performance: the artist-scholar hybrid

keith gallasch: practice-led research in performance

The Harbinger by QUT PhD student David Morton

The Harbinger by QUT PhD student David Morton

The Harbinger by QUT PhD student David Morton


Their academic mentors are reassuring. However, you really have to know what you want out of the research and just when in your career to take it on—the practice-led research programs in Australian universities diverge widely, as indicated by the few I’ve briefly surveyed.


At UniSA (University of South Australia), Corinna Di Niro is undertaking a practice-led research PhD on Commedia dell’ Arte. Dr Russell Fewster, Program Director Media Arts, writes that “Di Niro successfully mounted a Commedia-inspired production, The Marriage of Flavio and Isabella, at the 2012 Adelaide Fringe Festival…Her work is focused on developing a model for secondary school teachers to follow in teaching Commedia…Her artefact will include a DVD that is expected to provide an ongoing educational resource.”

Fewster has two honours level students developing verbatim theatre works. One of them, Nick Martin, is “capitalis(ing) on his training as an actor and employment as a shearer. His creative artefact will be a play based on his experiences and interviews with shearers in regional SA. He intends to tour this work regionally. The interviews will also serve an historical ethnographic purpose, [documenting] a fading industry: shearing in such areas as the Barossa Valley.” Fewster sees such creative output as “making a valuable contribution to the arts. Within a time of shrinking funding, the university with its resources such as a fully functioning theatre, offers a subsidised laboratory for practitioner/academics to develop work without having to initially rely on the variabilities of arts funding.”

These projects exemplify the diverse possibilities that practice-led research can offer artists, other researchers in their fields, and for teaching, history and more. However, talking with a small group of academics who guide practice-led research candidates, it quickly became clear that beyond immediately understood virtues there are considerable divergences in expectations and approaches.


Associate Professor Sandra Gattenhof, Head of Discipline, Creative Industries Faculty, School of Media, Entertainment, Creative Arts, Performance Studies, QUT (Queensland University of Technology) says, “Looking at our pattern of practice-led research over the last five years, all of our cohort—honours, master and PhD students in drama—are practice-led. There are no theory-based research degrees. It’s been a significant change and makes extraordinary demands on facilities.”

Secondly, not only has there been a change in approach but also in the age group of higher research degree students: “Five to 10 years ago, the students would have been mid 30s, early 40s with a degree of professional practice behind them and possibly looking to reorient or change practice.” A notable third development has been that “When students undertake practice-led research we say, you must think beyond the scope of your degree, about making a piece of work that you could then apply in an industry context. This work is a leaping-off point into professional practice.”

Students can opt to go from undergraduate to honours where a first class degree offers automatic entree into a PhD program: “a student’s professional track record for the industry is actually being developed through the research pathway. It’s a deliberate strategy on our part,” says Gattenhof. “For example, my PhD student and arguably our most successful candidate to date, David Morton, was clearly an outstanding theatre maker. His honours work was programmed in the Metro Arts independent program. His first work in his PhD, version one of The Harbinger, was programmed in La Boite’s independents season last year. Artistic director David Berthold saw the work’s potential and programmed it for the main stage. By the end of this year he’ll be 24 with a PhD and a professional track record at a leading venue.”

I ask Gattenhof in what precise way Morton’s work is research. “Everything he does is framed through a problem based methodology. It can seem counterintuitive. We say to our students, as theatre makers you don’t start with a research question. Often your practice is already defined by a problem, perhaps form-based or process-based. Part of the challenge is for you to take that into a research paradigm, to analyse it and put the contemporary literature framework around it to inform other practitioners who might be in that same position.”

Morton’s ‘problem’ relates to a fascination with the position of puppet-based theatre: “In his honours most of the literature he could find to do with suspension of disbelief, the engagement with the imagination and the encounter with the sublime, was to do with children’s theatre. He had a hunch that adult-oriented puppet theatre would have the same effect. The only way he could prove that was to make some work and trial it. We consider this as a partnership. I’m as much involved in his research as he is. We’re finding that adults slip into an imaginary state more easily than children.”

The exegesis continues to be a much-debated component in practice-led research. Gattenhof declares that practice and research “should be so tightly intertwined that one can’t exist without the other.” Morton’s research includes “a literature review, a method statement, data analysis and findings. We use the tools of theatre, what works in the room—a personal journal, photographs—but also reception interviews, a survey and now focus groups—traditional tools not usually used in a qualitative paradigm.”


Professor Sarah Miller, Associate Dean (Research, Creative & Professional Practice) at the University of Wollongong where practice-led research students include leading music theatre composer Andrée Greenwell and respected members of Sydney’s contemporary performance scene, Nigel Kellaway and Nikki Heywood.

Unlike QUT, “UOW does not rank our degree as a professional doctorate. It’s ranked as a highest level research doctorate.” As well, “you have to be an artist of some seniority. You can go into a PhD from Honours but for a creative doctorate you have to have a practice.” Miller tells me that a great deal of energy is initially invested in developing the students’ writing, editorial and research skills, “and it takes a long time to set up the research point—it’s very individual. We’re very focused on the writing because these people know how to be artists.”

I ask Miller about how artist-students feel about the exegesis. She tells me that “some fear that they will lose what it is that makes them an artist. We don’t want them to lose that at all. When they say, ‘I don’t want to write like an academic,” I say, “What, you mean badly?” [LAUGHS] Of course it’s not what’s asked for or aspired to. It’s in the framing of the exegesis. We are strict about “making examiners academically comfortable, “ says Miller, quoting one of her colleagues. “There are certain things a student needs to do—have a research topic, be able to formulate questions and articulate what their methodology is. If their methodology is more creative that’s fine, but they have to be able to articulate it.”

How much distance do students need to have from their work? “It’s in and out. There’s no restriction on using the word ‘I.’ Sometimes the work is very personal. Often, working through what your artistic lineage is and understanding that is very important. In my experience, people start from wanting to write their autobiography. We bring different views to the work, often using two supervisors, one more focused on writing, the other on the practice. The views of fellow students are also important.” Recently Miller took a group of students, including Nikki Heywood, performance maker Karen Therese and live art practitioner Sarah Rodigari to Bundanon arts centre for four days focused on discussion with each other. “Each had their own studio, we met at meal times, and they let me read their work—when they were ready. They want it to be perfect. It’s a relaxed place to work for people who can suffer freelance artist anxieties.”

What is the value or the significance of the work produced by practice-led research? Miller thinks that “it’s about the calibre of the work each institution insists on. ERA (Excellence for Research in Australia) has made all this very clear, that non-traditional research outputs will be valued highly when they are of calibre. Candidates’ research is the high calibre art works they make. If that’s to be meaningful it can’t be treated lightly. You can teach an artist to produce a lucid scholarly document. Even if it’s never published it’s still there for others to see.”

related matters

Dr Paul Monaghan, who has been Coordinator of Graduate Studies and Research at VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) and is now based in Canada, kindly sent me a document about “creative work outputs weightings.” It’s a personal statement that raises some important issues, one of which I had discussed with Sandra Gattenhof: “Performance is primarily collaborative.” David Morton’s production of his work, The Harbinger, is co-written and co-directed by Matt Ryan. As Gattenhof explains, part of the exegesis is a clear account of the nature and the range of the collaboration. Monaghan points out that for designers and actors who are being responsive to someone else’s work for their research the issue of agency can be problematic—hence the need for clarity about sole and joint authoring, alongside similar matters such as the distinction between original and interpretive works.


As Associate Professor John Freeman (Department of Communications and cultural Studies, Curtin University of Technology, WA) argues in “Creative angels and exegetical demons: artistic research, creative production and thesis” (Higher Education Review, Vol 44, No 1, 2011) there is a palpable tension “between the immediacy and ephemerality of performance (made real in the new and lost in the then) and the performance of written, authored work (made in the then and found in the now).” A piece of music or a visual artwork need not suffer this tension.

The ephemerality of performance could be fatal for research if the outcome is represented only by the artwork, unless it is bound to an exegesis, an ideally substantial and explanatory trace of the event. Above all, surely it’s about what the artwork and exegesis, as one, do to and for the candidate, as both scholar and artist—not just artist. Few research-led practice works will find their way onto major stages, but if they do, let’s hope they trail glorious clouds of research data and theorising with them—something more than artefact, wonderful though that may be.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 3

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 August 2012