So here’s the thing about research: it’s like a treasure hunt.
You enter into a research proposal sometimes with a very clear idea of what you’re looking for but, more often than not, with only a vague concept. You have to be open to the notion that what you will find will shape what you’re on the hunt for. You have to understand how to roll with the punches. And you have to have a creative approach to digging through databases and texts.
A good researcher isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. I can (and do) sit behind my
computer and schlog through electronic resources, but it’s in the stacks that research really thrives and in the archives where research gets really exciting.
I’m taking a course this semester on Research Methodologies. This is extremely important for me at this juncture in my career for several reasons: first because I will be using these skills for the remainder of my time within the Academy (an extremely long, if not indefinite, period); second because though I have performed research before it hasn’t quite been on the scale that I’m currently wading into; and third because my previous research has been primarily based in English literature not Theatre history.
There’s a great deal more archive work that goes into theatre research. Oh sure, straight-up lit scholars have books and manuscripts and letters and printing presses to look at, but theatre people have mountains upon mountains of ephemera; playbills, drawings, paintings, sketches, character concepts, prompt books, actual theatres, the ruins of theatres, props, costumes, video and sound footage, the list drags on.
Here’s the distinction: literature, in many ways, is a two-dimensional course of study. This is not to say that it is inferior or in some way smaller than Dramatics. This is simply to say that the experience of reading a book is one which remains upon a page. It is a relationship between reader and text and, for the most part, text can be (and has been) preserved since its initial readership. Certainly the complications of editing, printing, revision, and historical context remain so lit crit is by no means a straightforward notion, it’s simply a field of scholarship based upon a process which is better able to survive.
But take all that. All of it. And add the complication of a performance. A performance is an experience, a three-dimensional thing as wonderful as it is fleeting. No single performance can ever be repeated. No audience will ever be re-assembled and, even if they are, they are fundamentally changed between first assembly and second. They bring a different load of life experiences one day than they do the next. The performers too; Wednesday I felt this moment, Thursday I didn’t, Friday I was sick and had trouble speaking my lines.
These complications are what make performance studies so very difficult (and so very engaging). I’m still studying text, but the text is a jumping off point rather than an end in and of itself. It’s the groundwork of the puzzle, not the entire puzzle.
So it’s the beginning of the semester. I’m beginning to flesh out my research ideas for the fall. I live down the street from the Harvard Theatre Collection, the oldest and largest collection of its kind in the United States (debatably the world in terms of size – they are in contention with Oxford for that title). Archives are infinitely more exciting and frustrating than libraries. Archives, by their nature, are more difficult to catalogue. There’s a lot more that can slip through the cracks. They are chaotic, hectic.
But the thrill of paging through the prompt script for the first ever production of The Importance of Being Earnest (which I got to do this week! SQUEEEE!), the excitement of finding some remnant of days past which has become so important and focal to your life (hey, research is my life, leave me alone), the rush of realizing that you are looking at something which William Henry Ireland wrote himself (Harvard has everything… everything) simply can’t be replicated.
Some days, it’s the little victories which matter. Locating that article which could be truly pivotal. Hauling your bum to the library so that you can look at the books and hold them rather than dig through MARC records. Making a long-awaited photocopy.
The hunt for evidence does not necessarily equate a hunt for truth. It’s a search for the bones of an argument. A quest for the stuff that dreams are made on.
In digging, I can’t help but think of a fellow academic who also famously hunted for
treasure. His contention (“We do not follow maps to buried treasure and ‘X’ never, ever, marks the spot…”) is one, however, which I will have to disagree with. While often I am required to deviate from a beaten path, generally X does mark the spot. Every time I get a hit for my keywords, whenever an article is titled something similar to my thesis, when I find a document referenced which I, too, have referenced, I know that I’m on the right track. Sorry, Dr. Jones, but I am inclined to respectfully disagree with you on this account.
And so the journey begins. I’m slowly developing a treasure map. Here’s hoping it leads somewhere fruitful. I have no doubt that it will lead somewhere interesting.