by Brian Quirt
from Canadian Theatre Review, CTR 119,
Definition of insanity:
"Endlessly repeating the same process,
hoping for a different result."
frequently attributed to Albert
Pure Research (1) came out of a conversation I had with former Theatre
Centre Artistic Director David Duclos in 1997. At the time, the
Theatre Centre operated a program called R & D research
and development which successfully generated a wide range
of innovative new works. But the title was inaccurate. We did a
lot of development, but did not really do any research; product
was the goal of every process. So I asked how the program could
accommodate the sort of research, for example, that a high-tech
company conducts, which may or may not result in a new item on the
shelves. What would a program dedicated solely to theatre research
Out of that conversation came two years of research
workshops at the Theatre Centre (19989). One of my favourite
sessions was led by Darren ODonnell, who explored acupuncture
as a potential rehearsal tool. Darren and an acupuncture therapist
designed treatments to elicit specific emotional responses in their
performers and tested the results in scene work. Darren concluded
that it was a promising, but powerful, tool subject to misuse
and requiring substantial further testing before it could be used
in a rehearsal process. I loved this workshop because it explored
a single idea, in depth, within a safe and supportive environment.
The idea did not have to work. The opportunity to fail was built
into the program, as it must be in any research-driven process.
By offering artists a place to explore outlandish or unusual ideas,
the research program might, occasionally, reveal something wonderful.
In the process, artists could learn about their work, themselves
and their craft.
The results from those two years were not well
documented, however, and the program never generated enough momentum
to ensure its survival. I realized that if the Theatre Centre could
not keep it alive, then this important program had to find a new
home. David supported my desire to re-establish the research program
as an activity of my company, Nightswimming. I retitled it Pure
Here is what it currently looks like: Pure Research
supports theatrical experiments that are not production oriented
(that is what defines them as pure). Our intent is to pursue primary,
practical studio research into issues of form and performance. We
provide space, money and resources to artists conducting pure research
into provocative theatrical questions. A call for proposals is distributed
in February, and the workshops take place the following autumn.
Successful candidates are offered three days in a fully equipped
studio theatre. There are funds available to hire personnel (often
actors, but past participants have included directors, writers,
sound designers and DJs, among others), plus a small budget for
expenses. Each workshop is thoroughly documented and written reports
are posted on Nightswimmings Web site.
As dramaturg, my role is to select proposals
(along with Nightswimming producer Naomi Campbell), work with the
researchers to develop their experiments, attend all sessions and
edit the reports they submit afterward. We are trying to isolate
and indulge those moments in rehearsal when someone says, "I
wish we could explore X, Y and Z, but we dont have time."
We provide that time. Pure Research is designed to encourage artists
to follow their instincts and make discoveries rather than generate
new or explore existing material (text or movement) in ways that
they have tried before.
Pure Researchs goals are very broad (to
increase the amount and quality of theatre research in Canada) and
very specific (to offer me, as a dramaturg, the opportunity to work
with and/or observe the investigations of skilled artists as they
gnaw on an issue of their choice).
And did I mention that every Pure Research session
at both the Theatre Centre and, last year, at Nightswimming
has been fun. Pressure comes only from the desire to learn;
the joy of discovery; the act of searching for answers with time
and freedom on our side; time in a theatre not fixing something,
not rushing something, but digging deeply. Research invigorates
In 2003, its first year, Pure Research took
the form of two sessions, each comprising a total of twenty-four
hours, over a period of two weeks. Kate Hennig conducted a workshop
in the use of voice and sound as a rehearsal tool for actors; Martin
Julien worked with two singers to examine the extent to which pitch,
key and other musical devices influence our understanding of narrative.
Both sessions were full of high pleasures (spending an afternoon
with Martin and his actors discussing the semiotics of the musical
voice) and juicy insights (seeing passages of Shakespeare come to
exhilarating life during Kates vocal exercises). The workshops
were challenging and the reports are intelligent and searching documents
recording Kates and Martins productive experiments.
When I think back to my week guiding a Pure
Research project, what sticks with me most powerfully is the feeling,
or "tone," of the room. In spite of the fact that we,
as participants, collectively covered a lot of material delved
into many arcane theoretical concerns; utilized dozens of musical
and textual sources; staged and choreographed many experiments in
spatial and acoustic design there seemed a great sense of
expansiveness and relaxation in the theatre. The discussions were
free-flowing and good-humoured; each days accomplishments
were significant yet never overwhelming in their demands. Somehow,
we found a productive middle ground between the structured rigour
of the academy and the production pressures of the professional
theatre. It felt to me like a new environment. The big question,
I suppose, is: Whither research? What is the next step of application?
How do you share what youve learned and provoke continuing
One of the most fascinating discoveries that
first year was that applicants found it difficult to articulate
precise research questions, to separate inquiry from product. Many
tantalizing creative projects were submitted generally a
show at an early stage of development in which the proposed
research directly related to the eventual execution of the piece.
That is fine, of course, but it is not the point of our program.
Are we asking for the wrong things? Have we not found the right
words to frame the application process? As Martin suggests, Can
pure theatre research exist? Or is the drive for product so powerful
that it is nearly impossible to identify theatrical issues outside
the context of creating a new piece or interpreting an existing
These questions have become incorporated into
the program; through Pure Research, I am conducting research into
research. And despite the challenges the program poses, terrific
projects continue to appear. Guillaume Bernardi articulated a very
specific need in his application to Pure Research 04: to examine,
outside the rehearsal process, the moment of transition from speaking
to singing and from singing back to speaking. As he wrote in his
My initial impulse in applying to Pure Research
came from the strong desire (a need actually) to tackle a concrete,
two-faced stumbling block that I encounter regularly in my work.
Actors struggle when I request that they deliver their text in a
more "musical" way; when I work with singers in my opera
projects, they feel challenged when I ask them to deliver the recitative
with more sensitivity to words. Those very concrete rehearsal challenges
reflect a bigger, more crucial issue: What is the territory
that lies between speaking and singing? In rehearsal there is never
enough time to really deal with this issue, but in the space opened
by Pure Research, I would like to chart that territory, with both
pragmatic and practical goals.
A happy by-product of the program is that it
has emphasized research and led to new approaches in our own, ongoing
creative work. Even though Pure Research was not created to foster
particular results for the company, I have discovered that it feeds
Nightswimmings work in unpredictable
ways, exposes us to ideas and individuals that our own work might
never otherwise encounter. My instinct says that it is transforming
our approach to play development in general. While Kates and
Martins experiments have not yet had immediate repercussions
in our own theatre practice, Pure Research has encouraged Nightswimmings
development process to be more adventurous and more open to instinct
and serendipity. Through Pure Research, I have developed a great
tolerance for the unknown. I have embraced patience as a tool. I
have come to value performance research as both an end in itself
(as in Pure Research) and as a starting point for creation.
Without Pure Research, I fear that our work
would move inexorably closer to the product-oriented side of the
play-development equation. I struggle to resist the temptation to
make the Pure Research projects more applicable, more like conventional
developmental workshops. To counter this, I am designing our ongoing
developmental work to look more like Pure Research, using the program
to shift our developmental processes toward the "purer"
end of the spectrum, where I believe we will find more interesting
places to begin new pieces of theatre. Increasingly, we are suggesting
the Pure Research model to artists we want to commission, encouraging
them to explore ideas rather than propose topics for a new work.
The result is that we have found ourselves conducting what are
in essence applied research sessions. The challenge we face
is the same as that faced by artists who submit to Pure Research:
to keep the emphasis on search not creation.
For example, in the past two years, we spent
twenty half-day sessions with actor Andy Massingham, exploring slapstick
and pratfalls as a way of generating movement phrases.
We refused to worry at the time about creating product; our work
was almost entirely about how to create rather than what to create.
Brian allowed me carte blanche as to the creation of Rough House
(the show that evolved out of this work). I was instructed to take
my time and keep in touch occasionally. Terrific. Julia Sasso suggested
that I film myself improvising, as a way of developing material.
So I created an archive of all the falls, rolls, and slapstick bits
I had been doing all these years. More like "researchals"
than rehearsals. I resisted looking at the tape until the end of
the third session. It was full of chaos; as a cohesive whole it
seemed hopeless, yet an uncanny thread started to weave its way
through the anarchy. The difference between making it happen and
letting it happen was asserting itself. I did my best not to stand
in its way. I didnt know what I had, but I was elated.
In July and November 2003, we conducted research
workshops with playwright Claudia Dey, who wanted to watch her writing
being explored by a choreographer, an actor and two dancers. She
brought a new text to each workshop, and by the end of each two-day
session, we had a staged version of it. But in neither case was
that product meant to be part of the eventual work. By working with
a different choreographer each time, we forced ourselves to find
new ways of physicalizing Claudias dense, poetic text.
I learned that the moments that feel somehow
"right" are often indescribably so they just are.
Once these accidental discoveries are made, the moments are marked.
And so the experiment becomes the thing, the performable thing,
the eventual show. This transition from discovering to actually
marking moments is achieved through a combination of detailed and
vigorous rehearsal that at the same time remains open to all possibility.
It is one part craft and one part instinct. Initially the process
seems murky, ill defined and eventually you realize that
a code is being devised. (Dey)
In October 2003, we conducted a two-day research
workshop with choreographer Julia Sasso and a group of fourteen
actors and dancers. The focus was very specific: to explore her
choreographic process by testing a series of exercises with actors
and dancers together. We did not know what the results would be;
generating new material was not the point; the movement that was
created during the two sessions while wonderful would
not be used in a future piece. But we learned that certain choreographic
exercises were very effective with actors, that the physical barriers
between actors and dancers did disappear and that Julias approach
to movement would work in this new context. This knowledge then
inspired the design of our next process the creation of her
new piece (the betrayal project) incorporating both actors
The most effective Pure Research workshop eliminates
expectations and allows the search for discovery to govern the process.
Success is proportional to the purity of intention (the determination
to ensure that the research is free of developmental goals). You
cannot enter the research expecting certain results or with an eye
to an eventual product. Doing so immediately skews the process and
taints the research: You can never be free of a desire to shape
the results unless you do not know what the results should be. It
is akin to an improvisational performance in which you accept that
a few gems will be generated among the dross. We have been elated
to find that purity of intention and elimination of expectation
are producing substantial benefits in our actual developmental work
Underlying the program is my belief that we
need more spaces in which to search and research. It comes back
to faith I believe that the cumulative information from Pure
Research, over time, will be valuable for the company and the community.
Each session offers specific insights and provokes new ideas that
will blossom later; it challenges conventions and demands creative
Get rid of the phrase, "Will it work?"
and replace it with "Try this" and "What if
Replace fear with possibility. Make knowledge itself the product
and see what happens.
Part of what I have discovered by doing Pure
Research is that, to my surprise, no one else is doing it. Our universities
are home to thousands of research investigations each year, but
few of them relate directly to the performance issues that our theatre
companies face each day. How can we bring together our needs and
their resources? Established theatres are entirely focused on producing
new work, and at times, on developing new work, but rarely think
about how they create new work, about theatre, society or ideas.
Who, other than dramaturgs, will insist that our theatre make time
and money available for this research?
Pure Research is a tiny, imperfect, incomplete
program. It makes up two of my favourite weeks each year. Can Pure
Research be truly "pure"? Yes, although it seems that
even I cannot prevent myself from applying it. A colleague recently
asked me about a new process we are starting, "Is that a Pure
Research project, or a new show?" My answer: "Yes."
(1) Pure Research Application forms and full
reports can be found at: Pure
Pure Research 03 included two research sessions:
Beneath the Poetry: Magic Not Meaning,
by Kate Hennig an exploration of intuitive and metaphysical
connections between voice and text
Voice, Music and Theatrical Narrative,
by Martin Julien experiments regarding the influence of live
vocal musical sound on the uses and meaning of narrative within
a theatrical context.
Pure Research 04 took place May 1021,
2004, at Torontos Theatre Centre. It featured sessions by
Guillaume Bernardi and visual artist Heather Nicol.
Bernardi, Guillaume. Pure Research application. 1 Dec. 2003.
Dey, Claudia. E-mail to the author. 8 Jan. 2004.
Julien, Martin. E-mail to the author. 4 Jan.
Massingham, Andy. Letter to the author. 15 Dec. 2003.
Reprinted by permission from Canadian Theatre Review,
CTR 119, Summer 2004, Creative Research and New Play Development,
edited by Brian Quirt and DD Kugler.
CTR can be reached at: Canadian
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Links of Interest
Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)
Association for Theatre Research (CATR)
Development Centres of Canada
Guild of Canada
of Canadian Theatres
Atlantic Resource Centre
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