Tag Archives: disability arts

The Research Interview as Performance

The research interview can be viewed in dramaturgical terms and the concept of performing in interview contexts is explored albeit somewhat superficially by Pam Shakespeare in her work on the subject of the confused talk of people with dementia (Shakespeare, 1993: 95).  She uses the metaphor of theatrical imagery to understand the processes behind her interviews and uses the metaphors of ‘overture and beginners’, ‘researcher as actor’, ‘scene stealing’, ‘improvising’, ‘researcher as director’, ‘dying on stage’, ‘out of the spotlight’, ‘asides’ and ‘the final curtain’.   Whilst she readily admits that this is not a disciplined dramaturgical interpretation qua Goffman (Shakespeare, 1993: 97),  Goffman on the other hand proposes a number of concepts which have a significant resonance in the processes of the research interview: these include The Drama, Front, Credibility, Signs and Signifiers, Appearance and Manner, Risk Taking, Front Stage, Back Stage and Off Stage amongst others (Goffman, 1959).

In performance terms, the interview  can also be conceived of as a combination of varying degrees of structure, flow, and rapport which the interviewer needs to control by the judicious use of structured moments, improvised moments and free form. As such, the interview resembles  a  jazz composition more than a pop song or symphony, both of which are highly structured events, albeit spread over significantly different periods of time.

The challenge for the semi-structured research interview is to find the balance between structure and improvisation, itself a common issue in the performing arts; too much structure can make a piece predictable and boring; too little can produce chaos, confusion and end up leaving the listener disconnected from the performance experience.  A similar heuristic applies to the performance of the interview too; a balance of structure and improvisation is important for both participants’ continued interest and engagement in the process although what cannot be forgotten in that balance is the question of who initiated the interview and for what purpose. Paynter (200:8)  offers another interpretation from the practice of musical composition: On the subject of children’s poem David Holbrook (1967:8) says, ‘the least piece of writing, if the teacher has established the context for proper ‘giving’, will be a ‘meant gift’’.  We can apply that to school pupils’ composing.  The music they make is ‘offered’ to us and should be received in that same spirit.  In my experience there is always something of genuine musical worth to be discussed as seriously as we would with recognised master-works.

Paynter’s view of composition as a gift of improvisation, redolent of the structure of a piece of jazz music suggests that the interview process can be viewed in a similar light: a form of expression,  a gift,  which speaks of that artist’s (or interviewee’s) hopes, fears and emotions albeit  in a response to questions by the viewer (or inter-viewer).  In this interpretation, the interview process is potentially a constructive process as a  synthesis of new ideas and knowledge arises as a result of the interactions between interviewer and interviewee.

Practical Text Deconstruction: giving some Shakespeare the once over in Germany

I worked with seven Theater Pedagogik students from the Osnabruck Technische Fachhoch Schule.  My workshop intended to explore how the eight elements of Bojeian story deconstruction might be applied to a piece of Shakespearian text in order to see how and whether that text may be re-presented as a text of inclusion, as opposed to the text of exclusion that Shakespeare texts can be portrayed as.

My session began with a simple name game played in a circle:  I name myself, throw a small pocket size German-English dictionary to a workshop participant and suggest they repeat the exercise.  Before long, all participants have picked up the idea and are beginning to establish the names of the other members of the group.  I develop this game eventually by plucking at random a word out of the dictionary, repeating my name then throwing the dictionary to another participant, again suggesting that participants repeat the exercise.  I encourage participants to pick any word, quickly, whether this be German or English, comprehensible or incomprehensible.  I accelerate the game so that participants eventually build up a chain of six words, five of which are taken from the dictionary, the sixth being their name.

I then request the participants to write the words onto flip charts I have attached to the wall.  I encourage them again to write quickly, with little time to consider of reflect on what they are doing. Once up on the wall, I ask members to construct an imaginary story using the six words of another group member, but using additional words as they see fit.  Eventually, short stories are generated by each of the group members about the other group members.  Given these short stories are based around six random words, the stories themselves display remarkable levels of abstraction, illogic and fantasy.  Nevertheless, members construct stories which are intelligible to varying degrees: the point being made here that human’s abilities to generate meaning is deeply ingrained in our psyche and that our powers of interpretation and meaning-making are perhaps as essential as our ability to breath and digest and reproduce. We focussed on three of the deconstruction techniques that Boje and Dennehy propose, in particular:

Reinterpreting the hierarchy: writing a letter is frequently about trying to present a  story from one point of view: introducing a second point of view which distorts and attempts to force its own control on the emerging narrative means that story writers are constantly reassessing and reinterpreting the hierarchy they are trying to establish.

Establishing rebel voices: the automatic letter writing exercise – especially in larger groups acts to deny the authority of the one voice.

Denying the plot: these writing exercises are designed to confound plot at all stages of its possible grip.

Tracing what is between the lines: constructing words from six random words encourages participants to trace and generate what is not said by filling in the blanks and imagining possibilities, however ludicrous or far-fetched.

After these warm up exercises, I then present participants with two pages taken from Steve Gooch’s Cut Shakespeare version of The Winters Tale. Apart from the Gooch technique of presenting his cut version of the play in a mix of bold and ordinary type face in the document, I provided no other contextual or explanatory information about the play.  Participants claimed not to know anything about the play at all and a number of them professed difficulties with understanding the language. This prompted a discussion about the status that Shakespeare has within the traditional literature canon and how this compares with the place of Goethe in Germany.  Students’ alienation from the text thus provided a metaphor of disability within the group: in one sense students could be seen, if viewed through a medical lens, as having a deficit in that they had a lack of intelligence to grasp a text presented to them: in another sense, if viewed through a social lens, the text had the effect of disabling them as there were no immediately apparent mechanisms open to them which would assist them in accessing the text.

However, participants were open to attempting to read the piece and began by identifying particular phrases – whether in bold or in ordinary type – which caught their attention. These phrases were discussed and possible meanings established.  I confirmed for participants that there was no right or wrong answers in this process.  After some initial caution in the process which I interpreted as participants wanting to know whether they were giving me the right answer or not, they continued to work on the pieces in two groups: one group of three men participants, and one group of four women participants.  The two groups then developed their own interpretation of the texts which they presented back to an invited audience of other students after about 15 minutes preparation.

The men’s group presented a non-verbal presentation in which the ‘king’ – identifiable by his posture and mimed cape – issued control of his kingdom and subjects through the use of visible computer remote control which he wielded at random both at imaginary characters in the play and to the audience in an apparent attempt to control their words and actions.  This control was in vain though: as he continued his attempts at control, the two other actors – who take on the role of off-stage, stage managers, steadily removed parts of the set and his costume whilst he was apparently oblivious to their actions.  Eventually his set and key costume elements – wooden blocks and scarf – were taken away from him and he was left with nothing apart from the ability to curl up, foetus like, on the stage floor.  The presentation ends in silence and finally, on applause, the actor acknowledges the audience and the presence of the two stage managers within it.

The performance was touching and regarded sombrely by the audience. We were left with a picture of a dying, reducing king whose influence and power was steadily declining.  We were encouraged to feel pity for him: a far cry from the usual portrayal of Leontes, the king in the ur-text, who is portrayed as a man who suffers from extreme jealousy which leads him to lock up his wife (and thus brings about her eventual ’death’) cast his new born daughter into the wilderness and lose his son into the bargain.  In this scenario, the text has been decentred from a  performance intended for two actors playing within Shakespearian conventions, to a performance for one solitary actor performing to an unseen multitude of other characters off stage as well as two actors playing the roles of two stage managers.

The women’s group however produced a piece which was far more pantomimic in character.  They produced a script which was performed in a graphic, comic style.  A narrator announces characters who gesture or offer a few words at particular moments to reinforce the words of the narrator.  They played with theatre conventions of the stage curtain (by using the black out curtains of the rehearsal room in a mock theatrical manner) and stage lighting (by switching the overhead neon lights of the room off abruptly at the end of the presentation).  They bow together, as a company at the end of the performance with tongues firmly in cheeks. The script they produced is as follows.

Schauspielerin: Es gab einmal einen König.  Dieser König hatte eine sehr gute Königin.  Doch die Königin gehörte einer feministishcen Bewegung an. Immer wieder schrie sie: Erhängt alle Ehemänner!  Und ihr Mann, der König sagte: Du bist ein Teil vom Nest voller verräterinnen.  Er wart ihr sogar vor, der sahn sie ein Bastard, und nicht von ihm selber.  Als eh ihr eines morgens den Hals umdrehte, schrie er: Nimm den Bastard! Der Sohn reif verstört: Ich bin nichts, bei diesem guten Licht!

Licht aus.

Alle: Besser!

In summary, both groups managed to significantly rewrite the Shakespeare text presented to them using the elements of story deconstruction described previously.  The text work particularly offered participants to use the eighth element described: resituation: i.e the ability to find a new perspective, one that resituates the story beyond its dualisms, excluded voices of singular viewpoint.  Participants reauthored the story so that the hierarchy was resituated and new balance of views was attained.  They re-storied the text so as to re-present dualities and margins and thus scripted new actions.

Whilst this process took place over only a few hours on a Friday afternoon, it offers a number of possibilities that can be used in further text workshop exercises, particularly with groups of participants who may have felt traditionally excluded from participating in an integrated interpretation of a Shakespeare text.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations; reflections on cultural leadership)

The Saturday Guide: 8 steps of story deconstruction

The application of story deconstruction processes can play a catalytic role in telling new stories about Valentines Day and other commercial festivals.

A model of narrative deconstruction is offered by Boje and Dennehy (1993)  below.

1. Duality search make a  list of any bipolar terms, any dichotomies that are used in the story,  Include the term even if only one side is mentioned. For example, in male centred and or male dominated organisation stories, men are central and women are marginal others.  One term mentioned implies its partner.

2. reinterpret the hierarchy.  A story is one interpretation or hierarchy or an event from one point of view.  It usually has some form of hierarchical thinking in place.  Explore and reinterpret the hierarchy  (e.g. in duality terms how one dominates the other) so you can understand its grip.

3. rebel voices.  Deny the authority of the one voice.  Narrative centres marginalise or  exclude.  To maintain a centre takes enormous energy.  What voices are not being expressed in this story? Which voices are subordinate or hierarchical to other voices?  (e.g. who speaks for the trees?)

4. other side of the story.  Stories always have two or more sides.  What is the other side of the story (*usually marginalised, underrepresented or even silent?)  reverse the story, by putting the bottom on top., the marginal in control, or the back stage up front.  For example, reverse the male centre, by holding  a spotlight on its excesses until it becomes  female centre in telling the other side; the point is not to replace one centre with another, but to show how each centre is in a constant state of change and disintegration.

5 deny the plot.  Stories have plots, scripts, scenarios, recipes and morals.  Turn these around (move from romantic to tragic or comedic to ironic).

6. find the exception.. stories contain rules, scripts, recipes and prescriptions.  State each exception in a  way that make its extreme or absurd.  Sometimes you have to break the rules to see the logic being scripted in the story.

7. trace what is between the lines.  Trace what is not said.  Trace what is the writing on the wall.  Fill in the blanks.  Storytellers frequently use ‘you know that part of the story’.  Trace what you are filling in.  with what alternate way could you fill it in  (e.g. trace to the context, the back stage, the between, the intertext?)

8. resituate.  the point of doing 1 to 7 is to find a new perspective, one that resituates the story beyond its dualisms, excluded voices of singular viewpoint.  The idea is to reauthor the story so that the hierarchy is resituated and new balance of views is attained.  Restory to remove the dualities and margins.  In a resituated story there are no more centres.  Restory to script new actions.

Its worth seeing how you might apply this to love stories to see how the stories of relationships can be re-presented, re-communicated – and re-enacted.

Consequences of the medical model of disability on performers and audiences

The Medical Model of Disability identifies disability as being a individualised medical problem based on impairment, deficit and dysfunction.  This model depoliticises disability and extracts it from wider socio-economic, political and cultural contexts.  In this extraction from context the medical model means that performance environments, artistic content, performer identities are all at  odds with the specificities of disabled artists.

Theatres continue to exclude by virtue of their physical and sometimes geographical inaccessibility. Curricula of artists training courses promote standards that some with (or without) impairments will never reach.  Curricula content say nothings of the history of exclusion experienced by disabled people.  Artists are assessed in ways that celebrate achievement over contribution and  difference. And at the most ordinary level, disabled performers continue to be singled out for the specialised attention of specialness, are segregated from non-disabled peers through the presence of non-disabled adult supporters and remain unrepresented in images of schooling and educational attainment. There are three further consequences of the Medical Model on the involvement of disabled people in the performing arts.

Firstly, it generates a culture of dependency in which relationships between disabled and non-disabled people are often seen as a kind of master – servant relationship in which the masters – non-disabled people – may sometimes masquerade as servants and vica versa: in short, relationships which are not only defined by an imbalance of power and control but relationships where the locus of power is neither easily identifiable nor controllable.

In some examples we’ve seen, the ‘master’ is not necessarily the simultaneous presence of another human being on stage: it can be the disembodied presence of a plaintiff voice in a song or the digital imperative of a 4:4 rhythm generated by a computer programme: the performer becoming what you might call becoming, thanks to that old Grace Jones track, a slave to the rhythm.  The masters of the action on stage come in all shapes, sizes, sounds, pictures and media.

Secondly, the Medical Model generates the notion of a Hierarchy of Disability.  In this Hierarchy, disabled  people with hidden impairments such as dyslexia may be disinclined either to see themselves as disabled or, more dramatically, see themselves higher up a scale of social value due to their perceived lower degree of impairment.  It also leads to conversations which  uses the assessment of the degree of impairment as a means to assess the aesthetic quality of the work in question.  Here, we say things like ‘Wasn’t that work fantastic bearing in mind they are . . .’ where  the dot dot dots of the punctuation can be joined up by using such terms such as learning difficulty or deaf or blind.

The hierarchy of disability also leads to the possibility that the value of a piece of work can plunge rapidly – much like the share values on stock exchanges across the world at the moment –  if we learn that rather then being performed by a group of disabled people, it was performed by some people who weren’t disabled at all.  Hierarchy of disability means we are constantly assessing the degree of impairment: not the meaning of the work presented before us.

A third consequence of the power of the medical model can be detected in how audiences are encouraged to respond to the work before them.  The medical model leads to the phenomena of disabled people as being described as tragic but brave;  as having suffered with a particular physical or mental impairments;  and as people to be either pitied, patronised or demonised. The ‘ahhhh’ moment is a frequent manifestation of audiences and can be brought about by the falling cadence of a solitary accordion, the slow fading light of a follow spot or the isolation, centre stage, of a character who’s been presented with an external hostile world of attendant characters and impossible plot demands.

The techniques of isolation and segregation here are critical in establishing this kind of response from audiences who might find themselves whispering to their partner, There but for the Grace of God reflecting perhaps a sense that there is more at stake emotionally for certain audience members in this moment of performance by disabled people than there is in  performances by non-disabled people.  Perhaps the histories of conflict with the medical authorities, with the social services and with the wider, dominant  expressions of normality that disabled people and their families share means that the expression of audience responses to disabled performers is always likely to carry additional significance.

The medical model highlights the manipulative, emotional power of theatre and art, perhaps to the disservice of both performers and audience.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations – reflections on cultural leadership)

The gaze in classrooms and performance spaces: 8 questions of gaze and power

I’ve been thinking about the concept of the gaze in the classroom and the performance space, having previously encountered the concept with the domain of cinematic studies. The concept of the ‘male gaze’ was developed by Mulvey in 1975  and in broader terms, gaze depends on who is doing the looking and what is being looked at.

In watching artists and teacher working together, I’ve been thinking about glaze in two vertices: direction and depth of field.  Direction of gaze can be classified as either vertical or horizontal.  The Vertical Gaze (VG) was evident when the looking of children was directed either at their teacher or to other source of authority in the room such as a whiteboard or other instructional materials.

The Horizontal Gaze (HG) was evident when children were either looking at each other or to others who were  working together with them.  Shifts from vertical to horizontal gaze could be detected as relationships developed in the session and reflected moments in which the authority in the classroom was  diverted from its usual site, the teacher, towards  other agents in the classroom.

Depth of field can also be classified into three types: short, medium and long. A short depth of field gaze was only possible when a child was unable to look much beyond their immediate environment; their desk or beyond the walls of their classroom for example.

A typical classroom wall, with its myriad of learning instructions and exhortations for example is influential in maintaining a short depth of field  gaze, irrespective of any aspirational advice it may offer in terms of how children might wish to envision their future horizons.    On the other hand, a medium depth of field gaze allows views out of the immediate classroom to perhaps other classrooms, school fields or other school premises such as the kitchen or library.  Finally,  a long depth of field gaze is possible if the view from the classroom can  reach to the wider physical community and in which longer vistas and further horizons are observable.

When thinking about the gaze in performance, and particularly that of ‘integrated’ performances of disabled and nondisabled performers, the concept of gaze leads to some critical questions:

Who are we being asked to look at?

Who are we being asked to listen to?

How are we being asked to look?

Are we being asked to look at everyone through the same conventions?

Who drives the action, who tells the story?

To whom does the story happen?

Who could be almost passive observers watching the action pass them by?


Who in the performance could be replaced by puppets?

(extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations)


Who in this performance could be replaced by puppets?

Integration of disabled people into the performing arts continues to be a hot topic these days. It’s like a badge of courage we might have won at school, something our mothers proudly stitched onto our jackets, wearing it over our hearts to show an organisational’s professional and political credentials.

Many arts projects view the prospect of complete integration up as a kind of holy grail of achievement, distinguishing them from other projects using the language of segregation, inclusion, participation and joining in. In this next series of posts, I want to consider those assertions closely and to see whether the badge of courage we think is stitched onto our jackets is more like those temporary children’s tattoos which wash off in the rain.

I want to look at the differences between integrated performance and assimilated performance. And I want to ask whether our desire to get people to join us and join in to our artistic endeavours is getting in the way of the more radical desire to join up a disability arts aesthetics to a wider critical pedagogy discourse. A discourse which relocates and nurtures the power of production in the hearts of those who are more frequently on the receiving end of the powers of cultural producers (artists and educators) who have their own artistic vision and agendas to promote: however benign and well intended those visions might be.

This will involve revisiting the puppet question, a proposal I developed in 2000 and 2008 and which asks of performances, performers and audiences:

Who in this performance could be replaced by puppets?

(Extract from works on Cultural Leadership)