Practical Dissertations in Theatre Studies
In the final year of my Theatre & Performance Studies course, we were offered the choice between doing a written and a practical dissertation. Like the majority of my year I decided to do a practical dissertation. Going into this, I was a bit unsure about how the process worked or what exactly went into making a practical dissertation. Therefore, I decided to share a bit about my process with my own project and how it progressed over the year.
One of the biggest misconceptions about practical dissertations is that they have to be a traditional acting performance with other people. While you can create a play and have the option to work with other people, this is not a requirement and the range of performances created is huge! For example this year people made one-person shows, wrote scripts, did stand-up sets, performed movement pieces and created installations, amongst other things. This meant that if we were not comfortable with acting we could still choose to do a practical dissertation, as many types of performance were allowed. I chose to work alone and make an interactive live art installation piece about body hair removal and young women, focusing in particular on the ways race & ethnicity impacts attitudes around the topic.
In general, there seemed to be two approaches to working on these projects. For those like me who knew what we wanted to work on from the beginning the research process was more sustained over the year, whereas those who were less sure spent the majority of the year exploring their ideas with a more intense work period towards the end. These two methods both seemed to work, with each person choosing the path that suited them best.
Throughout the process we had support both from meetings with our supervisors and from sessions run by the module convenor. The supervisor meetings were a good space to discuss the details of our ideas and get advice from researchers with more experience than us. I found these especially useful as it meant that I needed to keep on working on my piece so I could actually talk about my progress in the meetings instead of having nothing to say! The sessions run by the convenor were also really useful and changed as the year progressed to suit the development of our projects. For example, in term 1 we had a mix of online sessions talking with practitioners and in-person sessions where we could explore our ideas, whereas in term 2 we had a few online sessions due to the lockdown where we could talk in more detail about our ideas in smaller groups. While some of these were of course more useful than others, being able to talk with the convenor and our classmates regularly about our ideas allowed us to get feedback and consider new approaches we wouldn’t have thought of alone.
As our practical dissertation was still a dissertation, research was very important in forming our pieces. This was something I was unsure about in the beginning, as I struggled to see how the practical element could merge with the research. Everyone took a different approach to this, depending on the form and content of their piece, with some people watching movies, some doing a lot of academic research and some drawing on the experiences of themselves and their groups. For my piece, I ended up using a mix of academic research, my own research into others experiences and reflections on my experiences. For me, the research I did into others’ experiences was the most useful, as it allowed me to take a larger view on the topic outside of my own thoughts and feelings. To do this, I created a questionnaire for women aged 18-25 asking about their attitudes towards their body hair and their experiences surrounding it. The responses given by these women gave my research much more depth and detail, as it let me hear other people’s attitudes and where these came from.
During the last month of the process, I began putting together all my research to create my piece. I drew on the various things I had read and seen, trying to find ways to turn the words into something more visual. The academic research provided a historical background, whereas the questionnaires gave me more of a contemporary insight. Some of the research easily translated into images, for example mentions of hair feeling dirty in my questionnaires became images of literal dirty legs in the installation. Others were less direct, for example a feeling that everyone was looking at someone’s body hair when they knew in reality no one could see it became a small piece of writing only visible through a magnifying glass. At this point, I began to see how important all the research was as it gave my piece much more detail than if I had made it without the research.
Finally, everything came together for a very tiring and intense but incredibly fun week of performances. While I only performed my piece one time, I also had tech set-ups, helping my friends, operating the tech for a few others and generally milling about to support everyone else. Overall I was very happy with how my piece turned out and I found that I actually really enjoyed practice-as-research, and would love to do it again. To anyone who is considering making a practical dissertation I would strongly encourage it, as it’s a great way to create something you care about for the end of your degree.