Reading an ethnographic performance: How does an audience make meaning from a performed research event?

Year: 2012

Author: Sinclair, Christine

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Research-based theatre, an umbrella term in which cutting edge research practices such as ethnodrama and performance ethnography can be included, represents a burgeoning field of research practice for educational researchers, but is not without its challenges. The forms and languages of theatre do not necessarily sit comfortably alongside formal research practices for many researchers. The use of the symbolic, the metaphoric and the kinaesthetic to communicate complex ideas emerging out of a qualitative researcher's immersion in a field may provoke responses from audiences ranging from the sceptical (how could this be research?) to the dismissive (this lacks rigour). However, a growing body of qualitative researchers have found that more conventional approaches to research have limited their capacity to capture the complexity, contradictions and nuance of the lived experiences of their participants and have turned to forms of arts-based research such as performance ethnography as they seek to explore and represent the ineffable or the ambiguous. The challenge for the educational research community is to find relevant and appropriate ways to read and evaluate these complex and rich representations of research.

This paper considers the experience of an ethnographic performance from the multiple perspectives of audience - from the conference attender, to the theatre goer, to the research participant engaged in an act of 'member checking'. How do audience members 'read' the performance, firstly in understanding it as a representation of research, and secondly, in interpreting the performed event as an opportunity to construct new meanings?

Drawing on the seminal work of ethnographer Dwight Conquergood, anthropologist Victor Turner, and theatre anthropologist Richard Schechner, this paper locates ethnographic performance as a research practice emerging out of the methodological paradigm of ethnography while referencing prominent theatre practices such as verbatim and documentary theatre. The paper draws from these theoretical and methodological traditions and more recent trends in autoethnography, arts-based research, art/o/graphy and narrative inquiry and applies them to the experiences that might be available for the audience in the ephemeral and visceral act of meaning-making occurring as a result of the performance experience. The paper argues that key elements in reading the performance as research relate to an audience member's understanding, either tacit or explicit, of how knowledge can be embedded and expressed through the body, through the spatial and kinaesthetic negotiations of an aesthetic space signified by the performers and made available to audience members through the effective communication to audience.