performative inquiry.
{with lynn fels}

Performative Inquiry

Performative inquiry is a way of being in research—

an invitation to be wide-awake to stop moments

that come into being

as we perform

(and are performed)

—on stage, in the classroom, in relationship to each other and the environments within which we find ourselves, collectively, individually.

Performative inquiry embraces performance
as an action-space of exploration, reflection and learning.

Our implements of inquiry are

our bodies,

our imaginations,

our experiences,

our feelings, our memories, our stories,

our biases, our judgments and prejudgments,

our hopes and desires, our curiosities and questions

—simply, our very being, becoming.

The catalyst for inquiry may be a question, an event, a theme, an issue, a feeling, an encounter, a relationship, a line of poetry, a fragment of lived experience, a narrative quest, a human condition: any phenomenon which we wish to explore through performative engagement, inquiry, and reflection.

What matters? What if? What happens? So what? Who cares?

What is my learning in this moment here and now?

a tug on my sleeve

calls me to attention

stop moment in action

Performative inquiry offers educators and researchers the opportunity to make visible political, social, economic, cultural, communal, and individual injustices, conventions, expectations, presumptions, ambitions, hidden motivations,
the unspoken, the not yet known.

Performative inquiry may serve as an interruption, illuminating the complexities of an issue, a catalyst for personal agency and collective action.

Performative inquiry invites us to be aware of the scripts and environments, which we perform and perform us.

Performative inquiry invites us to reflect on what is, what has been, and what has yet to be imagined.

Performative inquiry writes itself through performance or through performative writing, in ways that open us to new possibilities, new ways of being.

in the wind clothes dance on a line

Who are we
in the presence of each other
as we co-create and re-create new possible worlds

laying down a path in walking?


Fels, L. (2015). Woman Overboard: Pedagogical Moments of Performative Inquiry. In Susan Walsh, Barbara Bickel, and Carl Leggo, (Eds.) Arts-based and contemplative practices in research and teaching: Honoring presences. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Fels, L. (2011). A Dead Man’s Sweater: Performative Inquiry Embodied and Recognized. Shifra Schonmann (Ed.). Key Concepts in Theatre Drama Education. Netherlands: Sense. 339-343.

Fels, L. (2010). Coming into Presence: The Unfolding of a Moment. Journal of Educational Controversy, 5(1). Bellingham, Washington: Western Washington.


“We know that we learn through drama. But how do we conceptualize drama or performance as an action site of learning?”

“Look up the word performance in the etymological dictionary,” instructs Lee Stothers (2002), who is studying nô theatre. “I’ll check out complexity theory.”

“The etymolo— what?”

The etymological dictionary explains the roots and meaning of words…. with onion skin thin pages, which I turn…in search of meaning….


“ance” means action like “dance” or “prance”…I pause…Heideggar (1927/1996) writes of knowledge as a verb, “knowing, doing, being” action: How do we “know” how to ride a bicycle? Read a manual? Maybe…. yet it is in the physical act of doing, knowing, being, that we learn to ride a bike…. and when our first try doesn’t work, we have to be creative, shift our balance, or pedal faster, so let’s add “creating” to our understanding of knowledge as action (Fels 1995).

“And what about not knowing, and undoing within the action of learning?” asks Kirsten (Frantzich 2013).

Knowledge as verb = knowing, doing, being, creating, undoing, not knowing = Action!

Or what we might call learning…. back to the etymological dictionary….

“form” means structure…simple enough… Eisner (1998) reminds us that structure embodies action, invites action, is the artifact of action. A wooden chair and a plastic chair tell a different story of how each was created….one begins with the felling of a tree, the other begins in a chemistry lab….Form embodies action.

And “per”? Per means “through”—

The prefix informs the word that follows, in this case “form” as in “through form” we come to action (ie. knowing doing being creating undoing, not knowing)

Ah, but wait a minute! Per also means “through the destruction of form”!

So that per/form/ance means simultaneously through form and through the destruction (interruption, disruption) of form we come to action…!

And here we stumble into a dynamic action space that complexity theorists call

the edge of chaos


patterns of interrelations

are continually created

and recreated through

an “endless dance

of co-emergence.”

(Waldrop, 1992, 12)

The edge of chaos where something new is created…

Thus Performance is an action site of learning: knowing doing being creating undoing not knowing, where simultaneously through form and through the destruction, disruption, interruption of form, learning dances into presence.


Fels, L. (1995). In Dialogue with Grumet: Erasing the Line. Educational Insights. Vancouver, B.C.

Fels, L. & Stothers, L. (1996). Academic performance: between theory and praxis. In J. O’Toole & K. Donelan (eds.), Drama, culture, and education (pp. 255-261). Australia: IDEAS.

Eisner, E. (1998). The kinds of schools we need: Personal essays. Portsmount, NH: Heinemann.

Frantzich (2013). Theatre of the Psyche: The emergence of Embodied Theatre Ecology & the Stage as Home(be)coming. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, California.

Hiedeggar, M. (1927/1996). Being and Time. Joan Stambaugh (Trans.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Stothers, D. L. (2002). Sonic visions : intertextual relations of words, music and image in Japanese nô theatre.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. (1992). Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster.


and so, i stumble into the unknown landscape

of a wind-swept outport where clothes dance on lines

and possibilities for exploration stretch beyond

the cold blue horizon of the atlantic ocean.

Mario is hamming it up in the rowboat. I recruited him as my crew for an early morning spot of cod-jigging in the bay, a decision I am beginning to regret. Oblivious to my poetic struggle to create an impoverished coastal outport in lecture room 210, he halfheartedly pulls at the oars and sneaks copious gulps of screech from an imaginary flask, slyly winking at the audience. The class, amused, follows our conversation. Outside, the january evening weeps winter rain against the windows.

“Look, Mario.” I sweep a generous hand across the horizon of blackboards. “The village looks like the broken grin of an old man’s smile. Boarded up windows. Fallen fences. How many people live here now?”

Mario shrugs. Coughs. Tugs haphazardly at an oar.

“Remember that signpost outside of town, just where the road bends?”

I prompt him. I am sweating under the layers of fisherman’s sweater, life jacket and overalls, trying to kickstart our role drama on the fishing industry in Newfoundland. The outport refuses to materialize. Why isn’t this working?

“Never seen it,” says Mario with another swallow of screech.

You’re wrecking the logic of the drama. Of course you’ve seen it! You’ve lived here all your life! The town is only ten houses long!

“You know the sign.” I jab him in the ribs and point emphatically at a sign that I had taped earlier in the day on the blackboard: Come By Chance — Pop. 157. I am silently cursing him under my breath. Come on, Mario, work with me on this. But he refuses to play along with my paper props. Refuses to follow my anticipated script.

“Nope. Never laid eyes on it. But,” he says, suddenly rocking the boat with unexpected enthusiasm. “I know how we can figure out the population.”

“How?” I am suspicious. Is he going to swamp the boat? The class eagerly leans forward on their seats — sea vultures waiting for us to capsize.

“Count the clotheslines!” He stands triumphantly in our rowboat, pointing to the blackboard. “One, two, three ....”

And to my amazement, clotheslines magically appear — diapers, workmen’s overalls, cotton dresses, woolen socks, sheets dancing in the wind. The entire population of the outport leaps into being. Within a single moment, Mario captures the very heart soul body of the outport and gifts us life. Realized in the choreography geography of cloth limbs dancing on lines in the wind, the outport not yet known becomes known.

Within a moment, the not yet known is realized and recognized, and possibilities open to exploration.

and so i realize performative inquiry

and, in that moment,

recognize a journey landscape of possibility.

Fels, L. (1998). In the Wind, Clothes Dance on a Line. JCT: Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 14 (1), 27-36.

Scholarly Explanation

In the wind clothes dance on the line is the metaphor for my research, as clotheslines appeared in my life multiple times, as a young child watching my mother bringing in the clothes on a cold January morning, my father’s shirts, stiff as frozen sails, set to unfreeze next to the radiators; the clothesline Marlene and I strung between two basketball hoops in preparation for First Flight, an analogy the resonated as I sought to understand the concept of enactivism as related to performance; the clothesline that appeared beneath my fingers, the day I started to write the first draft of my thesis. And of course, the stop moment that was Mario counting the clothes dancing on the line in our imaginary Newfoundland outport.

Stop Moments

A stop moment arrives unbidden, tugging on your sleeve, calling you to attention. A stop moment is a moment of revelation, surprise, dismay, possibility.

A stop moment is a moment of listening.

A stop moment is a new awareness of possibility, recognition of oneself in relation to others, to one’s environment, to one’s cultural, communal, presence.

A stop moment is an awakening to habits of engagement.

A stop moment is a calling attention to what is hidden—a vulnerability, an intimacy.

A stop moment is a moment that makes us pause, even as we are in action, a coming to a cross-roads in which a decision, an action, a relationship is to be enacted….

A stop moment is an invitation to reflect on choices of action, the why of our choice, a revelation that we might choose to engage differently

Stop moments open us to vulnerability, to being present with others, to becoming wide-awake

A stop moment doesn’t tell us anything. A stop moment simply is a moment like any other moment. It is in the noticing, the reflecting, the recognition of a stop moment, that we open ourselves to new possibilities of learning, of action, of being present with each other.

A stop moment is the moment before we meet ourselves as if for the first time….

A stop moment is not a stop. A stop moment is an invitation to recognize who we are in a moment when we are not paying attention. A stop moment is simultaneously a moment of risk, a moment of opportunity. A stop moment reveals who we are, in this moment, here and now.


Appelbaum, D. (1995). The stop. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fels, L. & Belliveau, G. (2008). Exploring curriculum: Performative inquiry, role drama and learning. Vancouver, B.C.: Pacific Education Press

Tug on a Sleeve

“Okay, Jack has cut down the beanstalk. The giant is dead. What should happen next to end our play?” The children stare at me. “Wait” I interrupt them before they can say a word, “I have a great idea! Let’s all hold hands and dance around the giant singing, Hurray, hurray, the giant’s dead! Now we can all go home to bed.” I stop breathless waiting for applause. In their expressions, I read (as you might be thinking now), “what a stupid idea!” And then, there’s a tug on my sleeve. It’s my 8 year-old assistant director, the kid who didn’t want to be in the play at all. “I know what we can do,” he says. “I can be the police officer who comes to arrest Jack and Jill and their mother for killing the giant and stealing all his things!”

A tug on the sleeve is a stop moment that calls us to attention, to listen, to become mindful of the relational space that opens between us; that is being played into presence. We perform our lives, half sleep-walking, as Thoreau writes, in our haste, our determination to complete whatever task we have set out to do, or caught in our habits of engagement, limited by our expectations, perceptions or failure of imagination. A tug on the sleeve, like a child’s tears, like a child who wants to play a cow who is a goalie in the NHL, like a young man stepping into presence in the midst of a high school musical, like the child who reimagines the telling of Jack & the Beanstalk, invites us to pause, to listen, to reflect, to reconsider our habits of engagement and relationship with others, our environment, our way of being present. A tug on the sleeve is an invitation to truly engage in the moment and attend to what we are invited to imagine anew.


Fels, L. (2012). Collecting Data Through Performative Inquiry: A Tug on the Sleeve. Youth Theatre Journal, 26 (1), 50–60.

Fels, L. (2010). Coming into Presence: The Unfolding of a Moment. Journal of Educational Controversy, 5(1). Bellingham, Washington: Western Washington University.

Fels, L. (2015). E-Postcards: Reflection as a Scholarly Pedagogical Act. In Warren Linds & Elinor Vettraino (Eds.). Playing in a house of mirrors: Applied theatre as reflective pedagogical practice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense.

Laying Down a Path in Walking

In Education, we often speak of following a path, or guideposts that point out the road to take (or not). What is your path in life? What happens if we release ourselves from the metaphor of a path as something to follow? Varela’s (1987) concept of “laying down a path in walking” invites us to reimagine our lives and ourselves as active, dynamic, adaptive, protagonists in our own journeys.

Imagine a field of snow. You are walking with a friend across the field. You turn and look at the path you have laid down in walking. In some places, the snow was deep, and you sank up to your knees. Halfway across, your friend stopped to make a snow angel. The snow was sticky so together you made a snowman, rolling balls of snow, to make the body, the head, leaving evidence of where you gathered the snow. You can see your footprints in the snow, the field, like a painter’s blank canvas, is an artifact of your journey together. A canvas that would mark your presence differently, had you marched across the field alone.

Here the field of snow receives us, and we, in turn, mark our presence, laying down a path in walking.

Wanderer, there is no path

You lay down a path in walking…

…and when turning around

you see the road you’ll

never stop on again.

wanderer, path there is none,

only tracks on ocean foam

—Antonio Machado,


Poem (extract) by Antonio Machado, from Proverbios y Cantqres. (1930) as translated by F. Varela, 1987: 63.

Varela, F. (1987). Laying down a path in walking. In W.I. Thompson (ed.), GAIA: a way of knowing — political implications of the new biology (pp. 48-64). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne.