Staging data: Research stories brought to life through theatre

November 5, 2019

What if there was an easier, and much more artistic way to communicate research not just to other scholars, but also participants in studies and the general public?

Staging data: Research stories brought to life through theatre, hosted at the Peter Wall Institute in the spring of 2019, showcased two interdisciplinary studies of research-based theatre, an emerging methodology aimed at stripping down systematic research projects and communicating participants’ experience and emotion through theatre.

The first project, titled Treading Water, highlights the obstacles faced by Indigenous water system operators when delivering clean and safe water to small and rural Canadian communities, and the second, Alone in the Ring, explores disabilities in the medical profession.

Even though it can be used by researchers from any discipline, research-based theatre is a genre in the performing arts that communicates the human and personal side of systematic research projects, says 2016 Wall Scholar George Belliveau, a professor of language and literacy education at UBC.

“I would call it a productive tension between the research and art making,” explains Belliveau. “At all times the piece of theatre must respect the research phenomena, but we also have to generate something that is aesthetic, honouring the form of theatre.”

Though playwrights must adhere to the protocols and ethics of formalized research — meaning that participants are made aware that their stories may be used in a piece of theatre — the pieces of theatre are creative interpretations of research themes and participant stories, used to communicate findings to wider audiences.

“It has to catalyze some kind of discussion,” adds Belliveau.

The human side of research

Canada may be known world-wide for its abundance of fresh water, but six million Canadians living in small, rural and indigenous communities are at risk of exposure to untreated and contaminated water.

This is what prompted 2016 Wall Scholar Madjid Mohseni, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at UBC, to get involved with RES’EAU-WaterNET, a multi-disciplinary network established in 2008 aimed at tackling Canada’s First Nations drinking water problem by tailoring solutions to individual communities.

“The human side of engineering research often goes unrecognized,” explains Mohseni, who is also the scientific director of RES’EAU-WaterNET.

“Water operators are key players, and their role is so pivotal in the delivery of drinking water to the communities,” adds Mohseni. “Unfortunately, water operators have been ignored, and their work has been undervalued. We are trying to bring their challenges and their stories to the surface through theatre.”

Based on the findings from RES’EAU-WaterNET, the play Treading Water uses water operator-researcher dialogue to communicate the frustration and dissatisfaction experienced by water operators who must deal with under resourced water treatment systems.

An embodied experience

The second play, Alone in the Ring, explores disabilities in the medical profession. Through a series of narratives, structured like a three-round boxing match, the play touches on the themes of limited institutional support, the need for clinicians and students with a disability to legitimize themselves as competent healthcare providers, and stigmatization in the workplace.

The play is based on a three-year study on the barriers faced by people with disabilities in healthcare practice. To achieve this, Tal Jarus and her team held 150 interviews with 80 students and clinicians with disabilities, as well as administrators, faculty, and employers.

“[We found] that there are lots of stressors for students who are either getting into the profession or practicing, and the main one is having to legitimize themselves,” explains Jarus, a professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at UBC.

Capitalizing on the stories she and her team heard, the goal of Alone in the Ring is to share their results while promoting social change that will increase equity and inclusion within healthcare professions.

Aside from communicating research to participants and stake-holders, participating in research-based theatre can also be a way to help researchers connect with, and better understand, the data.

“Through acting and participating in [the play] I had this embodied experience of playing a character and empathizing with them and understanding their voice,” adds Jarus.

Effective knowledge translation?

For Mohseni, The Water Project allows the roles of water operators, as well as their challenges, personal stories, and importance to be surfaced through theatre. He hopes it could lead to increased training and funding. The play has been performed in front of Indigenous community leaders and decision makers, and government officials.

As for Alone in the Ring, it recently received an Equity Enhancement Fund from UBC, providing it with the necessary resources to stage the play in front of students, staff and faculty on both campuses with a cast composed of students with disabilities, faculty members and student artists.

But whether dealing with funders, or answering questions from an audience, researchers and artists often face a reoccurring question: How effective is research-based theatre at communicating knowledge, and what impact does it have?

Following the performances at the Peter Wall Institute, audience members were asked to complete two brief questionnaires, other evaluation methods range from focus groups, to lecture styled clicker data, and pre and post surveys.

But for Belliveau, evaluation is less important than the journey of creating the theatre piece.

“I’ve never asked an audience to complete a survey after presenting a PowerPoint, or after reading a journal article,” said Belliveau. “Evaluation protocol is less important to me, I’m interested in the immediacy of visceral feelings experienced inside the theatre when an audience can relive the personal side of multidisciplinary research.”

And the Peter Wall Institute, Belliveau adds, is a great place for this type of collaboration. “Whether it’s arts or sciences, it’s where I’m meeting a lot of people with the desire to come together to do something that will take it to another level,”

“I feel like a lot of us come here and feel that we don’t have the constraints of our defined disciplines cause it’s meant to be interdisciplinary. You [can] bravely venture into things after you’ve been here that maybe you wouldn’t have before.”

With files from Alastair Spriggs