The Critical Value of Practice as Research

by Josy Miller, Arts Initiative Story Corps


About eighteen months ago, I made up my mind to pursue a doctorate. Although I was enjoying a relatively successful early career as a theatre director, I found myself encountering points of concern in my field that needed to be addressed by the academy and practitioners alike.

However, as I began visiting various universities and speaking with their faculty, I became increasingly disillusioned. After explaining my interest, a look of something between pity and despair would pass over their faces before they told me that although my project sounded fascinating, “the faculty at [Such-and-such] really should be interested in what you’re doing, but they won’t be.”

It seemed odd to me that there was such an enormous divide between the people who made art and those who studied it, but I was clearly on the wrong side of the fence. It was in my final interview, when I spoke with Professor Lynette Hunter, chair of the Performance Studies program here at UC Davis, and she began to explain the Practice-as-Research dissertation strand, that I began to see the holes in that fence.


Practice-as-Research (PAR) is an emerging discipline within the field of Performance Studies that already has a strong foothold in Europe, Australia and Canada, but is still extremely rare in American universities. PAR balances knowledge gained through experience and the body alongside knowledge gained through traditional scholarly methods. Scholars engaging in this discipline use creative process and performance experience as laboratories in which to test out and refine theories.

In her presentation this spring entitled “Practice-as-Research: Playing Up and Acting Out” as part of the Humanities Institute’s and Arts Initiative’s Arts Faculty Showcase, Professor Bella Merlin described PAR as “philosophy in action.” “It brings together tacit knowledge in ways that can be performed, expressed to an audience through the body,” said Merlin.

Merlin, a highly regarded actress and scholar, author, singer and professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, utilized performance as well as selections from scholarly work to communicate her findings. These tactics of critical engagement and communication, she argued, “have the capacity to fundamentally transform the perceiver” in ways that surpass the tactics of traditional scholarly research dissemination.

Hunter and Merlin, as well as a number of their colleagues, have been crucial voices in the conversations surrounding this emergent discipline: how practices can be codified in ways that make them translatable between practitioners and academic fields (another important distinction of PAR is what Merlin posits as its “necessary interdisciplinarity”), tactics for dissemination of research findings that slip away from traditional academic discourse and the implications of this type of research on how scholarly production is recognized, valued and rewarded.

UC Davis is the first university in the United States to offer an official Practice-as-Research track in its doctoral program. PhD candidates in Performance Studies have the opportunity to do a Designated Emphasis in Studies in Performance and Practice, identified as “a forum for scholars and practitioners to share research and engage in scholarly dialogue and embodied practice around issues of performance and performativity, practice and process, ideally asking questions that cross these lines.”

Students entering the program in this strand engage in performance work as central pieces of both their qualifying examinations and dissertation processes.  Since its inception, the program has turned out scholar/practitioners that have a dual vocabulary and set of tools for inquiry, who are thus particularly valuable as academic and artistic colleagues and have an excellent track record for job placement.

“PAR has arrived at just that moment when philosophical and critical approaches to understanding the world have become eager to develop ideas about time and space that call specifically on process and practice,” explained Hunter. “PAR has become one of the most helpful methodologies for thinking through diversity and the experience needed so that people can value an increasingly wide range of cultures and commitments.”

The question then becomes not why or if such practice is necessary and valuable, but why so few of our American colleagues are yet engaged in it.

Photo: Jess Curtis in “Jess Meets Angus” Credit: Meyer Originals