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.

. Read all 3 comments . Category: Arts, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,

‘Composing Performance’ – a practical workshop for Arts Week.

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

walkthewalk02Last term our MA group was based at Shakespeare’s Globe, and in a session on Tudor music workshop leader Keith McGowan explained that John Cage’s idea of silent music would have been old hat to the early moderns and the ancient Greeks. They took their cue from Pythagoras who had identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of string that produces it, and thereby understood that mathematical relationships will express ‘musical’ tones – whether you are able to hear the music or not. So it is that the movement of celestial bodies creates the music of the spheres, and Tudor dancers moving in proportion, to the Galliard or the Pavane, created their own harmonies.

Director Peader Kirk didn’t cite Pythagoras as an inspiration, but form, proportion and harmony were called for, and found singularly lacking when a group of us started to move around Room G10 at the Composing Performance workshop, run as part of Birkbeck Arts Week. Working barefoot, and in pairs, with one leading and the other ‘complicit’, we used the space of the room to walk, stand, sit or lie down. It may sound simple, but for us rookie performers it felt like an exercise in lumbering self-consciousness as we tried to avoid careering into each other, and wondered whether it was right to lock our gaze or to look away.

The aim of the workshop was to reveal how a compositional rather than a narrative approach can be used to create theatre. Peader was going to make a montage performance using us as his raw material, and he certainly had his work cut out. Ever so slowly we took on a broader repertoire of movements. We could vary our pace, and use proximity to move closer to, or further away from our partners. We could swap leader and follower, or even merge with another pair. This was definitely Grade One performance stuff, but the very simplicity of the approach, and the limitations, gave our movements a certain coherence.

Finally, starting from a very simple movement, we were ready to start composing.  A brave volunteer (well done Nick !) walked the breadth of the room. Paused. Turned. And walked back again. We watched as Nick repeated this walk and then each of us had to choose where or how to insert ourselves into the composition in such a way that added to and did not distract from the performance. Very slowly, and with a deal of trial and error, we found positions, and actions, which felt right – in some sort of Pythagorean way. With lights dimmed and to the soothing ambience of a Brian Eno track, Nick’s regular pacing took on additional meaning as each of us joined him in the performance and then, one by one, peeled away. Thankfully no visual record was kept of our debut, but we each found our own narrative in the piece and for a moment, even in G10, there was a sense that, with Peader’s help, we had created a moment of theatre.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,

The Acts Between

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Arts and Policy Management.

‘The Acts Between is performance piece which aims to explore the themes of mental health and the passing of time’.

On the Arts Week programme page, it explained how ‘audience members can drop in and out at any time.’ However, on the ‘Events in the School’ it explained how The Acts Between was a ‘performance … which asks the audience to move around 43 Gordon Square. … The performance is around 20 minutes in duration – please book a time slot online.’

This left me a little confused. Unsure as to whether I was attending a performance or an installation; whether I was going to be a member of an audience or a viewer, I arrived at 18.00 (so as not to miss any important introductory explanations). With no information provided about the artists involved, I decided to be embrace the mystery of it and not research Between the Acts (the final novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1941 shortly after her suicide), as I would have normally been inclined. In hindsight, this might have been a sensible thing to do, however I am of the opinion that one should be able to attend a performance or exhibition without extensive preparation and still be able to participate.

Due to this unfamiliarity with the referenced novel, I entered G10 curious, with a kind of nervous excitement, which lent itself to the experience. Feeling as though I had stepped into the mind of an over active imagination, I did not know where to start first. Kevin Barry describes how he flits and hops from book to book, in the same way we flit and hop from site to site. I wish I did not identify with this behaviour, the curse of modern society and technology, but I know I am not alone. At first, my impatient mind was quite satisfied by the overlapping of Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Circus’. The problem with this amalgamation, alongside a loop featuring the sound of a crying baby and the infamous internet dial-up tone, is that I did not recognise the fire-alarm and thought the noise to be part of the show.

Sadly, this mass- exit and re-entry into No.43 by the audience was the only occasion when we did in fact move around the building. (Perhaps it really was all part of the piece?)

On return, I was ready to do some reading and found some Silvia Plath handwritten on dark rice paper, before moving on to a table filled with pamphlets on Bi-Polar disorder. Then I flitted off to a small table covered in diamonds and aspirin and listened to Marilyn Monroe sing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’… this was complemented by a nearby overturned chair, surrounded by bottled liquor, make-up and hairspray.

Curious, but it wasn’t long before I was hopping in and out between the shoe-strings, which presented punched photocopies of texts, checking out the small pebbles and bagged popcorn along the way.

The Acts BetweenFor me, the most intriguing aspect of the installation was the black and white video being played on the screen, left of the entrance. I did not watch it at first, too engrossed by the flickering pink projection been screened on the central wall. However, it was this monotone video that maintained my attention above the other stimuli.

The viewer was invited into no.43 and guided up and down the building’s labyrinth of corridors and stairs. What made this video eerie was the fact that the performers were outside room G10 throughout the performance/installation, so even exiting The Acts Between had a sense of the surreal to it.

The video eventually leads us into The Acts Between installation, so that we are left watching a view of the very room we are starting in. Up until that moment I felt unsure about the space as a whole but I think this moment brought it together for me. The idea of recording. Of never really being ‘present’, too distracted and concerned about experiencing moments behind a piece of technology.

I am not going to pretend that I now (or ever did) know how this all links to Virginia Woolf, her work and life in Bloomsbury. However, I will say that it made me consider even more carefully the veils through which we view our daily lives and what we use to alter our impression, and people’s impression of us. Time did move quite quickly while in The Acts Between, feeling as though someone had pressed fast-forward. Perhaps the idea was to create an environment where guests had the opportunity to gain a sense of what living with anxiety can feel like. Or perhaps this visitor did not read between the acts, objects, space and lines in way the artist’ had envisaged one to.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

BBKtalks: Working in the Arts

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s Arts Policy and Management.

BBKtalks was the result of a competition being held by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice. This three-part series of talks was organised by two MA students of Arts Policy and Management and funded by the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck. The talks took place over three weeks in February and March 2014 and introduced six Birkbeck alumni to staff and students at Birkbeck University, as well as very welcome attendees from UCL, King’s College and Goldsmiths.

The overall aim of the series was to engage with a topic which preoccupies many Film, Media and Cultural Studies postgraduates: working in the Arts.

A piece of advice offered at ‘SU Employability: Elevator pitch & Networking Guide’, a workshop organised by the Birkbeck Career Services on 5 November 2013 became the first and crucial step on the way to producing BBKtalks. The guest speaker recommended the audience to “do something every day that will bring you closer to where you wish to be”. BBKtalks aimed to be one of those steps, for all involved.

The following is a summary of the guests’ comments from across the three nights, in response to the topic at the core of BBKtalks: the challenges and potentials of working in today’s Arts sector.

The guidance referenced is a mixture of that provided by guests’ during their presentations and interviews, as well as during post-talk discourse.

1. What rules?

There are none.

Something which rang clear each week was the fact that there is no pre-established path into the Arts.

“There are no rules, officially, when it comes to the arts. London is wide open. You need to create your own rules.  Virginie Peurtolas Syn revealed to the BBKtalks attendees on 6 March. The accounts were provided by Leslie Primo and Lucy Taylor, who have forged careers from two very different directions, availing of postgraduate education at varying points in their professional lives.

However, there are some qualities which are essential. Before you decide what your rules will be, “you need to do your homework and be informed”.

2.       Do Your Homework”

Preparation is key.

The importance of staying informed is crucial. From researching key players in the Arts, to examining the key events and discussions taking place on various platforms. Without the right information, effective networking and successful interviews are not an option.

Two BBKtalks guests, Virginie Puertolas-Syn and Aser El Saqqa, began working in the Arts after over 15 years working in the business sector. Their advice to those making a career change or in the early stages of climbing their chosen ladder, was to make time to do some personal homework by considering their own skillset and finding effective ways of communicating their transferable skills.

3.       Experience, Education and Transferable skills

Practical forms of engagement need to go hand-in-hand with knowledge and information.

Both Lucy Taylor and Hannah Cross acknowledged the benefits of interning and how work placements in various institutions acted as stepping stones as well as networking tools during the early stages of their career. Experience is key. They encouraged the audience to engage with the Arts in a professional capacity as much as possible and as soon as possible. Caro also emphasised this point and found that her internship gave her the freedom to engage with the work and ask questions, without the kind of pressure you would have felt in other roles.

Caro Skyrme enrolled at Birkbeck years into a well-established and successful career. However, for her, much like Virginie, the MA gave confidence, underpinning her expertise. For Caro, the MA was a change to stand back from her working practice and consider issues she could not see or put aside time to engage with from within.

4.       Be Pro-active

If the opportunity is not presenting itself, you have to make the break for yourself.

After getting to know some artists, Caro Skyrme created her own role and became a visual arts consultant. “Just do it”. This could mean moving to a new city and leaving all that you know behind but you need to take a risk and invest in yourself before you can expect anyone else to. For Caro, the key to being pro-active lies in being able to make decisions and follow through. She advised the audience that one take consensus and be prepared to take the slack and the praise. Good planning and preparation (‘do your homework’) is also key, ensuring that solutions and alternative routes should never be far from reach.

Creativity is sometimes about making your own opportunities. Once you make a start, opportunities, offers and openings will follow. However, this “snowball effect” depends on your reputation. “People talk”, said Virginie Peurtolas Syn, making the Arts “a very transparent industry”. Lucy Taylor also emphasised one’s reputation as their most valuable commodity and reminding the audience how the London Arts scene is much smaller than it was first appear.

5.       The 30 second Pitch

It is important to know your key skills and how to make the most of them.

Something which was emphasised over the series of talks, in various ways, was the importance of being able pitch; either yourself or an idea. Ideally, according to Virginie, in less than 30 seconds. The speakers suggested that the audience ask themselves ‘what makes you different?’.

Effective pitching links back to the importance of networking and maintaining a good reputation. Human relationships are key and can determine a lot. One speaker stated how “you need to engage yourself with the sector of the arts who wish to become a part of. Go to people and introduce yourself.” Those among the guests who had experience working abroad championed London for its “flow”, explaining that unlike many other cities they had worked, London was a place where you could network with ease and build genuine contacts and working relationships.

6.       Perseverance and Passion

“People have asked me, ‘why do you do it?’”, admitted Aser to the audience on 6 March

His response? “Because I love it“.

Know what you wish to do and be prepared for the long haul. “Working in the Arts is a lifestyle choice”, remarked Hannah Cross on the second night. This is something that was also discussed by Lucy Taylor and Leslie Primo, who spoke candidly to members of the audience about how they spent their free time. Both emphasised how their work never left like ‘work’; an attitude shared by each of the BBKtalks speakers. Their passion for what they do was unmistakeable.

Finally,

Some words of advice, imparted by our generous guests.

  1.  “Don’t waste your time worrying”
  2. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help”

It is a challenge to summarise the range of discussions which took place over the three part series of talks and the value advice provided by our six speakers was enough to fill a book.  Should anyone want more information on the talks, please contact Éimear Doherty and Stefania Donini at bbktalks@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/bbktalks2014 and @bbktalks.

. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,