My core area of expertise and focus remains Roman drama, theatre and performance. Current research projects in that field include work on improvisation in Plautine comedy and ancient rehearsal techniques and processes, along with two planned monographs on Roman comedy in performance, following on from the material in my 2012 dissertation "Haec urbs Roma est, ubi haec fabula agitur: Place, Space and Spatial Dramaturgy in the Plautine Theatre" (University of Sydney).
In addition to this focus area, however, I am also an enthusiastic interdisciplinary and collaborative scholar, always keen to pursue alternative research areas and methodologies. Current interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects include:
"As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye": Comic Catharsis in The Comedy of Errors
A collaborative practice-led research project with Dr Chris Hay (UQ). Funded by the Australian Research Council through the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.
The Comedy of Errors, while not performed as often as other Shakespearean comedies, is a particularly useful case study for a practice-focused exploration of stagecraft and emotion. The plot, as the title attests, depends on a series of unlikely coincidences, mistakes and misunderstandings brought about by the actions of two sets of identical twins in one town. There are two compelling hypotheses for the staging techniques employed to realise this play in its original performance context, developed through rigorous textual analysis and interdisciplinary enquiry. This project tests and compares these hypotheses, using them to explore Elizabethan stagecraft conventions and notions of comic catharsis.
Distributed Cognition: Studying Theatre in the Wild
A book chapter co-written with Professor Evelyn Tribble (Otago), for inclusion in the Routledge Companion to Theatre, Performance, and Cognitive Science (in press)
This chapter examines the relevance of Distributed Cognition, and the related term “cognitive ecology” for ways of conceiving performance and theatre history.
Distributed cognition posits that a complex activity such as performance is spread or smeared across resources such as attention, perception, and memory; the experience of training as it is sedimented in the body; social structures, and the material environment. The related idea of a “cognitive ecology” emphasizes the interplay of internal cognitive mechanisms and social and physical environment. Cognitive ecologies are dynamic, changing to accommodate new circumstances: some systems will place more or less weight on internal mechanisms, on central control, or on particular forms of cognitive artifacts and social systems. This approach lends itself to a variety of historical and theoretical approaches to performance. It predicts historical change and variation as new configurations of material and social practices emerge. For example, technical innovations in theatre such as lighting and sound boards in turn trigger fundamental shifts in how actors move in a space, therefore altering rehearsal practices, and in turn generating new ways of engaging audience affect and attention.
This chapter explores the historical and theoretical lineages of Distributed Cognition and argues that it is a productive model through which to explore performance history. Four case studies from across Western theatre history are examined, each illustrating the value of a different aspect of cognitive theory to this disciplinary area.
Creating commedia: cognition, composition-in-performance and the commedia dell’arte (with Professor Tim Fitzpatrick, University of Sydney)
Commedia dell’arte dominated continental European stages for over two centuries, but several aspects of the form remain obscure to contemporary historians. Our understanding of how commedia worked in performance is improving all the time, a clear example of the benefits of blending historical inquiry, textual analysis and practice-led research methods. However, despite the incorporation of commedia-inspired skills into acting curricula at institutions across the world, the original rehearsal methods and training techniques utilised by performers have not received due scholarly attention.
This oversight may be attributable to the overwhelming lack of direct evidence for offstage practices, in addition to common misunderstandings of how the improvisatory processes characteristic of the form actually worked in performance. Rather than prompting spontaneously created, unrepeatable narratives and interactions (modern ‘improvisation’),commedia scenarios guided a process of composition-in-performance that achieved flexible but repeatable (and therefore transferable) performance sequences. This flexible creative process made unusual cognitive demands of the actors, who needed a specific set of skills and –more importantly – a training regime that would equip them with such skills.
Fitzpatrick’s 1995 monograph, The Relationship of Oral and Literate Performance Processes in the Commedia dell'Arte: Beyond the Improvisation/Memorisation Divide,suggests that commediaprovides an important case study for the developing interdisciplinary field of distributed cognition, and this theoretical framework enables us to identify and analyse a range of enskilment practices possibly utilised in the historical commedia dell’arte.
We will identify a number of concrete ways in which the cognitive burden of composition-in-performance could have been reduced by specific ‘decentralising’ practices: role distribution, ‘shepherding’ of supernumerary roles, training in the use of masks, conventions governing the arrangement of performance spaces, and most importantly the ways in which actors can train and rehearse for improvisatory composition-in-performance, both in solo and in group scenes.
This discussion will draw illuminating parallels with analogous, contemporaneous and better-attested performance (and performance preparation) practices.
Stories from the Road: A Case Study in Narrative System Design
An experiment-based investigation of improvisation and storytelling in games, with Dr Malcolm Ryan (Macquarie).
Querolus and Theatrical Performance in Late Antiquity
An investigation into the evidence for a continuity of practice of dramatic performance in the Roman Empire after the second century CE, with Dr Christopher Malone (Sydney University)