NRN Blog: Transitioning from MA to PhD

 

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For our next installment in the NRN Blog Series, we’re delighted to feature committee member Ella Hawkins! Ella is a first-year PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research focuses on the representation of Elizabethan England in 21st century stage design for Shakespeare, and is funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. 

 

‘How’s the PhD going?’

What counts as things ‘going well’ during the first months of a PhD? Getting out of bed before 10am each day? Finding some sort of routine that facilitates productivity? Reading three books per week? Writing something (anything!)?

I’ve now been a PhD student for exactly one term. I attended my first welcome event ten days after submitting my MA dissertation, and I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to figure out what it means to be a doctoral researcher. My usual response to the question above is ‘Okay! I think…?’. This blog post offers a more detailed insight into my experience of transitioning from MA- to PhD-level study.

Out with the old, in with the new

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Welcoming the new student cohort with tea and cake

Unlike many, I stayed on at the same institution for both my MA and PhD. This has brought some continuity to my transition, and meant that I had a head start in settling in to my work environment. I already knew the staff and (most of) my fellow PhD students, I was familiar with the library and the various resources available to Institute students, and I could head straight to my favourite coffee shop in Stratford-upon-Avon to get stuck into some reading. I even had some crossover in terms of supervision. My MA dissertation supervisor became my second PhD supervisor, so I didn’t have to worry so much about building new academic relationships as I moved on to a new course.

Despite all this, I didn’t realise how different my surroundings would feel at the turn of a new academic year. All my MA friends disappeared, and were replaced by a new cohort. My familiar routine went on without me being a part of it. Students trooped in to their seminars – modules I’d known and loved – while I was left to figure out how to work alone. The new students seemed like a great bunch, but I’d lost the support network that helped get me through my Masters. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the way that I had just a few weeks previously.

Imposter syndrome

Feeling insecure, unworthy, and out of place is an issue that can affect PhD students at any stage of their research. For me, continuing directly from MA to PhD led to some serious imposter syndrome – particularly during the first few weeks of my new course.

Having submitted my MA dissertation just days before beginning my PhD, I didn’t receive my final results until I was almost a month into my doctoral studies. What if my work wasn’t good enough for me to be moving on to doctoral research? Would my supervisor be disappointed by what I’d produced? I had used my MA dissertation as an opportunity to begin exploring some of the ideas that would be key to my PhD research; if it didn’t go down well (I told myself), there would likely be serious repercussions for the success of my current project. Although post-deadline despair has been a familiar feeling throughout my academic career, it seemed like the stakes had never been higher.

Finding my feet

Happily, things turned out well on the MA results front. As the initial wave of imposter syndrome retreated, I knuckled down and got to work on my first bit of proper PhD research. Figuring out exactly what’s expected of me as a doctoral student was the next twist on the transition rollercoaster.

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Mind-mapping one’s way to productivity…

I always knew where I was at during my MA. A module lasted 10 weeks, and was worth just over 10% of my overall degree. I had to turn up to seminars, do the prescribed reading, and complete the assignments. At the end of each term I could cross a couple of modules off my mental to-do list and know that I was one step closer to donning a graduation robe. Then dissertation season came along; I had a monthly meeting with my supervisor, and at the end of the summer I needed to hand in a 15,000-word document. It wasn’t an easy year by any means, but I always had a good indication of my progress and performance.

A PhD is more… freeform. I have monthly supervisions (as I did while completing my MA dissertation), and there are a couple of interim deadlines that I need to stick to, but other than that my schedule is largely up to me. What do I feel like researching this month? Where would be a logical place to start? PhDs are big. They’re huge. Finding a way to divide things into more manageable chunks is something I’m still learning about, as well as the volume of material I’m expected to produce between supervisions.

Looking forwards

Although I find it hard to answer the inevitable ‘How’s the PhD going?’ enquiries, I’m feeling excited about the prospect of working in this way for the next three (or, realistically, four) years. Thinking about my topic gives me warm fuzzy feelings. It’s my little slice of the theatre pie, and I crafted it myself to include all the things I love most about Shakespearean performance. I’m developing a way of working that works for me; it feels good to organise my own schedule and find ways to be productive each day. Getting to know a new cohort of students is fantastic, and it’s even better to be supported by such an esteemed supervisory team and funding body.

I know that I’ll likely fall in and out of love with my project as I hit obstacles and opportunities along the way. But I want to remember the positive feelings I’m feeling right now. I’m doing what I love, and exciting times are ahead.

 

Twitter: @EllaMcHawk

WordPress Blog: https://ellahawkins.wordpress.com/

Midlands3Cities Research Profile: http://bit.ly/2fLaODv

Peer Reviewing and Friendship in Academia

Some NRN friends have kindly shared their peer review process anonymously. We think this is a fascinating read that can help people set up supportive group working practices…

We are a group of early career researchers in drama, theatre, and performance who completed our PhDs within a few months of each other. On one level, we’re just friends who read for each other, and people who maintained friendship outside of capitalist academia. On another level, the things we’ve learned from reading for each other can be carried forward to how we read for others, and (we hope) help inform your peer reviewing, too. As we often said to each other regarding chapter drafts: take what’s useful and ignore the rest!

We don’t really remember the first things we shared with each other. But we do know that by winter of our third year, we were sharing full chapter drafts on a regular basis. By summer, we were exchanging longer drafts about once a month. But we also shared shorter stuff much more frequently. Blog posts, tricky emails, job applications…if it was going public, we trusted each other to read it first. We got used to a pattern of sharing writing.

The trust that came with friendship was really important for our comments on each other’s work. We became buffers for each other before the work was shared higher up, with supervisors or other peer reviewers. Running writing past each other became a kind of safety check. We counted on each other to be honest but constructive in criticism. For example, we got into the habit of praising the parts that were good as well as offering critiques when giving feedback. Because we’re all from different subfields, we were also able to inform each other’s reading: our bibliographies are full of books and articles that we wouldn’t necessarily have found without each other. As much as it’s fun to read something right in your own field and feel like an expert, having an outside reader and being an outside reader is really valuable. We wanted the work to be as good as it could possibly be.

Strategies to Try

One strategy is to try to imagine that you are opening a book: does this chapter read like a book? Try to imagine it as a finished piece of work, in a journal or on a shelf. This helps to set the bar, and establishes the work as a professional piece of writing. So you’re not watering down the other person’s work, or patronising them. It’s just about identifying what’s convincing and what’s not, and saying what you think might fix any problems (in a constructive way of course).

Familiarity with each others’ style helps, too; the more you read, the more you get to know each other’s modes of expression. You have to remember that your instinct may be to add a comma or change a sentence, but it might work just as well without that intervention. You can make suggestions without trying to impose a style. Finding the language for that gets easier with practice. Two phrases that are really helpful:

“Take what’s useful and ignore the rest”

“These are suggestions”

With that approach, the comments become a dialogue—maybe the comma is needed, maybe it’s not, but it’s up to the writer. It’s important to understand what’s helpful at which stage of writing; saying “the structure is all wrong” three weeks before submission is not helpful! It’s also helpful to imagine yourself working on multiple levels. You might be commenting on commas one minute and asking big questions about the argument or the structure the next.

Something that happened as part of this process of reading and commenting was a transition from taking all of our supervisors’ comments all the time to understanding them as suggestions and choosing not to incorporate all of them. It raised our awareness of the fact that there are other readers in the world, always, and that every reader will approach the work differently.

In general, we took a “live dialogue” approach to commenting, rather than a “marking” approach. In other words, we would insert comments in the margins as we went along rather than writing up formalised feedback at the end—although we would often summarise our thoughts on the work overall in a brief email or final comment. But it’s important to remember that what you’re saying isn’t the final word on the draft; it’s part of a conversation.

Especially towards the end of a big project like a PhD, there’s value in stepping away from your own work and investing time and energy focusing on a completely different project. You learn from that, and it can become a kind of escape, an opportunity to disconnect and recharge.

Why It’s Helpful

One of the best parts of the process was the affective, absolute joy of a friend’s response back to an essay, and the experience of opening the Word document and seeing the comments. It often was the impetus to move on: a friend’s time taken to talk the work back to you encourages you to keep going. Sometimes we enabled each other to do the work that we could not do on our own. If you look forward to someone’s comments, if you look forward to how they enable you to do the work, that’s really valuable.

Built into this sharing was also permission to not read. We were all busy, and sharing always came with the understanding that the reader may or may not have space to read and comment. That ease of relationship became crucial and made us more comfortable to send again, to ask again.

A big part of that ease and trust was also recognising and acknowledging each other’s reading as labour. You could say that the labour of reading friends’ work is a feminist act. Certainly in our experience, women are more careful about how they request reading-as-labour. All of us have occasionally had emails from men who asked us to read things, which we did. But those requests were sometimes made in a less careful way, seemingly without awareness of the labour that goes into reading.

That isn’t to say that men can’t be feminist in their reading or their sharing of work; the feminist act is in how the request and the response are framed. In some ways, we’re attempting to resist the desire for women to be in competition with each other, the “divide and conquer” mentality. By resisting competition with each other, we resist the capitalist, neoliberal model of academia. The small acts of resistance inherent in reading for each other have helped us to take more pleasure in our work, to become more sensitive readers and peer reviewers, and and to nurture a powerful and valuable friendship.

Ultimately, we feel privileged to be in a friendship where we can work and share work without competition. We’re cautious of advocating a formulaic approach to peer reviewing and friendship. We didn’t formalise our own process until we sat down to write this blog post. There’s always an understanding that we’re all creating every day—and maybe that’s where the feminism is.

‘How to’ Navigate an Archive

Our latest blog post comes from the ever fantastic and knowledgeable Jill Sullivan. Jill completed her doctoral thesis on Victorian regional pantomime in 2005, and has since published a monograph, articles and book chapters on the subject. Her most recent publication is ‘English Pantomime and the Irish Question’ in Politics, Performance and Popular Culture: Theatre and Society in Nineteenth-century Britain, edited by Peter Yeandle, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards (Manchester University Press, 2016). She is currently co-authoring a book on optical entertainments in the nineteenth-century. Much of Jill’s research has been archive-based; in 2013 she decided to retrain as an archivist and now works as Archives Assistant at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, a role that enables her to support the research enquiries and searches of students and other academics. This dual relationship means she is one of the best people to talk about how to navigating an archive! – Ed.

Autumn is definitely in the air and the new research semester has started. Some of you will be at the start of your doctoral research, or starting to think about the archival research element of your work. Archival research can be exciting and rewarding; sometimes it can be frustrating, sometimes surprising and sometimes it can provide a whole new direction for your research. If you haven’t used an archive before, don’t worry – here’s a short ‘How To’ Guide to using archives…

What exactly is an archive? 

An archive contains a single or separate collections of material which may have originally belonged to individuals (an actor, writer, or designer for example), or a theatre company, such as the National Theatre or Bristol Old Vic. Because of this, materials that you are interested in researching may exist in different collections across a single archive (and in different archives!)

An archivist is responsible for the care and preservation of and providing access to those collections. The archivist is also responsible for maintaining the integrity of these collections and keeping them in their separate order; in other words collections cannot be mixed up. Unlike a library, materials are not sorted by subject matter so if different collections all have material related to the actor Sir Henry Irving, that material will not be taken out and put into a separate ‘Irving box’ – it will all be kept within the individual collections.

An archive comprises largely paper-based information. So, for theatre and performance history this may include: scripts, prompt copies, production photographs, playbills, programmes, financial records, correspondence, production notes, show reports….

University of Bristol Theatre Collection website screengrab

(Note: Some organisations, such as the V&A and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection are also accredited museums so their collections also include 3D objects, which may include set models, paintings, costumes, props, ceramics, make up, wigs.…)

How do I know which archive to use?

Find out what archives are out there that are relevant to your subject area. The APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) has an excellent website for UK collections.

There are also University Special Collections e.g. University of Kent (Templeman Collection), Birmingham and Glasgow. And don’t forget that there are major archives in the USA including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas; Harvard Theatre Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and the Billy Rose Archive at the New York Public Library. Some theatre companies retain their own archives, such as the National Theatre and the RSC. And Local Studies Libraries and County Record Offices often have good holdings for local theatre history.

You will need to research your research plans to find out where you need to be!

Researching the archive holdings
University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search screengrabMost archives will have an online catalogue. Remember to search these using different filters to find relevant materials. Don’t search too broadly (you might just regret putting ‘Shakespeare’ into a catalogue search!) but don’t be too narrow either – think around your subject.

Archive cataloguing systems often use literal spellings based on the way in which they were originally populated by an archivist (this isn’t Google!). You may need to try different versions of a name (e.g. Peter O’Toole, OToole or O Toole) to find relevant materials.University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search results

Bear in mind that all archives will have at least some uncatalogued items and that they will have different policies regarding researcher access to uncatalogued materials – if a collection has only recently been deposited, the archivist may yet have to check it for any confidential material (we have to adhere to the Data Protection Act); and some archives don’t allow access to any uncatalogued archives.

Contacting the archive and preparing for your visit

First of all, check the organisation’s website for general information about directions, opening times, closure periods etc. – this will help you to plan your research visit.

Please don’t turn up unannounced at an archive asking to see everything on Hamlet! Plan your visit.

Also check for any required identification that you will need to take with you and publicised rules about camera/copying materials and charges.

Then, use the online catalogue to identify items you’d like to consult. Make a note of the catalogue reference numbers. Once you have identified the items you’d like to see, start an email conversation with the archivist. Tell them what you are researching and for what purpose (e.g. an article or your thesis or dissertation) and what you’d like to see in their archive. Ask them if they have any advice about other related materials that may be of use to you in their collections (in case they have uncatalogued but accessible materials). It is much easier for an archivist to help a researcher if they know what the research project is about and the sort of materials you’re looking for.

Get to know your archivist and help them to help you! Remember that they want to make the archives accessible.

Contact the archive well in advance of a planned visit – not only do you need to check for any closure periods which may affect your plans, but the archivist needs time to retrieve the requested items ready for your visit. Agree a date (and time if necessary) for your visit. And it’s a good idea to just double check on any identification required.

Having established the items you want to see, work out how much time you think you’ll need at the archive. Bear in mind that archival material can contain research surprises so allow time to explore further. And be practical – there’s no point in ordering up lots of items if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

Some archives will have a limit on the number of items retrieved per visit or during a visit – you need to know this beforehand. Many archives are huge, with hundreds of thousands of items that take time to retrieve. Be patient and work with their retrieval systems.

Working in the archive

You’re finally there, in expectation of the research treasures contained within all those files and boxes! Make sure you introduce yourself to the archivist – we like to put faces to names! You will also be asked to complete a registration form/show identification when you arrive.

Although you may have found reprographics information on the organisation’s website, you should also clarify with the archivist at this point about copying/scanning/camera use. This varies from organisation to organisation and there will probably also be different procedures depending on whether you want images purely for personal reference or whether you want to make them public (in articles, conference presentations, exhibitions, and any social media use or blogs etc.) Archives also vary in how they class the use of images in theses.

The archive does not automatically own copyright on its collections. In establishing early on what you want images for, you will be able to timetable plans for arranging copyright clearance and permissions – this will be your responsibility although the archivist may well be able to help you with information about copyright holders and who to contact. Don’t leave copyright clearance until a month before you submit your thesis or paper – it will invariably take longer than you think!

When working at the archive, be aware of in-house regulations. Standard requirements are that you use pencils only (accidental ink marks can ruin original documents) and that you wear gloves (either cotton or nitrile) for handling photographs or glass plate negatives. When making your notes, always be sure to clearly detail the catalogue number or the box or accession number if it is uncatalogued, for each item, plus the collection that it comes from. If you are unsure, ask the archivist for the correct accession or catalogue number to cite.

This is important for three reasons. Firstly, you will need these details for your own citations and bibliography – there is nothing more irritating than getting to the final proofs for your work and finding that you didn’t make a note of the reference number, and you may not have time to revisit the archive. Secondly, if you want to request the item again on a later visit or for a copy of the item for publication it will enable the archivist to find it quickly. Thirdly, remember that these citations are not only for your own reference but may also be used as a reference point for others using your thesis/papers as a starting point for their own research.

Finally, when your work is submitted or you have work published, do let the archivist know – we love to hear about our researchers’ successes!


Committee Member Kate is a bit of a fan of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, so if you want to read some of her musings on this particular archive click here.

The Physicality of Writing

Committee member Kate Holmes invites everyone to take a break and look after your body. If you want to know about Kate’s research, check out her eprofile.

Think: eyes look to the side slightly. I raise my right hand, push it and the mouse across the desk, finishing the action with a downward pressure to cause the mouse to click and to put the in cursor place. I lift my right hand so that it comes to meet the left hovering over the keyboard. The action facilitated by the light engagement of shoulder muscles that hold the hands in place. Now, I push fingers down, hardly noticing the link between movement and mind. Without thinking, I press the backspace, not noticing how the process of writing is also edited through the movements I make which track back from finger to shoulder.

I’m struggling to work through an idea. My immediate instinct is to reach for my notebook. I lift the notebook with both hands, and lay it on my lap. One hand rests on the left edge of the notebook, whilst the right hand lifts to pick up the pen and position it over the page. Again, the right shoulder facilitates the movement of my hand pushing from left to right across the page, stepping downwards to fill it with my script.

Until 8 April this year I hadn’t really thought about how I use my body when I’m writing. Instead I very much thought of it as an activity of the mind. What changed my perception was when I was involved in an accident that left my right shoulder immobilised. I had just entered the last six months of my PhD and was very much in writing mode and was suddenly brought face-to-face with how I use my body and mind together when writing.

As you can see from the description above, the shoulder muscles I wasn’t able to engage are used in most of the activities of writing. But, not only that, being left with just one hand makes performing a range of tasks associated with it really difficult. When I write I often have files open on the floor or pieces of paper on my desk, so I frequently find myself reaching, lifting, crouching and using both hands to flick through papers. Obviously these activities were no longer possible in the same way.

But for me, the hardest part of temporarily losing the use of my right shoulder, was the link between the mind and the physical acts of typing or putting pen to paper. I experimented with using speech dictation software – in fact this post was written using it a few weeks back. For anyone who has ever tried to use this, it is a really strange experience. In fact, you might notice that I’m generally using quite short sentences in this post which is as a result of dictating. This sort of software requires more thought because you need to speak a full sentence rather than being able to delete as you go (you also need to be really careful about using the word ‘delete’ because it can remove something unintended! Can you guess what just happened!) There are commands you can use to edit text, but you generally need to have got the sentence out in one go first. Credit goes out to anyone who uses this sort of software every day, because although it is great I find it a real challenge. Although I can see how it might help when suffering from writers’ block because it feels such a different way of working from typing.

But when my brain was fuzzy through painkillers and I wanted to think through the fuzziness by putting pen to paper I couldn’t. I couldn’t capture or clarify those things I thought I might forget when I got back to work. When I physically write with a pen I feel like I’m accessing a different part of my brain. And, to be honest that is something that I had to put to one side for a while, (alongside my timetable for completion). Technology has meant that I could have a Google document that I could speech dictate into on my phone, but it’s still not the same…

So, I suppose the point of this post is really to try and make people privilege the relationship of your body to your mind – because I was in danger of forgetting it. Despite the fact that my research uses my bodily understanding of aerial practice, I still didn’t value my body enough in the writing process. This experience has made me realise I need a healthy body to really write well. That means that as I re-approach the last six months of my PhD I need to look after my body, because I might well have put writing in front of exercising or eating as healthily as I should. For me this is going to mean putting my body first in terms of doing my physio and trying not to push my body too far by working at my old work rate, before I even get back to exercising as I once did.

For you, particularly if you’re in your last stages of your PhD I’d love it if this post made you finish work early on a day you needed some rest, or encouraged you to go to the gym when it was rainy and you felt like the exercising but didn’t want to get wet. Put your body first now because we all rely on it: the act of writing is a physical one that is assisted by a strong healthy body and mind.

NRN Blog: Innovation in Research, Innovation in the STR

2014-09-13 12.36.04-1To tie in with the recent opening of registration for our symposium (what are you waiting for? Get going!), we asked our previous Chair, David Coates, to write about innovation in his research and in the STR at large — and we’re glad he did! David is a part-time doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick writing a thesis on Private and Amateur Theatricals in Britain, 1830-1914. He completed his MA by Research in 2010 with a thesis that interrogated the social, cultural, political and theatrical significance of the Chatsworth House Theatre and the Duchess of Devonshire’s Private Theatricals, 1880-1914.

David has been a member of STR since 2011 and sat on the Executive Committee after founding the NRN, from February 2012 until September 2015. He’s also a member of TaPRA, and was fortunate enough to sit on the Executive Committee as a Postgraduate Representative until Summer 2015. He continues to attend the Historiography working group at both TaPRA and at IFTR, and for the latter organisation acted as Administrator for the Warwick World Congress in 2014.

Innovation In My Research

The Call for Papers for the NRN’s annual symposium draws attention to the importance of innovation in academia and states that innovation is ‘at the core of our development as scholars’. Though undoubtedly true, our determination to find innovation in our work has occasioned a proliferation of micro histories that – as fascinating as they may be – ultimately fail to acknowledge the bigger picture. Equally, it has resulted in skewed theatre histories and has left some areas of our discipline heavily under-researched and underappreciated. Amateur theatre pre-1914 is but one of these areas.

Amateur theatricals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been investigated by a handful of scholars, including Sybil Rosenfeld, Gillian Russell, Kate Newey and Mary Isbell. More often than not, these histories have categorised and compartmentalised amateur performance into distinct types, such as Private Theatricals, Shipboard Theatricals, Garrison Theatricals and University Theatricals. These microhistories have their place – they’ve been enlightening and have contributed hugely to my research – but I think they’ve missed something crucial. They’ve lacked the scope to allow for understanding the relation these forms have to one another.

Way back in 2010 I started my PhD with an emphasis on Private Theatricals in country houses, but that focus very quickly expanded. You could say that I got distracted. I was convinced that so little had survived to tell the story of amateur theatre in the period, that any material to have made it through the last two centuries relating to amateurs in any form would help to contextualise my rather niche field. The truth was that there was more evidence surviving than I could have imagined and seeing as much of it as possible hasn’t been light on my pockets or my time. I’ve taken over 24,000 images of materials relating to nineteenth century amateur theatricals in Britain, and have created a database of the thousands of performances that I now know to have taken place. This database continues to grow!

It’s safe to say that some colleagues were concerned by the increasing scope of my project and I was encouraged to narrow my focus. Others thought I was mad to have gathered so much material and yet not put pen to paper to start writing my thesis. I too was beginning to question it! But, luckily I knew that there was method to my madness. In doing all of this research, the innovation came from the good fortune of being able to take a holistic approach. By looking very broadly at the field, at the various forms of amateur theatre previously studied, and at many lesser know examples of amateur performance, I was able to fully explore their interconnections for the first time.

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Figure 1: Lady Monckton became famous as an ‘amateur’ society actress. She was the member of many of the leading amateur dramatic societies and was frequently invited to perform as part of amateur theatricals across the country. Lady Monckton is the perfect example of the ‘professional amateur’ I have uncovered during my research. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

The research has revealed a group of what I term ‘professional amateurs’, who were invited to country house parties, were performing in charity theatricals in the West End, and were connected to the Canterbury Old Stagers and Windsor Strollers – two of the country’s most elite amateur societies.[Figure 1] Many of the male ‘professional amateurs’ had performed at Eton, Harrow, Cambridge or Oxford together, had mingled together at the Garrick Club, and had been involved in theatricals onboard ships and at garrisons. The well-documented literary theatricals of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, which otherwise had been assigned to a literary culture, could very firmly be connected to this world of ‘professional amateurs’.[Figure 2] Thus, my research reveals a network of aristocratic and middle class men and women who formed what could be perceived as a national amateur theatre network, well before any formal organisations, such as the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (1899), had been founded in Britain.

This holistic view has done much more than revealing the interconnections between amateur theatrical forms in the period. It’s also exposed interconnections with amateur sports and amateur music making, consequently documenting the changing attitudes to labour and leisure time through the century. I’ve uncovered the macro – at least in Britain! – but this work could undoubtedly be extended to look at the profusion of materials across Europe, North America and the Empire.

Figure 2: The theatricals of Charles Dickens have thus been viewed in isolation as part of a literary culture. Instead, this research reveals the amateur theatricals of Dickens and his company to be part of the emergence of amateur dramatics more broadly. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Figure 2: The theatricals of Charles Dickens have thus been viewed in isolation as part of a literary culture. Instead, this research reveals the amateur theatricals of Dickens and his company to be part of the emergence of amateur dramatics more broadly. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Finally, by taking a step back I’ve also uncovered a distinct repertoire for amateur theatre in the period. This repertoire may be used to challenge our current understanding of the nineteenth century theatrical canon – a canon which presently upholds the notion that only professional theatre is worthy of study. Expelling the hierarches and binaries associated with ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ theatre when looking at the canon, and beyond, could provide fresh perspectives.

Through this research I’ve become acutely aware that our discipline is skewed to focus almost entirely on professional theatre. This skew may well have derived from our desire to unearth innovations in theatre history. We know far more about the innovative amateurs from the turn of the twentieth century – such as the Elizabethan Stage Society, the Independent Theatre Society and the latter’s continental forerunners – than we do of the everyday amateur.[Figure 3]  I feel proud to be part of a group of scholars, including Claire Cochrane, Helen Nicholson and her colleagues on the AHRC Funded Project Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Place, who are taking an innovative approach by setting out to redress that imbalance!

Innovation and the Society for Theatre Research

When the STR was founded in 1948 the individuals who formed its first committee were innovative in applying academic rigor to a new field – Theatre Studies. Many of the same individuals had started to produce the journal Theatre Notebook in 1945 and saw the value in bringing those interested in theatre research together in a society. It was only in the previous year that Glynne Wickham had established the first university department to focus on theatre research in Britain, at the University of Bristol. The STR was undoubtedly at the forefront of this new and emerging field.

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Figure 3: A programme for the Elizabethan Stage Society’s production of Doctor Faustus produced by William Poel. The event took place at St. George’s Hall, a venue which was available to hire for amateurs and became a hub of upper-middle class amateur activity. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

On the STR’s website we can read of some of the organisation’s success stories. The STR played a crucial role in the twelve-year campaign for a dedicated Theatre Museum, which opened in Covent Garden in 1987 but sadly closed in 2007, with materials being transferred to the V&A’s Theatre Collections. The STR were also involved in the debates over the abolishment of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and fought for a clause to be written into the act which stated that the British Library would continue to be the repository for the script of every play given for public performance in Britain. The STR were also the driving force behind the establishment of an umbrella organisation for our discipline in 1957– the International Federation for Theatre Research.  In fact Eileen Cottis, one of the current Honorary Members of the STR’s Executive Committee, was at that meeting where IFTR was founded.

Some scholars would argue that the STR’s days as innovative are long gone. But perhaps the Society just doesn’t shout loud enough about its success stories anymore? Arguably, the STR’s continued commitment to support innovative writing and research is one of its greatest assets!

The STR’s annual Theatre Book Prize celebrates scholarship in British Theatre. Previous winners have included Michael Billington’s State of the Nation (Faber & Faber), Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow’s Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840-1880 (Iowa University Press/ University of Hertfordshire Press) and Patrick Lonergan’s Theatre and Globalisation: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era (Palgrave Macmillan). The Society is also a firm believer in funding new and original research. Thousands of pounds are given away each year to support scholars, with past awardees including the NRN’s Kate Holmes, the V&A’s Simon Sladen, the University of Glasgow’s Prof. Dee Heddon, the University of Bristol’s Dr. Catherine Hindson, and the University of Manchester’s Dr Kate Dorney.

If this isn’t its greatest asset, then it’s surely the STR’s pledge to support new talent for the professional stage through the annual Poel Event? In recent years, this event has gone from strength to strength, with workshops being led by Jeannette Nelson (Head of Voice, National Theatre), Cicely Berry (former Voice Director for the RSC), and Sir Ian McKellen.

Alternatively, it would be the STR’s investment in new and emerging scholars through the New Researchers’ Network. The NRN has built up a regular membership since it was formed in February 2012, with new and returning members coming together for study days, workshops and symposiums to share expertise, skills, approaches and knowledge. The Teaching Theatre Practice workshop was a particular success story, as it provided valuable training for researchers with very little experience of teaching practice, who may need to adapt their teaching style as our discipline becomes more and more practice-centric.

From its inception the STR has been committed to innovation in our field. While it may not have had influence over an act of parliament in recent years, today it shows that commitment through funding and supporting innovative new writing, practice and research. It therefore seems fitting that the New Researchers’ Network is asking its membership to consider their relationship with innovation – essentially that dreaded Viva question – ‘What is your contribution to the field?’. I look forward to hearing everyone’s answer to that question at the NRN’s Annual Symposium in Bristol!

How do YOU consider your relationship with innovation and your research? What new discoveries have you made in your work? Write about it for our blog: contact Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk to talk about your ideas! And once more, here’s another reminder to register for: the symposium on 6 July AND for the study day at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection on 5 July. The symposium hashtag is officially #NRN16. 

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection: ownership and the archive

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Evidence of the previous use of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s building as a printers.

Our latest blog post is by Kate Holmes, an STR NRN Committee member. She is in the third year of her PhD researching female aerial performers of the 1920s and early 1930s at the University of Exeter. She undertook her MA at the University of Bristol where she first developed her affection for the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. (You really should visit it!)

I’ll admit it, the title blog post is deliberately a little bit misleading. This isn’t a philosophical discussion inspired by a specific archive but is instead about my feelings of affection and ownership towards the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, an archive I first encountered during my MA at the University of Bristol.

There are a few things that make this archive special for me: it was my first (and you have to have a certain amount of affection for your first don’t you?); it was the place I developed an interest in theoretical archival concerns when working on Clare Thornton’s Unfurl artist-in-residence project, and practical archival concerns when employed by the Theatre Collection on a range of small projects from scoping materials to administrative and marketing support.

I can’t help but feel affection for this particular archive and just a little bit of ownership because of it. Part of that is because Unfurl gave me a chance to open boxes from the M&M Collection that hadn’t been opened for years before the Collection had been catalogued. (If you’re interested in reading about my thoughts on Unfurl, then this blog post for Theatre Bristol will tell you a bit more.) There are so many emotions that run through your body as you open a box and don’t know what you’re going to find. Carefully unpeeling the acid free paper is like unwrapping a present – just without the frenzy of ripping paper. What was special about this experience was the unusual situation of looking for something with an aesthetic rather than a research imperative – there is something liberating about that experience!

Affection is also a prevailing emotion because through working with this archive on an on-going basis I’ve been lucky enough to class these archivists as friends. Having worked both as a member of staff and a volunteer, I also know my way around the public reading room and back-stage in the stacks. For me, this archive is not a series of disembodied boxes, but is a series of rolling shelves and plan chests. Opposed to archives I visit as a guest, my home archive has a vast sense of physical space. I know where my archive boxes sleep.

Classing these archivists as friends also means I’m lucky enough to hear some of the discussions that go on about how best to make the huge variety of different materials available to researchers. (I’m only privy to a fraction of this, but I can promise you that it is fascinating!) And, that is something I really want to highlight, if you are interested in performance you would be unlucky not to find something of interest here. The University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s holdings range from live art and traditional theatre to my area of interest, popular culture and circus.

It is an archive that is interested in the many pasts of performance, including those that are more immediately passing, but it is also interested in inspiring new works. As part of Unfurl objects from the archive lived again through the moment of performance, acquiring new layers over the ones for which they were acquisitioned. Tinsel prints within the Collection inspired new creations that even included a tinsel print of Bradley Wiggins. For me, this is an archive that lives.

If you’re not aware of this particular archive, you should be.

NRN Blog: Surviving Your Viva

 

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Nora Williams

We’re particularly delighted to feature a blog post from our own Chair (or Fearless Leader, take your pick), Nora Williams. Nora recently completed her PhD at the University of Exeter on the intersections between print and performance of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling — you can find out more here — and now she extols her wisdom on making the most of your viva experience…

 

5:30am. My fratboy of an upstairs neighbour is blending something, or Hoovering. I can never quite tell. Normally I’m not awake at this time to hear his shenanigans, or I’m able to shut them out fairly quickly. Today, it’s T-4.5 hours until my viva, and I’m wide awake on the other side of two vivid dreams: one in which it went well, and one in which it was a disaster. Guess which one is on replay?

Spoiler alert: it did go well! It was a great conversation, and I learned a lot. I got some great compliments, and some difficult questions, and some tough but fair criticism. I passed with minor corrections, which means I now have three months in which to address my examiners’ comments. Phew!

In this blog post, I’m offering my five top tips to survive and thrive in viva week.

  1. Think Big Picture

In re-reading my thesis for the first time, I got stuck in all of the detail. I misspelled W.B. Worthen’s name! They’re going to murder me! (They didn’t.) That reference is to the wrong page number! What’ll I do? (Fix it in corrections.) In my mock viva, however, my supervisors focused much more on the “meta” questions, as one of them put it. What are your research questions? What is your contribution to knowledge? Who are the key theorists you’re in dialogue with? What’s the most important thing you’ve done here? It’s hard to convince yourself of this when all you can see is the typo in your table of contents (true story), but the examiners care much more about the big stuff than they do about the little mistakes.

That doesn’t mean they won’t ask you about the details or that you shouldn’t present your thesis in the best possible condition. Rather, it’s a reminder that what’s really important in the room, on the day, is the quality of your research and your arguments—not the typos.

  1. Nothing Means Anything

The best advice I got from my mock viva came from my second supervisor and became my mantra in the week leading up to the viva: “nothing means anything”. If they keep you waiting forty minutes between viva and corrections/result, it doesn’t mean anything. They could be writing up the report. Or talking about old times. Or having a toilet break. Equally, if they call you back in really quickly, it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe they have kids to pick up from school, or trains to catch. If they ask you the same question six times, they could be probing for more detail, or they could be unhappy with your answer, or they could be looking for the publishing pitch—you just don’t know. My examiners asked for my supervisor to be present in the second half, when they were going through the corrections, so I thought for sure I had failed. I hadn’t; there was no correlation at all between my supervisor’s presence and the outcome of the viva. They just wanted to make sure I got all the info I needed—and sure enough, her notes are much more detailed than mine!

The mantra doesn’t stop you reading into every single detail of the day, but for me it became a kind of security blanket to default to. Say it with me now: nothing. means. anything.

  1. Be Kind to Yourself

I was really lucky in that my department offers a one-off seminar about viva prep for final-year PhD students (if your department has one, you should go!). One of the things that they really emphasised in that seminar was to look after yourself in the run up to the viva. So with 24 hours left to go, I gave myself strict instructions to work a full day and nothing more. I did roughly 9-5 prep, with a lunch break, and then cut myself off. I went home, cooked a comfort-food dinner, and FaceTimed with some of my best friends and my mom. I watched Gossip Girl on Netflix and tidied my bedroom. I made sure that all the clothes I wanted to wear and all the things I wanted to bring were ready to go. I tried to have a normal bedtime. I drank a lot of herbal tea with things like camomile and lavender and lime flower in it.

Preparing for a viva isn’t like cramming for an exam. You already know your material inside out and backwards. For this brief moment in time, you are the world-leading expert on your subject. Trust the work you’ve been doing for the past three or more years and let your brain have a break before the big day. Prep like you mean it, and then give yourself a rest.

  1. Lean on Your Support System

Ultimately, you’re the one who has to walk into that room and answer the questions, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need a little help getting to the door. If at all possible, I really recommend bringing along someone you trust to a) give you a hug before you walk into the room, b) look after anything you don’t want to bring with you, and c) be a friendly face in the space between the viva proper and the discussion about corrections that follows. I brought my flatmate, who was an absolute star and a support network unto herself. It was so reassuring to have someone to talk to during the waiting period, and to have someone to celebrate with immediately upon leaving the room with good news. Had things gone the other way, I would have really appreciated having her there as a shoulder to cry on, too.

Oh yeah, and have at least one someone ready to go the pub with you whatever the outcome!

  1. Try to Enjoy It!

This is one of those things that lots of people said to me ahead of my viva, and also one of those things I didn’t think was possible until I was doing it. The day will go by in a blur and you’ll have so many thoughts and feelings and ups and downs as events unfold. Try to take a step back every now and then and appreciate what a fantastic opportunity the viva is: people at the top of their game and at the top of your field have spent a great deal of time looking at and thinking about your work. And now they want to talk to you about it!

Bonus tip: big picture questions checklist

These come from notes taken during that viva prep seminar I mentioned earlier, and they were a really handy tool for me, particularly on the last prep day, when I needed an anchor to keep me focused:

  • What sparked my personal interest in this research topic?
  • What gap am I addressing in my research? What is my contribution to knowledge?
  • What is the value of my research to the field(s)?
  • What are my central research questions?
  • What is my methodology? How did it develop?
  • What is my central argument?
  • What have I deliberately left out?
  • What are my findings?
  • What are my most important literary sources?
  • What are key terms that I might need to clarify?
  • Which areas of my work are part of ongoing debates?
  • Why did I choose these case studies?
  • What are my conclusions?
  • How do I see this work developing? Where am I going next?

If you can answer these questions, then you’re going to be just fine! Good luck!

What advice would you give to PhD students on the process of completing your thesis? If you’d like to share your advice on the NRN blog, please email Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk to discuss your ideas!