What does performance offer oral historians and vice versa?

What does performance offer oral historians and vice versa?

One of the questions that I have been asking myself in recent weeks is how I might integrate what we are learning in the “Oral history and performance” studio-seminar into my own practice as an oral historian? In my case, this is a difficult question. I am not an actor. Nor am I a playwright. How then might I usefully contribute to the staging of oral histories? And, conversely, how might performing these stories contribute to my interpretation of the interviews themselves?

Certainly, the notion of ‘embodied learning’ is central to the work that we have been doing thus far. When we perform our stories as interviewers or perform the stories of others, we begin to know them in a different way. Small details suddenly become important – sounds, smells, emotions, movements. All of these otherwise peripheral memories rarely make it into our transcriptions. Instead, our relationship with the interviewee and the interview setting itself become the focal point of our work. This shifting perspective is important, suggesting to me that performing oral history has interpretative value in and of itself. Like transcription, it too is an exercise in deep listening. But it is a collaborative form of listening.

Oral historians are taught to listen, not watch. How do we begin to understand and interpret what the body has to tell us? At some level, I think every oral historian knows that body language is important – but how to begin? I have become convinced that performance-based methodologies have a great deal to teach us in this regard. Our work this term has sharpened my sense of the body and what it can tell us. Hereafter, I don’t think that I can watch my videotaped interviews in quite the same way. Indeed, I feel somehow better equipped today, than two months ago, to find significance in what I am seeing.

In shifting to performance, I also marvel at how we find new points of connection between our interviews. Far from the abstract categories of identity and difference common in my discipline, these points of connection originate instead in our experience as interviewers and in those telling (or authenticating) details. It will be interesting to see how the introduction of more verbatim text into our classroom will change the conversation, if at all. It may, I suspect, shift our attention from our own experience of the interview to the life story being recorded.

If I see the interpretative potential of the work that we are doing, I am still struggling to grasp how we might integrate what we are learning this term into the everyday practice of the oral historian. What is the role of oral historian in the staging of these stories? When we speak of “oral history and performance” are we imagining two distinct methodologies (and skill sets) in conversation within collaborative projects – wherein the interviews are ‘handed-over’ from one group to the other – or are we hoping for a single interdisciplinary practice to emerge that blurs the boundaries between the two? If so, is this a realistic goal? In the case of the Montreal Life Stories project, I have seen more of the former than the latter. I will be interested in seeing how the coming weeks and months will unfold and what new questions and insights will emerge.

Cheers, Steven High