Tag Archives: theatre

‘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.


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.


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.


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.


The Spirit of Enthusiastic Scholarship

This post was contributed by Natalie Fong, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MA Victorian Studies.

As I approached the familiar light glowing from the corner beacon that is 30 Russell Square to attend the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar of Birkbeck’s Arts Week 2013, I felt distinctly nostalgic. It’s nearly 10 years since I first started classes there for the MA in Victorian Studies (2004-2006). I remember the very first meeting in that very building, a room of people of all ages and walks of life, regarding each other excitedly but also nervously – what was to come? Who would complete the challenge of working and studying? I look back at the two years that I studied at Birkbeck with great fondness, as wonderful evenings in 30 Russell Square and Malet Street engaged in lively intellectual debate with clever and witty people with whom I remain firm friends.

Jessica Barrett has already written a comprehensive review of the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar, so I will merely add reflections as an alumna.

It was great to hear three equally engaging, connected yet distinct, papers on the senses (or lack thereof) in Shakespeare’s works:

  • Simon Smith detailing the use of sound in plays (music, clapping, references to music in Shakespeare’s plays), but also the effects of sounds from the theatre on their neighbours
  • Gillian Woods’ expounding of “seeing is believing” through an analysis of The Winter’s Tale, sight and morality (the fears that the theatre’s deception of sight leads to temptation)
  • Derek Dunne’s fascinating deconstruction of the deprivation of the senses in Titus Andronicus – how literal deprivation is also symbolic deprivation (e.g. the silencing of tongues equating to, as well as resulting from, the Roman court’s suppression of free speech)

It was a great privilege to once again be part of the Birkbeck experience, to spend an evening in the presence of inspiring intellectuals (here I pay brief homage to the late, great Dr Sally Ledger, who encouraged me to be a better student and, later, to channel her passion through my own teaching). Bouncing thoughts around during discussion time with people of different ages and cultures, appreciating how pooling our understandings of the talks opened up further intriguing possibilities for study, reminded me again of the fun times my friends and I used to have at twilight tutorials.

It is that we alumni hope Birkbeck can sustain, despite the current climate. Arts Week captured the best that Birkbeck has to offer those who want to receive a quality education while they work. Hopefully the success of Arts Week (judging by the blog posts) will speak clearly to the powers that be of the importance of championing part-time higher education.

As the great Bard himself wrote in The Winter’s Tale: “It is required that you do awake your faith.” Seeing really is believing!