Written by Rebecca Nesvet, GRC and former graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature
As the Graduate Research Consultant for the inaugural run of Prof. Joseph Megel’s Communications 566: Media in Performance (MiP), I got to watch our brilliant, original, and self-motivated students create the universe. Like any process of creation, theirs involved a great deal of preliminary research, and presented opportunities for further research. Although I have an MFA in Dramatic Writing and considerable experience creating and teaching live performance, the GRC experience taught me vital lessons about the relationship between scholarly research and artistic practice.
The course was offered by permission of the instructor, and Prof. Megel, together with his co-teacher Will Bosley, Beasley Lab Manager at the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and OASIS, selectively admitted a group of students with special, tried talent and experience in performance, musical composition, design, directing, and technology. In each of four project-based units, four groups of students created a performance piece. The technology that they learned to support these pieces was frequently generated using Isadora, and included playback control and distribution, telephony, VOIP, HD Video, Digital Projection, LCD displays, Digital Audio technologies—often for the performance of original musical compositions—PhotoShop, theatrical lighting design, and live puppetry — in one case involving balloons.
At the start of each unit, Prof. Megel and, organized students into new groups, so that each student got to work with all others at least once. I researched and supplied texts for adaptation, indicative process articles for students to emulate, and videos of historically significant performances. I also had the opportunity to give a few talks about dramatic structure, process writing, and other relevant skills. Then, I worked with individual groups as their ‘dramaturg’: the theatre practitioner responsible for guiding performers’ and especially directors’ and playwrights’ exploration of the contexts of their pieces and fine-tuning of their structure. As such, I recommended reading and viewing materials, read scripts and gave formative feedback, and did the same, upon request, with process journals.
I also liaised with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RenCI) on campus to obtain their Social Computing Room (SCR) at the Odum Institute’s space in Davis Library, as an experimental performance space. In this panoramic, immersive projection space, one student group created the term’s most innovative, magical, and even mystical performance. Trevor Phillips, Elliot Darrow, Kevin Spellman and Ben Elling devised a piece in which two performers seemed to “create the universe,” by seeming to throw, pinch, swipe, mow, and finger-paint unrecognizable galaxies onto the darkness upon the proverbial “waters” of the SCR. At the end, they turned, reminiscent of Leonardo’s Adam and God, to discover—and perhaps imagine or reveal—each other. The concluding piece of the course’s final, public showcase, this work was not only creative, it was reflexive. It seemed to incorporate ideas from the extremely talented collaborators’ individual previous work, for instance, by silently, partially echoing Darrow’s 2013 College Slam Unions Poetry Invitational (CUPSI)-winning performance poem (“I mean what else is our planet,” Darrow asked, “but the pinnacle of exterior design?”). However, dominated by no individual collaborator, the piece dramatized the process of collaborative creation that its creators had been studying and honing throughout the term.
From MiP, I learned that performance research is a cyclical process. The course exposes students to published, peer-reviewed research on live performance that incorporates various kinds of media, primarily, but not exclusively, digital. But students do not act only as critics: they channel their critical inquiry to inform creative performance. By critically analyzing their own performance processes, students are able to continue their experimentation in an informed manner. They learn not only about how to develop various sorts of mediated performance, but to incorporate published research, test its assumptions, collaborate with other artist-researchers, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect upon their own ways of working. As many of the students currently have professional work in the performance arts or are pursuing it, this course demonstrates why research need not exist outside practice. Instead, research skills generate best practice.