof Sally Mackey for her PaR portfolio on applied practice with young people – www.challengingplace.org and www.challengingplacehalfmoon.org .
enquiry. Here the overlap between applied practice research and ethnography is particularly pertinent. I recognise ethnographer Wendy Luttrell’s description of feeling ‘split at the roots’ by the tension between embeddedness in her research setting (an education unit for pregnant teenagers) and the process of extracting data and analysis from it:
On some days I would try to dust myself off so I could write what I had seen and heard and relate it to theories about social and psychodynamic forces, but this often felt ‘hollow at the heart’ […] One (way of knowing) is the way of ‘dusting off’, detachment, and analysis, and the other is the way of being an emotional participant in what one is seeing. I believe ethnographic knowing is about embracing both ways. (2003:162) To lessen the conflict and avoid instrumentalising her everyday interactions with the young women, she arrived at the strategy of facilitating art workshops with them, and asking their permission to use their artworks as her main data. While the analytic voice remains Luttrell’s, the participants were represented in her work by their considered, creative statements of their own identity, rather than solely by her analysis of their throwaway comments and behaviour. Undoubtedly, their artistic contributions can be considered as co-authored texts, defined and framed by Luttrell, like the stories created by young people in my ‘Stories of Practice’. Nonetheless, their coherence and completeness allow them to speak more directly to the reader and prevent any monopoly of meanings by the researcher. Simultaneously, the process of facilitating such creative work, which the young women enjoyed and used for their own purposes, became a key form of ethnographic reciprocity.
My own core methodology is to modify my own practice reflexively, rather than to extract data as such from encounters. However, where young people have created ‘retellings’ (in various artforms) of stories I have told them, or generated their own stories in workshops, and where they have granted me permission to use them, I have taken these artefacts as privileged (because considered) expressions of their perspectives. In a few cases, notably the
Wormwood in the Garden project and my work with the intervention classes at City School, the collaborative creative process they represent led the way into collaborative analytical
processes (e.g. reflective dialogues), in which young people reflected with me on the nature of working together through story. In these cases, their analytic words too are a privileged source for me.
These supplementary methods do not remove the tensions inherent to the asymmetries of research interactions. However I have sought to restore balance to these relationships by returning my learnings to participants in appropriate forms (e.g. in a catalogue document), and availing of opportunities for them to represent their own viewpoints (and artistry) publicly
where possible (e.g. at conferences or through performances, particularly in the case of participants at Maple House).
2.3.2 Performance ethnography
My methodology has been further shaped by rich debates on the role and approach of artists in community settings in the discipline variously called performance research, performance studies, and performance ethnography. In particular, Dwight Conquergood’s ethical mapping of a performer’s work has helped me understand my positionality and role with respect to young people, the importance of attending to their covert forms of communication, and the value of performative writing, as I now briefly discuss in turn.
Conquergood (1985) urges performers to adopt an ethic of ‘being with’ individuals and groups in their struggles, yet to retain an awareness that dialogical performance, or ‘genuine
conversation’ (Fig. 1.1), is an elusive stance held in tension between various pitfalls. It ‘struggles to bring together different voices, world views, value systems, and beliefs so that they can have a conversation with one another’ (1985:9). Thus I have had to learn the limits to my own ability to empathise with young people, and simultaneously the need to keep trying to do so. One young collaborator seemed to be exhorting those working with mentally unwell young people to just such a delicately balanced position, in a prose poem she included in our performance Wormwood in the Garden:
If you are boasting that your experience is all based on having survived being a teenager yourself ‒ stop. We are ‘average teenagers’ minus the ability to get it together. We are average teenagers with acute and chronic illness that -were it anywhere else in the body - would lead to hospital tubes and wires. Today the young people are ignoring you, but please don’t take it personally. (Godwin 2015b)
Her call not to take rejection personally echoes Conquergood’s warning against the ‘cynic’s cop-out’ – it is a call to persist despite the risks and failures of practice, sensing out the zone of dialogic practice rather than seeking clear rules.
Performance research also draws attention to the insufficiency of analytical discourse to give voice to the full range of perspectives in an ethnographic encounter. Conquergood (2002) points out that clear, frank verbal communication is a luxury of the few, perhaps unsafe for subordinated people to indulge in. His call for researchers to be alive to covert forms of communication, such as non-participation, is one I have had to learn and relearn to heed. It
reminds me, for example, that where adolescents choose not to participate in my workshops, they may not simply be ‘too cool’ for storytelling; they may in fact be communicating specific objections to my story or to my presence (as for example in ‘Pushing it too far at Maple House’).
Finally, performance research suggests ways to capture my physical and emotional responses to a practice situation in moments of writing and dissemination. Ronald Pelias (2005) defines a form he calls ‘performative writing’, often narrative or poetic in style, as a vivid and
multifaceted way of harnessing insights which resist analysis, and of sharing one’s research findings. Monica Prendergast found performance writing invaluable in her performance research as a storyteller and theatre-maker for its ‘potential to communicate emotionally charged moments in our professional and personal lives’ (2010:82). I have used performative writing both to achieve some emotional distance from intense challenges within practice (as in the poem I wrote during a difficult but enlivening period at Maple House), and to bring
audiences rapidly into the matrix of decisions and perceptions I experience within a
Performance ethnography thus gives licence and voice to the subjective perception of the researcher. Yet it is important to consider strategies to minimise the risk of bias that is perhaps inherent to such situated research, and to meet the interlinked challenge of ensuring it is convincing in the public domain.
2.4 Rigour and impact