Embodying the Other: Pedagogical Research to Achieve Loving Perception

WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 2016Cripping actors

Lights, camera, action. This is a familiar phrase in the filmmaking world. It's a condensed retelling of what goes into creating a movie, a documentary or a television show. For Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock, associate professor of communication studies at UNCW, the popular phrase disregards the intricate and sometimes arduous process of making a film through the lens of performance ethnography. According to Scott-Pollock, performance ethnography is a way to experience and find empathy with another cultural experience through performing the narratives of individuals within that culture.

In 2013, Scott-Pollock and her team filmed a piece of performance ethnography entitled Cripping. The film focused on the experiences of physically disabled identifying professionals. Scott-Pollock traveled the country in order to interview these 26 people. She published several articles on their experiences and presented their narratives at multiple conferences. Eventually, she decided to create an undergraduate class whose goal was to create a film composed of these narratives performed by communications undergraduate students.

"Sometimes participants don't want their identities shared," said Scott-Pollock about the choice to use student actors instead of the participants she interviewed. "That's vulnerable, that's scary. That was definitely the case with who I was interviewing - physically disabled professionals. They don't want to be on film because they're disclosing sometimes very negative things about their workplaces… So they did this under the cover of confidentiality."

Getting these narratives right is often a tricky part of performance ethnography. The Cripping crew desired to tell the stories of physically disabled professionals without sensationalizing disability and without presenting real, complex human beings as caricatures. Because of this, actors were not fitted with assistive technologies like wheelchairs, crutches or slings. Instead, students had to portray disability in more subtle, nuanced ways. For instance, one student performed the narrative of a man with paraplegia. Rather than provide a wheelchair that the able-bodied actor did not need, Scott-Pollock instructed him to only act from the neck up.

"Performance ethnography tries not to be too realistic," Scott-Pollock said. "This idea that 'maybe this is the real person,' which is why you have someone who is not disabled clearly not pretending to be disabled… One of the dangers of ethnography is what we call the 'curator's exhibitionist.' It becomes, 'Oh, look at these exotic people. Don't you feel so bad for them? Oh my goodness, they're so brave.' That's sometimes what we end up doing to people. So this separates them. It's like 'No, this is a story and it could be my story, it could be your story. It is our story as human beings.'"

Because of this goal of authenticity and anonymity, Scott-Pollock often found herself "caught between bodies," serving as mediator between participants and actors. She instructed students on participants' speech patterns, mannerisms and attitudes.

Part of the class consisted of students doing extensive research on disability and performance ethnography. They were required to keep journals throughout the class that chronicled their understanding of their character. Sometimes she came across students who had trouble empathizing with their subjects. One student even went so far as to voice disbelief of his subject's claims, stating that he didn't believe a disabled man could accomplish what his subject had accomplished. This is an example of the very able-bodied, homogenous attitude that performance ethnography seeks to combat, according to Scott-Pollock. She had to guide her students toward finding the personal truth of a differing cultural experience.

"Really, all of us are on this continuum that is somewhere between Olympic athlete and dead," said Scott-Pollock, "and the line where we become disabled is a completely artificial construction. In that is this idea of having students think about how this could be your body. Any time this could be your body. These illnesses that attacked these bodies could attack yours. These accidents that happened could happen to yours."

Since its creation, Cripping has been disseminated as an exemplary piece of pedagogy. In 2014, it was selected for competitive screening in Washington D.C. at the National Communication Association. Liminatlities, an international, peer-reviewed journal of performance studies with a 20 percent acceptance rate, published the film and accompanying essay in 2015. Scott-Pollock hopes the film will continue to get more exposure as she focuses on her next project, an ethnographic performance about aging and memory loss.

--Caitlin Taylor