Doctors in the House (Interview 38)
I became aware a few months ago of a new crop of doctoral graduates whose names were very familiar to many of us in Queensland as performing artists and creatives.
The reasons for taking on such an enormous, all-consuming project – one that can occupy years of research and writing – is something that each prospective doctoral student mulls over well before signing on the application’s dotted line. In fact, most university graduate schools provide a period in which the candidate has to research the topic, pitch the idea to a panel and go through other academic hoops before the candidacy is approved. It’s a bit like the audition, call-back, second call-back etc., before you get the gig. And then it starts – for many, the longest production period you’ll ever know.
I wanted to chat with three of the most recent theatre doctors: David Morton, Katherine Lyall-Watson, and Andrea Moor all of whom are busy, practising artists. Katherine Lyall-Watson’s latest play MOTHERLAND, a Patrick White finalist opens its season tomorrow night at Metro Arts. Andrea Moor is appearing in QTC’s DESIGN FOR LIVING, and David Morton, the AD of the busy independent company Dead Puppet Society, has just finished a residency with the South African company Handspring (you may know them for their work in WARHORSE) and is also working in NYC. And this is rather typical of their arts practice. Apart from anything else, where did they get the time?
I wanted to get a sense of why they decided to start out on the academic track and how, if it all, it had changed their own artistic practice. Was it a hunger for learning or a more pragmatic desire i.e., to create another career path? One thing is certain; everyone attempting and successfully completing a PhD or a professional doctorate is never the same again!
Here in their own words are their responses.
Congratulations to them all and to all those others out there working away on their own doctoral productions – chookas!
David Morton PhD
At the end of my undergrad I completed an honours year at QUT because I wanted to make use of the program as a chance to begin making my own work. I had expected that I would use the year long course and the resources and mentorship that came along with it as some sort of springboard into independent practice, what I didn’t expect was how useful the methodologies that came along with practice-led research would be and the central role that they would come to play in the creation of my work.
I had always had an interest in the theory and terminology that could be used to unpack and analyse performance but, over the course of the honours year, I began to appreciate that the reverse could also be true, and I began to draw inspiration from theories and how these elements could be built into a work. I was particularly struck by the puppet-specific concept of double vision and saw a possible link that could be drawn with the theory of the sublime. Ultimately, I entered the PhD because I wanted more time to play and experiment, and to work out whether a hunch that I had might be worth pursuing. The structure and support that the university provided ended up becoming an invaluable base from which to keep making work and launch the Dead Puppet Society as an independent company.
… what I didn’t expect was how useful the methodologies that came along with practice-led research would be and the central role that they would come to play in the creation of my work.
The title of my thesis was Transcending the inanimate: Evoking the sublime in puppet-based performance. The project was designed to test the ability of puppet characters in theatre works to hold the attention and belief of an adult audience, and then unpack the elements at play within the production to understand why this might be the case.
Over the course of the program I created three full-scale theatre works that made heavy use of puppetry and then engaged with audiences through surveys and focus groups. Ultimately the project focused on the seemingly impossible duality that a puppet can embody when imbued with a proper illusion of life, and then went on to propose a series of key elements that could be woven into practice to exploit this unique ability of the form and provoke deeply imaginative experiences.
Katherine Lyall-Watson PhD
Four-and-a-half years ago, when I decided to apply to do a doctorate at the University of Queensland, I was pretty clear in my aims. I wanted time to write. I thought that if I could get a scholarship, I would be able to cut down my days at work and focus on my playwriting. If I was doing a doctorate, I would be able to justify letting the housework and parental tasks slide a little. It was a selfish wish. Like most writers/artists with day jobs, I was yearning to carve out some time I could dedicate to my craft.
Looking back, I find my naivety laughable. A doctorate is a whole world away from the creative writing I love. I had to learn a new way of thinking, a new way of analysing the world, and a new way of describing it in words. Academic writing is another language: one where the simplest word is not the best. I found it hard going but also deeply rewarding.
A doctorate is a whole world away from the creative writing I love. I had to learn a new way of thinking, a new way of analysing the world, and a new way of describing it in words.
My thesis, Biographical Theatre: Flying Separate of Everything, argues that playwrights have more licence to invent in their biographical plays than do other writers of biographical work. It interrogates what it is about theatre that makes invention and distortion of “fact” permissible, when other writers are castigated for their inventions.
I researched and wrote the thesis alongside my research and development of a play about historical and contemporary figures and events: MOTHERLAND. Instead of giving me more time to write my play, the PhD took time. But it was time well spent. Thinking deeply about research practice and ethics has improved my creative practice and the questions raised by my creative practice challenged my critical writing and made me take it in new directions.
I haven’t been as attentive a partner and mother as perhaps I should have been, but my family has understood and supported me through this endeavour. My hope is that I have shown my children that it’s never too late to learn, that things that matter take time and effort, and that education doesn’t finish at the end of Grade 12.
Andrea Moor DCI
My original intent in doing any post-graduate study was to add another insurance policy to my income stream! I have made a habit of reinventing myself or adding strings to my bow just in order to survive. Many years ago I picked up teaching as a source of supplementary income and I found I loved it. From directing thousands of scenes over many years I started to long for a whole play to direct and so my most recent new string is that of director. But even with income from acting, directing and teaching I still won’t have enough money to retire, so I needed to prepare myself for the possibility of a permanent job.
These are realities for women supporting families in this industry.
I was able to reflect on my practice as a director and seek critical feedback from leading industry players and well-respected peers.
I had been asked to apply for positions in various institutions around the country and I felt that my understanding of teaching acting was limited. I had become a master teacher in the acting technique Practical Aesthetics and whilst this methodology had served me well in grounding me in a strong analytical discipline in script preparation and given me immensely useful tools in how to connect actors to the thought and action of the scene, I was still nervous that my approach might be limited.
I have always been one to come to a new discipline very well prepared, rather than learning on the fly, and so I felt if I were to take up a position teaching actors full time I should be incredibly well versed in a range of methodologies and be acutely aware of actor training pedagogy.
The Doctorate of Creative Industries is designed to extend and enhance one’s creative practice, through the exploration of both practice-led and research-based investigation. I completed three projects, two of which were practice-led and my final being an industry review research project. In my first project I examined the efficacy of the acting technique Practical Aesthetics as taught to the cast of the Brisbane NIDA Young Actors Studio production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest.
The second project examined the outcomes of applying Umberto Eco’s theory of ‘the open work’ (Eco,1989) to the direction of Jon Fosse’s Beautiful. In this fully produced production, with professional actors, I also examined my own transition from actor to director. The third project examined the efficacy of acting methodologies taught at four leading Australian actor-training institutions: National Institute of Dramatic Art, Queensland University of Technology, Victorian College of the Arts, and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
Whilst my initial impetus to study was to ensure a possible future income stream the result has been very different. Through this study I was able to reflect on my practice as a director and seek critical feedback from leading industry players and well-respected peers. I was also able to break apart my own attitudes and bias in the way I teach and direct actors through the countless hours spent talking with leading trainers and leading industry figures around the country. And so the upshot of this academic endeavor has been the deepening of my own skills and an enrichment of my knowledge in a very practical sense. Whilst I may soon have a fancy couple of letters before my name, what I have really gained is the ability to reflect on my practice both in the moment and after the fact and that I believe is assisting me in the continuing development of my artistic aesthetic.