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A Pilot Study for Investigating a Holistic and

Collaborative Approach in the Anthropocene

Christine Brubaker, 

Assistant Professor

School of Creative and Performing Arts
University of Calgary



In February of 2018, Michael O’Brien, one of Canada’s most established playwrights and Governor General’s Award nominee, approached me with a first draft of a script he had written about the beginnings of life on earth as a way to invite audiences to reconsider how we treat our planet. Michael was familiar with my work as a theatre maker and director but less familiar with my emerging academic lines of inquiry into interdisciplinary creation processes, site-specific performance, and scholarship. After reading O’Brien’s play, Rella’s Cambrian Dream, it became apparent to me that this text, based on one of the most “spectacular evolutionary events in the history of life on Earth, the Cambrian Explosion” (Coppold 20), provided a perfect container to test site-specific interdisciplinary creation processes. The piece itself has a site-specific subject: The Burgess Shale, one of the most rare and important fossil sites in the world. Over 500 million years old, it is a record of the earliest beginnings of marine and animal life on this planet. As a story-teller and theatre maker, the challenge of this work is anchored in a complex meeting of evolutionary theory and indigenous origin stories - subjects unfamiliar to the theatre creation team whose task it is to communicate this remarkable period to a diverse audience.


I am requesting funding from the URGC to pilot a study using practice-as-research (PaR) to design, test and evaluate a hybrid research and creation methodology. In collaboration with The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the project will bring together a multidisciplinary team of theater practitioners, researchers, scientists, indigenous consultants and graduate students. The team will adapt research and design practices from the social sciences (ethnographic research) and architecture (design charrettes) within a theatre making context. My hypothesis is that combining these methodologies with our creation processes will radically improve the capacity of our team to translate this remarkable world for an audience.



This project sits at the juncture of my own research interests, several theoretical frameworks, and discourse including, but not limited to: Practice as research; Ethnodrama; Research creation; Site-specific theatre; and Science communication.


Johnny Saldaña argues that if a “research goal with a particular field work project is to capture and document the realities, then the medium of theatre seems the most compatible choice for sharing findings and insights” (Ethnodrama 15). Ethnodrama as a research creation methodology has been a legitimized with regards to playwrighting as demonstrated by notable works such as The Laramie Project and Come From Away. Indeed, Saldaña asserts that “playwrights are, and always have been ethnodramatists” (Dramatizing 231). While ethnodrama may be established in the practice of writing for theatre, the implications of using field research for a dedicated and collaborative theatre design process anchored in architectural practices, and situated in the world of science communication, merits more attention.


Baz Kershaw’s reflections on multidisciplinary innovation also inspires. His assertion that a key value of PaR in theatre is that its methods “involve the dislocation of knowledge itself.”  (84) The collaborative and inclusive approach where multiple disciplines and stakeholders are invited into the design process (charrettes) challenges the siloed, director-driven traditional theatre-making model that encourages efficiency at the cost of cross-pollination, and prevents any deep and shared investigations between the creatives. This disruption of the traditional processes will most certainly mean that we will venture into unknown territory and may not have a clear sense of what some of the outcomes may be. This discovery process is an exciting proposition.


Other writers and theories that will influence this project include: Lea and Belliveau’s articulation of research creation as academic methodology; Mienczakowski’s notes on research-based theatre and its capacity for emancipation; Amy Cordileone and Rachel Tuggle Whorton’s tenets on site-specific work and the challenge to “consider stories we want to tell, as well as stories the space is already telling.” (2012) Jill Dolan’s utopian ideals where “small but profound moments [in theatre] call the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present”(5); the works of Sutton, Kemp, Sonnewald and Lievrouw on interdisciplinary design; the fundamental source materials on the Burgess Shale and science communication including Gould, Coppold, Powell, May and Peters; and of course, the critical literature on the effects of human activity and climate change of the Anthropocene.



Key objectives of this project are to:  

  • Design, test and evaluate a multidisciplinary research creation methodology that integrates and adapts holistic and collaborative design methodologies from the fields of social sciences (ethnographic research) and architecture fields (design charrettes)

  • Create a divergent approach to traditional theatre making processes

  • Create partnerships and dialogue opportunities with various stakeholders and target communities including indigenous communities, the audiences at the Royal Ontario Museum, and the global geoscience community



Research questions guiding this inquiry include:  

  • How can we adapt the design charrette process to serve as a vehicle for multidisciplinary co-creation of performance?

  • How does ethnographic research/fieldwork contribute to the holistic design of a performance?

  • How does this approach change the experience of the theatre making? Does it influence the aesthetics? How does it affect the traditional theatre making hierarchies and roles?

  • Does it contribute to new imaginative possibilities for an audience?

  • Does it contribute to accessibility for an audience in a meaningful way?

  • What are the implications of bridging architectural practices with science communication and practice-based research?



Outcomes delivered by completion of the pilot study include:

  • An assessment of the appropriateness of these hybrid methodologies for research creation and site-specific performance research

  • Development of collaboratively created preliminary design offerings for a staged reading and multimedia presentation of Rella’s Cambrian Dream for the ROM. This staged reading is an opportunity to test our project with a public audience in connection with their Dawn of Time programming.

  • Creation of a website which can house research activities and act as a complement for the ROM’s re-imagining of their artifacts and archive, and a resource for scholars and students in the emergent field of PaR

  • Development of further research inquiry for a SSHRC Insight Development Grant proposal for January 2020

  • Research and rehearse papers for Mid-America Theatre Conference and Performance Studies International

  • Publish findings in key field journals including Theatre Topic and Canadian Theatre

Review as well as public on-line portals such as Medium



We will create a hybrid methodology involving PaR, site-specific inquiry and research creation.  I will be using ethnographic, qualitative and collaborative research methods to investigate the potential for a holistic and inclusive design methodology. Testing of these methods will be ongoing through observation, conversations, recordings, reflection and surveys of the participants. The following are the primary tools of this pilot study:


Ethnographic Field Research: The creative team, including sound designer, Deanna Choi, production designer, Jennifer Goodman, our digital designer (TBD), playwright, Michael O’Brien, one of our Graduate students and myself will travel to Field BC for four days of field research at the Burgess Shale at the beginning of September 2019. With the assistance of a hired guide and paleontologist, we will hike to the Walcott Quarry and the Mt. Stephen Trilobite beds to gather data on the fossils, the site, the geographical information, climate observations as well as engage with the scientists who work at the Shale. Detailed journaling and field notes via recordings, video and photography will be gathered and shared daily with the group followed with close reflection to begin to uncover the questions and challenges with re-creating this world and experience and the kind of performance can begin to be imagined.


Design Charrette: The creative team, with the assistance of the graduate students will conduct a three-day design charrette at the University of Calgary. Day one will include only the creative team and graduates where we will review field notes, articulate challenges and problems to address. Day two will incorporate project stakeholders including Blackfoot elder, Randy Bottle/ Saa'kokoto and paleontologist from Burgess Shale to investigate problems, share insights, brainstorm and work on multiple solutions. Day three will see the addition of reading of the script for an invited public, and a sharing of the field research and design proposals. A public feedback session will follow. The charrette will culminate with a reception for all participants.


Web Site Creation: A website will be created to initially act as a log and communication portal for all activities with the creative team, stakeholders and the wider public. As the research material is is assessed and analyzed, the website will become a primary tool for knowledge dissemination. 



Preparation and Training:

March              Graduate student A to begin research and construction on website

July                  Training for MFA Graduate student B in field documentation: audio recording,

                       photography and archival; training for Graduate students (A&B) in charrette dramaturgy


Ethnographic Field Research:

Aug. 31st           Creative team arrive in Calgary. Drive to Field BC with Graduate student B

Sept. 1st             Altitude Acclimation Day, team-building and planning session. 

Sept. 2nd           Hike to Walcott Quarry (12 hours)

Sept. 3rd            Group meetings: review & evaluate previous day’s hike and to set objectives for next day’s hike.  

Sept. 4th            Hike to Mt. Stephen Trilobite beds (6 hours)

Sept.5th             Travel to Calgary. Group meetings to evaluate materials collected and to identify next steps.


                        University of Calgary Residency/Design Charrette Process: 

Sept. 6th            Day One Design Charrette: Core design team with Graduate students (A&B)                                                              Goals: Identifying and articulating problems and challenges

Sept. 7th            Day Two Design Charrette: Additions of Blackfoot Elder, 

                        Randy Bottle/ Saa'kokoto and Burgess Shale scientists

                        Goals: Collectively tackling the problems and challenges incorporating multiple perspectives

Sept. 8th            Day Three Design Charrette: All stakeholders listed above

                        Goals: Further discussion and problem solving, synthesis of all work

                        Culminating Activity:  Reading of Script with Undergraduate Actors from Drama for stakeholders,

                        faculty, students and community professionals

                        Design Presentations for attendees

                        Final reception with all participants and feedback

Sept. 9th            Creative team departs


September          Collation and review of notes/documents from Field Research and Charrette

                        Synthesize findings, notes, documents. Graduate students (A &B)

October             Follow-up discussions with all participants to review successes and barriers. 

                        Collate input in terms of pilot study and for design of studies to be conducted

                        as part of the SSHRC IDG grant.

                        Publish documentation and results on website (Graduate student A)

                        Meetings with design team to integrate design discoveries into ROM workshop and reading

                        Begin SSHRC IDG application

November          Apply to conferences to present paper on the Burgess Shale case study

                        for practice-as-research methodology.

                        Prepare first draft of longer article for submission in 2020 to scholarly journal.

                        Prepare shorter and more accessible report for Medium.                 

December          Completion of SSHRC IDG Grant and submit for review

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