One of the interesting challenges of conducting performance ethnography is learning anew how to document non-text-based happenings that become part of the ethnographic record. The recent staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE, my ethnographic play script, produced an overwhelming barrage of moments of meaning-making and storytelling as actors, directors, lighting and set designs, and our access researcher, came together to create two performances and move the work toward a full staging (the workshop engaged professional actors and MFA theatre student designers in a very short a two week process with light tech and props, but no set. In director Joseph Megel’s hands, this stripped away aesthetic was just enough to draw the audience into the stories in the play, presented with stirring energy by the talented cast.
As an ethnographer, of course, I wanted to capture every moment of the process. What notes did the director give the actors? How did disability theatre specialist Jason Dorwart, the assistant director for the workshop, who also played the role of Rudak, differ in his interpretation of the script from our nondisabled director? What kinds of problems – embodying a role, pronouncing Russian words, working out what a Russian speaker might mean when referring to a particular political issue – arose during the rehearsal process? Most of these elements were captured by my digital audio recordings. And, with the help of Communication Department graduate student Olga Lazitski, who has a background in television news production, we were able to capture research quality video for several rehearsals and the two performances.
Finally, Jim Carmody, of the Department of Theatre & Dance at UC San Diego, brought his theatre & dance photography artistry to our final rehearsal, producing a series of stunning photos. View his gallery here: http://jimcarmody.zenfolio.com/iwasneveralone.
As performance ethnography scholar Dwight Conquergood underlined in his discussion of textocentrism, the process of knowledge production, and the kind of knowledge that is ultimately produced is curtailed if we cave to the hegemony of text-based forms of recording and knowing. Visual media like video and photography can only capture a limited glimpse of the social phenomena that live performance produces; a photo of a still moment in a performance can hardly produce the kind of communitas or social shift in emotive and interactional awareness that live performance creates. But these forms of documentation help us to understand the ways in which those performances continue to reverberate in the lives of people that the work has touched. How these images are taken up and used in the future is a question that interests me as a methodological problem: are they data, or are they objects in and of themselves? Are the publicity, interventions, illustrations, or texts? How will they be edited, read, shared, compiled, critiqued, or ignored? In an increasingly mediated world, these are questions that no longer pertain only to digital, media, or visual anthropology, or performance ethnography, but to many ethnographers whose fieldwork archives become increasingly media rich. In this way, I suspect that looking again to theatre, and understanding how our colleagues in those institutional locations have understood production photos, can be a useful pathway (as was Victor Turner’s alliance with Richard Schechter). Just some thoughts as I sort through the various media piling up in the wake of the play workshop.