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Cultural Studies Open-space Learning Case Study

Project Leader, Annouchka Bayley with Nese Tosun

Context

 ‘Representing the Other: Verbatim Theatre in Practice’

Running in parallel with its strategy to embed OSL within the practices of academic departments such as Chemistry, Philosophy and Business, the OSL project has sought to support experimental transdisciplinary practices. ‘Representing the Other: Verbatim Theatre’ funded in 2010-11 is an example of an OSL project which was not housed by an academic department, yet which sought to supplement the academic activities of its participants in the field of Cultural Studies.

This series of workshops attracted 15 participants from seven different academic departments (English, American Studies, History, Sociology, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, Philosophy and Law), seven of whom were postgraduate students. Although not all were dual-heritage themselves, they all expressed an interest in the dual heritage experience and a willingness to use verbatim theatre to explore the topic.

 

Method

We are inviting students with an interest in the dual-heritage experience, ex-patriate experience, or the concept of 'foreignness' as represented to take part in a research project in the Spring Term engaging with the theories and practices of ethnographic representation through Verbatim Theatre.

In recent years, the verbatim form has been at the forefront of political theatre, used to discuss major social and political issues. Traditional verbatim practices include the transposition of interviews, dialogues, speeches into performance text. These workshops will explore how far verbatim practices can represent experience, questioning how experience is created, how it is recovered, and finally what happens between disclosure and representation.

What will participants get out of it: an opportunity to develop research skills in a new way, working across subject boundaries, and to enhance your ‘soft skills’ in areas such as creative problem-solving, responsibility, sociability, presence and self-management. We are not looking for actors!

(PDF Document)  Course Outline

 

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Video conference with Verbatim theatre practitioner Haleh Anvari speaking from Tehran

 

Findings

The response to this OSL workshop series was extremely positive with 80% of participants who finished the course agreeing that the teaching was ‘as good as’ or ‘better’ than other teaching they experienced at Warwick and 90% rating the course content ‘outstanding’. Of 15 original participants, 10 attended regularly until the end. The single reason given by those who dropped out before the end was that of time constraints due to university course work. Indeed those who did drop out expressed regret at having to do so.

Among those who did finish the course the consensus was they would have liked more sessions; and that despite the pressures of academic work they found the joining of personal experience to academic readings to be very productive.

This is an add-on [to my university course work], though I do take it seriously – reading everything given to us to read. I find myself talking about the workshops with friends often”

I see it as complementary to myself more than anything else, and my experience, academic as well as personal. Personal and academic interests usually overlap in my case anyway.”

It was clear from the final performances that the students had critically engaged with the Verbatim theatre method. Some of them expressed reservations about the process of transcribing themselves through performance however, and preferred to express themselves in a more confessional mode. This produced an interesting tension between the representational apparatus of theatre and the personal issues under discussion. Whilst the participants had clearly bonded as a group, and benefitted individually from the experience, the research question from the perspective of the OSL project became: how does this kind of event benefit the wider university community?

Several interesting reflections emerged in conversation with the primary facilitator, Annouchka Bayley.

  • ‘practice as research’ is generally undervalued within universities.
  • Just as the mind/body distinction is implicitly upheld so is that between emotion and thought when analyzing pedagogic events such as this one which deal with ‘live issues’ of cultural heritage.
  • Contrary to the accusation that work like this is simply therapeutic or a form of ‘self help’ in which the participants unreflectively express issues and anxieties, the autobiographical theme becomes gradually more reflective through academic readings and acts of performance. Many of the participants in this case had not yet reached that level of reflection but given more time almost certainly would have. Really 5 weeks is too short for this process to be effective and rigorous.
  • On the question of whether this could be instituted more widely and assessed academically: in fact assessment could aid the process of reflection here. Were this to be a more extended academic programme it may progress more slowly to begin with in order to bring the students more fully into the process of performance. The students could then be assessed on reflective written pieces, on the element of risk taken with their performances and on a final performance.
  • We should not underestimate how important this kind of work is to the spirit of the university: it allows for collaboration between PhD students and undergraduates which is rare; and it empowers students to be active learners.

Full interview here (audio)

From the perspective of the OSL project two things stand out here: the conviction that this transdisciplinary model can have broad academic appeal, and the application of the OSL methodology to the work of postgraduate students.

Transcript of interview with PhD participant, Jeannette Silva Flores