Performance, participation, documentation and the archive. What can Performance Studies tell us? – Anna Birch

It was a great pleasure to meet some of you at the University of Aberdeen and I am looking forward to working with you in October at Cape Breton University. I have been invited to present on the role of Performance Studies and memory at NAFCo Workshop 3: ‘Memory, Music and Movement’ (Thursday October 5th and Friday October 6th). I will set out some of my plans for my keynote and workshops here and tell you about my practice as a theatre director and academic.

Anna Birch_Cora James

Anna Birch. Photo by Cora James.

Performance Studies is an interdisciplinary field and a relatively new discipline. The subject revolves around performance in a variety of contexts and usually outside the theatre building. Anthropology, archaeology and psychology are some of the subjects that are referred to in Performance Studies research and projects. In my own work, I applied Performance Studies theories and approaches as a director working in site-specific theatre and film. My company Fragments & Monuments uncovers hidden histories, working in carefully chosen sites to make site-specific performance. A film is made during the performance and projected onto the site itself at a follow up event. I am interested in what happens when performance is taken out of the theatre building and I use film to extend the life of the performance event.

In my keynote, I plan to introduce the body of knowledge called Performance Studies and follow up with you in our workshops. I will share some varied case studies and offer practical and useful advice for you to apply to your own work.

In my paper, I will survey the roots and the recent developments in Performance Studies and refer to the work of Richard Schechner, Rebecca Schneider and Diana Taylor. This is an important and and influential discourse that impacts on an interdisciplinary discussion regarding the role of memory, the body, live and mediated performance, documentation, participation and the archive, and I plan to introduce the main themes to you. The role of memory will be interrogated in relation to this framework, to include simple definitions and illustrative case studies. By discussing performance studies strategies including a focus on the everyday as performance, I hope to demonstrate how this epistemology can inspire the music and dance performer and scholar.


In Performance Studies the focus on memory is both in our heads and importantly in our bodies. By exploring body memory, we can get in touch with the role of embodiment in performance and everyday life. An important keystone question is: Why is the body occluded/missed out of archive? Does it matter?

As memory and identity are inexorably linked the importance of identity construction and its relationship to memory will be considered.

In our workshops, we can drill down for definitions of embodiment, interaction, participation, iteration, rehearsal, recorded and live in the context of both the BODY and memory and to assess the impact on identity in your environment or ecology. In this way, we can tease out why Performance Studies approaches might be useful and important to your practice.

Performance Studies tropes include diversity, (un) belonging and failure, and help us to understand the role memory takes in the formation of identity. By investigating memory through selected archives, we can expand our investigation to include the question of how different levels of value are ascribed and why. A process of selection shapes the archive and culture, gender, race, ability and disability are sometimes overlooked as other archival collections are privileged. The question of how to resist the dominant discourse found in some archives will be debated. The role of public engagement in the archive is important in my work and you are invited to view this short film here (Password: March). This is an example of performance and film being used as a research tool and community participation catalyst.

I believe that a useful strategy to open archives is to encourage participation. My work is iterative and challenges the rehearsal of normative behaviours as I am keen to find performative strategies to break old models and modes of performance and importantly systems of representation. Performance Studies can offer approaches to refresh, resist and challenge the worn-out hierarchies that are systematically (re) produced in our daily lives and sometimes in our creative practice.

Inspirational visit

A visit to the archives at Beaton Institute and Mi’kmaq Resource Centre to view resources on music and dancing is planned. Some questions to focus our visit might be:  How is the body represented in the archives? What is the role of memory and the archive, memorialisation, dress, everyday behaviour itself as represented in the archive, the role of music in everyday behaviour, the role of music as celebration, subjectivity, sociality, embodied movement, personal archives and the role of audience as witness.

We will be attending a traditional music session at the Blue Mist Tavern on Oct 5th. We can share our findings and apply them to a developing methodology or lens through which to view the Blue Mist session.


The process of documentation is a loaded subject in academic research as the capture and dissemination of research findings can be a cornerstone of research assessment and used as an impact marker. For artists, it is sometimes challenging to capture our work. What methods or approaches help us to recall our memories? Our experience of social media, alternative forms of documentation e.g. drawing can all be included in this discussion.

I was impressed by the role of improvisation in the evening traditional music event (NAFCo Workshop 2) where no obvious end gaming was apparent as the session progressed. We can look at how forgetting, gaps and failure “e.g. forgetting the first few bars and then remembering as a song starts” may not appear in the archive but have a useful role to play in our research into how memory works or fails! We will give our own mini presentations on memory to the group in the context of the question: How can Performance Studies help locate and understand the processes of our memory? Hopefully, you might also find new ways to speak about your own work.

Delegates will have the opportunity to work together and create a map/wall of posts to jog our memory and to create a personal manifesto to represent learning and questions about the application of Performance Studies to their area.

To summarise the planned activity the keywords are: memory, performance, documentation, archive, embodiment.

PS books

Photo: performance studies books.


NAFCo Workshop 3: ‘Memory, Music and Movement’:

  • Thursday October 4th and Friday October 6th
  • Registration:
  • Plus “Writing (about) Music” workshop on Wednesday October 4 details to follow
  • *Please note the entire event is free (with some travel subsidies available for full-time students)



Anna’s expertise is in combining her scholarly research and professional expertise as a theatre and film director. Moving beyond the theatre building she has created a ‘living monuments’ dramaturgical method to both search out and reveal hidden and often neglected feminist biographies and histories. She researched her method through site-specific performance and films about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to show how this use of multimedia provides an essential link to the performativity of feminist achievements through history. She applies this template to her current research focus on women’s suffrage drama: ‘Staging Suffragettes’ with Professor Katharine Cockin (University of Hull, UK) Her large-scale public performance March of Women (2015) and the short film MARCH (37 minutes) PW: March documents this public facing and socially engaged work.

She is co-editor, with Professor Joanne Tompkins, of Performing Site-Specific Theatre: Politics, Place, Practice (2012), where the chapter ‘Repetition and performativity: site-specific performance and film as living monument’ sets out this practice research case study. She guest-edited an issue of Contemporary Theatre Review; also with Tompkins, on ‘Site-Specificity and Mobility’ (2012). As co-convener of the Performance as Research Working Group (International Federation of Theatre Research 2010-2013) she co-edited with Bruce Barton and Melanie Dreyer-Lude Mediating Practice(s): Performance as Research and/in/through Mediation, Experiments and Intensities Series Volume 3, Winchester University Press, ISBN 978-1-906113-12-4. She is co- editor with Professor Katharine Cockin Performance-Research-History: Pageants and Pioneers from Hrotsvit to Womens Suffrage Drama (pending).

MARCH (2016) was screened at the House of Commons for Women’s History Month and UTOPIA festival, Somerset House, London, UK

The Women’s History network annual Community History Project prize (sponsored by The History Press) Highly Commended March of Women

Anna’s profile Practice Research

Artistic Director Fragments & Monuments performance and film company

@anna_birch1 #marchofwomen

Instagram: annabirch1




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