Research cabaret: come hear the music play

Lecturers: you can learn a lot from Freddie Mercury. Steve Mann

Can you imagine attending a lecture on, say, string theory and finding that the lecturer was actually explaining this complex scientific concept using his own words – sung to the tune of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?

It would be a memorable learning experience. It’s also likely that when later asked about string theory you might be inclined to remember some if not all of what you had heard.

Theatrical university lecturers have been amalgamating their theatre presentations into their academic lectures for some time. We’ve been walking into the wilder side of educational presentation by making it a little or a lot entertaining. Since I began working as an adult educator, I have been doing just that; combining my musical theatre side with my intellectual presentation side.

When I first borrowed from the cabaret repertoire and delivered a lecture on non-verbal communication this way to my undergraduate students over 30 years ago, they remembered it. They were even referring to it as they graduated out of their final year. Since then I have been pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a lecture and, more importantly, what constitutes a conference presentation.

Research cabaret

The OECD redefined research in 2002 to include performances. I included a cabaret on “Doing a Doctorate” as one of the publications in my doctoral dissertation.

Since then I have advanced the idea of cabaret as academic discourse and I now refer to my presentations as cabaret research. I see them both as a way of communicating my research – and also of pushing the boundaries of what constitutes research publication. My latest cabaret addresses the question “what happens when a researcher wants to publish differently?

In these cabarets I open with a song that introduces the idea of presenting ideas. I have recently been using lyrics from the 1989 Stephen Sondheim song [Putting It Together]:

a vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. It has to come to life.

Putting It Together.

This catches the audience’s attention. Within a few bars they realise that I can actually sing. I trained with Jenny Heaton, the Sydney-based singing teacher, and also sang with a group called Raglan.

As the cabaret progresses I chat a little with the audience. At certain points the music starts playing and I branch into song. The cabaret finishes with a song encouraging the audience also to embrace difference using the lyrics from Our Time, another Sondheim number:

It’s our time, breathe it in; worlds to change and worlds to win.

Merrily We Roll Along.

The shape of the show

When I first started writing and performing research cabarets they were two-act cabarets. In the break I would encourage the audience to write rhyming couplets, which I incorporated into the first song of the second act.

Now I tend to write a one-act cabaret, which is completed in 40 minutes and leaves time for a few questions. This fits neatly into a one-hour lecture or conference presentation slot.

Communicating through songs

I use songs to convey ideas because singing has always done this for me. While I was undertaking a post-graduate diploma in radio, film and television I had the opportunity to become a morning chat-show radio broadcaster. I found it easy to select songs to play while my guest and I took a speaking break.

I thought that everyone thought in songs. Now I recognise it more as one of the range of intelligences in a view of Howard Gardner‘s Multiple Intelligences.

On a broader educational spectrum, there would appear little doubt that when Deborah Kerr sings Getting To Know You to her new class of Siamese students in The King and I, she is telling them about the dilemmas of meeting new people.

At the more extreme end of musical theatre, when the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods pours out her heart about the problems of raising children in Children Will Listen, parents in the audience relate to these ideas – even though they do not see themselves as witches or even malevolent. I used this song for a keynote address to early childhood professionals in the early days of my career as an academic and public speaker.

Children Will Listen.

When I have toured these cabarets to other universities I make clear that my message is not “do as I do”. Singing is not everyone’s strong suit! What I do encourage them to do is to embrace their creative self with their academic or research self and thus explore new ways of communicating the ideas that come out of their research. Some people think of this as emphasising the idea of a researcher’s voice.

In the traditional ways of publishing research, the researcher had to be so objective that their humanity was lost. In the current era of research publication, there is a greater awareness that the researcher carries a range of biases or idiosyncrasies into the research. Making the bias and assumptions transparent is a way of showing the rigour of the research.

The next big challenge for my ongoing development of this form of academic communication is to write and rehearse a cabaret that will be presented as the keynote address at the Enhancing Practice conference in Toronto next month. This presentation will take in the research I have been undertaking for the past two years and encourage conference participants to consider incorporating reflective practice, reflexive practice and investigative practice into their own work.

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