Category Archives: News – Bloomsbury

The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre

Dr Fintan Walsh & Dr Louise Owen are the co-directors of The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre.  Situated at 43 Gordon Square (The School of Arts), the BCCT is a thriving, multi-disciplinary platform where theatre professionals come together to create and research pieces on cultural politics and identity, new writing, contemporary theatre and early modern theatre and performance.  Here, Dr Walsh & Dr Owen explain some of the exciting developments which have evolved over 2016.

Please can you describe the structure of the BCCT programme?

We usually have some kind of event – such as a workshop or conversation – planned each week. Some involve centre fellows (we appoint twenty who are attached for three years) pursuing research and development towards their projects.  Others include people working in the theatre industry, or with other academics.  Many events will be open to staff, students and the public, and will address some aspect of contemporary theatre. We also run a number of symposia a year, which arise from our research interests, and fellows sometimes host their own workshops or talks here too.

When did BCCT form, and what do you consider its key objectives?

The centre was founded in 2006 by Professor Rob Swain, who runs the MFA Theatre Directing, as a space for hosting conversations between academics and theatre artists. These objectives have evolved over the years depending on shifts in research focus and staff, and when we took over the Centre in 2014 we had a chance to refine them again ourselves, to reflect our own interests and ambitions.

Can you explain more about the work and involvement of BA, MA and PhD students in Theatre and Drama Studies, Directing, and Creative Writing? 

Theatre and performance lecturers are involved in teaching on the BA Theatre and Drama Studies and MA Text and Performance (run in conjunction with RADA). Rob Swain looks after the MFA Theatre Directing. Some of the Creative Writing lecturers are also professional theatre and screen writers, and students have the chance to take their courses too. A lot of our practical classes take place in G10 studio space in 43 Gordon Square, which is where we also stage final performance projects. Students are welcome to attend many of the events run within the Centre too. And last year, along with the University of Winchester and the University of Kent, we collaborated with Camden People’s Theatre on two festivals entitled Being European, exploring the moments before and after the EU referendum.

With fellows ranging from playwrights to theatre directors, can you please discuss some of the themes and highlights of 2016, and beyond into 2017?

We invite a wide range of people involved in theatre to participate in centre events as it’s such a diverse discipline. The centre’s goals shift slightly year- on-year depending on the research focus of academics and Fellows, and we try to integrate these by working to a research theme, which this year is ‘transmission’. We have many events coming up in 2017, but three symposia we’re currently working on include Politicians & Other Performers in January, Twofold: the Particularities of Working in Pairs in March, and Theatres of Contagion in May. When we can, we podcast our talks on the Centre for Contemporary Theatre website. The centre runs events every day during Arts Week – discussions, symposia, performances. In May 2016, we welcomed Tassos Stevens (Artistic Director of Coney), who talked about digital media and social life with Birkbeck academics Seda Ilter, Scott Rodgers and Joel McKim.  We run a Scratch Night every year for students at all levels to show work in progress.  The MFA Theatre Directing students will create an original piece of performance in collaboration with an academic.  Last year, they worked with Gill Woods to create a brilliant short interactive piece exploring ‘part scripts’, widely used in early modern theatre.  We also support artists to show longer pieces of work in progress in the context of Arts Week too (for example, the work of Theatre North).

What would you like to see introduced?

The Centre is ten years old this year, so we’re hoping to mark that by running a range of events that reflect upon its achievement next year.

What have been the challenges faced by the theatre?

Time! There is so much we would like to do, and with limited time…

Would you consider arranging a society through Birkbeck SU for Drama?

Students have expressed an interest in forming a Birkbeck drama society, and we would fully support the activities of such a group. As an SU activity it’s not for us to initiate it.

And finally, what do you consider the chief mission of the theatre?

The Centre’s mission is to host conversations between all those interested in theatre – academics, artists and audiences – and to be responsive to contemporary concerns and issues. This aim, above all else, informs the work we do, and will guide future developments


Images: Courtesy of The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre

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New digital donor wall goes live

A new digital wall acknowledging the support of donors and volunteers to the College has been unveiled in the main Malet Street building, comprising of two monitors that are continuously updated. One screen will acknowledge the support of volunteers and donors, including those who have bequeathed money to Birkbeck.  The other will use engaging animations to provide information on past projects and the latest fundraising efforts.

A forthcoming project set to feature is the annual Telephone Campaign. Around 4,000 alumni will be called over four weeks this Spring, and the running fundraising total will be on displayed at the end of each calling night.


The purpose of the wall is to raise awareness among students and staff of the importance of philanthropy to the College. Birkbeck has a long and proud relationship with its alumni based on goodwill and commitment. In the last financial year donations exceeded £5 million, with individual gifts ranging from £2 to £1.4 million, and over £1m was left in legacies.

Donors who give £1,000 or more not only have the pleasure of seeing their names on the wall, but will also become members of one of three giving circles, where they can enjoy additional rewards of recognition, including exclusive event invitations and an annual update report detailing how their funds have been used.

Donations to the College – no matter how large or small – have helped to support students in all disciplines and at all levels of study.  Contributions have also helped to facilitate world-class academic research and have contributed towards the improvement of teaching spaces and equipment.

Besides cash donations, some former students choose to support the College by volunteering their time and expertise. Opportunities to interact with current and prospective students include mentoring, speaking on employability panels, giving advice or just sparing the time to talk and share experiences at networking events.

One such event was a new initiative, Careers Clinic: a collaborative program between the Alumni Relations and Birkbeck Talent teams, that pairs students with a qualified volunteer alumnus to receive one-to-one, bespoke CV and careers guidance to help raise their career aspiration and grow their confidence.

As Birkbeck approaches its bicentenary in 2023, it is scaling up its ambition to establish itself as a world-class research and teaching institution, whilst staying true to its core mission of breaking down barriers and providing evening university education to all.  The ongoing support and generosity of the alumni community are vital factors in helping the university achieve its aims.  Visitors stopping by the new digital donor wall will be able to see and reflect on the impact that donors have had, and current students may be inspired to continue their connection through giving, after their time in the classroom has ended.

Room for Improvement?

A shortage of teaching space is one of the biggest problems facing Birkbeck. The nature of evening study means demand for classrooms is concentrated during a short period of the day. Yet while student numbers have grown significantly in recent years, the number of classrooms has failed to keep pace.

The university’s planners are working on ways to increase capacity, including acquiring new buildings. In the meantime however, the overflow has been dealt with by decamping classes to offsite venues run by third parties. Some of these, such as Westminster Kingsway College on Grays Inn Road, are some distance from Malet Street, and lack facilities such as access to the eduroam Wi-Fi network. Many students are unhappy with the situation.

“In the three modules I’ve had so far, two have been off campus,” says David McGuinness, a first year journalism and media student. “At Kingsway we had our room moved once or twice, which would be fine except they didn’t know where they were putting us, so wasted an hour of a lecture.”

Others have more general concerns. “It hasn’t really presented any practical issues,” said Ben, a history undergraduate who has been offsite for every one of his classes this year, “it just sort of presents an odd image.”

Staff have been affected too, with some frustrated academics saying they struggle to get between classes on time. “It’s a huge problem,” said one, who estimates around 40% of students are being taught away from Birkbeck on any given evening. This number is roughly in line with the calculations of Jeremy Tanner, director of commercial services and estates development at the university, who plans how space is used.

“About 70% of student teaching hours take place in Birkbeck-controlled rooms,” Mr Tanner says. “I’m aware of the perception, and it’s something we’re really working to improve. We do an annual survey of classrooms and we’ve dropped venues in the past on the basis of that.” He welcomes engagement with students to address concerns.

A stated mission of the Master of Birkbeck Dr David Latchman is for all students to be taught in on-site classrooms by the time the university celebrates its bicentenary in 2023. But there are several barriers to expansion, including a lack of space for development in Bloomsbury, council rules on what uses buildings can be put to, and the hard reality of competing for property on the commercial market.

A step forward was taken in 2015 when the university acquired Cambridge House, a four-storey building on Euston Road. Minutes from a meeting of the university’s governors in May show it was purchased for £15.4m using “substantial cash reserves built up over recent years”.

The intention is to move administrative staff to the premises, freeing up room for between twenty one and twenty three new classrooms at Malet Street by 2017 – 10% of the number needed to reach Dr Latchman’s target – and saving around £1m a year on external classroom hire. Looking further ahead, Birkbeck also plans to extend the main building at Malet Street, something which is described as “a key part of the longer term estates strategy”.

It’s a start, but what about the glittering new East London campus? Millions have been poured into the development, and Birkbeck’s website claims Stratford is attracting “a growing number of students”. However some staff have claimed the project – a joint venture launched with the University of East London (UEL) in 2006 – has now been quietly dropped.

“It’s a white elephant,” said one, who agreed with claims the university has backed off and blamed this on the coalition government’s raising of tuition fees. Birkbeck initially had one third of the total space on the Stratford campus, he added, but this has now been reduced to, “about three classrooms and an office”.

Jeremy Tanner rejects this and calculates that between seven and 10 rooms, out of a total of 17, are in use on an average evening. “We haven’t walked away from it at all,” he says. “We retain the same number of rooms we always envisaged we would.” He admits that Birkbeck has reduced its ownership share after earlier plans changed, but says this has saved money on the investment. Meanwhile money is being made by hiring out unused space to UEL during the daytime. “I think we’ve actually been reasonably cute and secured a good deal for the college,” he says.

All of this sounds reassuring, but will be of little comfort to those still stuck in offsite rooms, who will graduate long before the practice has been phased out in 2023. Those presently enrolled may also wonder why Birkbeck has taken on so many new students – the number of undergraduates rose by 308% between 2011 and 2013 – while surely knowing that there wasn’t going to be enough space to accommodate them.

Every university must be pragmatic to some extent, weighing educational principles against the bottom line. But they must be careful not to let their students get impatient.

Have you been affected by room shortages?

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Let there be light

London is preparing for the 9th Bloomsbury Festival. The event, centred in Russell Square, will run across Camden from the 22nd to the 25th of October, and is expected to host around 50,000 visitors.

Camden Council has awarded a community grant towards the festival, which will promote 100 events throughout the four-day extravaganza. The team, headed by Director Kate Anderson and Festival Co-ordinator Caggy Kerlogue, have planned what they describe as “a creative explosion of performance and heritage events… giant cinema screens you feel you can walk into, a grand night of fire and music, a rainbow of garden squares and hub of festivities around Bloomsbury throughout the long weekend.”

The 2015 festival will be themed around The International Year of Light. IYOL Programme Co-ordinator Toby Shannon describes its cultural significance: “The year aims to celebrate the impact of light on the world we live in and its potential to improve lives. The Bloomsbury Festival provides a unique opportunity to cross disciplinary boundaries. The theme of light will be explored through art, music, theatre, science, technology, poetry, history, and through stimulating collaborations to explore light in all its uses, appearances and moods. The Festival offers a rich environment for the exchange of ideas in London.”

The official launch took place on May 20th, in an event run by Donne Alexander of The Wellcome Trust. Guests were introduced to a UV gallery of light, where artists, academics and scientists learnt more about the rudiments of glo-germ gel (demonstrating how bacteria can survive on skin even after hand-washing) and had a chance to wear a rather fetching pair of SPIE rainbow glasses.

Mark De Rivaz, Steward of Bedford Estates, explains how the event has evolved: “The Bedford Estates has been a partner of the Festival since 2010. We will provide The Bedford Square Garden, free of charge with the provision of a marquee. The Duchess of Bedford is the Festival’s patron and she has been involved with judging the art competition in July for the branding and imagery of the 2015 Festival (which was won by designer Andrew Long of Central St Martin’s).”

UK Age Concern Camden and UCL have worked with Dr Michael Eades of The School of Advanced Studies since 2013 to create Festival in a Box, allowing local people with dementia to interact with proceedings from home, using sensory aids. Eades explained: “It will offer those living with dementia an opportunity to share their knowledge and stories of the area, providing insight into Bloomsbury and surrounding areas of London. The outreach programme will not only be an opportunity for them to actively re-engage with community life, but also to participate in re-narrating the history of Bloomsbury itself. These boxes will become miniature ‘archives of engagement’.”

Key supporters such as The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are engaging with performance artists to interpret their work. Vicki Bazalgette explains: We are excited to be a Festival Partner for the first time this year. Our activities will allow our researchers and members of the public to delve into discussions about health in creative ways.  School researcher Dr Catherine Carver is collaborating with The Place and choreographer Subathra Subramaniam on a new piece of contemporary dance inspired by light in medicine and health, which will be performed by the youth dance group Shuffle. We will be hosting a ‘Living Library’ towards the beginning of the Festival – an event where our staff are cast in the role of living books, and you can come to ‘read’ them and take part in discussions about health around the world. Our family event will take place on the Sunday, where people can find out how clean our hands really are in our UV activities tent.”

Katy Jackson of The Weiner Library has opened the Library’s Holocaust archives to local residents. “Our first event for the Festival took place in October 2012 when we opened up our doors and offered behind-the-scenes tours of our exhibition Remembering Raoul Wallenberg and Lives Saved, which will form the basis of our travelling exhibition for 2015. We took part again in 2013 at the main site in Bedford Square. Partnering for the 2015 event was a natural development for us after taking part in previous festivals. We’re delighted to be involved.”

James Wilson of The Swedenborg Society is keen to introduce international artists: “We first participated in the Bloomsbury Festival in 2010. That year was our bicentenary year and we decided to tie our participation in the festival to a performance and exhibition from our two artists in residences, Paul Tecklenberg and Nissa Nishikawa. This year, we’ll be doing a literary panel discussion with our new president, Homero Aridjis, one of Mexico’s most celebrated poets and authors, who will be discussing his new poetry anthology An Angel Speaks. We hope that by participating, Bloomsbury Festivalgoers and Swedenborg Society members become aware of each other’s work and events programme (including exhibitions, performances, talks, readings, and film screenings, which are open to all and free of charge).”

Music has an integral part to play within the local community, bringing different faiths and backgrounds together.Katie Price, Head of Communications at SOAS, discusses the busy timetable of events planned within the festival programme. “Throughout the year people come from across London to our free world music concert series, our lectures and our wonderful Brunei Gallery. The Bloomsbury Festival enables us to reach a completely different audience through the World Music stage that we have organised each year since 2010. It brought new audiences to the Brunei Gallery (for example, in 2011, 400 new people came to a Bloomsbury Festival event there). This year the Head of our Department for the Study of Religions is working with a chaplain from Goodenough College to explore light in religion, reflecting the Festival’s 2015 theme of light. The 2016 Festival theme will be language – a perfect opportunity for us to showcase our language research (we teach more than forty languages, from Igbo to Urdu to Japanese and Chinese) and celebrate our centenary.”

Artist Simon O’Donovan is working on light exhibitions at The Crypt Gallery, St Pancras: “My work primarily focuses on representations of sight and blindness in mythology, theology, science and culture. I work with biography and the invention/ fabrication of memory. Is the shadow cast a reality? How is truth manipulated through time and not a necessary condition for sight? The proposed work is realised as a series of belongings and objects. It charts a period of time in the life of E.B. Ames, a nineteenth century gold prospector, a murderer, a rebel against the light.”

Dr Matthew Beaumont of UCL presents literary talks on London history. “I have given talks to the festival over the last two years. I will be providing a lecture on ‘night walking’. I published a book on the subject this year called Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London from Chaucer to Dickens, about the history of people who walk the streets of the city at night from the 13th to the 19th century. My previous talk in 2014 was a collaborative set of talks organised by Florian Mussgnug called London’s Burning on apocalyptic visions of the city. The festival is a good way of encouraging more diverse and transdisciplinary intellectual interests amongst the student community.”

Andrew Youngson of Birkbeck College remarks, “Birkbeck came on board with the festival from 2012, showcasing literary events at Senate House. This brought together academics and authors who compared their personal and professional history of Bloomsbury including Birkbeck’s Professor Sir Phil Cohen, author Iain Sinclair and UCL’s Professor Rosemary Ashton. The Bloomsbury Festival is a great platform for academics, writers and philosophers to share ideas and inspire new audiences.”

Artist Geoff Harrison has been hugely impressed by the rich diversity of the festival: “In 2010, I undertook an art commission to produce a series of drawings that were displayed in the Chapel of Rest in St Georges Gardens. For 2011, I curated an exhibition at the Orange Dot Gallery on Tavistock Place and for the 2012 and 2013 festivals, I produced a public participation event called the People’s Portrait Project, which got together a group of artists in a tent to draw free portraits of festival goers. I love the fact that the festival has always been free; the atmosphere around Russell Square is electric and there’s lots of fun and exciting things to do for the weekend.”

The final word goes to Stuart Reeves, Digital Media Producer of The Science Museum: “The openness to interpretation of the festival is exciting, conjuring up so many differing perceptions. The IYOL will give those attending a clear understanding of the importance of Light Science, vital for existing and future advances in medicine, energy, information and communications, fibre optics, architecture, archaeology, entertainment, art and culture. What a wonderful way to bring everyone together!”

For details on how to donate, volunteer or support The Bloomsbury Festival, visit

The Parasites of Malet Street: And other creepy crawlies

Science fiction is full of stories of insects and weird creatures of the imagination using human hosts… The Body Snatchers, Alien, Spiderman to name a few. However, most of us are unaware of the sheer amount of uses and ailments stemming from the arachnids and microscopic worms of the insect world around us.

One might think the idea of testing them on yourself would also be confined to the realm of science fiction. But if you were to look just a metre below Malet Street behind Birkbeck University, you’d find a series of labs and insectaries that would make you question that supposition.

Here, mosquitos (malaria free you’ll be pleased to know) too numerous to count, bed bugs, house dust mites, cockroaches, house flies and a host of other creepy crawlies are kept so scientists can learn more about the insect world.

The insectaries belong to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on Gower Street. You may have seen the school’s medical entomologist Dr James Logan give himself hookworms as an experiment on Embarrassing Bodies. Dr Logan runs a research team investigating new ways of controlling infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever which are spread by insects and parasites.

That’s not the only type of testing they do on themselves under Malet Street. After the hookworms experiment Dr Logan also tried leech therapy to cure a muscle injury. By stimulating the flow of blood to an infected region, he found that after just a week his muscle injury had disappeared. Another member of the team slept in a bed for several nights that had been deliberately infested with bed bugs.

Whilst a strong constitution is probably required to work in the labs, it is not just ailments the research teams are investigating. Scientists are still only beginning to understand the positive relations that exist between ourselves and our parasites. Dr Logan points out that “we evolved with parasites. It’s only recently that we’ve had the medication and hygiene to get rid of them. Our bodies are designed to live with parasites… just by studying them and understanding their fascinating biology we can find things that benefit us”.

Some hypotheses suggest the cleansing of parasites from our bodies is one of the main reasons for increases in allergies and asthma. There are many other studies – as the science writer Ed Yong pointed out in a brilliant TED talk on the subject – have discovered the astonishing abilities of some parasites to bend the will of their hosts towards enabling their reproduction.

These creatures, some just a single cell, do not necessarily spread disease like mosquitos do. As Ed Yong describes them, “they are part of an entire cavalcade of mind-controlling parasites, of fungi, viruses, and worms and insects and more that all specialize in subverting and overriding the wills of their hosts.”

No doubt many of these questions will be answered by the intrepid scientists working unnoticed so close to where we study. When walking along Malet Street, I can’t help but wonder about what’s going on beneath my feet. The types of experiments being planned and executed to delve deeper into the world of human and insect relations. Perhaps they might even discover a parasite to aid our memory for exams!