Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry

This post was contributed by Catherine Angerson, a PhD student in the Department of Cultures and Languages. Here, Catherine reports on the Royal Society of Edinburgh Susan Manning Symposium on ‘Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry, 1760–1835’ held at the University of Edinburgh on 13–14 June.

Speakers travelled from Germany, Iceland, England and Belgium to join colleagues at the University of Edinburgh for a fascinating two-day discussion of reciprocal contacts between British and German dramatic and poetic literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The event took place the week before the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and so I and the other participants were conscious of the contemporary relevance of our historical topic.

The topicality of satirical dramas

A sepia tone image of The Scott Monument in Edinburgh, taken in 1845 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh, photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1845

The symposium began with two papers about the translation and adaptation of English plays for the German stage. Sonja Fielitz (Marburg) introduced the audience to German translations of Henry Fielding’s dramas for the Mannheim theatre. The success of satirical dramas depended on their topicality, and if translated literally, jokes and puns would have been lost on a new audience. Johannes Birgfeld’s (Saarland) paper on August von Kotzebue’s translations of English comedies showed that plays were translated in order to meet an increasing demand for new dramas for dozens of new theatres that opened all over the German-speaking world from the 1770s onwards and for almanacs of plays that families could perform at home.

Plays, especially melodramas, could be adapted or reimagined for a new domestic audience by changing the names, setting or topical references. Barry Murnane (Oxford) demonstrated that English dramatic adaptations of German Schauerliteratur (Gothic fiction), on the other hand, were deliberately menacing and foreign, presenting Germans as the dangerous ‘other’.

German poetry and drama in late eighteenth-century Scotland

The second panel focused on literary relations between Scotland and Germany. Scottish authors began to look to Germany for new dramatic and poetic sources that would help to revitalise and inspire what they felt to be a dormant national literature. Lucy Linforth (Edinburgh) showed that Walter Scott was aware of traces of the Scottish ballad Sweet William’s Ghost in Bürger’s ballad Lenore and that he used his knowledge of the Scottish ballad when he created his own translation of the German poem. Michael Wood (Edinburgh) examined the positive reception of German drama by Henry Mackenzie and Walter Scott in the 1780s and 1790s within the philosophical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Lessing’s application of his theory of ‘Mitleid’ in dramas such as Emilia Galotti is closely allied with the role of ‘sympathy’ in Scottish moral sense philosophy and the sentimental novel.

The politics of Anglo-German cultural exchange

Phd student Catherine Angerson

Catherine Angerson

My own paper, which was part of a panel on ‘the politics of cultural exchange’, examined reviews of German poetry and drama in the Monthly Review. I linked the growing interest in German literature in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century to the intellectual culture of ‘rational’ Dissent and the networks of literary groups and families (such as the Aikin-Barbauld circle in Norwich and London) that allowed liberal-minded Dissenters to dominate the publication and writing of literary reviews during the period of study. I argued that ideas found in German literature were appropriated by the reviewers in support of their own religious, aesthetic or political aims and that the reviews contributed to some of the wider debates that played out in the pages of literary journals, particularly between proponents and opponents of political and religious reform in the decade following the French Revolution. New research presented at this event is revealing national and regional differences in the history of Anglo-German cultural exchange that have not been explored before.

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