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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First Brexit, now Trump! It seems that we haven’t yet recovered from the first shock and now we’re experiencing another political hammer-blow!
Disappointed people across the world blame the alleged stupidity and ignorance of Trump supporters. Terms like racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and any other descriptions of discrimination appear repeatedly in articles, opinions, comments.
But is it true? Is ignorance and discrimination to blame for the political decisions in 2016? Or is it rather a deep disappointment and anger about the arrogance and failure of the establishment, of the media and of leaders like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Was it a vote for Trump, or against Clinton?
According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, President Obama has hit the lowest level of trust of the US populace towards the federal government for around fifty years. Levels are higher among Democrat party members than Republicans, but still the number never exceeds 40%. When it comes to socioeconomic issues and immigration, Americans seem to be very unhappy about their government’s performance. 61% say that the government has failed to address the matter of fighting poverty. The highest levels of mistrust (68%) are felt regarding handling of immigration. However, the immigration itself does not seem to be the main problem. It is rather illegal immigration and the consequences it is believed to create, namely unemployment and social inequality, which points back to the government’s failure to address poverty.
Obama made his original bid for presidency on the back of the slogan ‘Yes, we can’. He represented hope for change, and even received a Nobel Prize, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.
His flagship ‘Obamacare’ health policy has been highly praised in Europe but criticised in the US, perceived as financially burdening the middle class. Ideological division is more severe than ever, generating hostility between different groups.
Obama’s foreign policy has also been criticised for allowing Syria to escalate into a civil war, and also for the continuing deployment of drones in Pakistan which caused many civilian casualties and a destabilization of the political situation in the country.
Another issue which might have contributed to Trump’s election is the disappointment felt by Bernie Sander’s supporters. When Clinton won the nomination to be the Democrat’s presidential candidate, some were not able to hide their regret and back Hillary.
Clinton may not be as controversial a figure as Donald Trump, but still many subjects affect her reputation: Whitewater, support of the Iraq War, the private email server controversy, Benghazi, accusations of corruption and a perceived lack of empathy. In contrast to the grandfatherly Sanders, Clinton makes a cold, sometimes arrogant impression.
This impression has been reinforced during a campaign which was often focused more on attacking her opponent than on tackling the issues that exercise people. As Sanders’ staff tweeted, many Trump supporters are not sexist and racist, but are “worried about their kids; they’re working longer hours for lower wages”. Sanders emphasised the need to reach out to these people and to create an economy that would allow everyone to make a living. Social equality could erase discrimination. America has to unite against both – inequality and discrimination.
Though he ultimately endorsed Hillary, many of Sanders’ supporters announced they would not vote for her but rather for third party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. It appears the Democrats made a mistake when they chose Hillary as their candidate, a politician seen as representative of the unpopular establishment, and of the government in Washington.
So what happens next? Is Trump going to the next World War? He has been described as ‘Putin’s puppet’ and as unpredictable, after stating he would support Russia’s actions in Syria and combat ISIS together with Putin. Besides this, Trump does not seem to have a clear plan or strategy on foreign policy. He has put forward ideas of isolationism and non-interventionism, in order to focus on domestic issues and ‘making America great again’.
However, Clinton’s harsh tone towards Russia was also dangerous. Her plan to establish a no-fly zone over Syria was considered by President Obama as risking initiating a conflict with Russia. Indeed, the USA needs to be careful towards Russia. Russia does not intend waging a war, but direct clashes with the USA might escalate into a full-scale conflict.
On the other hand, Trump’s idea of a cooperation with Russia and his questioning of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty could lead to the USA taking a submissive role, with a weakened position in the international arena. The USA might then lose their lead over emerging powers like Russia or China, who could take over the role of ‘world policeman’ and abuse this power in an unpredictable ways for their own benefit.
A war or armed conflict with Trump as president does not seem so likely. His populist rhetoric appears to be a strategy to gain attention and voters. We can only hope he did not actually mean all he said, and that as president he will adopt a diplomatic persona. Otherwise, we could face dark times similar to 1930s Europe. Nevertheless, the impact on society might still be severe, similar to the post-Brexit-Referendum atmosphere in Great Britain, which has seen a wave of racist attacks across the country.
Trump’s lack of experience and unclear strategy might not lead into outright disaster, but instead to a stagnation of the US, economically, politically and socially. It is important at this point to accept Trump as president and simultaneously observe him carefully. Discrimination remains an issue which has to be dealt with, still we cannot say that this is the only motivation of Trump supporters.
The true losers in these elections are not just Democrats, but all the people of the USA who went through an exhausting and embarrassing campaign, seemingly without any moral or ethical limits, that was ultimately more about political power games than actual reform and progress. At the end of this tiring road, citizens arrived at the ballot-box to choose between two candidates who at the end have nothing to offer and do not care about them, the nation.
The disastrous outcomes of the US elections or the Brexit Referendum do not necessarily prove the continuing strength of racism, sexism or any other kind of discrimination. Rather, they reflect the failure of politicians and governments! The US and the UK are only two of many examples in the modern world. If political leaders do not wake up and face the reality, soon we will see more examples of people choosing a life in misery over the arrogance of the political establishment.
Some people would say that university life involves copious amounts of time reading book after book in the library (in addition to visits to the SU, of course). It has to be said that the same can be true for those of us in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The added bonus for us is that in our third or fourth year, instead of the dissertation required for most subjects, we instead undergo a Map and Thesis. In simple terms, this requires Geologists (Planetary and Environmental Geology students get to do something else) to go into a previously unvisited area and create a geological map from scratch. This is accompanied by a written thesis containing all of our observations, scientifically-based interpretations, and an overview of the entire history of the area linking our own work to that done previously by academics.
Birkbeck Geology students do a lot of work in the northern tips of Scotland due to the beautifully-exposed outcrops and the wide variety of ages of metamorphic and igneous rocks, the oldest being about 3.5 billion years old. The weather experience has not always been the best, however, so instead, our little group decided we wanted to go somewhere completely different (and rather warmer). After relatively little deliberation, we agreed to carry out our project in Spain, a country that has a much nicer climate and a wide range of geology that would prove to be a challenge but also ensure the production of a map that would showcase our skills and knowledge acquired as young geologists.
All we needed now was a supervisor to guide us through the data collection phase in Spain and the creation of the final product (due March 2017). Very fortunately for us, Professor Charlie Bristow (Professor of Sedimentology) was on hand. His wealth of knowledge and experience working in Spain would prove to be much more than just useful.
My project took place between the 10th of July and the 21st of August. We stayed in a small house in the town of Ayerbe (in the province of Huesca) close to Zaragoza (the capital of the Autonomous Community of Aragon, the northernmost region of Spain). The mapping area cuts through two different municipalities, Peñas de Riglos and Murillo de Gállego. It also centres around the Gállego river which is one of the main tributaries of the Ebro, an important river in the Iberian Peninsula. The area is popular for hiking and watersports on the river (which is relatively fast flowing down from the reservoir) and for bird watching due to the various breeds of vulture, falcon, buzzards and numerous other species that inhabit the ridges and cliff faces.
One half of the first impressions of the terrain were those of confusion. It is a well-known fact that universities will always use the best specimens of rocks, fossils etc. in order to allow students to see what things should look like. It is also quite a well-known reality that this is not the case when it comes to fieldwork and actually things in real life look quite different when they have been pounded by rain and baked by sunshine for thousands of years. The opening photo for this article is one of my favourite for showing this. On first inspection, you might think there were only two maybe three rock types in this photo when in fact, there are five. As you can imagine, 6 weeks of trying to decipher which was which took some effort even towards the end. The second half of the first impressions were along the lines of ‘why is everything up?’. To put this into context, before we left for Spain, we had to produce some base maps. These are what geologists use to show the terrain and then we ‘colour in’ the geology over the top. In order to do this, we used satellite imagery from Google Earth. In order to work out the correct scales (standard is 1:10000 which meaning each centimetre on the map represents 100 metres) we have to flatten the elevation meaning that we completely forgot that to get anywhere, we needed to climb.
Life in Spain quickly settled into a routine. Unlike the hustle and bustle of London, the town of Ayerbe was quiet and relaxed. The shops even took 4 hours off in the afternoon for siesta time. Our days consisted of fairly early starts although, our whole group was made up of two girls and four guys, the guys (I admit my guilt) were not that great at early starts and usually required the odd stern look. A short drive to the mapping area itself, a small debate on what time we would finish and then we were off in our pairs poised to collect our data. Temperatures regularly reached about 33°C by 2pm, and we were usually exposed in the open due to the lack of cover, so that is when we usually called it a day and headed back to base camp. The evenings were equally warm, in fact I think the house we lived in was designed to trap the heat resulting in me having to sleep on the sofa for 6 weeks. Needless to say, a memory foam mattress was gladly received when I returned back to the UK. We were lucky that the standard student craving for all things pasta could also be indulged and made up a good 80% of our evening meals.
As I mentioned earlier, the places that we visit as Birkbeck students include mostly igneous and metamorphic rocks (cast your minds back to GCSE geography – rocks from volcanoes and rocks that have been changed). In our area, it was all sedimentary rocks. Something most people might know is that they are the most likely places to find fossils and Spain did not disappoint. For us, being able to identify the fossils was particularly important as dependant on what they were would influence our interpretations on the rocks they are found in, things such as age, type of environment the animals lived in etc. Although at the time of writing I am only just starting to get into the meat of my thesis, first impressions shows us that the area that is now Spain had a plethora of living things and that we are lucky enough to see them fairly well-preserved to this day. The fun part was trying to find them, mostly achieved by hours of looking through hand lenses whilst trying to balance in awkward positions on the rock faces. Lucky for us, a large quantity of the exposures were found on the side of a main road that ran adjacent to the river through our area. By the third week, we didn’t even notice the odd looks from passing Spanish drivers, presumably wondering why a group of youths bearing clipboards, hammers and eternally confused expressions were stood staring at rocks.
All Geology students have to do the Map and Thesis. It is a rite of passage, and something that those in the profession talk about for years to come. Mine was no different and although a huge challenge mentally, one I’m sure will pay off……hopefully with a 1st!
Follow Tom on Twitter: @TWD_1988
Charlie Oughton changed my opinion on so much that it’s difficult to know where to start. Teaching media and culture-related subjects at both Regents and University of the Arts London, he combines the presenting styles of musical theatre and stand-up comedy with the informed discourse of a doctor of arts. It makes for a hell of a show. He also writes for Real Crime, SciFi Now and Starburst (among many others), has contributed to several edited collections, and provided film commentary materials for entertainment distributors around the UK. He can often be found at international film and arts festivals.
What inspires you?
Weird things. I like things that help me see things in a different way or encourage creation. For example, in Poundland I’ll see cheap and cheerful lights that can be stripped down for use in a prop for one of my stage shows. (The most recent set ended up becoming part of a light-up dildo…all for educational purposes, you understand).
What informs you?
I spend a lot of time trying to balance the ambition of my ideas (enormous set pieces of audience involvement with handmade props for everyone, complex poetry, projections and probably an alien or two) with what is appropriate and feasible. If I am using a clapping exercise to help students understand a film-editing process, I need to check their reactions to make sure the point’s understood rather than it just being a basic involvement mechanism.
Intellectually, I get a lot of my basic topic ideas from Facebook. I prefer it to academia as it has a far wider reach and there’s increasingly crossover anyway.
Where is your favourite place?
Easily accessible? The churchyard we live next to. It’s a gorgeous building and is incredibly peaceful with the added spice that it’s frequented by lots of different people.
Alternatively, the darkened side streets of just about any city. I love the different snapshots of life you see as well as a bit of danger.
Finally, Brussels’ central square. The buildings are incredible, it’s incredibly diverse and at night everyone just sits on the floor in the square and has a good-natured drink together.
Where do you go to learn?
My flat. I tend to learn most when I can take whatever I’ve picked up and experiment with it on my own at home with the internet at hand and a bit of room to bounce around in to let off excess energy. My front room has all my books, props and a fair bit of random stuff that I can just play with.
When do you watch?
Generally at night. I tend to watch just before bed as when your eyes get droopy it can get a bit more immersive. It’s also when I’m most likely to be alone and can watch what I want…
When do you dream?
All the time. Years ago I was part of an experimental group that used dream diaries where you had to train yourself to remember and write everything down so that you could learn from it. I have very good recall and can still lucid dream if I want to.
Who is your biggest critic?
Primarily my other half. I am very populist, he is very highbrow. If I can impress him, there’s a chance my work (whether written or performed) will cover both bases. That said, I have started going back over my finished work to see what editors have tweaked and learn from it (as I tend to cover very controversial areas and sail very, very near the edge) and if I see a rhyme that could have worked better if I’d altered a word, I kick myself. It has really helped me to develop my style as I know they’re not just letting me write anything but are more than willing for me to experiment. I’ve been able to get away with paragraphs on murder written in rhyming couplets to replicate gun fire before now.
When do you write?
I tried to get in to a normal pattern of writing between the working hours of 9 to 5. In reality I will stare at the screen and sod about on my mobile until about one in the morning when all the sudden my brain will come alive and the idea will flow. It recently took me 4 days to do a basic article I just wasn’t feeling, then about half an hour to do a really complex bit somewhere else that just came. To me, writing is less about conveying information (that’s what Wiki is for) than giving that info in a way that the scenario is truthfully dramatised in a way that gets the reader to question what they know. I use everything from technical rhetoric and poetic devices to sight gags hidden for those who read the article that little bit more carefully. When you get a little bit tired your imagination works and it’s amazing the peculiar connections it will pick up on.
What are the best ways to make people engage?
The amygdala. The best way to engage people is to appeal to their fear or their desire. In one of my historical performance pieces on censorship I dress as a Victorian sex pest and it makes a point through its visual perversity and the fact people get off on that despite themselves.
Why must we talk about controversial subjects?
Because we live in a globalised world where we are going to come across other people who have different opinions to us. We have to live together and this gives us the opportunity to refine all of our viewpoints.
Why are people still challenged by sexuality in the arts?
Because sexual drive is so powerful. Being attracted to people can fundamentally change our behaviour, make us do daft things and completely alter power dynamics. It challenges the status quo because sometimes it goes against what was traditionally thought to be ‘the way things were done’, and science is increasingly showing that things that were previously considered as fads may have scientific backing (such as identities beyond gender norms) which may lead to a re-evaluation of a whole lot more. The arts is, after all, a sphere that is traditionally very heteronormative.
What is the greatest thing fandom can do for art?
Fandom encourages people to think about media and their relationship to what it represents. In doing so, they can begin to decide what kind of world they want to live in and what values they want to see within it. They can create their own. From there, you can begin to change the world.
What exciting project are you working on next?
I often write for the magazine Real Crime which allows me to challenge readers to think about culture while being deliciously sleazy and hopefully entertaining in the process. In terms of film, I am a co-organiser of film festivals including the Dark Mills Film Festival, am appearing at the Nine Worlds Geekfest and will be covering FrightFest again in August. I also have a few film projects I’ve acted in coming out, though I’m hesitant to say what they are until they’re on the shelves, so to speak. That’s aside from teaching my regular courses in media, culture and film at a couple of different universities and a few bits of academic publishing.