Performing Transgression: An experiment in practice-led research

Dr Michelle Evans and Dr Kate Smith, Charles Sturt University


In the pursuit of academic knowledge of the performative, artists are more likely to intersect with the ‘spectating academic’ (Melrose, 2006) than ever before. Bodies are central to artistic investigation and qualitative research. Both practices require embodied engagement, by the artist and their audience; by the researcher and the researched. Far from a binary relationship, the spectator/performer and researcher/researched identity boundaries have the potential to become somewhat malleable when borders are transgressed and when the performativity of identity becomes tactile in the relational space.

This paper presents a dialogue between the authors who trained together at Bachelor level in theatre twenty years ago. Only recently reuniting, the dialogue between us has produced a rich engagement of parallel methodological practices enacted in distinctively different contexts – for Smith, performance ethnography; and for Evans, Indigenous leadership. We use this paper, and associated presentations, as sites to explore our paradigm interplay (Romani et al., 2011). We will explore the invisible theoretical building blocks deployed in our research fieldwork, our interest to understand the value of blurring roles between spectator/performer, researcher/researched, and our mutual pursuit towards experiences of community in our research practice.

As two qualitative researchers with artistic backgrounds, we openly claim to be in pursuit of research engagements that not only seek to make meaning from engagement with artists and the creative process; but also to create a sense of collaboration and collective reflection (Senge and Scharmer, 2006). This paper draws upon our knowledge and experience as ‘spectating academics’. We write this paper as a collaborative reflection upon our individual qualitative research experiences. Moreover, we argue that our shared reflection has uncovered a common experience of creating immersive research experiences akin to Turner’s notion of communitas (1982), as is explored below.

This paper is also interested in how bodies transgress hegemonic imposed binaries that structure relations between performers/spectators and interviewees/interviewers within the space of qualitative research. Taking up Denzin and Lincoln’s (2003) acknowledgement of the performative turn in qualitative research, we are interested in examining how we construct research spaces with our subjects in a relational framework; for Smith through practice-led research and performance ethnography and for Evans through contemplation of the insider/outsider researcher positionality in Indigenous leadership. It is in the fieldwork that Evans, and in the analysis that Smith, appreciated a ‘partial experience’ of the subject (Smith,, 2015; Manolis et. al, 2001) by witnessing and transgressing established roles. This paper unfolds in the following way: first we address the theoretical lens of transgression, performativity and partial experience as they are key to our methodological practices; second, we descriptively enact a dialogue reflecting upon individual qualitative research experiences and discovery of partial experiences leading towards a sense of community; finally we discuss the collective reflection of methodology to advance our thinking about the creation of community in research fieldwork albeit partial and temporal.

Transgression and Performativity

The concept of transgression has a rich history and theorists have interrogated its meaning in relation to sexuality, power, deviance, and social order across the disciplines of philosophy, cultural, critical and literary theory, feminist studies, performance studies and anthropology amongst others. It is an unstable concept associated with ‘slippery’ boundaries and blurriness; however in a world full of boundaries and limits Jenks defines transgression as an act of boundary crossing or constraint-defying (2003). Michel Foucault examines transgression in his 1963 text A Preface to Transgression, which explores transgression and sexuality in a secular, post-enlightenment age, arguing that transgression and ‘the limit’ has replaced notions of the sacred and profane. Foucault’s notion of ‘the limit’ – a marked line that transgressive acts cross time and again – represents a significant concern for qualitative research (1977, p. 34). Like limits in language and in the law, there are boundaries of the self which are illuminated acts of transgression. For Foucault, the individual is defined through a process of construction and deconstruction and part of this involves the separation of self from other, identified by the crossing and recrossing of boundaries that enables limits to be identified (1963). This ‘play of transgression’ performs a service of examining the limit it crosses, “…its role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of the limit…” (Foucault, 1977, p. 35). When encountering difference in the form of other, once the limit is identified, individuals negotiate how to constitute themselves against this limit.

Thinking about transgression as a process of investigation of limits and boundaries is helpful methodologically, as qualititative researchers. What happens when we intersect this process with Butler’s theory of performativity, a system of producing social/cultural/economic realities that come at a cost (1990). Unlike Foucault’s neutral conceptualisation of transgression (1977), Butler clearly argues that discursive construction of social/economic and political realities has consequences. The ‘performative utterance’ is part of a process of repetition, whereby bodily gestures, movements and enactments repeat themselves into disappearance or invisibility, making behaviour appear natural. Performative utterances are a “reiteration of the norm or set of norms” constructed within the codes and conventions of an individual’s culture, and according to Butler all utterances are performative acts for the ‘doing’ of the word is the act of informing (2011, p. 241).

These two significant ideas, transgression and performativity, are key to thinking about disrupting the conventional relationship between spectator/performer and researcher/researched. The process of examining the limits, including power, in these verbal analogic relationships as well as analysing the performance of roles and self within the framed engagement is of prime interest to many qualitative researchers. Creating experiences of transgression and co-production of identities that make sense to the research investigation creates the potential for intentional blurring of roles towards a shared experience.

‘Partial Experience’

The performance of transgression, as a process of qualitative research fieldwork, captures the embodied blurring of the lines between spectator/performer and researcher/researched. The blurring of roles, theoretically framed by Foucault’s ‘limit’ directs us towards the concept of ‘partial experience’ – the transgression toward other via the blurring of roles (Smith, 2015). Both the spectator/performer and the researcher/researched construct a space whereby the ‘partial experience’ of ‘other’ creates opportunity for encounters with difference, performativity of self and identities, and a relational investigation of fixed and malleable notions of self and other.

The term ‘partial experience’ (Smith, forthcoming, 2015) describes performative interactions between performers and spectators on and off stage where not only the spectator becomes a partial performer but also the performer becomes a partial spectator. For example interacting with performers on and offstage, applauding, dressing up and other rituals associated with attending a festival enable a participant to move beyond the role of the passive spectator to cultural actor. They are involved in the partial creation of an enjoyable experience. Simultaneously, the performer initiates the interaction with the spectator, as expected, and as the spectator responds the performer spectates on this ‘other’ performance. The transformation of the spectator/performer manifests as a blurring of roles. The ‘blurring’ involves a ‘partial experience’ of the role of the other whereby through performative interaction participants temporarily blur the boundaries between performing and spectating, resulting in a shared experience. The value of this new dimension of performance analysis demonstrates how the transgression toward other via the blurring of role holds the potential for the co-creation of community through social interaction as symbolic performance.

We take this theoretical conceptualisation one step further to consider it within the context of qualitative field research. Dyadic relationships like spectator/performer and researcher/researched share similar characteristics. For instance, both performers and researchers construct the interaction by engaging in back end production through layers of design, research, development and structuring the meeting point with the spectator/researched. However, it is at this meeting point where an experience of the other occurs; where the possibility of a mutual investigation or performance of participation has potential to transform through the relational experience. Much is at stake in this moment; can each subject resist the need to overpower the other? To cite Denzin “power works through unstable systems of discourse, …producing differences which have the potential to bring about disruption” (2003, p.81) Our central questions are: Can these seemingly conventional dyadic spaces also be transgressive? Is it possible for the roles of researcher and researched to be blurred so that a shared experience of cultural narrative through the interview process occurs. In a world where everything is performative what happens when the line between performance and performativity blurs? (Denzin & Lincoln 2003, p. X).

Methodological Dialogue

This section is a “writing performance” ( Pelias, 1999 cited in Denzin, p. 77) the result of an interview process we shared for the development of this paper. During this improvisatory process we recognised early on that we were constructing a version of our research experience for each other. This interview transformed into an active performance that elicited an empathic understanding of the shared meaning of our research processes. Bresler emphasises “Empathy is dialogic… the challenge of qualitative research is trying to understand the other empathetically whilst maintaining disciplined scholarship” (2008, p. 230). Therefore our “… interview is a fabrication, a construction, a fiction ordering or rearrangement of selective materials from the actual world” ( Dillard, 1982, cited in Denzin, 2003, p.81)

Kate: OK Michelle, I’ll start. The method I used to gather and creatively interpret my experience as a spectator at the antique traveling mirror tent known as The Famous Spiegeltent featured at Adelaide Fringe festival, was performative documentary and one of the primary processes in my thesis research. I conducted video interviews with the owner of the tent, the producer, and several other experts in from the field of circus, burlesque and alternative cabaret performance, and gathered archival and live footage of circus/cabaret performance La Clique. My research documentary demonstrates an autobiographical approach to performance ethnography. It did not intend to be an exact or ‘truthful’ re-presentation of my actual experience, rather it was a carefully re-constructed version of my experience, measured against the opinions, feelings, and experiences of the research participants. My goal was to construct an intertextual representation of my experience, a “mosaic of quotations” (Kristeva, 1969, p. 66) that recognised the contribution made by all of the interviewees. What ended up occurring was the separation between myself as the researcher and as the spectator blurred. Over time I was able to interpret my own experience through the words of the interviewees constructing a shared cultural narrative that echoes the autobiographical approach to performance ethnography employed in the documentary.

Michelle: That compels me to reflect upon my approach to the interview situation. When I first decided to investigate the phenomenon of leadership by interviewing Indigenous artists there were many complex understandings of leadership research and researcher positionality I did not understand nor take into account. One of those important and influential decisions was the choice of method, of which I chose to conduct semi-structured interviews. Now, as a more experienced researcher I realize that this decision to try and locate the phenomenon of leadership (a relationally constructed phenomenon) at the entity level (individual) was working towards replicating conventional understandings of leadership rather than trying to unearth new and different understandings of leadership. I assumed that through asking individuals to cognitively reflect upon their artistic practice and, via the interview questions, construct their practice using the frame of leadership, I would find something different to conventional, organizationally bound understandings of leadership.

Now, reviewing and reflecting upon the methodological decisions and choices, I can see how early methodological decisions to interview individuals was more about constructing an inductive, relational practice of research with a group of people I admire and work with.

Kate: Yes, I realised later in my process (after interviewing) that I had to acknowledge my lived experience as both spectator and theatre practitioner, and how this shaped my response to the visual materials leading me toward performance ethnography. I was researching my own experience and performance ethnography offered a vocabulary for exploring performance culture, using embodiment, a vital part of scholarly engagement (Hamera, 2013, p. 207). It was a way of using symbolic data and material form of practice in the form of a research documentary (Haseman, 2006). By reconstructing the dynamics between spectator and performer from an experiential viewpoint, I transgressed the spaces between the being and doing of research (Madison & Hamera, 2005, p. 209). How did your approach to methodology transform Michelle?

Michelle: Inherently there is always a blurring of roles in these encounters as I meet and work with many of the interviewees in a range of ways – sometimes I am a curator, sometimes a director, sometimes I am a fan or devotee, sometimes we are friends and colleagues. Having worked for the past fifteen years with Indigenous artists I bring tacit embodied knowledge to my research; and it was through working in the Indigenous arts sector that I found the inspiration for the research I conducted in my doctoral study. So the methodological design was a reflection of my preference to work somewhat collaboratively towards a new way of thinking with my colleagues in the Indigenous arts. The Indigenous arts is a sector stymied by limited funding yet mountainous policy contexts; so I took up the opportunity to capture and make meaning about the work that Indigenous artists were/are doing and produce knowledge that stands up in the academy as well as create knowledge that speaks to the field. I became committed to using the powerful language and frame of leadership to speak to the way Indigenous arts speak back to society and perform diverse identities that disrupt stereotypical categorization of Indigenous Australians. What about you Kate, how did your methodology evolve using practice-led processes?

Kate: Well, if to engage critically is the key aspect of rhetorical reflexivity (Hamera, 2013), then I was continually compelled to interrogate my methods and motives, and to question the scholarly representation. For who was the subjective ‘I’ that I continually referred to? Performance ethnography differs from traditional ethnography because it expands the how and why applied to the research participants experience and expressions to include the site about which, and within which they express themselves. It acknowledges the positionality of the subjects and the researcher and interweaves complex practices of analysis between text, performance, practice, and concepts of embodiment. As a performer, writer and comedienne, I was part of the performative community I was examining and this insider role influenced the access I had to interviewees, how I spoke with them and the level of critical distance I was able to achieve after the ‘event’ of the interviews. I hovered between spectator, researcher, and performer, and in this blurry space new knowledge ignited.

The performance ethnographer and the performer embody the liminal realm, “the ethnographer is not a “native” just as a performer was not the character” (Hamera, 2013, p. 212). However, I was “not-not” the “native/performer” either. I sat in the space of other; I was something else, another self, transitioning between the roles of the observer, participant and analyst. Therefore, I sat on the cusp, in a liminal world that included the reflexive world of the researcher and the intuitive world of the performer/practitioner. By necessity these worlds overlap, are fluid and context driven. I was enacting the research moving beyond the written realm toward the embodied realm, and in the “doing” the research was “becoming”. Michelle, what challenges did you face as a researcher in the interview scenario?

Michelle: Situated as an insider researcher meant that I shared contextual knowledge with the participants and this had its advantages and disadvantages. Being an insider researcher aided access to a potentially unique set of participants, access to information and trust in a way an outsider researcher did not (Lui, 2006; Ines, 2009). However these features of being an insider could have been detrimental, with an overly positive engagement and using shorthand to input my own meaning onto the information shared by participants.

Understanding the power relations between researcher and participants became a pivotal factor in the interview situation as well as in the analysis of the interviews. I had a level of authority and positional power as the researcher that was in some cases daunting to participants. There were also cultural identity politics that interplayed with the interview situation; despite being a racially matched researcher (Foley, 2005) there was an air of how I would use the information and discussion of intellectual and cultural property rights.

The micropolitics, or the way power operates at the interview site is an important consideration in my research because of my mindfulness not to replicate colonizing dominant power relations in research (Conti & O’Neil, 2007; Hoyle, 1986). I was aware of the impact in some interviews of my personal interest in the subject of leadership, my work and artistic/arts management history. This caused effects in the interview transcripts like the appraisal of my leadership when participants were asked to describe a leader in their world. Yet, not always were the politics about the researcher role directing the interview; participants resisted by choosing not to answer questions, by reminding me of the role I was playing in this situation, by multitasking during the interview, by directing my attention to the fact that I am there to gather information for ‘my notes’, by circling back over and over on one question and by turning the questions back onto me. These examples provide for rich information in the research investigation, and further, highlight how the interview site unsettled implicit understandings of leadership held by participants as well as blurring the roles between researcher/researched and insider/outsider. What about you- how did meet the challenges of representing the authorial voice in your research documentary?

Kate: Well, I did not fully resolve my desire to eliminate the ‘voice of God;’ approach to voice over in my research documentary, whereby one authorial voice commentates throughout (Nicholls, 2001). Now, with a richly informed understanding of performative documentary I would approach the ‘staging’ of my research (Hamera, 2013, p. 212 ) in an more heteroglossic manner, to acknowledge more clearly how the multiple voices comprise its fabric. To resolve my ambiguity about how to adequately represent the ‘voices’ that made up the content of my performative research documentary I shifted my perspective to value of my skill as an expert in the field, understanding it as an example of the ‘partial experience’ of my role as performance ethnographer blurred with performer/spectator. I began to understand my performative approach as a co-performance (Madison & Hamera, 2005, p. 209). My co-performance embodied my experience as expressed through the symbol-making practices of the research participants and through my interaction with them before, during, and after the interviews. The “doing” of critical theory in this sense was how I came to create a theory of transgression and performance to represent broader experiences of culture (Madison & Hamera, 2005, p. 168). In this sense the lines between performer/spectator and practitioner/researcher were transgressed. As a result, the transferral of knowledge, from the personal to the generalised, and the generalised to the personal emerged from the embedded, immersive experience of “doing” creative research. Perhaps Boal’s concept of metaxis might be a helpful lens to think about how belonging to two autonomous world’s simultaneously (Boal, 1995, p. 43) assists rhetorical reflexivity. This experience must be effectively framed because metaxis can only happen where/when cultural actors see themselves in multiple roles, contributing in multiple ways to the framed experience that they inhabit.

Michelle: OK that’s really interesting because the insider/outsider researcher are one in the same; I felt I fit within both these roles and I move between them depending on the needs of the research participant – it’s intuitively responsive. So what happens when we imagine the transitional spaces between these different roles as a spectrum, as blurred?

The symbolic aspect of the experience that occurs between performer/spectator and researcher/researched embodies a process of adopting the role of other as a means to look closer at oneself (Bauman, 2011). By adopting the partial role of the spectator or performer via the blurring of role between performing and spectating an experience of metaxis transpires. This is a deeply connective and reflexive experience of the other and is what creates communitas (Turner, 1982), a symbolic transformation of self, blurred by and with other.

In this section we have attempted to share portions of a two-way interview or dialogue undertaken in the development of this paper, and inspired by our reconnection as colleagues and friends. This dialogue has centered on our individual critical reflexive investigations of our research practice. More often than not, despite our different theoretical paradigms, we have found that we have been asking similar questions. These questions have laid a pathway towards a broader, mutual research question: Is it possible to create experiences of community through research engagement? And if so, to what end?


We argue that well framed research spaces hold the potential for experiences of otherness that transform into a co-performance of community via the blurring of roles. The ingredients for this complex possibility must be intentionally attended to by the researcher/performer encompassing socio-cultural, spatial and performative organising concepts; however the spontaneous engrossment of all parties in the constructed space generates the pre-conditions for the experience of community to take hold (Goffman, 1974).

The connection between the everyday and performative self is significant for it signals the transformation of the individual. Turner’s notion of communitas is concerned with the transformation from individual to group experience via the disruption of role. Communitas is a shared experience of “unstructured community where having dropped their usual social roles, all people are equal” (Turner, 1982, pp. 44-48). However, as we have discussed, the disappearing of structure and acknowledgement of power relations within usual role constructions like researcher/researched and spectator/performer are essential to rhetorical reflexivity. It is not necessary that roles disappear; they blur toward each other transgressing fixed positions.

Turner identifies three distinct aspects of communitas. The first is ‘spontaneous’ communitas; “ a direct, immediate and total confrontation of human identities” whereby the connection between people, time, event and space sets up a ‘magical’ experience, such as the experience of seeing a favourite band at a music festival (Turner & Schechner, 1988, p. 47); ‘ideological’ communitas, is a set of theoretical concepts that describes spontaneous communitas in relationship to a participants memory of the event, and ‘normative’ communitas examines how subcultures evolve to perpetuate and maintain the relationships that grow out of the experience of spontaneous communitas (Turner & Schechner, 1988, pp. 48-50). To exemplify how notions of communitas occur in research, Evans reflects on how she enacted the co-performance of community in the pre-interview phase.

Michelle: When interviewing Indigenous artists for a study on leadership, I found use of the powerful emotional association of belonging enacted in relational pre-interview discussion, to serve as connective tissue between researched/researcher. This relational practice of discussing who the interviewer/interviewed is connected to, worked with and is related to in the Indigenous community layered feelings of cultural comfort to the research setting, extending individual feelings of belonging towards more familial and collective feelings of community. Terri Janke, a solicitor/author and research participant in Evans’ study of Indigenous artistic leaders, describes the relational connectivity at the heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities:

“I found that there was a wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community that really accepted me and made me feel home…I remember going to events and there’d be this wider community that would just embrace you and wonder where you’re from, you know”

This warm embrace between researcher/researched reaches beyond a dyadic interview encounter; moreover it connects to cultural practices within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and creates the real potential to connect the research event to broader collective concerns.

The research event is symbolic of the stories we co-create to tell ourselves about the nature of the cultures in which we live. Turner’s utopian vision offers a kernel of interest to us; as we position our research as a performance event (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, 2001, p.218). Seeking an experience of otherness, we find the possibility of community that reconstitutes and reconstructs our understanding of ‘the limit’ and therefore our tacit knowledge of other. Surfacing subjugated knowledges disrupts (Foucault, 1980, cited in Conquergood, 2002, p.146); it ruptures fixed identities. Our research looks at transgressive notions of ‘we’ such as the experiential temporal encounters available in framed events like ‘the Famous’ or the interview. We want to move our thinking past self towards a sense of belonging and collective.


The production of knowledge is inherently political. As spectating academics, we author knowledge that transforms tacit and explicit knowledge we share with research participants and the field, we mobilise tacit knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). As Taylor and Carroll identify “The role of the qualitative researcher has changed and the researchers were also changed by their exposure to the research process” (2010, p. 38). It is in the inductive spiral of the research endeavour where we draw upon the richness of information contained in the research performances we capture as well as our interpretations and our partial experiences of our interview subjects. This boundary crossing experience of research has transformed our understanding and transgresses embodied space – it is both lived and shared. We experienced instances of ‘situated meaningfulness’ (Denzin & Lincoln,2003), as we shifted from dyadic, separate role habitation to a shared experience arising from the research event. This performative transgression – from limiting role occupation to a blurred relational practice where power relations were constructed in and through the research event – activated a seventh moment of inquiry. The seventh moment, concerned with moral discourse, invites critical conversations about race, gender, class, nation, globalisation, freedom and community (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003). In our approach the researcher/researched and spectator/performer build a temporal community together eliciting performances of otherness and race that is partially transformative (Denzin, 2001). This discovery has created a valuable contribution to our methodological and research practices, albeit from different perspectives in our paradigm interplay (Romani et al., 2011). The creation of temporary experiences of community, and feelings of belonging, elevate the value of the knowledge production beyond an individually authored contribution, to something that has meaning for a collective.


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About the Authors

Dr. Michelle Evans is originally from the Hunter Valley NSW. Now based in Bathurst, she works as an academic, writer, facilitator and cultural producer. Michelle holds a Senior Lectureship in Leadership at Charles Sturt University, is a Fellow at Melbourne Business School and Fellow of the Research Centre for Leadership in Action at New York University. Michelle is Trustee of the Yvonne Cohen Award for Indigenous Creative Young People.

Dr Kate Smith writes and produces comic works for stage and screen. She tours nationally and internationally and works across the disciplines of theatre, television, film and radio as an actress, writer, producer, presenter and casting agent. Kate’s PhD research thesis The partial performer meets the partial spectator: transgressing the frame in popular entertainment is based on a case study of The Famous Spiegeltent. Kate’s research proposes a new theory of performer-spectator interaction, and describes this experience as the partial performer-partial spectator transgression.

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