on acting, interpreting and academic writing

What do actors do. Really. What do they do. And what does anything they do have to do with writing?

On Friday I was in Stratford upon Avon, at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. I wasn’t going to a play, but at a conference for school leaders who work with the RSC. My colleague Chris and I were there to present some results from a current research project which we are doing in partnership with the RSC and Tate.

DaOKbmTV4AApn77.jpg-largeOne of the conference events featured the actor Niamh Cusack performing the Lady Macbeth soliloquy. You know, the one where she’s summoning the courage to kill the king. It starts off with the lines “The raven himself is hoarse which croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements…” I’m sure you’ve heard it, if not studied it.

Cusack performed the speech as a devoted wife (the way she’s currently playing the part). She was then asked to improvise two alternate Lady Macbeths, a woman eager to make mischief with the spirit world, and a woman terrified of summoning up spirits.

Each of Cusack’s three performances were startlingly different.  (And wonderful.) After a minute or so pause at the start of each speech, she really became a different person. She changed her location on the stage and her body positioning, as well as the speed, rhythm, cadence, emphasis, volume and pitch of her words. The audience were able to see how her acting decisions were realised through her actor’s repertoire. She varied how she used voice, space, time, gaze, movement.

Afterwards, our research colleague Jacqui O’Hanlon, director of the RSC  Education programmes, told the audience that what we had seen was interpretation. Interpreting was a key life practice, she said, and one that the arts explicitly use – and teach.

And of course, interpretation is a key to academic research. Every academic discipline interprets. Whether we are trying to define a problem, make sense of numbers or understand phenomena we observe, we interpret. The texts that we read, the fragments that we collect, are made sensible through interpretation.

The job of the academic is to use research processes, research regimes that make our number, text or image work systematic and careful. And we do this data and analytic work thoroughly and to the very best of our ability. We try very hard not to make a mess that can be avoided.


But we interpret. We interpret all the way though.

And we attempt to put our interpretation into writing. Sometimes we might work in image, or movement or sound as well as words – but essentially academic interpretation is spoken and written. Words are our interpretive tools.

This means that we need to develop a writing repertoire that is as flexible as that of the actor. Depending on what we want to say, and who to, we choose from our academic writing repertoire. We decide and select.

Our writing repertoire includes the genre we take up – journal article, blog post, op-ed piece – this determines whether we are writing argument, portrait, report, story. An academic writing repertoire also includes our choice of words – how technical, how matter of fact, how unexpected, how colloquial. It includes putting sentences and paragraphs together. It includes how we use metaphor, simile, and whether we use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, or a lot. It includes exercising our wit and imagination through naming and framing.

Our academic writing repertoire isn’t static, fixed in time. It can be something that we consciously add to over time. That, like the actor, we continue to hone and develop.

As we approach the academic summer in the northern hemisphere – although this still looks way off for me – it is important to gather together the reading that is going to nurture our writer’s interpretive repertoire. This might be in the form of academic monographs or that bundle of unread PDF journal articles. Or it might be non-fiction, poetry or fiction.

And perhaps, taking another leaf from the actor, perhaps summer is a time for some rest – as well as a little rehearsal, and some play. A time for small moments of pleasurable trying things out, a time for experimenting with writing interpretations that may or may not end up in a public performance of some kind.

But not of course at the expense of recovering from the year.

Rest. Read. Interpret. Write. Rest.

Links: Interested in the RSC Education programme? Or our research project, Tracking Arts Learning and Engagement – TALE?

Images: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Ecclestone as the Macbeths –  RSC.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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