Performance research; archiving and retrieval

The problems associated with documenting performance, have been discussed for decades. In the 1990’s The Theatre Museum housed a particularly well articulated film discussing problems that are still relevant today. At the heart of the problem is the understanding that as soon as theatre is translated into another medium it loses something of its essence. For those designing and creating performance, and for those researching it this can be particularly frustrating. Film and photography are used to re-create a performance but angles, colours, textures, movement and sound all change when viewed through a new lens. Archival footage however is key for many different reasons; accessibility for new audiences, research and analysis and historical study beyond the context of the original performance. Yet it is important to recognise that the choices made about how this documentation is created carry their own creative biases.

Today performances can be filmed, they can even be screened at a cinema. Instagram and Twitter enable the sharing of new viewpoints, a kaleidoscope of images that offer a multilayered map of a single event. But the core essence created between the different elements on the stage exists only for a few seconds at a time between the points of one still frame and another. These transitional moments can sometimes be found in film and photography, but often go unnoticed.

Laura Knight created a series of paintings documenting performers backstage, breathing life into moments that disappear as quickly as they are made, and that few rarely get to see. Her paintings create traces of movements of, and interactions between performers and, through the way in which the paint is used on the canvas, provide a little insight into the energy contained within the body of the performers she observes. The popularity of re-creating performances in this way, or more commonly today, through photography perhaps has something to do with the need to keep a record of an event – a memory that we can look back at and re-trace. But the traces left will inevitably reflect something different back at us; the connection between artist/observer and performer lost as soon as the image is finished.

When re-enactors create their performances they seek to re-present the past – knowing, as their audiences often do, that this snap shot of a time is only a representation; an informed guess that makes the past accessible to different audiences. However, even knowing this, audiences still go. The gaps between what was and what is presented provide the flexibility to allow for character and creativity. Much of what is presented to an audience is, as with the artist who re-traces the body of the performer on the canvas with their arm and hand, experienced and learnt through the act of performing. Although, unlike the painter, this tracing is not based on direct observation and leaves no lasting image other than a memory. Recreations are therefore based on a cycle of research, physical re-creation and a collective sharing of ideas.

When archeologists locate an artefact, creating a new surface on which an object or a body can be viewed they too re-trace surfaces, angles, lines and shapes; building up a picture of something that no longer moves or exists in its original state – to make it visible and to better understand what it once was. The object itself is made present by the actions of the archeologist, but the knowledge that this act creates is, in part, embodied by the archeologist themselves.

Painters, archeologists, re-enactors each have their own methods for re-creating things from the past – but all use their body to create these traces and all embody a part of their experience as a result. Documenting history in these examples therefore becomes partly a matter of revealing and making knowledge visible and partly a case of experiencing and developing an internal set of knowledges based on what the body senses as it moves. Archiving performance and using archived footage is therefore only part of a story. The performers, the designers, the re-creators of past objects and eras, embody another and reveal them at different stages and in different ways.

However, for the researcher observing a performance, placed external to this knowledge, and attempting to understand and reveal what occurs during the process of a performance; what connects the audience to a performer, a performer to an audience, one story is not enough. To understand what happens in that transitional moment in which a person is not one thing, but not the other either, multiple perspectives often become a necessary approach. Formal interviews, background research, a reconfiguration of existing data in light of new data and a continual refinement of large quantities of information. However, the researcher will also know that what is sensed and what is experienced is difficult to access and document and that even when this information is made visible it can easily be misinterpreted. It is here that the researcher requires formal analysis and where, with no absolute, the process of interpretation itself often becomes a focal point.

Therefore, on the one hand, the practice-based researcher role is valuable, as it enables wider access to embodied knowledge examined by a trained researcher who understands the problems of such an approach. It also enables an examination of the data from the perspective of someone who has created it, understands it and has access to the sensory data in a way that an external observer would not. On the other hand, the connection between external and internal information makes the process of data collection subjective and therefore requires a range of different approaches to limit researcher bias.

It’s not difficult to see the complex relationship between the need for both practice led research and effective analytical processes, but it’s also easy to see how externally observed and documented knowledge and understanding of the transitional points within performance – key moments of transformation – may never fully and meaningfully translate into lists and graphs. Maybe that’s why audiences continue to attend live performances and why artists have for so long attempted to recreate them.

When Brook argues that a performer does not build a character, he eliminates it, there is more than a little of the researcher at play – unsurprisingly, since a director with his level of experience would have a vast knowledge of the way in which performers transition and transform and a constant curiosity in how to apply this knowledge effectively. It certainly makes sense that in order to locate and understand the moment ‘betwixt and between’ there is a need to remove (or hide? Is it possible to remove?) external layers of existing character. Perhaps this occurs on one side of the transitional point, whilst on the other, the process of building character begins. Perhaps the liminality that Turner writes of is the point between these two places – an undefinable space that can not quite or fully be explained or described through words.

Perhaps this is why the archeologist’s own act of tracing is just as valuable as the visual data that is produced after the event –  perhaps it is in this act that ‘the other’ is semi-present; an act that enables an embodiment of knowledge of something of the other. However, as sports professionals will understand, to define this space too much can often be to destroy it; a heightened awareness of a process that creates a greater gap between point A and point B.

The phenomenological researcher balances this knowledge, knowing that setting a pre-existing framework may be needed when it comes to examining transitional moments within performance, but also knowing that this framework may change the type of data that they hope to collect.

However, whilst new iterations can reveal but are never a true reflection of original content – they do reflect the very nature of creative process and practice. Practices in which perception and interpretation inform us of how we see, view and interact with things around us – both past and present. But that must also be examined in more detail so that the differences between the original subject and its new iterations can be better understood.

Re-tracing a performance is one way to do this – although who re-traces it and how is perhaps still a relevant question when it comes to establishing data relevant to research and development.

12th October 2018

'There are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words.' - Doris Humphrey.