Theatre as Research


by Tetsuro Shigematsu

This is an excerpt from Tetsuro Shigematsu’s PhD Thesis, which we have edited (with his permission) to stand alone.  The question of whether or not theatre performance can serve as research is both practical and political.  Performance with audience feedback is a useful dramaturgical tool – that’s the practical part.  Whether or not creation and performance of a play can have the rigour of research may be more contentious – that’s the political part.  Here’s some of what Tetsuro has to say on the subject, starting with an explanation of some of the terminology involved.


Sometimes during post-show talkbacks, I reveal that Empire of the Son was created within the context of pursuing a PhD degree in Education.  I then explain that the field of education is much broader than one might assume: beyond teacher training, or educational policy, the field of education can also encompass research with and through the arts as a legitimate form of understanding and examining experience.

Arts-based educational research has its share of detractors. The explicitly reflexive nature of autoethnography, which Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner define as “…an autobiographical genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural”, rubs many the wrong way. British educator Sara Delamont critiques autoethnography for paying attention to “social scientists who are usually not interesting or worth researching”. She accuses those social scientists of being “literally lazy and also intellectually lazy”. Because my life is at the heart of this research, rather than be discouraged, I hold fast to Holman Jones’s call for autoethnography to make “personal accounts count “.

Despite the fact that arts-based research has been part of academic scholarship for a few decades, for many it remains a novel concept. Some still ask, “Is artistic inquiry a legitimate form of research?” If so, how does one judge it? What criteria are in place to evaluate an arts-based thesis?

As pieces are tasked to carry out both the scholarly work of social science as well as being successful as aesthetic works of art, researchers have provided several touchstones or guideposts serve as a form of poetics:

  • Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social life?
  • Is it reflexive – ie does it make explicit the construction of the research?
  • Does it impact me emotionally and intellectually?
  • Does it express a reality? Does it seem “true”?
  • Does it honour the research context, the fact-fiction balance?
  • Does it use all the elements of the theatre to share the research?
  • Does it share the artistic within the academic to provide the reader entry points into the work?
  • Is there a balance between the instrumental and the aesthetic in the work?

While many arts-based researchers have been influenced by the above criteria, for me, the call to balance the instrumental (research) and the aesthetic (theatre) suggests a dichotomy between scholarship and artistry. As an artist/scholar, these two dimensions are not far apart, and in fact often overlap or are woven.

The work of scholarship involves gathering evidence to prove or disprove certain ideas, while creativity can be seen as the process of adjusting variables to ascertain how to best affect your audience. Both endeavors share a similar cycle of action-research: planning, taking action, observation, and reflection. As a theatre artist, this process of scholarly reflection is baked into my creative system, because I am constantly testing and revising. The resulting changes could be as minor as the elimination of a pause, or as drastic as a whole new set design. Such a recognition may represent a new understanding of how the work of scholarship can fit into the creative process.

When playwrights ask me about what it is like to make theatre within the context of doing a PhD, I explain the biggest difference is the importance placed on honouring permissions and ethics. When the American writer Anne Lamott declared on Twitter, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better”, it was retweeted over two thousand times. This precise quote has over 15,000 hits on Google. Clearly, this call to arms has struck a chord with multitudes, emboldening the silenced towards acts of literary retribution. But such a creed can ultimately lead to a narrative of solipsistic victimhood, and denies the possibility of inter-subjectivity and divergences of meaning.

Insightfully, Jill Ker Conway asks, “What exactly is the process of questioning the past?” Conway suggests that “cultivation of that voice—the power of speaking for oneself—is a prerequisite for maturity, because until we’ve found our own voices we can’t settle down to ask ourselves and others probing questions about life in the present” One such probing question might be, how many stories can you relate where the bad guy was you? How many incidents can you relate where the other person saw you as the villain, or an agent of oppression? How many stories can you tell where you are the antagonist? Playwrights by their very definition must develop the ability to experience phenomena from a multitude of perspectives.

When I was doing an MFA in Creative Writing, my non-fiction professor declared, “Great writing involves great betrayal.” Almost everyone nodded in agreement. As ethical rigor becomes a paramount value, the ease of having such a cavalier attitude towards the people in your life becomes a thing of the past.

These are the notes from the date of the last interview with my father:

Empire of the Son photo

Tetsuro Shigematsu performing in “Empire of the Son” at The Cultch., Vancouver. Photo by Raymond Shum.

3.A.8 Field Diary

Akira Interview Feb 14, 2015

 A question for me has been, to what degree have I been forcing my father to participate in these interviews? He’s old, and tired, and sometimes our conversations last for hours.

On this last visit, I decided to give him a break. Or perhaps to put it more honestly, I was preoccupied with my own personal work. And I felt, rather than wake up him up, and get up from bed, I’d take advantage of this rare “me” time. But very unusual for him, he called me over to his bedside, and he was sitting up. I peered down at him as I stood by the edge of the bed. I asked him what he wanted, “do you want some water? Are you hungry? Do you need to use the

oterai?” He was like a baby who could talk. I went through the usual list but to no avail.

Finally, I asked him if he would like to come and sit out in the living room. He said, “yes!” with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. We were sitting in silence next to one another on the couch for a while, when he asked me if I remembered his hometown of Kagoshima. I said, “Hold on a second,” and I began assembling my recording equipment.

What followed was a remarkable conversation. I finally broached the topic I have been avoiding for two years now.

3.A.9 The Ask

“My son makes fun of my accent for a living.” Those 10 words were enough to stop me from telling the story I wanted to tell for 25 years. I was afraid to ask for my father’s permission to tell his story. If he said no, I would be pulled back into silence. Whether or not he granted me permission, I had known for some time now that I would soon have to stop interviewing my dad. Not because there was nothing left to ask, but because I couldn’t subject him to this process any longer. He was emaciated. His blind eyes were cataract gray, and he took so long to answer my questions, I had to check in with him to see if he was still awake. In what turned out to be our final interview, I finally summoned the nerve to ask him.

“Dad, haven’t you ever wondered why I’ve been interviewing you all this time?”

“No,” he replied.

“As you know, I have been working on my doctorate, but the heart of my thesis is writing about your life story. Do I have your permission to tell your story to others?”

My dad looked so utterly perplexed. He shook his head in disbelief. “I cannot fathom why anyone would have even the slightest interest in my life.”

The whole enterprise struck him as preposterous. It was as if I was suggesting to him, “Dad can I take your toenail clippings, and sell them for medicinal purposes on eBay?” He simply saw no value in what he perceived to be the banality that was his life, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone else would either.

“Dad, I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong. In fact, I should apologize because I must confess, I have already shared some of your stories, and I can assure you, people find them captivating. And, so do I. So, Dad, do I have your permission to share your story with the rest of the world?”

“Yes!” he exclaimed.

The fact that he answered so quickly made me think he was confused. Perhaps he thought, I was offering him his favorite beverage, 7Up. By this point in our conversation, my mother had returned from her errands, so I asked her to translate asking him for his permission in Japanese, and again he said, “Yes.”

Permission recorded and in hand, I could have let it rest there, but I knew between my penchant for cowardly procrastination, and his deteriorating condition, we would not

revisit this topic again. I needed to be certain.

“Dad, I don’t understand. Twenty years ago, you wanted me to stop playing you. Why are you saying yes now?”

“Because if you tell my story, then my life will have had some meaning.”

I felt my eyes become hot. All this time I had been looking to my father to provide me with the meaning of life. Because despite the fact that I have two children of my own, and I appear to be a fully-grown man, part of me still feels like a kid, and before my dad died, I needed him to tell me that one story, give me that one insight that would help make it all make sense. When it came to telling my father’s story, I always felt so needy. As I asked him question after question after question, I thought I was taking, taking, taking. It never occurred to me that by doing this work, I was providing meaning for him.

During those final moments of our last interview, I felt a shifting of places. He held me as a child, but now I was holding him. My father never got to see me perform my version of his story, because on Sept 18, 2015, two weeks before Empire of the Son opened, he died.

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