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John's research project

John Whitney is exploring the relationship between games and performance in his PhD study.  

Specifically, he’s examining what games can do for performance, and what elements from games can be brought into the performance space. Linked to this, he’s looking at the idea of agency. 

John Whitney, PhD student in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television
Scholars argue that the more free and flowing the audience can be during a participatory theatre performance, the greater their experience of agency. However, in my PhD I argue the opposite; I argue for what’s called 'illusory agency'. This means the audience is limited in the number of decisions they can make, but feel like they can make any decision they like. I’m exploring how audiences play within this space and how this can be used as part of game-based performance strategies.

Working on a practice-based PhD

John was drawn to the Department of Film, Theatre & Television because of its history of expertise in practice-based research. 

He spends a lot of time working inside a studio theatre and using the facilities at Minghella Studios. 

He is working with three different types of game: board games such as backgammon, party games such as Mafia, and puzzle games on television programmes such as The Crystal Maze. He is exploring these through collaborating with actors in workshop practice. 

For example, in one research workshop he filmed actors playing a game of backgammon. He then asked the participants what feedback they thought would come from the game, and how this could be applied to performance.

I’m a practitioner first, so one of the things I enjoy most is that I get to work on performance as part of my PhD. My two supervisors are also practitioners, coming from very different research backgrounds, and this has really benefited my research.

Submitting a thesis

In this Department, doctoral students undertaking a practice-based PhD can present practice as part of the examination process. 

John is planning to submit a series of short play texts he has written and stage one of these for examination. He’ll also write an exegesis (a critical interpretation of his practice research) to accompany these. 

The important thing to note about practice-based PhDs is that nothing is separate. The thesis reflects the practice and the practice reflects the thesis. Although I will complete them separately, the final outcome will be an interlinked presentation of writing and performance.

Developing research ideas through practice

John has found that working on practice-based research is a much more fluid process than he expected. His supervisors have helped him navigate this.

Don’t be afraid to have times during your PhD where you’re not sure where your research is going. One thing my supervisors drilled into me was that it’s OK to not know exactly what the outcome will be, because it’s all about the journey. It’s development of practice; your ideas are constantly evolving as you progress.

Teaching and supervising undergraduate students

The Department has offered John opportunities to gain teaching experience while studying. 

John has led workshops on topics that align with his personal interests, unconnected to his PhD. This includes teaching as part of modules on drag and queer performance, and on Brechtian theatre.  

As John has progressed during his degree, he has taken on more teaching responsibilities. He has also supervised undergraduate projects.

Through supervising projects in the Department I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to teach. Coming from an applied theatre background, it’s a very different style of teaching in higher education than I'm used to. However, it has given me a broad range of skills that I can take into an academic career.

Research stories

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Our staff and PhD students develop exciting and diverse projects that span disciplines and the globe.

Our research

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Some of our recent major research projects include User Not Found, Staging Beckett and Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies