Close/Clown Encounters with History: From Mimesis to Kinesis in Practice as Research

Barnaby King

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    The essay draws together various threads of a 2-year multidisciplinary practice-as-research project that combined theatre historiography, performance ethnography and clown practice. Along with theatre historian Professor Tracy C. Davis (Northwestern University) and a creative team including a director, dialect consultant, choreographer, musical director and multimedia designer, I (a trained clown) performed various iterations of Charles Mathews’s Trip to America (1824) in Chicago and Cardiff between 2009 and 2011. The essay cites the project’s numerous research outputs, including new insights into Mathews’s virtuosic technique, but also new theories regarding the genealogy of racialized performance including blackface minstrelsy in the USA and UK, for which Mathews is often cited as a progenitor. The project had transatlantic significance for our understanding of racialized representation, both in performance and reception. However, the essay also tracks and critiques the reception of my own performances in the present day, giving the research an additional layer of relevance and impact. The strong (yet distinct) reactions of audiences in USA and UK provide the jumping off point for a sustained critique of historical reconstructions that seek to bridge or elide historical or cultural gaps. Reflecting on the sometimes fraught relationship between artists and scholars the essay develops a distinction between three different levels at which practice-as-research can contribute to or work alongside the demands of the academy: the pursuit of authenticity and verisimilitude (mimesis); the harnessing of creative strategies in adapting source materials for a modern audience (poeisis); the embrace of the critical and political potentials of performance in relation to controversial issues such as race (kinesis). As such, the essay performs multiple research functions: it disseminates the new scholarly knowledge acquired through the project; and it proposes a rationale for evaluating the significance of embodied ways of knowing and learning that were so valuable in this project.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)113-128
    JournalTheatre Topics
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2013


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