Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Action Research and the Integration of Theory and Practice

The following post is part of a series of responses that are framed by Jonathan Pitches here.

Previous posts can be found here.

Action Research and the Integration of Theory and Practice

Zazzali and Klein raise several issues about the contemporary teaching of theatre and performance at university level. They seem especially preoccupied with two points. The first is the articulation of a link between theoretical and practical teaching components as ‘[w]e still educate our undergraduates through separate theoretical and practical courses to ostensibly prepare them for careers in entertainment industries’ (p. 271).  The second is a concern for interdisciplinarity which they see as an ideal that is however hard to implement in practice, given ‘the ethos of neoliberal individualism in higher education [which] forces students and faculty to pursue singular agendas at the expense of collaboration and interdisciplinarity’ (p. 262).

While I might not agree with a number of Zazzali and Klein’s assumptions, like for example that we still teach in the same ways that we were taught as undergraduate students, I do share in the point that the interdisciplinary integration of theory and practice is an important consideration in contemporary teaching methods, an objective in other words to be striven for. My overarching question in this entry therefore will be: how do we facilitate the integration of theory and practice in our teaching? I have personally tackled this question a number of times, aided by what in Educational Theory are called Action Research strategies. These are reflective strategies where the tutor sets up a research exercise revolving around a clear research question that relates to his or her pedagogical performance in class. The term was first used by Kurt Lewin, a German-American social psychologist, as far back as the 1940s, even though the basic principles which he suggested, involving ‘fact finding, planning, action, evaluation’ (Efron and Ravid 2013: 6), are still in use.

Action Research gives educators an opportunity to improve or refine their teaching skills. Education theorists Sara Efrat Efron and Ruth Ravid define it as follows:


Action research is usually defined as an inquiry conducted by educators in their own settings in order to advance their practice and improve their students’ learning. […] [It serves] as a vehicle model for modifying, changing, and improving the teaching-learning process. [Educators] feel that action research enhances their ability to grow professionally, become self-evaluative, and take responsibility for their own practice. (2013: 2)


Therefore, during Action Research exercises, the transmission of knowledge in the class or the studio is allied to a critique of the teaching methods involved.  For the educator, it focusses attention on issues that relate to how s/he teaches. The process typically involves: (i) the identification of a difficulty or obstacle to effective teaching/learning (ii) the collection of data related to the problem (iii) the evaluation of the data collected (iv) the development and application of a plan that addresses the problem (v) evaluation of the results emerging from the study (vi) repetition as necessary.

I have personally used Action Research in the past to problematize how practical workshops can complement conventional lecture-based approaches to teaching theatre theory and history. I am keen to experience and understand how lecture- and studio-based pedagogies can be fused together. As a case-study I have used a module that I teach at the University of Malta titled ‘Tradition and Transmission in Performance’, which uses Stanislavsky to discuss how transmission processes facilitate the formation of theatre traditions. The following Action Research questions were asked:

  • How much practical work should be used? What is its ratio to the lecturing component?
  • What strategies can be adopted to ensure complementarity and balance?
  • Does the practical work overshadow the theoretical and/or historical material?
  • Do students fail to create links between the lecturing and practical components?
  • Does the reduction in lecturing lead to a loss of material covered? If yes, what strategies can be adopted to counter such a loss?

Action Research has suggested that a fusion of practice- and lecture-based pedagogies helps the educator to develop a learning atmosphere in which the material is initially elicited from the students but then refined by the lecturer. For example, in one exercise students were asked to create a simple physical routine and to transmit this to each other through (i) direct, one-to-one transmission, (ii) a written-down description, and/or (iii) a video-reproduction. (This exercise is an adaptation of the Reconstruction activity found in Pitches 2003: 149.) The students were subsequently encouraged to reflect and comment on their process, which I then substantiated through a more formal presentation about transmission processes and channels. The class therefore featured a constant move between practical exercises, reflection from the students, and more formal lecturing-components, making students participants rather than simply observers to knowledge-creation processes.

Other contributors to these blog responses have opted to draw parallels with the undergraduate teaching carried out at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. During the first half of 2017 I was a visitor to the School, where amongst other things I had the chance to look at their undergraduate programme and the promise it makes to expose its students to ‘real-world experience and the wider context of the cultural industries’. While I far from received, in such a short period of time, a holistic understanding of its working, I did find myself in a position of someone who could look at the programme as an outsider. Integral to the programme is the commitment to research-led teaching, where ‘students [are engaged] at the cutting edge of knowledge as it is developed’. This is, of course, not unique to Leeds – at the University of Malta where I work the commitment to research-led teaching is equally strong – but I was certainly surprised to see this element downplayed in Zazzali and Klein. In a way, a commitment or otherwise to research-led teaching – whether taking the form of Action Research exercises, research projects involving students with professional researchers, interdisciplinary projects between departments, etc. – informs the very aims and objectives of tertiary education, considering that universities traditionally aim not only to transmit knowledge but also to create it.

Dr Stefan Aquilina, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, School of Performing Arts, University of Malta



Efron, S. E. and R. Ravid (2013) Action Research in Education: A Practical Guide. New York and London: The Guilford Press

 Pitches, J. (2003) Vsevolod Meyerhold. London and New York: Routledge.


Performance and Culture: Cities, Embodiments, Technologies

Annual Conference hosted by

The School of Performing Arts (University of Malta)

7, 8, 9 March 2018

Keynote Speakers:

Sir Jonathan Mills, Programme Director of 2018 Edinburgh International Culture Summit

Prof. Maria Delgado, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

Prof. Ann Cooper Albright, Department of Dance, Oberlin College and Conservatory, Ohio, US

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