As a practitioner, it felt natural to investigate my subject through the creation of scenography. Initially, the outcome of this research was envisaged as a single work of scenographically-led performance, a form that was familiar to me from my performance-making activities prior to undertaking the PhD. Ultimately, I chose to approach this research through a series of solo, small-scale projects which enabled me to respond to opportunities or events presenting themselves during the PhD process; for example, an opportunity to be in a different place (Projects 1 & 2), a desire to mark a life event (Project 3) or to expand on a chance encounter (Project 4). The varied contexts, places and characters of multiple practical projects kept the possibilities for discovery open.
Embracing the serendipitous and unique character of these opportunities felt congruent with an approach that was rooted in the realm of the personal, subjective and autobiographical – the events of a life providing the structure of the project. The shared aim across projects 1-4 was to pursue the subjective or personal experience alongside my own practice, which I expressed beyond Project 3 as the practice of autoscenography.
The projects are intimate performances operating in time and space as scenography (see Practice Review Part 1, page 20 for a framing of these properties) but none of them could be described as ‘shows’ or are situated in conventional performance spaces. They are performances situated in the lived experience of the scenographer and are shared as stories through different means. These practical projects were the route through which I refined my area of enquiry. This began as an exploration of the scenographer’s experience of space and became an exploration of how the ‘story’ of the scenographer intersects with their scenographic practice.
Practical projects were documented through photography, but this also became a form of reflection, either while I was still immersed in making the project (using the camera to get a perspective on the unfolding practice) or through the way these images were worked with after the practical, immersive activity had concluded. I further evaluated and reflected on each project in writing by keeping a PhD diary and by bringing dimensions of the practical projects I was thinking about into my contributions to doctoral seminars.
The process of proposing and writing papers and constructing visual or performative presentations was a process of reflection, as experiments in articulating findings were explored and refined. Each time I made a practical project, I committed to sharing it through a performative presentation at research events at the Guildhall School or at external conferences. This allowed me to appreciate the different characters of each project by being positioned both inside and outside of them. I approached each paper or presentation as an opportunity to explore what contribution scenography could make to the dissemination of research, and to find the most effective visual and spoken means for the story of the project to be told. Through giving presentations and papers, I developed a rhythm of engaging with practice, reflecting on that practice, proposing a paper with a nascent theme - or set of themes - in mind and then writing towards that presentation deadline into a position where I could articulate how the practice ‘spoke’ those emergent themes.
The themes contained within these different projects emerged through addressing the following Research Questions:
What is autoscenography?
What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?
Why is autoscenography important and what does it reveal about the role and responsibilities of the scenographer and the contexts for scenographic practice?
How can the practice of autoscenography be made available/accessible to others?
As will be expanded upon in the Practice Review methodology, ‘doing’ has led this process, in the sense that making practical projects has always come ahead of theorising autoscenography or has been the means of doing so. This approach represents something different to a traditional methodology, which may affirm its validity by presenting a hypothesis and setting out a plan to investigate it. The approach for this project places the practice of scenography, and thereafter autoscenography, first and positions it as the place from which new research knowledge comes.
A Selected Portfolio - Four Projects
This PhD process has seen eight practical projects enter the frame and exit at various stages of development or completion. This has been a rich and rewarding practice research process, yielding many possibilities for further development, but in the interests of outlining a clear series of outcomes I am including four projects in this portfolio. These have been selected on the basis that they offer a spectrum of responses to RQ2. Where there was thematic overlap between the full collection of projects undertaken during the PhD, I chose not to duplicate those territories within this final portfolio submission. Taken together, the four projects evidence the full journey of this practice research PhD, from the earliest practical exploration in 2017, to the most recent in 2021. Each project offers a different route through which the practice of autoscenography can be explored and discussed.
Below is a timeline which shows the order in which the sections and projects within this thesis arrived:
The practical projects are arranged in the thesis in the order they were created, thereby tracking the emergence of the practice of autoscenography. It feels congruent with a project rooted in lived experience to acknowledge the chronology in which thoughts, concepts and practices arrived, and the order of the four practical projects accurately reflects the scenographer’s unfolding experience of practice research process. Early directions for a central research focus – embodied experiences of landscape, for example – have gradually assumed a peripheral role, while the autobiographical theme has moved to the forefront.
The decision to focus on the autobiography of the scenographer came at the point of upgrade, with the encouragement of my two examiners, who identified this as an important dimension within the practical projects I presented at that point. Projects 1 and 2 were made prior to this turning point, Project 3 was created as the articulation of autoscenography was becoming more distinct, and Project 4 was made once the practice had been defined and most of the practice review had been undertaken. This accounts in part for the different qualities of each project and the extent to which they resemble – or don’t resemble – institutional scenographic practice. With the articulation of autoscenography came a narrowing of the scale of practical work towards something more intimate, couched in the immediate environment of the scenographer and yielding projects which explored the operation of scenography at the border of what may be considered traditional and that which bears ‘scenographics’ (Hann 2019).
The Practical Projects
Each project offers a spectrum of answers to RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?: What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice? Coming at different points along the route towards articulating autoscenography, each project addresses other research questions to a greater or lesser extent, as indicated below. Research questions within parentheses are still answered by the project in question, but to a lesser extent depending on where in the process they occurred.
RQ1What is autoscenography?, RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?
Related examples of practice cited in Practice Review: Shearing (2014) and McKinney (2019).
Practitioners taking similar approaches to practice research highlighted in Project 1 Commentary: Louise Ann Wilson, Janet Cardiff, Lizzie Philips.
Project 2: The Hong Kong Family Album 1951/2018 – A city-sited autoscenographic project that operates in the present and the past, stemming from the family history of the scenographer and which expands her practice by inviting her to step into her own scenographic work. Writing two papers to accompany the photographic outcome of this project allowed me to understand that the personal, emotive dimension of the work was valuable, and that the space and time elements of scenography were continuing to serve as a spine within the overarching project.
RQ1What is autoscenography?, RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?
Related examples of practice cited in Practice Review: Bechdel (2006, 2012), Hann (2019).
Works combining family history and photography, highlighted in Autoscenography, She Wrote: Parental Pandemic Portraits (O’Cathain 2020), Hold Still (Mann 2015) On Chapel Sands (Cumming 2019).
Project 3: Dear John – Autoscenography that embodies the values and politics of the scenographer, and which here marks a turning point in the way the scenographer chooses to practice. The project demonstrates an intimate turn in terms of scale and emphasises the reflective power of autoscenography to the scenographer. It is staged within the UK postal system and in the hands of the originating scenographer. Making the photo story for Project 3: Dear John allowed me to see that autoscenography could materially transform or mark a turning point in my practice. This could be then shared with other arts practitioners who would recognise the personal significance of the work to the researcher beyond a storytelling of practice.
(RQ1What is autoscenography?) RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?, RQ3Why is autoscenography important and what does it reveal about the role and responsibilities of the scenographer and the contexts for scenographic practice?
Related examples of practice cited in Practice Review: Prayer (Elnile 2020), Her Master’s Voice (Conti 2010) and Drawing on a (Grand)Mother’s Experience (Baker 2019).
Project 4: BookMarks – A proposal for an ongoing long-form autoscenographic project that reaches out to, and may be instigated in the same model by, other people. The project furthers the capacity of autoscenography to operate temporally and offers a space for the scenographer to consider her values in terms of practice research. The project stems from a chance event within the context of the scenographer’s everyday life. Writing the presentation as a story allowed me to apprehend the emergence of autoscenography from an unanticipated sequence of real-life events, and to propose autoscenography to the conference audience I was addressing, rather than only presenting them with the results of a project.
(RQ1What is autoscenography?, RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?) RQ3Why is autoscenography important and what does it reveal about the role and responsibilities of the scenographer and the contexts for scenographic practice?, RQ4How can the practice of autoscenography be made available/ accessible to others?
Related examples of practice cited in commentary for Project 4: 84 Charing Cross Road (Hanff 1976), #connectionthroughkindess (Henry 2020), ‘We pulled up the carpet on the stairs’ (Marsden 2021) and the collaged library book covers of Joe Orton.
The research questions are also answered by other parts of this thesis, which are themselves examples of autoscenography, used as an approach to research dissemination:
Autoscenography, She Wrote – RQ1What is autoscenography?, RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?, (RQ3Why is autoscenography important and what does it reveal about the role and responsibilities of the scenographer and the contexts for scenographic practice?)
Moving House: A Practice Review – (RQ1What is autoscenography?) RQ2What are the possibilities of autoscenography when explored through practice?, RQ3Why is autoscenography important and what does it reveal about the role and responsibilities of the scenographer and the contexts for scenographic practice?
The Visual Approach
This thesis has been designed by a scenographer and visual modes of communication are therefore a significant feature of the knowledge production and dissemination it expresses. The varied visual approaches to communication contained within this thesis – e.g., film, photography as visual research, drawing, storyboarding, model-making, studio making, on-site experimentation - reflect the conditions and materials of a scenographer’s process and the scenography that process generates. This reflects the ‘artist reflecting on and through their practice’ approach embodied in the Practice Review through examples by Rosie Elnile, Alison Bechdel and Nina Conti (Elnile 2020, Bechdel 2006, 2012 and Her Master’s Voice 2012). Overall, thesis contains references and approaches that are as diverse as those gathered and developed within the process of creating scenography, and creativity is at the root of each practical investigation, the production of knowledge and the way the knowledge is thereafter communicated.
The playful variation in form for each project and other sections of this thesis represent a desire to find the clearest and most thematically in-keeping mode with which to tell the story of that project or section. In the same way that the design of a performance environment might contain aesthetic details which refer to an overarching design concept, so the practice of autoscenography refers to its scenographic roots by using the materials, environments and features of that practice to tell a research story. This allows a scenographer to consider how they can best communicate a research narrative through design decisions using space, materials, bodies, and atmospheres. The intention is to communicate something about the way in which scenography – and therefore autoscenography - unfolds in the moment and where and how it may operate.
Starting on the homepage, this thesis can be read in sequence by clicking icons from left to right. You can return to the homepage menu at any time by clicking the title of the web page in the top left-hand corner. Each section of the thesis has last/next section buttons at the bottom to move you to the next section. To revisit sections out of sequence, either return to the homepage or use the menu of headings in the top right of any page. While this thesis has been designed as a website, it is also paginated with a view to making referencing easier – this flows through the webpages and the pdf documents which house the three parts of the Practice Review.
Having introduced my approach to an exploration of autoscenography, the next section focuses on the first practical project contained within the thesis portfolio.