Pardonnez-moi: Looking for Scraps in the Research Farm

John O’Toole

To Cite this Article

O’Toole, J. (2015). Pardonnez-moi: Looking for Scraps in the Research Farm. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 2.


This article re-tells the story of the author’s interactive keynote to research student delegates at the 8th World Congress of Drama/Theatre and Education in Paris, IDEA 2013. Reversing the monological concept of a keynote lecture by turning it into a carefully structured conversational dialogue among the audience, O’Toole poses a series of key questions about the nature of research and the demands, processes and intellectual dimensions of academic research into an art form as evanescent and dynamic as drama. In this retelling, the author explains the reasons and underlying concepts behind the questions that the participants discussed, and how all of these are crucial in setting up, managing and reporting effectively research on drama and theatre in educational contexts.


Research, qualitative enquiry, ethnography, action research, reflective practitioner, theatre, drama, education, schools, data, analysis, dialogue.


Keynote as speed-dating

This written keynote disrupts the genre of keynote, but not as much as it did when it was delivered orally at the IDEA 2013 Pre-Congress Research Students’ Day. It occurred to me that the keen young researchers meeting at the Congress, all of whom had copious resources of research literature back at home, along with helpful supervisors and research methods courses behind them, were meeting to share as well as learn. They were all first and foremost absorbed with their own research, naturally. What they might need to learn of direct use and import to their research would be unlikely to be found in a forty minute generalised talk by an old white male researcher who had no knowledge whatever of their particular research topic. Which is not to say there was nothing at all they could or needed to learn about their research, but rather that some kind of dialogue expressing and examining their research, and relating it to other people’s, would be a great deal more use than an expository monologue – which is what a keynote usually is.

This was reinforced by the timing of the session, at 9.00am on Day One of the Congress kicking off what was intended to be an active day of research engagement with practitioners and researchers from around the globe, most of whom, at that time anyway, would be total strangers; everybody would be excited but apprehensive, shy but curious. Perhaps the most useful way I could tap into and release this energy would be to use my experience to ask some really awkward questions – of the kind that young researchers might not yet be fully aware of – then stand back and let them wrestle with them, together.

So my first step was to get the hundred and fifty or so young scholars packed into a lecture hall designed for a hundred to introduce themselves to their nearest stranger neighbour with a common language, and make a pair or a threesome. Then for the next forty minutes I threw at them the questions below – each one for the reasons I will try to articulate in this summary. I gave them a ludicrously inadequate time (no more than a minute, at most) to try to come up with answers with or for their partners; for each section below I got them to change groups and find a new partner, to keep them unsettled. They appeared to enjoy it; the room was like a manic farmyard (with the volume level making almost inaudible my frequent calls of ‘Freeze!’ – so that we could rush on to the next research imperative.) I have no idea what they said – feedback was a step too far, and time precluded it completely.

Of course we ran out of time, but not before I had jumped forward to pose my final question (the one for which I would most have loved to hear the responses). The very speed of the encounters, and the fact that their partners were total strangers, posed a big challenge which they grasped eagerly: to articulate crisply and succinctly ideas that they would be more accustomed to thinking about at length and in detail. Those same factors also gave them all an important permission to be candid; these strangers had no stake at all in the research, and no consequences would attach to being frank with them – encouraging candour much like a confessional or a bar counter.

I asked them to look not only for the similarities and synergies but the divergences in their projects. These questions are what they talked about.

PART 1: Chasing hares
Questions about starting research In drama/theatre

The first question I asked them was: What was your motivation? I invited them to articulate what had brought them into research, and resolved them to do it. On the face of it innocent, this question did in fact impose challenges straight away – ‘Do I admit that my primary research interest is the piece of paper without which I will lose my job?’ This first question is crucial to be honest about, as the motivation will affect both the energy level the researcher brings to the project and the point of view which he or she brings to the subject. It can range:

  • from the admirable: (long-time love for the topic; your wish to understand more about the art you practise and teach; your passionate desire to use the research for the betterment of your school; in order to change education, change the theatre or change society),
  • through the personal: (your personal curiosity; your need to challenge accepted belief; your desire to be better thought-of and have letters after your name; your ambition for promotion; your fear of being passed and left behind by your younger contemporaries),
  • to the pragmatic: (that bit of paper; the need to test assumptions in order to develop your practice or the school’s drama program; and – perhaps the most common primary motivation for drama teachers and artists and nearly always a factor – to give yourself and other evidence of the value of what you do – tools for advocacy and persuasion: something new to convince the doubting principal or sceptical parent once and for all).

This last factor is the most crucial to acknowledge, because advocacy is the opposite and enemy of true research. Anybody can set up a project that will demonstrate what they already believe in; conversely, from the start of the Renaissance and the sharpening of Occam’s razor the aim of honest science has been to test ideas to destruction, and then believe what’s left, and it’s not easy to deliberately try and destroy what you cherish, just in case you might succeed. This is a particular dilemma for two of the most popular methods in drama research. Action researchers have to put all their positive effort into trying to achieve a vision or solve a real problem – yet simultaneously put in the toughest critical tools ruthlessly to expose the illusions and flaws as they go along. Ethnographers have to honour the community they are studying and its witnesses – but they have to keep an eagle eye out for witnesses and actions that mislead, for their own sentiment, and for the silent and silenced voices.

Just to make that more difficult, the next question demanded that the audience: Be honest about your personal positioning. The old empirical myth of objectivity, that the researcher is detached, disinterested and invisible, is unhelpful and indeed deceitful, in qualitative research especially. In education and in art, the researcher is invariably implicated and usually passionate about it, or they wouldn’t be doing the research; hiding their subjectivity under a blanket of third person pronouns and passive voiced reporting is where the deceit comes in: ‘It will be postulated by the researcher … the school was chosen…’ rather than ‘I propose… We chose this school…’ Acknowledging one’s subjectivity and how it will affect the data collection and its analysis is one of the first steps to the research study – and the very next is to ensure that it does not overpower the necessary objective elements: that need to test to destruction, and scrutinize everything dispassionately as well as passionately. Research is, and should be, uncomfortable and discomforting.

As a tailpiece to this question, I asked them to summarise their moral and ethical standpoints – in the grand scale and in thirty seconds, of course: To do good? To effect change? To do, at least, no harm? And to confess to their partners what ethical knots they had already identified.

The next question that was posed (no – that I posed!) was: What is your research context? It is crucial, but not easy, let alone in sixty seconds, for embarking researchers to itemize the amount of time, freedom, resources, financial backing, family support and access to all the necessities and resources of their research site and the potential participants that they have lined up. For starters in research, this voluminous list can itself be a major disincentive, or alternatively in the enthusiasm on diving into the pool some of its most vital items can be quite unconsidered. This question is a speed-dating version of the old-fashioned business standby, the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, which I often ask my students to go through at more leisure. Most necessary to be able to articulate and keep at the front of the mind are the constraints or threats to the research (the T in SWOT), those contingencies, or people, or things, or lack of things that could derail the research: the small case study that collapses when two of the three participants are withdrawn from the school, or (in the case of one of my own Zimbabwean students) being denied access by government thugs to his own village where he was going to study the children’s dramatic games.

The final question of this section brought a sharp focus to the questions of positioning and of context: Who are the stakeholders? It is usually quite easy, even in sixty seconds, to identify those positive stakeholders who will benefit from the research – obviously the researchers themselves, and in the case of interventionist methods like Action Research and Most Significant Change method, those for whom the research is being carried out. Somewhere in all education research these include or should do students and children. In quantitative, experimental research the positive stakeholders are often at one remove – policymakers, or the next generation of users and trainees. However, where humans are the participants, of the above methods, as well as experimental research, case studies and ethnography, another question arises: What will those participants themselves get out of it (who are often rather appropriately called subjects, because, when you think of it, they are subjected to the research)? In Australia and New Zealand, indigenous people have been endlessly researched, and for some while now they have been asking themselves in whose interests is the research: ‘Years of research have frequently failed to improve the condition of the people who are researched. This has led many to believe that researchers are simply intent on taking or stealing knowledge.’ (Smith 1999, 176).

Apart from that blunt appraisal, researchers need to (and often don’t) take into account negative stakeholders – those who oppose the research, or whose interests it cuts across – that may not be immediately obvious to the passionate researcher. These might include other researchers and practitioners who start with a competing hypothesis – though in the generally collaborative and supportive field of drama research this is less likely and less toxic than in, say archaeology, a discipline famous for its contentious counter-theorising. It may on the other hand be a matter of pragmatic or philosophical opposition. In the first case, the school principal who thinks that your drama research is merely wasting the precious literacy and numeracy time of the students, and even if it does prove effective, that will lead to new pressures on timetabling and scarce resources. In the second, in two recent examples at least, where the research method of process drama flies in the face of the experienced second language co-teacher’s ideas and educational philosophy, and who treats it with scepticism. In both these cases the researcher turned the negativity to good advantage: in one changing the research question to look more closely at the feasibility of process drama in the hands of inexperienced and uncommitted teachers – which brought valuable realism to the research results (Stinson 2009); in the other, the researcher appropriated the sceptical responses into the research as a valuable critical lens and reality check (Rothwell 2013).

Change partners
PART 2: Controlling rabbits
Questions about the methods and processes of the research

The first question, phrased in two parts, was again apparently innocent enough. The first part: What is your exact Research Question? – was answered very quickly, with no time to pontificate, though some were evidently still very imprecise, judging by listeners’ bemused expressions. The second part: Is it phrased in the interrogative, with a question mark at the end, and why is that important? is an important focusing question for any new research. It was clear from the volume of speed-discussion and some agonised faces that many of the audience were still at the generalised level of ‘It’s a study into…’, ‘…an investigation of…’, and equally obvious that the off-the-cuff suggestions and advice from their partners were proving a valuable help, if only in focusing their own minds more vigorously.

The next obvious question to be asked would have been What methods and methodology have you chosen that will best assist you to answer this question?, but even I could not see a way for them to explain that to their partner in less than a minute.

Instead, I reassured them that, whatever their method, and particularly if it was qualitative, the one thing they need not fear was gathering insufficient data – at which many looked relieved, but doubtful. I went on to explain that data is just like rabbits: it multiplies exponentially – and, like rabbits in Australia, can become a real and uncontrollable pest. So the next question was: How will you gather just the right data, and stop the rabbits proliferating? The corollary of this, of course, is What is the right data and how do we know? Which led to another increase in decibel levels in the lecture hall, and also to the next set of questions.

These went back to our opening challenge, and not only how honest, but also how tough the research was. Acknowledging Philip Taylor’s scepticism about the necessity of ‘rigour’ in qualitative research when one is mapping what are dynamic and changing realities in the human contexts explored by drama and education (‘The only rigour that applies to a human body is rigor mortis’ (1995), there is none the less a responsibility not to shirk the search for tough data. First: What do you do with negative data – data that undermines your hypothesis or blocks your progress in your intervention? In case they felt like getting devious or truculent, the follow-up question was Do you go looking for invisible data? I briefly spoke about the kind of data that resists discovery, especially through standard research instruments like interviews and surveys; in particular, the silent or silenced voices of those who are intimidated, or just polite, or too diffident, or linguistically inarticulate, or not bright enough to realise the importance of their contribution, or who accede to majority opinion and ideas without articulating their reservations or incomprehension. Discussion here among the participants was lower in volume, greater in intensity.

By now we were running short of time, as the keynote had had to be shortened ad hoc by the Day 1 exigencies of late arrivals and getting everybody into the room, and so we had no time at all for about the most important question of all, which was: What do you do with your data when you’ve got it – how do you analyse it to answer your research question and not another one? – other than to mention to them that this was too important to skimp on anyway, with less than half an hour per person per project.

I did ask them quickly to visit the follow-up question: How reliable are your findings? – whether there were enough different and independent data sets to not only corroborate, but cross-check., and map the discrepancies. I pointed out that the traditional research word in English, triangulation, just meaning that there needed to be at least three independent sets of data verifying each other, was nowadays unfashionable in qualitative research, but that its contemporary synonyms, such as verifiability, trustworthiness, crystallisation, plausibility, generalisability – all carried the same imperative.

Just time for a quick change of partner.
PART 3: Bringing the chickens home to roost
Questions about research outcomes and reporting

These last questions got extremely short shrift, but are just as important as those that the audience so energetically and robustly tackled.

Time permitting, I would have dearly liked to let them discuss (and to listen to their answers) the question that I only had time briefly to pose: What happens if your research fails? If you can’t get to a coherent picture of your case study or ethnography; solve your action research problem; come up with usable new practices and procedures? This did get a collective gasp which I interpreted as uneasy recognition, and tried to be as reassuring as I could. Reminding them of Occam’s razor, I pointed out the paradox that failure, of research properly set out and achieved, was actually success – in demonstrating that some thesis or hypo-thesis (little thesis) was not true after all, and doing the world a service by disproving it; moreover, that research failure was never total – there were always bits to be picked up and trails to be followed, without later researchers having to make the same errors or fall into the same traps. Citing a couple of examples from my experience, I tried to assure them that if they were engaged in student research, any good examiner would concentrate on the soundness of the argument and the effectiveness of the research method, give credit for honesty, and pass the study. I did have to admit that if they were dealing with a funded research project, and had to report failure, the prognosis was less rosy, as research sponsors, especially industry partners, invariably expect a return on their investment (which does not really make for disinterested or rigorous research findings).

As a diversion from the glum faces which indeed accompanied my brief exposition here, I next would have asked What will be your aesthetic aims in reporting your research? At the very least, as workers in the art-form of interpersonal communication and dialogue, they should give attention to readability, and get rid of those terrible old-style academic jargon uses of relentless passive voice, third person reporting, latinate rather than anglo-saxon derived vocabulary, and abstract noun phrases (see O’Toole and Beckett 2013: 189-192) . For the more venturesome, it was available to them to spice up the limited and flat genre of ‘research report’ with some explicitly aesthetic components – a sustained metaphor, ethnographic performance, reflective narrative, poetry, visual images, video and moving pictures, even internet components. On the other hand, all of those structures had dangerous potential implications of tension between different kinds of symbols and truths, between the aesthetic/metaphorical and the research/literal. A lovely discussion could have happened here, but would of course have needed much longer for the pairs to pursue it. Perhaps, reading this may start a discussion which did not happen at that session in Paris.

I had certainly hoped to ask the last direct question (or composite of questions) relating to their current project: What will you do with it when it is finished? Will it get beyond the examiner’s bookshelf? What will need to be done to it to make it accessible and appropriate for different audiences? I would have asked them to discuss the quite different requirements of each of the likely audiences: academic journals, research books, text books, policy-makers, educational or artistic administrators, newspapers and radio programs, internet websites.

Instead (and partly to lift the gloom caused by the previous question about failure) I asked one last multiple question, or rather, for the first time invited a statement and the use of some imagination – which brought back all the positive energy and they attacked it with gusto. Take a leap into the future, and imagine yourself twenty years on, talking about this early research project, to somebody you admire and respect. Tell them what it achieved, and what has happened in the field since then… And what has happened to you as a result of it.

Some of them were still talking about that when they left that crowded and noisy lecture hall – and so they should be. 


O’Toole, J. & Beckett, D. (2013). Educational research: creative thinking and doing. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Rothwell, J. (2013). ‘Let’s eat the Captain! Thinking, feeling, doing: intercultural language learning through process drama’. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonising methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. New York: Zed Books.

Stinson, M. (2009). ‘Drama is like reversing everything. Intervention research in teacher professional development.’ Research in Drama Education: Vol 14, No 2: 225-243.

Taylor, P. (1995). Doing Reflective Practitioner Research in Drama Education. Keynote lecture, 1st International Drama in Education Research Institute, Brisbane.

Biography of John O’Toole