Promising privacy—while performing publicly

As a community partnership research project, a goal of Transforming Stories, Driving Change is to explore how performance can help us understand our world and collectively imagine ways it might be different. This blog is our way of extending this collective imagining to you. With it we reflect on experiences within the project and to make visible some of the methods we engage, and the questions we grapple with.

At a recent presentation to the McMaster Research Ethics Board (MREB), Chris Sinding, Catherine Graham, and I (Helene Vosters) had an opportunity to speak about some of the particular ethical concerns performance-based researchers grapple with and the methodological approaches we use to address them. One of the key ethical questions we grapple with at Transforming Stories is the issue of publicness. In Canada, the federal Tri-Council Policy Statement of Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans has developed policies that govern the protection of individual research participants’ privacy and autonomy, including most importantly guidelines concerning informed consent and confidentiality. Institutional-level review boards, whose mandate is to review the ethics all university-based research projects involving human participants, ensure these policies are applied in all research conducted at their university. The ethics of a public-oriented and participative approach to research that performance-based research projects like Transforming Stories espouse can be difficult for these boards to evaluate.

Simply put, is it possible, or even desirable, to protect people’s identities when the purpose of the research is to find effective ways for people to engage in public speech?

In text-based research projects, “protecting” the anonymity of community-based research participants is a relatively straightforward task. With arts-based research, on the other hand, the identity of the participant/creator cannot always be completely hidden, since the source of the knowledge and the vehicle for disseminating it through performance are one and the same. In other words, when participants perform, they are visible—this is the nature of performance. In fact, this is also highly desirable to many of our community partners and participants.

How then, do performance-based research project protect participants from invasions into their privacy? Are there ways that the public identity of research participants can be known without intruding on their private lives?

At Transforming Stories we recognize that different stages of the performance creation process demand different levels of confidentiality. For example, the workshop process is open only to participants and members of the research team. It is a collective space, but it is not a public space. The workshops are a place to try things and then collectively decide what will become public.

In contrast with the workshop as a private space, at Transforming Stories performances members of the public are invited to connect with the creators of the artistic works and will know something about their identities. Measures are taken, however, to direct audiences attention so that they do not intrude into the participants’ private lives.

At performances, we use a number of aesthetic tools to frame the presentation as being a public expression of opinion and experiential community-based knowledge—not personal stories.

  • Prior to the performance, the audience is told that the performers are playing fictional characters and that the stories are not only about their own lives, but about things they have observed;
  • Plays frequently begin with performers introducing themselves and their characters, with emphasis on describing the kind of lives their characters have; Transforming Stories facilitators suggest to performers that they may answer post-performance questions by starting with “I think my character would….” rather than answering in their own name;
  • Participants are invited to create characters that include some characteristics of their own (if only their physical appearance) but also characteristics that are not true of them, with the goal of making it impossible for the audience to feel sure that they know what might be true about the performer and what might be purely fictional.

What is most important is that participant-performers are identified as public interveners who control what information about their personal lives that the audience knows, or thinks they know, even if the audience knows the name and/or physical appearance of the participant.

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