An Actor in the Academy: Practice-based Research and the Power of Embodied Curiosity

In All, Music by admin

Newly arrived faculty member, Dr Bella Merlin, is an internationally acclaimed ‘practice-as-researcher’. She does write books. She does write chapters and articles. Yet, ultimately it’s the acting itself – rather than any scholarly writing about the acting – which constitutes the practice-as-research.

“As an actor, I want the rehearsals and performances to be the forum for investigating the research questions. (i.e. The means to the end.) Or I want the piece of performance to be the culmination of the research. (i.e. The end of the means.)

“Two summers ago, I played Margaret in Richard III at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. My research question was: ‘Is Stanislavsky’s psycho-physical acting system at all relevant for Shakespeare’s heightened language?’ Working with veteran Shakespeare director, Tina Packer, I was able to use the rehearsals and the performances – as well as discussions with Tina – as the actual laboratory in which to test the questions. If you like, my curiosity was in my body. My answers to my question were in my three-dimensional engagement not only with Shakespeare’s text, but also with my fellow actors and the audience each night. Sure, I did write two articles about the research and they were published in New Theatre Quarterly. However, the most fruitful outcome of my investigation was the embodied understanding of acting Shakespeare that I could take straight back into the classroom with my students.”

As an actor, I want the rehearsals and performances to be the forum for investigating the research questions. (i.e. The means to the end.) I want the piece of performance to be the culmination of the research. (i.e. The end of the means.)Dr. Bella Merlin

Another example of ‘practice-as-research’ involves Merlin’s one-person play, Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love, based on the passionate lives and loves of Frank Wedekind (author of Spring Awakening) and his muse-wife Tilly. The play premiered at the Mondavi Centre for the Performing Arts, Davis, in collaboration with design colleagues from the Theatre and Dance department at UC Davis. “I’d translated Tilly’s autobiography from the German. I’d read endless books on Frank. I’d been to their archive in Munich. I’d even visited their grave! I’d written a chapter on Tilly, but I didn’t really want the bulk of the research to be presented in a traditional scholarly way. Frank and Tilly Wedekind were both actors, so I chose to craft the presentation of the research into a one-person play, as that seemed the most relevant form for the content. I wrote the lyrics of six original songs by taking extracts from Tilly’s autobiography and reconstituting them as rhyming verses. In other words, I sang my findings!”

Merlin’s current research – a book entitled Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright – emerges very directly from practice-based research. “I suffered terrible stage fright during a high-profile performance of David Hare’s The Permanent Way, a co-production between Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint Company and the National Theatre, London. Practice-based research has been described in the academy as emerging from questions that are emotional, personal and subjective. You can’t get much more emotional, personal and subjective than suffering stage fright in front of a packed auditorium. I’m over it now, but for a couple of years, the very thing I loved – acting – became a nightmare-drenched experience. Facing the Fear encourages other actors to turn their experience – their practice – into research. In other words, by asking questions about the nature of stage fright – and looking the demon right in the eye – I hope we can dispel our performance fears and turn the demon into a mouse.”

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