Research Methods

CTR 151, Summer 2012

This issue expands on Canadian formations of Performance Studies by connecting early work in the ethnography of performance with contemporary practices of performance ethnography. Researchers in folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and communications drew on ethnographic methods initially to understand performance as the emergent, creative elaboration of tradition and repertoire, as an approach to a performer’s interactions with an audience, and to explore how cultural performance effects social change or maintains social order. Contemporary performance studies researchers have built on such uses of ethnography and integrated them with practice-based research and critical pedagogy. Contributions to this issue map these intellectual histories and show how researchers work with performance as an embodied way of knowing and as a means of representing ethnographic work. They share innovations in performance writing, collaborative fieldwork, and social or site-specific intervention. The issue demonstrates the transformative vitality of ethnographic practices in the analysis, devising, and pedagogy of performance.

Click here to read the introduction and view the table of contents.



At a recent conference on African Atlantic Culture, History and Performance, one of the keynote speakers encouraged participants to consider how we deploy history.  While the word deploy can mean simply “use,” it also has connotations that suggest a more deliberate and even strategic function.  As we face new questions concerning open universities and universal access, how do those possibilities change the way we as scholars imagine “deploying” our history and our methodologies?  How do we envision the audiences for those new venues deploying history in their own turn?  What is the difference between teaching our students to deploy/use history vs. simply absorb/know it?  If there is a difference? How might it change the ways we approach our pedagogy and our research?  Should it?




In this video: The editors of pulled a few scholars aside at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education 2011 Conference in Chicago and asked them about their current projects. Here’s what they told us.

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When I wrote History Takes Time, I was preparing to go up for tenure. I was also advising a number of graduate students who felt they simply did not have time to do their work. I was distraught, as I felt and still do that we are conditioned more and more aggressively to be almost surgically strategic in doing our research.  My own experience in largely unorganized archives in Mexico had taught me that some of the most important discoveries in doing historiographical research come from what you do not know is present before you begin that work, from looking at what else is in the file, from what articles and ads surround the newspaper article you had to read to do your work. [Read More]


JUDITH: The idea for our essay grew out of my two-fold frustration with the field of musical theater studies. First, I had experienced/read bias against what I considered to be one of the most significant shows in contemporary musical theater history, Rent. Specifically, one editor of a prominent journal rejected an article I had written on Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical primarily on the grounds that he did not like the show (it was subsequently published elsewhere), and I read about and heard similar reactions against it.  Clearly not everyone echoes such sentiment, and Rent has been the subject of increasing scholarly attention. But I still felt that its complexity and significance remained unexamined.

Second, I was growing increasingly frustrated with my inability, as a theater historian, to explore all aspects of this multivalent, interdisciplinary form, particularly music and dance.  The most rewarding conferences I was attending, in terms of gaining new knowledge, were not theater conferences but musicology conferences. I found myself eager to enhance my scholarship on musicals with the knowledge of a musicologist. I was aware of Jessica’s work and had met her at one of those conferences, so asking her to join me in exploring Rent was a no-brainer. Luckily she accepted. Finding a dance historian to join us proved impossible, largely due to the lack of dance scholars focusing on musical theater dance. Perhaps that was for the best, as the first draft of our collaboration was over double our word limit! I am unsure how we could have fit in ideas about the dance in the show.

JESSICA: I was thrilled to accept Judy’s invitation to co-author this chapter, for two reasons (besides the fact that I admired her work and enjoyed meeting her at conferences!).  First, I had been having a similar experience to Judy’s:  the most fruitful and stimulating musical theater conferences have recently become those that purposely combine scholars from a range of disciplines, resulting in a discussion that brings all sorts of methodologies, backgrounds, and perspectives to the table.  Musical theater in the world of musicology is a friendly, interesting, and growing field – but we all know that we can’t do this work alone and we’re all actively seeking voices coming from other directions.  How can any one scholar know everything about theater, music, dance, design, and more?  My second reason, then, for jumping on board is that musicals are collaborative processes, which means there is no reason why the scholarship on them shouldn’t also be collaborative.   Conferences are one model, but Judy’s invitation to write with her became an example of the philosophy we both share:  that even published, “formal” scholarship can be (boldly, transparently) collaborative, conversational, and interdisciplinary.


How “past” do events have to be before they’re “history”?  I confess I was (and am) a little nervous contributing to a volume about writing theatre history when my primary research (activist performance and US evangelical movements) seems so . . . current.    What qualifies my work as historiography instead of performance studies, criticism, or even journalism?  For me, historiographic concerns inhere not in the subjects I study but in the questions I address in investigating that subject.  I draw on the work of Michel de Certeau, who posits historical research as heterology—an encounter between different entities, between distinct imaginations past and present.  Crucial to this encounter, argues Certeau, is the realization that historians cannot (or do not) simply bracket their own commitments in their research.  Rather, historians’ present concerns shape and are shaped by their representations of the past.

In my work, I am drawn to performances by groups whose worldviews actively oppose or exclude my own.     Beyond requiring that I meet baseline expectations of accuracy, evidence, and argument, my historiographic training pushes me to attend to how my ideological investments influence my representation of groups who stand on the other side of ethical, political, and/or theological divides.  In particular, I must be aware of how the words and critical models I use to describe both my allies and my enemies can subtly reinforce my own positions and assumptions.  Certeau argues that heterologies ought to be mutually transformative, resituating not merely the object of research but the researcher her/himself.  Writing within/for an academic community that generally shares my worldview, I can easily craft technically accurate studies that flatter the assumed rightness of my position.  A heterological historiography demands something more.  It demands that I de-familiarize my own political assumptions, displacing myself, through encounters with ideological others.  It may not be in the past, but it’s historiography to me.


Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

  • James Peck. “The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography (review).” Theatre Journal 62.2 (2010): 305-306.  Available online [may require subscriber login]