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 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


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



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 to discuss your ideas! 


NRN Blog: The Archivist and the Repertoire – acting as interpreter for NUI Galway Special Collections


Culture Night at NUI GalwayPhotograph by Aengus McMahon

Photograph by Aengus McMahon

For our next installment in the NRN blog series, we’re pleased to feature Barry Houlihan! Barry is an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway. Current projects include the archive of Druid Theatre Company. Barry is a member of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive Project Group and Executive Committee member of APAC (Association for Performing Arts Collections). Barry is also a PhD candidate in the School of English, NUI Galway, researching a sociological history of Irish theatre and everyday life, 1950s – 1970s. For more information see and Twitter: @nuigarchives and @stagedreaction.

I work as an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Within the Archives and Special Collections we hold an ever-growing collection of unique and wonderful archives of Irish theatre and performance. These collections range from single items (a framed playbill from a production at Kirwan’s Lane Theatre, Galway, 1783, which featured among the cast the Irish revolutionary, Theobald Wolfe Tone) to the largest digital theatre archive in the world – The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, at over 1 million multi-media items, spanning over 110 years of Irish cultural history, from 1904 to present day.

Other theatre collections at NUI Galway include the archives of Tony-award winning Druid Theatre Company, Macnas, the playwright Thomas Kilroy, actors Siobhan McKenna and Arthur Shields, archive of the national Irish language theatre, Taibhdhearc Na Gaillimhe and also the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, often described as an unofficial ‘national’ theatre for Northern Ireland. Taken individually, these collections are themselves incredible resources for researchers studying any aspect of Irish theatre history, performance or production. Taken as a collective and interlinked unit, the sum of all these parts is an unrivalled record and memory of the theatre of a nation that predates the establishment of the State itself.

The most time consuming but also most rewarding aspect of being a theatre archivist is reconstructing what was never meant to be saved in the first place. The passion and desire to see theatre is to witness something and be part of something that is unique to that one night and to that one performance. What is happening outside of the theatre – in society or politics, or within your own job or in the relationships you have with friends, family or partners, can all affect how you see but also how you remember a performance. The archive is as personal to the audience as it is to the actor or playwright.

Quite commonly an archive arrives for cataloguing in a mass state of disarray. Boxes upon boxes of records, with little organisation (or none at all) and can represent the life’s work of a playwright or the output of a theatre. The archivist must become the medium between this material and the researcher who will study it in detail. I would compare this task of rebuilding the archive to trying to complete the largest jigsaw you could imagine – tens of thousands of individual pieces, but without having the picture on the box to work from. You will never know how ‘the archive’ will look until it is completed and catalogued in full.

druid catalogue structure

Figure 1: Portion of structure of the Druid Theatre Archive, NUI Galway

I would always approach this task from the point of view as a researcher. Archivists often love ultra-complex hierarchies of structures that make perfect sense to other archivists – those whose job it is to build a skeleton for an archive onto which the material can sit. I would think primarily (of any collection) as if I was a researcher of e.g. Abbey Theatre tours of the 1930s, and how visible can I make that material be in the midst of thousands of items? No matter the person or level of experience, the first question I frequently meet is “What material do you have on XXXX?” How can I structure that archive to faithfully represent that theatre or director that created it and which is still navigable for a first-year undergraduate to an experienced Professor?

As well as being a facilitator of preservation and access, a key job of the archivist is to be an interpreter of the archive. I often see researchers disappointed when I say a video or photograph does not exist for a particular production. While that may be the case, it does not mean the information you would get from visual sources does not exist in other forms, you just have to look hard enough and ask the right questions of the archive.

Prompt-scripts, for example, are invaluable resources that contain so much evidence, of text, speech, direction, design and even sound. You can plot and place each character’s entrance and exit points, you can follow the timing of lighting and sound cues, you can track the director’s edits and decisions and even ‘listen’ to the speech patterns of an actor who may note specific phrases, accent or regional variances to their lines. Press coverage will often carry images or descriptions of the set design and character’s costumes and of individual performances. Posters and tickets will tell you how plays were marketed and priced and so who the audience typically were. The play programmes can even tell you what chocolates couples shared during the interval. If you interrogate the archive in different ways, it can reveal really interesting insights into how not just a performance looked but also how it felt it to be there and how it might have been received.

abbey philadelphia

Figure 2: audio material for Philadelphia, Here I Come! in the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, NUI Galway

Through digitisation and digital access we can also make available formerly inaccessible material. Reels, beta tapes, DV tapes, floppy disks cassettes and mini-disks are all obsolete media but which retain their original evidence. For instance, if we listen to the sound score of Tomás MacAnna’s production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Abbey Theatre in 1972, we learn the play opens to the sound of a train whistle departing a platform, which then morphs into the sound of a jet engine. This signifies the play and the theme of Irish emigration has been updated from the train/boat imagery of traditional Irish emigration to the modern arrival of transatlantic flights.

Text searching across the script archive of the Abbey Theatre by means of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) means every script (typescript at least) is word searchable. This throws up a lot of interesting points about Ireland and various aspects of culture. For example, the depiction of drugs and drug-taking in Irish (Abbey) playscripts – In the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, the word ‘heroin’ appears 58 times in the context of drug-taking. The earliest mention of cocaine, however, is actually seen as early as 1942, in An Apple a Day by Elizabeth Connor. This may have been a surprise to Abbey audiences in the midst of ‘Emergency’ Dublin, where even fresh fruit was a black-market commodity (the period of World War II in Ireland was called ‘the Emergency’). A search of words and phrases can show not just what plays but where exactly within each play audiences meet certain events, actions and people.

druid famine

Figure 3: Programme with map of West of Ireland tour of Famine by Druid Theatre Company, 1984

The digital theatre archive can be searched by a single click to reveal the place of female characters or male characters, Catholics or Protestants, bankers or politicians, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, emigrants, murderer or thief. By tracking the touring records of Druid Theatre company, we can see, for example, how and when they toured certain plays to certain locations in specific times, such as the reception of The Playboy of the Western World in Tokyo (2007), the Playboy of the Western World on Inis Mór island (1982) or a touring production of Famine by Tom Murphy, (1984) within the West of Ireland, the area worst affected by the Great Famine of the 1840s.

In piecing all of this back together, the memory of performance and all its elements becomes clearer. We learn more about how theatres and playwrights sought to depict everyday life in Ireland, how various European design styles may have influenced stage design, how women were not afforded a clear voice by a lack of access for female playwrights at the national theatre. History does become clearer but importantly the archive also keeps offering more questions. The answers are not always so easy to find but they are certainly worth opening the archive for and looking for the answers yourself.

How does your practice inform your research? What new discoveries have you made in the archives? Talk to Emer and Kate at and your work might be featured here at a later date!


NRN Blog: The Power of Networks – Supporting Collaborative Students

Acatia FinbowAcatia Finbow reflects on the benefits she has found from engaging with a range of networks, including us!  Acatia is an AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award student, at the University of Exeter and Tate, based in London. Her research looks into the value of performance and performative art documentation for contemporary art museums, and is focusing on the collections and programmes at Tate since the 1970s. She is also attached to the AHRC funded research project, ‘Performance at Tate: Collecting, Archiving and Sharing Performance and the Performative’.

I must admit that, before I applied for one in 2014, I had never heard of a Collaborative Doctoral Award; I barely understood what I was letting myself in for with a PhD really! As it turns out, a collaborative doctoral award allows a doctoral researcher the opportunity to work within the boundaries of a cultural institution whilst being supported as a student at a higher education institute. They are usually working as part of a larger research project, contributing to an exhibition or research publication within that cultural institution, or generating materials around an underexplored archive or aspect of the organisation’s collections, while also working on their related thesis. In my case, I am a student at the University of Exeter and am attached to Tate’s research department in London as a member of the research team for ‘Performance at Tate’, a two year AHRC-funded project looking into the history of performance and performative art at Tate, while completing my own research into the value of documentation for contemporary art museums.

For me, the CDA has been a wonderful opportunity. I had been thinking vaguely about doing a PhD at some point in the future, but when this specific project came up, it seemed to be the perfect topic for me and I jumped at it. The chance to work with Tate was also something I’d been hoping to do, and it was a great chance to extend the work I had done for my MA dissertation. I’ve had amazing access to Tate’s archival materials and gallery records, have had the opportunity to participate in practical research work, generating a documentation archive around a live dance event, and to work on a variety of written materials for the research project. I have also been wonderfully supported by members of Tate’s Research Department, other members of the research project team, and the wider staff at Tate.

However, there has been one particular challenge which I have, at times, found it difficult to overcome. It’s probably one you’ve been warned about, or have experienced for yourself: the loneliness of the PhD. For CDA students, I have found, this can be particularly heightened by the lack of a strong community of other students around you. Living in London, in order to make the most of the opportunities working with Tate offers me, I am 200 miles away from my university and my department. I have my majority of supervisions on Skype, and probably only travel to Exeter once every two months, usually for no more than a two day stay. Tate has a small group of CDA students, there are seven from my intake year, but we are attached to different departments, sometimes different branches of the Tate, and without a centralised working space, it can be difficult to generate the same feel of community amongst students which you find at a University.

This is why research networks have been such a great thing for me! They offer the opportunity to discuss my own research, ask questions about doing a PhD as well as mores specific questions around my field of interest, and to generally meet people working in a similar area. I have had the chance to meet other students from Exeter, other CDA students, and other PhD students from across the world. While I was slightly terrified attending my first network – last year’s STR NRN Symposium at the Shard – not knowing anyone, and not being sure how my research would fit with other people’s interests, I have come to realise how valuable these opportunities to spend time with other students can be, to avoid feeling like you’re the only person in the world struggling through certain aspects of doing independent research.

There are a number of forms these networks can take. I found Twitter a great place to start; hashtags like #phdlife and accounts such as @phdforum offer the opportunity to participate in discussions, ask general questions and connect with other students. Getting to know about specific PGR and ECR Networks, like our very own STR NRN, and working groups, such as Theatre and Performance Research Association’s Documenting Performance working group, offered the opportunity to make more specific connections with other researchers working in a similar field. I am also a member of the postgraduate CoCARe network – the Conservation of Contemporary Art Research network – which is part of a larger multi-disciplinary research network, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, which also includes researchers from practical as well as academic backgrounds. Through this I have connected with other PhD and Post Doc researchers across Europe, who keep me informed about developments in their fields of research, and opportunities which are opening up. Each network offers something different in terms of the field of study and the way that they meet and interact, but each provides the chance for researchers at various points in their careers to meet, discuss their work, offering opportunities for support, collaboration and discussion.

Whether you’re a CDA student, a distance student, or even a traditional on-campus PhD student, research networks offer fantastic opportunities for connecting with other students outside of your University environment, and can throw open new collaborative opportunities. It can be a daunting process to jump straight into talking about your research and having to meet a lot of new people all at once, particularly if you’re attending a networking meeting where you don’t know anyone, but I can assure you that the rewards are great and all sorts of exciting opportunities can come out of it! And for those of us already embedded in networks, I think it is really important to remember what it can be like to make those first few connections during your PhD and be as welcoming and as supportive as we can.


Teaching Theatre Practice

Poppy Corbett reflects on our teaching practice event in December. Poppy is a playwright and Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University of London. She co-wrote (with educationalist Pie Corbett) The Enormous Book of Talk for Writing Games for KS2 teachers – a book that can be used to help children improve their written work through speech and drama games. In 2014 she won a College Teaching Excellence prize.

Until very recently Poppy was also a member of the NRN Committee, and we’d just like to thank Poppy for all her hard work with us!

In December 2015 the STR NRN held a practical workshop day ‘Teaching Theatre Practice’ designed to build practical drama teaching skills. As a committee member I was lucky enough to take part in two out of the three sessions. It’s always inspiring to witness the teaching of more senior academics and hear their top tips. I came away with new ideas about teaching practice:

1. Use simple language.


image credit: Claire Read

This was great advice from Melissa Blanco Borelli, Senior Lecturer at RHUL who led the first session. During her session (in which she taught us as though we were first year students) she highlighted the importance of using simple, non-threatening language to describe complex exercises. As an example, the first thing she asked us to do was to ‘draw your name using your body and then teach it to a partner’. This sounded much more fun and achievable than what she was actually asking us to do, something along the lines of ‘create a repeatable dance movement sequence and then teach your partner that somatic notation’. This was an excellent reminder in the importance of adapting your language to frame practical exercises so that students feel what is being asked of them is within the realms of possibility. Sneak difficult work in under simple instruction.

2. Act neutral.


image credit: Claire Read

During a discussion concerning the way to respond to students’ work Borelli emphasised the usefulness of remaining neutral at times. For example, if tension is high or students are nervous, sometimes it is more useful to ask them neutral questions about the work rather than offering them a judgemental opinion. So beginning a response with the words ‘I didn’t quite understand what you were doing in that section…’ is more helpful than ‘what you were doing there looked weird and awful’. As teachers we are programmed to make value judgements on students work, but sometimes, in order for them to feel valued and to really learn something, it may be more useful to neutrally ask them for clarification.

3. If in doubt: describe.


image credit: Claire Read

To follow from the previous point, Borelli indicated the value of improving your own language of performance analysis. Sometimes students can make work that may appear relatively confusing if you were not involved in the process. What can be useful here is simply describing back to them what you, in the position of an audience member, saw and heard whilst watching their performance. Even if you are lost for critical words at the durational mushroom-eating dance piece from your experimental third years you will still be able to offer an objective description of what you viewed. Often, this can prove to be the most useful feedback if the performance that you say you witnessed does not corroborate with their own dramatic intentions.

4. It’s all in the shoes.


image credit: Claire Read

The final session of the day was led by Simon Ruding, director of The Theatre in Prisons and Probation Research and Development Centre, based at the University of Manchester. Simon led us in a simple exercise that I’ll now always use when working with new groups. Very simply, we each had to tell the story of our shoes (where we bought them from, how old they are etc). This generated lots of laughs – it turns out own several participants had stolen their shoes from other people! It proved to be a fantastic exercise to use with a new group for several reasons. Firstly, everyone’s shoe story revealed something unique about their personality and circumstance – a quick way to understand what type of group you are working with. Secondly, it was a simple enough task that can be used with diverse groups of students – no one has to be a brainy scientist to join in with this exercise. Thirdly, as pointed out by one of the participants, it took the focus away from having to look in people’s eyes, to being able to talk whilst looking down at your feet – perfect for more reticent participants! A fun and fruitful exercise that I’m already thinking about transposing to creative writing classes: “Tell us the story of your pen, how did you come to enquire it…?”

5. Get political.


image credit: Claire Read

The final idea that I took from Ruding’s session was not to be shy in sharing my own politics with a seminar group. Ruding made it clear that if he was going to be working in prisons with students, he wanted them to know his own political and social theories regarding the work they were doing, to allow them to form a deeper understanding of the potential importance and impact of their work. This is problematic advice. In my teacher training we were told to remain neutral: you never know the background, politics or personal circumstance of the students you teach. It can be very easy to offend someone! I therefore try to keep my teaching about the work, not about my own feelings or opinions. However, Ruding’s attitude made me rethink my own stance. Particularly, because I teach playwriting and when you write a play you are engaging with the way you feel about the world. Politics is central to the Humanities and perhaps I should share some of my own views about certain plays, or how the theatre industry operates. Perhaps I should stand up at the start of the seminar and advocate the Act For Change movement and admonish West End ticket prices. Who knows, like Ruding’s session itself, it could even be a little bit inspiring…

Did you attend the event? If you did, please let us know what you took away from the sessions by commenting on this post.

Top Tips on Writing Conference Abstracts

Catherine HindsonCatherine Hindson provides us with some great tips on how to write good conference abstracts. She is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies and Head of the Theatre department at the University of Bristol. She was convenor of the Working Group in Theatre History and Historiography (2012-2015) and is lead organizer for next year’s 2016 TaPRA conference at the University of Bristol.

Catherine’s research interests are in popular performance in the long nineteenth century and the relationship between the theatre industry, heritage and historiography. Her latest book West End Actresses, Charity and the Theatre Industry, 1880-1920 will be published by University of Iowa Press later in 2016. 

Abstract writing demands a very particular set of skills. Some people find writing abstracts simple and straightforward. I am not one of them. In fact I’d go as far as to say that the production of a coherent abstract is one of my least favourite professional tasks. I guess this makes me a good person to be writing this blog post in which I have tried to put together a brief list of the key things I have learnt about abstract writing from writing them myself and from reading many abstracts as a conference organiser and TaPRA working group convenor.

1) A key reason why writing abstracts is difficult is because they require you to think hard about what you are proposing to do and to put down on paper how you are going to do it and why it matters. All in a very small number of words…

2) If you flip this on its head, what this also mean is that writing a good abstract can really help you with planning a paper, chapter or article. See, there is an up side…

3) What it should also suggest is that writing a good abstract is going to take some time. The most important thing I have learned about reading and writing abstracts is DON’T leave it until the last minute. It might be a short piece of writing, but it’s not an easy writing task. Don’t confuse the two things! If there is a call for papers have a draft abstract ready a good week before.

4) Write a new abstract for every call for papers, practice or articles that you respond to. The abstract must always be specific to the call. Never lift one that you have written for another version of your research project and try to use it for another purpose. Avoid generic descriptions of your research, be precise and focused. Conference organisers regularly get abstracts that propose material the size of a thesis for a twenty minute paper. Think about what you can realistically achieve in the set time or word count. You can be sure that your conference organiser or editor will be when she or he makes their selection…

5) Send your draft abstract to someone else to have a look at it before your submit it. It could be your supervisor, a peer or a friend, but it needs to be someone you know will be honest with you.

6) Remember your abstract could well end up in the public domain – on websites or in conference programmes. You’ll probably get a chance to edit it, but rarely to completely rewrite it. Sometimes it just goes up/out as you have submitted it first time round. A good litmus test before you finally hit send is to imagine someone you admire in the field reading it. Still happy with it? Still feel it does the job? Then it is ready to go…

NRN Blog: Thinking Aloud – the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers scheme

Dr Naomi Paxton

Image credit: Shambhala

Dr Naomi Paxton is an actress, performer and researcher and has appeared in the West End and on tour in the UK and internationally. She was one of the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers for 2014-15. Naomi edited The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays (2013), is an Associate Artist of the feminist production hub Scary Little Girls and is currently Research Associate for the AHRC funded project Poor Theatres at the University of Manchester.

Have you heard of the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers scheme? If you’re interested in getting your academic research out to a wide audience through BBC Radio it’s definitely something you should investigate.

The scheme is an annual competition run jointly by the AHRC and BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking producers to find ten new academics from across the arts and humanities and give them the chance to get their research out into broadcast media. You’re eligible if you’re working at a UK research organisation, are in the final year of your PhD or are an ECR with no more than 8 years of post-PhD experience.

I applied in 2014 because I was a regular listener to both BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 3’s arts programmes, review shows, features and essays – and as an avid podcast devotee realised just how special radio is as a medium through which ideas can be introduced, discussed and questioned. I wanted my research, on the Actresses’ Franchise League (the professional theatre ‘wing’ of the suffrage movement), to be ‘out there’ – to contribute to debate and knowledge about feminist theatre past and present, bring to life the performative propaganda of the suffrage movement and challenge ideas about the ‘canon’ of twentieth century British theatre. It was thrilling to be shortlisted and to make it through to the audition stage – a fascinating day – and of course even more exciting to be chosen as one of the New Generation Thinkers for 2014-15.

I was delighted to be picked as one of the ten, eight of whom were already post docs. Topics among my fellow New Gens included animal rights, the cultural history of beards, Indian translations of Shakespeare, the life of Disraeli, the link between citizenship and consumerism in 19th century America and Victorian suspicions of animal camouflage. We were a relatively diverse bunch, united by our enthusiasm for our research and our desire to communicate both!

If you’re keen to learn new ways to frame your research and share it with the general public and to learn more about what media organisations like the BBC want from young academics then the scheme is an excellent way to do that. My year as a New Generation Thinker gave me the opportunity to speak at the Hay Festival, the Latitude Festival, the BBC 3 Free Thinking Festival at the Sage, Gateshead and of course on the radio. I also got to make a short film with BBC Arts as a showcase for future presenting work – another challenge and learning curve that was a lot of fun. We were told at the audition day that shortlisted candidates who didn’t make it through to the final line up were very likely to be contacted by Free Thinking if something within their area of expertise came up – so it’s definitely worth applying even if you don’t make it into the final ten. Even now I’m an old New Generation Thinker the relationship with the producers has continued and opportunities still arise – for example I was asked to review the film ‘Suffragette’ when it came out earlier this year and have been invited to pitch ideas for next year’s BBC Radio 3’s arts programming.

In hindsight, it was probably a bit bonkers to do it in my writing up year, but actually for me the extra pressure, and the confidence that it gave me, helped. It made me look at my work differently, engage in different writing styles and think harder about how very detailed research can be adapted for a general audience. The producers are great to work with – and we had a day of media training at the AHRC which was incredibly interesting and useful. If you’re already blogging about your research and are active on social media, particularly Twitter, you’ll know how effective and stimulating getting your research ‘out there’ can be – not only in terms of clarifying ideas and broadening appeal but also for making connections with other researchers and the public. The scheme adds to that, opening up other possibilities and opportunities for disseminating your ideas to a wider audience and raising your profile as a researcher.

One thing to note – although it’s under the AHRC funding schemes, you don’t get a stipend for taking part. We got a small appearance fee if we were on the radio and had accommodation and travel paid for the festival appearances, but there was no fee for the BBC Arts film. This is worth bearing in mind – the opportunities are fantastic, but you need to be very flexible, able to get to London and find tight deadlines galvanising rather than terrifying!

My experience of being one of the New Gens has been really worthwhile – interesting, exciting, challenging and inspiring all at the same time. If you think you might like to be a part of it – get applying!

Applications for the 2016 New Generation Thinkers are now open. You can find out more here. And see the criteria for applicants here:

Do get in touch with me if you have any questions about the application process or the scheme – I’m on twitter @NaomiPaxton.


NRN Blog: Making Friends with the Archive


Elizabeth Howard

The NRN Blog returns, this time with an entry from Elizabeth Howard. After completing an MA in Performance Making at Goldsmiths College, London and a BA in Drama and Counselling from the University of Chester, Elizabeth was awarded a PhD scholarship from Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland. Entitled Performing the Region, her research project uses the Red Kettle archive as a primary source and examines regional theatre in relation to cultural policy through a performance studies methodology. Elizabeth is a theatre maker and teaches on the theatre studies programme at WIT. She has presented papers at seven conferences over the past two years, and her first publication will be with Palgrave Macmillan next year. 

It might be best to start this story off with the admission that it was only out of a mixture of desperation and naivety that I started studying for a PhD that used an archive as its main research source. After graduating from an MA in Performance Making I thought about going on to do a PhD, but dismissed the idea because I thought I could never have afforded it. Grants and bursaries always seemed to belong to someone else, and honestly, the thought of being a student for ANOTHER three/four/five (how many?) years was just not an attractive financial option.

However, after spending a soul-destroying year scratching around trying to make a living in the arts, I was so desperate for an opportunity to move my career forward in some way (any way), that a fully funded PhD scholarship felt like the golden ticket. I was employed to conduct research into the practices of a theatre company that I worked with in the past, and in my naivety I was thrilled to work with an archive that contained over two hundred dirty, dusty, uncatalogued box files that documented over thirty years of performance. My initial relationship with the archive was like one you might have with a wild animal that is much bigger and stronger than you. We entered into quite a few wrestling matches that ended with me being the sneezing and grimy-fingered loser. However, I battled on, and one day about six months ago the archive came up to me, shook me by the hand, and said ‘Hello friend. What can I do for ye?’

For the first time, I saw the beauty inside the beast, and realised that in order to manage the archive in the most effective way, I needed to understand its true nature. What I recognised at last was that the archive is more than a sum of its parts and has a dynamic, contextual and political dramaturgy of its own that requires interpretation. At that moment my whole thesis became clear to me, and the philosophies of performance that gripped me at undergraduate and master’s level finally synthesised with my PhD research. Remote days that I spent examining evidence that seemed to have no relevance suddenly became worthwhile and significant.

My identity as a researcher, and dare I say it, academic, poked its head out after this discovery, and as my confidence grows this identity becomes stronger. Sometimes I even feel that I know what I am talking about! If it wasn’t for that initial desperation and naivety that spurred me on to the beginning point, I would never have discovered what a gloriously rich and generous friend the archive can be. My bank balance has yet to benefit, but the adventures the archive has brought me on and the places we’ve visited together make me realise that I could never have afforded NOT to immerse myself in the, grimy, grungy, gripping world that is archival research.

How have the archives helped you in your research? How have you navigated them? Share your experience on the NRN blog: e-mail Emer and Kate at to talk about potential submissions.