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THEA 210W Reading for Performance (Fort)

Primary Sources

The distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources varies according to the discipline you are working in. A primary source in science is very different from one in history. Nonetheless, understanding the basic difference between these three types of sources and how they can be used will result in better quality production research.

Primary sources have a direct connection to the period you are researching, whether it is the world within the play, the world surrounding the play, or the period you have chosen to set your production in. These sources were either produced at the time or by people who were involved in the events. Some examples include:

  • The play text itself.
  • Other artistic works by the author or produced during the same era.
  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, artistic manifestos by people who were involved in or observed the play.
  • Reviews of the original production or subsequent productions of a play.
  • Photographs from the era and other direct evidence of life and material culture.
  • Newspaper articles about events.

These kinds of materials will help you gain a connection to the world of the play and its author and cultivate an original creative approach from a standpoint of deep understanding.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources interpret, analyze, and contextualize a given subject. They usually involve analysis of primary sources, such as literary texts or historical documents. They will help you understand the context that you need to interpret primary source materials, and gain insight into the existing scholarly conversation on a given play and its author.

For academic research, the best practice is to draw primarily on scholarly journals and books published by academic presses. Although they can vary in quality, they generally are peer-reviewed and thus are vetted by other experts in the field before publication. Typical secondary sources include: 

  • Scholarly journal articles - an in-depth exploration of a single topic or research question, usually limited in scope.
  • Edited collections of essays. Similar to journal articles, but gathered to reflect diverse perspectives on a given author or topic.
  • Monographs - books exploring a single topic in depth, such as a major theme across an author's body of work or an artistic movement.
  • Biographies.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources offer a summary of existing knowledge on a topic. Some examples include:

  • Encyclopedias (including Wikipedia)
  • Historical Dictionaries
  • Textbooks 

These kinds of sources are valuable as a source of beginning-level, background knowledge on a topic. They may include lists of works cited or recommendations for further reading that can help you do more in-depth research and gain a deeper understanding of a topic.

For scholarly research, citing tertiary sources is usually discouraged except in limited circumstances. This is because you expected to develop more than a beginning-level knowledge of your research topic, and tertiary sources usually remain at a superficial level. You may miss out on important nuances and complexities as a result.

Also, tertiary sources may repeat widely held assumptions that have have been questioned or disproven in more carefully researched recent scholarship.