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History and Historiography Working Group : Experience as Evidence in Theatre History and Historiography

The issue of experience as evidence in historical writing has been the subject of vigorous debate since Joan Scott’s article of 1991, in which she asserted that ‘experience is not the origin of our explanation, but that which we want to explain’. Scott interrogated historical accounts in which experience – presented as a straightforward reflection of the real – was used to challenge prevailing interpretations. The questions posed by Scott continue to reverberate, with scholars insisting on the importance of experience as a necessary counterpoint to theory and, in particular, on its primacy in the writing of histories of difference. The cultural historian Michael Pickering has, for instance, asserted the need for history from below, and the value of experience in testifying to the struggles of ‘ordinary’ people (1997). Recent discussions have sought common ground in an expanded notion of experience, which acknowledges the complex interplay between discourse and lived reality.

We invite papers that consider this debate in relation to theatre history and historiography. As theatre historians, we frequently recourse to the evidence of biographical writing and personal accounts, while re-enactment is proffered as a historiographical method that allows us to engage in a more direct way with historical practices. Using Scott’s article as a starting point for discussion, we invite papers that consider the following questions:

As theatre historians,

  • how do we currently engage with the issue of experience as evidence?
  • what types of knowledge do we hope to derive from the evidence of personal experience?
  • how far does our own practice acknowledge the constructed nature of experience?

Themes for presentations include, but are not limited to:

  • Historical research into affect; the physiological responses of audiences: weeping, fainting, laughing, etc.
  • Historiographical methods that privilege embodied experience such as walking and re-enactment (whether practice based, as a device for the writing of theatre history, or as a means to disseminate research through digital technologies for the purpose of public engagement/outreach).
  • Using life writing, biography, memory as evidence in the construction of theatre history

Joan Scott’s article is available on JSTOR: Joan W. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 773 – 793. Discussion will focus on the debate that Scott initiated. The essay itself will be made available to working group participants so that they may familiarise themselves with the issues it raises.

Papers will take the form of 20-minute presentations and will not be pre-circulated.

Deadline for submission of proposals: 18 April 2016. Please send proposals no longer than 300 words and a short biography to the working group conveners, Patricia Smyth ( and Hayley Bradley ( Please copy to both conveners.


Only one proposal may be submitted for the TaPRA 2016 Conference at the University of Bristol. It is not permitted to submit multiple proposals or submit the same proposal to several Calls for Papers. All presenters must be TaPRA members, i.e. registered for the conference; this includes presentations given by Skype or other media broadcast even where the presenter may not physically attend the conference venue. If your paper has been accepted, yet you have not registered for the Conference by the final registration deadline of 8th August 2016, we will deem you no longer intend to participate and present at TaPRA 2016.

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