Zhanna Chenenk: studying theatre at Birkbeck

Moscow native and former MA Text and Performance student, Zhanna Chenenk reflects on her year at Birkbeck.

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I was looking for an MA in theatre. I was intrigued by the Text and Performance course thanks to its mix of academic and practical disciplines with the bonus of being able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Could you tell us about moving to London?

When I was sixteen I moved from my parents’ house in a small town close to Saint-Petersburg in Russia. That was a very stressful experience; a big city, a different culture, a huge distance (2000 kilometres) between myself and my family. Before coming to Birkbeck I had moved and travelled a lot and lived in many different cities, but it is still very hard to start from scratch in a new place. I arrived just before the course began and spent around a month searching for the right accommodation. I encountered many different people which was an interesting introduction to London life.

How was it coming to study at Birkbeck at first?

Before I applied for the course I met with a Birkbeck representative in Moscow to clarify some issues and later, when I was in London she took me on a tour of the campus and RADA. I liked the arts building as there is no logic to the room locations and you can easily find an empty space for a rehearsal.

Have you encountered any difficulties? How is the British system different from your country’s? Have you been to study skills sessions?

It was hard getting used to the British system, and once you’ve learned to cope with it, the year is over. Writing in a different language is a challenge in itself, but in addition this you are writing in many different ways; academic and narrative style, essays, scripts and portfolios. You even have to perform on stage in English – but I finally feel very comfortable using it. Now I feel it in my body. My program involved constant switching between practice and academic lessons and I wish I had more time to perfect everything.

What is it like living in London?

It took time getting used to London. Sometimes I loved it. I enjoyed wandering through the jungle of a city with my sketch book, but sometimes it was very oppressive. To escape these feelings, I travelled to new places like Berlin or Paris or Palestine, or even within the UK. I especially liked going to Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester! Most recently I discovered the Yorkshire Sculpture Park! The transport in London is also tricky to get used to and although I loved the poeticism of night buses, I hated using them during the day. Ultimately, opinions of cities are always built out of the opportunities that they give, and the connections you make. Not just the bricks and mortar which make it up.

Have you made friends on your course?

My course was international, so I’ve gained many connections across the world over the year. I participated in workshops and took on internships, so I’ve been able to build up my professional contacts to build a career upon.  London has been good to me. Whilst here I’ve met people who I have connected easily with. And even if some of them leave the UK soon I know that I have gained a wealth of friendships. I found my tribe here.

What has been your highlight of your time in London and at Birkbeck?

I would say that it has been good for me to review some of my personal values. Some of the things which were once important to me suddenly became very small. The same with my relationships; I revised all of them. I started to draw and take photos again. And I started writing. I found my experiences in London coming back to me in Berlin, when my friend asked me write a short story for his magazine. Thanks to the development of my language skills I was able to do this in in one morning and drew a picture to accompany it.

Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

I chose a practical path for my dissertation. For this I did a presentation – a 30-minute production and an 8000-word analytical portfolio. I chose to focus on women’s choices and the freedom to shape yourself as an artist. I have really enjoyed it, because I have had time to focus on one thing that I find interesting. It has also allowed me to make mistakes in the safety of an academic framework. I’m happy that I have had time to make these mistakes as they have taught me valuable lessons.

What are you doing since you completed your studies at Birkbeck?

I took on a thorough research tasks for my performance and now I have material to extend the performance into a trilogy. But, for now I am applying to take part in festivals for emerging directors with the presentation I created as a part of my dissertation. As for my other plans, details of these can be found in newspapers.

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