Performance as Research Working Group 

 Proceedings of the meeting at the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference, University of Hyderabad, India 6.-10.7.2015. 

Intimate Intersections: Close Encounters in Interdisciplinarity

Bruce Barton

School of Creative and Performing Arts


University of Calgary



I would like to take the opportunity of this year’s IFTR gathering to invite my peers in the PaR Working Group into the preliminary stages of multi-year “Research-Based Practice” experiment. I welcome your questions, comments, and recommendations as I enter into the development phase of what will  become my primary research preoccupation for the next five years, in the hope that by ‘contaminating’ it with your insights and experience, I can arrive at the most innovative and robust Artistic Research inquiry as is possible.


I am currently engaged in the pilot stage of a large-scale research-creation project with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The extended scope of the full envisioned project design represents a response to the research I have conducted over the past decade in the form of a distinct expansion and concerted integration of the theoretical and methodological frameworks employed. Over the past ten years, in a substantial portion of my research activity, I have explored the potential for/in/of intimacy—between performers, between performers and audience members, and between audience members—in intermedial performance contexts (see Barton 2008, 2009, 2010). A central strategy in that exploration has been to consider the interrelationship between theatricality and performativity in these contexts and the strategies both performers and audience members utilize to navigate these dynamics. The planned research project (both the current pilot stage and the anticipated large scale initiative) departs from this past work in three key respects: 1) the adoption of specific aspects of contemporary affect theory as a framework for examining the relationships between interpretive and affective experience generated within performance contexts; and 2) a shift in focus to theatrical contexts that utilize explicitly interdisciplinary performance practices – and which thus evoke explicitly interdisciplinary theoretical strategies of analysis. Of particular relevance to our 2015 Working Group meeting is the thorough application of research-creation priorities and methodology as the bases of empirical data acquisition and analysis.


In general, the global objective of the full research program is to establish an understanding of the affective experience of intimacy at the intersections of intermediality and interdisciplinarity in theatrical performance—one that is both theoretically robust and rich in creative utility. Specifically, however, the goals of the current stage of the research, building upon the foundation of my prior investigation into intermedial contexts, include the following: 1) a thorough review of the relevant scholarly/critical literature and creative practice with a focus on affective experience in interdisciplinary performance contexts; 2) the formulation of a robust interdisciplinary theoretical framework for the study of affective experience; 3) initial engagement with four artists from distinct disciplinary backgrounds in a preliminary “research-based practice” exploratory ‘laboratory’; and 4) the formulation of a broadly informed yet practically focused interdisciplinary methodological framework and project design for the next, full stage of research.




This research has the potential to integrate a range of contemporary analytical orientations and emerging fields of investigation in a complex yet coherent framework of analysis. First: important, ground-breaking work is currently being produced in each of the composite areas here brought into systematic exchange: interdisciplinarity and intermediality. Second: there is rapidly increasing attention to and understanding of issues of affective experience, across diverse knowledge paradigms. Third: the legitimacy and efficacy of research-creation methodologies are increasingly recognized and applied within academic and other scholarly contexts. I believe that the emerging research design has the capacity to network this dynamic intersection of intellectual inquiry and discovery – systematically and rigorously, but also with the necessary flexibility and agility required for creative artistic research.


The ‘products’ of the current stage of research are, as noted, preparational, in that they provide the foundation for a further multiyear, large-scale project. Ultimately, the full research project promises 1) enhanced analytical strategies and capacities for performance scholars, students, and general audience members; 2) creative strategies and dramaturgical tools for interdisciplinary creative practitioners; and 3) transferable insights on issues of affective experience and intimacy of importance and utility within a range of disciplines and fields of inquiry beyond performance studies and, potentially, the social sciences and humanities.


In his highly influential book Postdramatic Theatre, Hans-Thies Lehmann asserts that “Postdramatic theatre is a theatre of states and of scenically dynamic formations” that involves “the replacement of dramatic action with ceremony (Lehmann 2006, 68-69). Yet Lehmann’s seeming pronouncement of the end of traditional theatricality is, of course, somewhat premature. Increasingly, contemporary experimental theatre performances make use of a range of postdramatic elements such as aerial movement, engineered installation environments, sensory immersion, interactive intermediality, and dense live/recorded soundscapes. At the same time, however, many of these same productions regularly incorporate core components of traditional theatricality, such as progressive narrative structures and distinct characterization. However, these familiar conventions are often systematically relocated into overtly performative contexts through pronounced interdisciplinary negotiation and the transformation of audience perception via immersive and/or intermedial modification. Put more directly, much contemporary performance practice attempts to create theatre in contexts that aim—conspicuously, intentionally, and productively—to overwhelm theatricality. 


The challenge of negotiating the troubled—and, thus, troubling—status of theatricality in postdramatic performance is one that has received considerable critical attention over the past decade. One of the foremost analyses of this dynamic is found in the work of Erika Fischer-Lichte, which focuses on both the potential this intentional intersection affords and, following Victor Turner, the “crisis” it precipitates: “It is, above all, the collapse of the ‘real’ versus ‘fictional’ opposition which induces the crisis […] so that all certainty about whether to place oneself in a real or a fictional world is lost” (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 95). Specifically, this crisis, Fischer-Lichte proposes, takes the form of “a rupture, a discontinuity. […] In other words, what is brought about is a perceptional multistability, as occurs in cases where perception shifts between figure and ground” (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 87).


It is clear from the examples Fischer-Lichte references that the primary tensions being navigated in this “perceptional multistability” are between the elements of a performance that facilitate efficient semiotic interpretation and those that exceed or resist it, and she specifically associates these tensions with the problematic corporeality of bodies in performance. An increasingly popular frame for addressing this visceral excess can be found in the burgeoning field of affect theory. The popularity of the concept, as Seigworth and Gregg have observed, has burdened the term with “a sweeping assortment of philosophical/psychological/physiological underpinnings, critical vocabularies, and ontological pathways” (Seigworth & Gregg 2010, 5). Of particular relevance here, as Anna Gibbs notes, the risks associated with this variability (and diffusion) of uses of the term affect are particularly present in interdisciplinary approaches, “which must contend with the sheer mass of thought about it, and with incommensurabilities between and even within disciplines” (Gibbs 2010, 188).


Even within theatre and performance studies, affect is put into diverse service. The UK’s Nicholas Rideout has applied aspects of affective theory in the consideration of theatrical labour (of ‘things’ as well as bodies; see Rideout, 2012), while Canadian Erin Hurley has used the concept as a convincing means of reasserting the legitimacy of emotion within performance studies discourses (see Hurley, 2010). Although no longer radical, among the most progressive—and still controversial—attempts to address affective experience in theatrical contexts involve the application of empirical cognitive science to performance dynamics. Recent scholarship from Wanda Strukus (exploring the potential for kinesthetic empathy across medical and discursive categories of ability—see Strukus), Pil Hansen (offering sophisticated dramaturgical strategies based in theories of memory and neural plasticity—see Hansen, “Perceptual Dramaturgy”), and Nicola Shaughnessy (utilizing drama interventions to construct enabling sensory environments for autistic children—see Shaughnessy) represent some of the most exciting of these efforts. 


Alternatively, a productive conversation between cognitive science and phenomenology underpins an enactivist orientation to affective experience, a specific category within the broader paradigm of 4E (embodied, extended, enactive, and embedded) cognition—a grouping with its own share of inner tensions and contradictions (see Menary, 2010). An enactivist approach, as represented by the writings of Alva Noë, Francisco Varela, Daniel D. Hutto and Erik Myin, and Evan Thompson, among others, holds that “information is context-dependent and agent-relative; it belongs to the coupling of a system and its environment. What counts as information is determined by the history, structure, and needs of the system acting in its environment” (Thomson 2008, 51-2). As Noë asserts, “What we perceive is determined by what we do (or what we know how to do); it is determined by what we are ready to do.” Therefore, to perceive “is not merely to have sensations, or to receive sensory impressions, it is to have sensations that one understands” (Noë 2004, 33). 


The application of these speculations to theatre and performance has focused in large part on the implications for acting and acting training. Studies by Rhonda Blair (2008) and John Lutterbie (2011) seek pragmatic and transferable principles of preparation and execution. Perhaps the foremost proponent of enactivist application is Philip Zarrilli (2008, 2013), with his work on Psychophysical Phenomenon and Process (the title of his most recent publication). Another prominent voice in this conversation is Josephine Machon, who has proposed an orientation to affective experience in performance that she calls (Syn)aesthetics: “(Syn)aesthetic analysis comes into play where the form and content of the artistic work is executed in a way that fuses the somatic (‘affecting the body’ or ‘absorbed through the body’) and the semantic (the ‘mental reading’ of signs) in execution and reception” (Machon 2007). 


This territory, both within and beyond theatre and performance discourse, is energetically contested, and is defined as much by its divisiveness in terms of degrees of specificity, methodologies of application, and relationships to knowledge as by its commonality of focus and intention. Yet what is shared by many of these initiatives is a conviction that affective experience is a fully embodied process of relating to, understanding, and acting within one’s environment, expanding the concept of ‘understanding’ to assert the implicit and pre-semantic nature of perception. 


Affective experience, according to Anna Gibbs (in a discussion of the affective nature of mimicry), “might be productively thought of as communication. By ‘communication’ in this context, however, I do not mean the transmission of information, but, rather, action on bodies […] information in the pre-cybernetic sense: it represents the organization or communication of relationships (which might be spatial, temporal, tonal, energetic, logical, causal, and so on)” (Gibbs 2010, 193-4). For the purposes of my current research, I distill from this the idea that the aspect of experience—specifically, in this case, the experience of theatrical performance—that frames and facilitates yet always exceeds semiotic interpretation is perhaps most productively understood as “action on bodies”—those of performers but also those of audience members—“pre-cybernetic” information that “represents the organization or communication of relationships.” 


As noted, both stages of the research project (the current stage now underway and the larger proposed second stage) seek to extend, update, and complicate my previous research into intermediality by examining the above articulated understanding of affective experience within interdisciplinary contexts, adopting the latter both as a contemporary field of critical examination and as the formal basis of research-creation practice. The benefits of interdisciplinary approaches are widely appreciated, as reflected in dedicated journals in Interdisciplinary Studies and published essay collections on topics ranging from media (see Gade and Jerslev 2005) to the environment (see Oberg 2011) to disability (see Goodley 2011). While the turn to interdisciplinarity can generate exponentially increased potential for theatrical performance, however, it is never only a liberating gesture. The performative nature of disciplinary specialization, by definition, involves limitation as well as facilitation, and the expanded range of possibilities afforded by this orientation is inevitably accompanied by additional (and often highly durable) conventional frames and expectations. 


Adopting an interdisciplinary lens arguably allows for the imagining of dramaturgical processes that both foreground and problematize Butlerian performativity’s emphasis on iteration (Butler 1988) and citation (Butler 1997) as the primary modes of (highly curtailed) individual and collective agency. In a spirited defence of interdisciplinary practice frameworks, Markus Hallensleben has suggested, “we create and constantly recreate and change our bodies by creating and producing our cultural space[,] we perform ourselves, we do our bodies, or in terms of performativity studies, we choreograph our bodies […] The human body […] is and has culture (quite literally) as a tool” (Hallensleben 2010, 16). While the degree of individual autonomy implied in Hallensleben’s comments may be contested, his insistence on a degree of agency in social and cultural performance provides a particularly productive and counterbalancing assertion of the complex, reciprocal interplay of intention, attention, and affect exemplified in interdisciplinary practice.




The current stage of the project involves three distinct stages of activity, incorporating mixed-method strategies.


1) The first phase of the research involves a Grounded Theory approach (Oktay 2012; Martin & Glynnild 2012) to a thorough, annotated review of existing literature in English and English translation related to: 


a) interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange (within and beyond performance contexts); 

b) relevant theory of affective experience with a particular emphasis on psychophysical and kinesthetic frames of analysis; and 

c) appropriate research-creation frameworks and methodologies. 


In addition to published literature, during this phase the research team will also survey related creative and research-creation activity, both nationally and internationally. The utilization of Grounded Theory is intended to counterbalance an induction-based reliance on my previous research into intermedial contexts and to allow for the accumulation of a substantial basis for determining the most appropriate theoretical and methodological frameworks with which to proceed.


2) The above survey of information and activity leads to the second phase of the current research, in which the gathered data is processed (in part) through application of NVivo Qualitative Software. It is first sorted into data categories (scholarly literature, critical assessment, artistic statement, popular response, creative expression, etc.) to facilitate appropriate modes of analysis. Once the full range of available input is recognized and organized, the data can be assessed and coded systematically, identifying emergent scholarly and artistic trends, patterns, preoccupations, and environments. This analysis will facilitate the formulation of a robust interdisciplinary conceptual framework for the embodied analysis of affective experience. This framework will provide the theoretical context for the next phase of the current research as well as the planned large-scale research-creation project.


3) Following the articulation of the interdisciplinary conceptual framework, I will conduct an initial 2-week exploratory ‘laboratory’ with four artists from distinct disciplinary backgrounds. The laboratory will utilize a Research-Based Practice (Hansen & Barton 2008—see diagram) research-creation methodology, facilitated jointly with my collaborator on this project, Dr. Pil Hansen. 


As illustrated in the provided diagram, Research-Based Practice methodology is an advanced Action-Based Research approach that anticipates structured and systematic engagement with both applied artistic training/skills development and conventional empirical experimentation, but which also constructs a central “3rd Space” of relatively open and unstructured creative exploration, contamination, and play. The laboratory phase (introduced, above) will be located methodologically as 3rd Space activity; activities will directly reflect the interdisciplinary conceptual framework emerging from phase 2, and will include the introduction and sharing of skill sets, collaborative training sessions, improvisation exercises, and preliminary creative exploration. Documentation strategies employed in this activity will include video and audio recording, ethnographical and autoethnographical reporting, participant journaling, Researcher and RA observation and assessment, formal reflection and debrief sessions, and periodic public ‘windows’ on laboratory activities. Confirmed laboratory participants in addition to project Collaborator Pil Hansen (dance and theatre dramaturg) include: 


Eve Egoyan (pianist and composer): Egoyan has firmly established herself as an internationally recognized interpreter of contemporary piano concert music. Renowned composers James Tenney (U.S./Canada), Alvin Curran (U.S.), Ann Southam (Canada), Rudolf Komorous (Canada), Maria de Alvear (Germany), Michael Finnissy (Britain) and Jo Kondo (Japan), among others, have composed works for her. She is currently composing original pieces through a Chalmers Arts Fellowship. Egoyan has released nine critically acclaimed recordings, with her last two selected as “Top Classical Disc of the Year” by Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and “Ten Top Classical Discs” by the New Yorker magazine. Honours include numerous commissions and awards from the Canada Council, Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils, FACTOR, a University of Victoria Distinguished Alumna Award, a K.M. Hunter Award, a Chalmers Award and a Chalmers Arts Fellowship. Egoyan is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (FRSC) and one of fifty Canadian performers and conductors given and designation of "CMC Ambassador" by the Canadian Music Centre.


Sherri Hay (visual artist) is a Canadian artist based both in Toronto and in New York. She has taken part in exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia. Her work is part of several international collections including the West Collection and the Zabludowicz Art Trust. Hay's work encompasses diverse media and a wide range of practices, from miniature sculpture to large-scale installation, drawing, painting, performance, and video. Her creations reveal intricately detailed worlds that are characterized by self-reflective performativity. Materiality is central for Hay, as is the time it has taken to create the work. Hay contends that time, when it is not perceived sequentially, unfolds in an explicitly “material” way, like the growth rings of a tree. This concentricity, coupled with the self-conscious theatricality, generates a sense of stillness within her creations. 


Stefani Tremblay Abubu (dancer and choreographer) is a graduate of The School of Toronto Dance Theatre who has performed works by Peggy Baker, Karen and Allen Kaeja, Danny Grossman, Ginette Lauren, Susie Burpee and Claudia Moore, among others. She is currently a member of Montreal’s renowned O Vertigo. She has danced for film and multidisciplinary performances, is bilingual (French and English), and is a former national champion (novice category) figure skater.

As noted at the beginning of this paper, I welcome your questions, comments and recommendations as I move forward with the initial stage of this multi-year undertaking, as a means of enhancing and extending it – both in terms of its specific research inquiries and in terms of the most effective and innovative application of Artistic Research methodologies.

List of References


Barton, Bruce. “Intimacy.” Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Ed. Sarah Bay-Cheng, Chiel Kattenbelt, Andy Lavender, and Robin Nelson. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2010. 46.


---. “Paradox as Process: Intermedial Anxiety and the Betrayals of Intimacy.” Theatre Journal 61.4 (2009): 575-601.


---. “Subjectivity<>Culture<>Communications<>Intermedia: a meditation on the 

‘impure interactions’ of performance and the ‘in-between’ space of intimacy in a wired world.” Theatre Research in Canada 29.1 (2007, published 2008): 51-92.


Blair, Rhonda. The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience

London: Routledge, 2008.


Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London: Routledge, 1997.


---. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-31.


Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Reality and Fiction in Contemporary Theatre.” Theatre Research International 33.1 (2008): 84-96.


Gade, Rune and Anne Jerslev, eds. Performative Realism: Interdisciplinary Studies in Art and Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005.


Gibbs, Anna. “After Affect: Sympathy, Synchrony, and Mimetic Communication.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. 186-205.


Goodley, Dan. Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: Sage, 2011.


Hallensleben, Markus, “Introduction: Performative Body Spaces.” Performative Body Spaces: Corporeal Topographies in Literature, Theatre, Dance, and the Visual Arts. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2010: 9-28. 


Hansen, Pil. "Perceptual Dramaturgy: Swimmer (68)." Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 25.2 (2011): 107-24.


---, and Bruce Barton. “Research-Based Practice: Situation Vertical City Between Artistic Development and Applied Cognitive Science.” TDR: The Drama Review 53.4 (2009): 120-36.


Hurley, Erin. Theatre and Feeling. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. London: Routledge, 2006.


Lutterbie, John. Toward a General Theory of Acting: Cognitive Science and Performance. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.


Machon, Josephine. “Space and the Senses: The (Syn)aesthetics of Punch Drunks Site-Sympathetic Work.” BST (Body, Space and Technology) Journal vol 8. (2007) web. Accessed 1 Feb. 2014.


Martin, Vivian B. and Astrid Gynnild, eds. Grounded Theory: The Philosophy, Method, and Work of Barney Glaser. Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press, 2012.


Menary, Richard. “Introduction to the Special Issue on 4E Cognition.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. 9.4 (2010): 459.


Noë, Alva. Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.


Oberg, Gunilla. Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies: A Primer. Chichester, West Sussex; Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.


Oktay, Julienne S. Grounded Theory. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


Rideout, Nicholas. “On the Work of Things: Musical Production, Theatrical Labor and the ‘General Intellect.’” Theatre Journal 64.3 (2012): 389-408.


Seigworth, Gregory J. and Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. 1-25.


Shaughnessy, Nicola.  “Imagining Otherwise: Autism, Neuroaesthetics and 

Contemporary Performance.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 38.4 (2013): 321-34.


Strukus, Wanda. “Mining the Gap: Physically Integrated Performance and Kinesthetic Empathy.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 25.2 (2011): 89-105.


Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of MindCambridge, MA: Belknap P, 2008. 


Zarrilli, Phillip B. Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski. London: Routledge, 2008.