Real performance: ordinary people and the problem of acting

Ruth McElroy, Stephen Lacey

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


In popular as well as academic debates on popular factual entertainment, participants’ performances have become a key site of contest. Often such contests entail heavily laden value-judgements around ideas of authenticity, pretence, and sincerity. The form of such shows – not least, their editorial grammar - seems to lend itself to such adjudications as they position the audience as knowing judges of others’ performances on screen. In being invited to perform the role of judge and jury (see Skeggs and Wood 2007), audiences are thus offered the opportunity to make use of a discourse of performance that is neither socially scientific nor aesthetically professional, but which does reveal something of how both realms may be understood as part of everyday life. This paper presents original, empirical material drawn from an ethnographic piece of research based upon one former participants family’s viewing of a historical reality programme, BBC Wales’ Coal House series (Indus for BBC Wales, 2007 -). Very much work in progress, we seek to share some initial findings concerning the ways in which ordinary people – i.e. non-actors - , who have appeared on screen to perform a specific historical role, have drawn from unspoken but complex notions of acting, pretence and truth in order to understand both their own performances and those of other non-actors. The terms in which these performances are understood draws heavily on notions of sincerity and ‘being real’ that belong to both everyday and academic/actor training discourses. In raising questions about the fluid nature of performance in non-drama television formats, the paper will use acting theory and approaches drawn from drama-in-education to explore distinctions between ‘pretence’ and ‘enactment’. In particular, it will use Michael Kirby’s performance matrix to investigate the relationship between the real and the imaginary and ‘acting’ and ‘non-acting’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationN/A
Publication statusPublished - 8 May 2009
Event Acting With Facts Conference - University of Reading
Duration: 8 May 20098 May 2009


Conference Acting With Facts Conference


  • popular factual entertainment; documentary; television history
  • ordinary people and acting
  • performance; performance matrix


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