By Josephine Christensen
By March 2020, after months of planning and organising, I was poised to enter the recruitment and data collection phases of my PhD research projects. In my PhD proposal studio practice had been identified as the key methodology through which I would test research questions and generate creative works. In addition to studio practice, I had also incorporated research activities such as an archival visit, an internship and an international conference presentation that would support my PhD research. These activities would require overseas travel.
Prior to lockdown, I had recruited an ensemble, and started studio practice, but as Federal and State restrictions tightened and our University locked down studio spaces, this ensemble disintegrated. The student volunteers were not willing to swap studio practice for online instruction. As borders began closing, my supervisors suggested I return home. I left Australia on the second to last flight from Sydney to Canada despondent and uncertain whether a PhD in theatre practice could continue during this pandemic.
From April onwards with the support of my supervisory team, I began investigating the possibilities of moving my practice-as research on line. Though recruitment continued to be difficult, eventually an ensemble was formed and ethics approval given for the study to conduct the research online through the Zoom platform. Initially, I had strong reservations as my research required the training of an ensemble in the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique. As a certified teacher of this embodied practice, I had doubts that an online delivery of the technique would be possible. Yet, it has been very successful. In training the pedagogical sequencing in training is from the pre-performative work on self to intersubjective relationships with scene partners and audiences. Thus in Zoom the ensemble have been able to work as individuals, enhancing their ‘embodied consciousness’ of the inner feelings and physiological sensations engendered by their imaginations (Zarrilli 2013, p.8). I have also focused on the individual as we move into rehearsal working with a monologue play which eliminates problems of interaction within a virtual environment. In addition, the choice of script provides the potential for a socially distanced live performance outcome. Through this commitment to working on-line the research schedule has been delayed by only six months, however the frustrations and fatigue of rehearsing through Zoom is an added stress factor in my current PhD study.
Another stress factor which has been felt by the entire Higher Degree by Research community is the pressure to adjust and adapt our research projects (Goldman 2020). In Australia, especially in the creative arts, there has been a rhetoric of exploiting the creative opportunities afforded by the digital medium, yet is this feasible for all projects? In a practice-as-research PhD in theatre, a digital rendition or re-imagining of a play might seem like a creative solution, but it is not theatre. ‘Theatre means the collectively spent and used up lifetime in the collectively breathed air of that space in which the performing and the spectating takes place’ (Lehman 2006, p.17). In my research I am investigating the inter-affectivity of the actor-audience relationship which requires a spacio-temporal co-presence of performers and spectators (Georgi 2014, p. 83). Inter-affectivity requires the performer’s bodily resonance to be altered by the audience’s body resonance; this cannot happen in a telepresent environment. In my situation, the digital solution cannot address the research questions and this is a considerable challenge moving forward.
Looking to the future, the experience of teaching and rehearsing online has altered my perception of what is possible in the digital transmission of an acting pedagogy. Future teaching online is a likely outcome from my COVID-19 PhD experiences. However in the immediate future, my concern lies with the new normal. I am currently working with an Association of Theatre in Higher Education committee to produce a white paper on maintaining social distance in studio-based classrooms. Should social distancing in theatre auditoriums become a part of the new normal, the capacity of theatre to allow human bodies to touch might play a vital role in our COVID-19 recovery.
Georgi, C., 2014. Liveness on stage: Intermedial challenges in contemporary British theatre and performance (Vol. 25). Berlin/Boston:Walter de Gruyter.
Goldman, R., 2020. PhD students need better protection from Covid-19. [online]. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/phd-students-need-better-protection-covid-19. [accessed 4th July 2020].
Lehmann, H.T., 2006. Postdramatic theatre. Trans. and Intro. Karen Jürs-Munby. London: Routledge.
Zarrilli, P.B., Daboo, J. and Loukes, R., 2013. Acting: psychophysical phenomenon and process. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Josephine Christensen is a PhD candidate with the School of Creative Arts and Media, at the University of Tasmania. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Theatre Practice from the University of Exeter in the UK and a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Canterbury, NZ. After undergraduate professional actor training with Unitec NZ, she has trained in the Meisner Technique (London Group Theatre/Impulse Theatre) the pedagogy of Shakespeare and Co (Lenox, Massachusetts, USA), and Linklater Voice (Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, Orkney). She is a certified teacher of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique (Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium, USA, MICHA International) which she is currently investigating in her practice as research PhD. Her research interests include: psycho-physical acting techniques, directing and rehearsal approaches, the embodiment of text, and embodied cognition and affectivity.