A work placement with the Globe Research team

Jenny ReidThis post was contributed by Jen Reid, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. She writes about her experience of a research placement at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

My three months as part of the Globe Research team were varied and stimulating: in what other role would you find yourself reading sixteenth-century midwifery manuals one week, scouring the internet for pictures of apothecaries another, and editing play scripts for upcoming productions the next?

The research interns take on tasks and answer queries from inside and outside the Globe, so every day was different – which is not surprising given the Globe’s own commitment to a range of activities, not only putting on productions but educational work with local schools, exhibitions and scripted performances of rarely performed plays. Not everything we did related to research; on one occasion we compiled an online resource for schools studying Othello, and on another I provided scene summaries for excerpts from around fifteen plays for Globe Education’s event programme. On my last day, I was asked to find manor houses in the Cotswolds with a historical connection to the theatre as part of the preliminary planning stages for the ‘Read Not Dead’ on the road events. I even helped out at the ‘Concert in Winter’ event, stewarding nursery school children to and from their performance on the Globe stage itself of ‘Engine Engine Number Nine’.

Most of the time, though, we were given research tasks. Sometimes these were about plays just about to open, for the company lecture or for the director to clarify points of performance. In my second week, for example, we were asked to look at ideas of sexuality, pregnancy, and love at first sight for the winter production of The Changeling which was due to begin a few weeks afterwards. Usually there would be a few of us in, so we would divide up the research topic between us: I looked at early modern pregnancy. The aim would be to draw up a report between us by the end of the day, tailored to the requirements of whoever had requested the research, and including pictures as well as summaries of the topic and suggested further reading. I enjoyed these jobs the most, as they afforded an opportunity not often encountered while doing a degree, to spend just a few hours hunting out the salient details of a subject, before moving on to the next. Not only that, it was exciting to know that, for example, our research document exploring sixteenth-century English xenophobia would be helpful for director Jonathan Munby deciding when to set his production of The Merchant of Venice, opening at the Globe in late April, or that our report on eighteenth-century madness could help furnish historical background for Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King.

Undertaking the placement during the winter season meant that I witnessed the excitement surrounding the new Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre, which opened early last year, and we had the opportunity to be part of the projects surrounding this new venture, for example by conducting and transcribing audience and actor interviews. We were by no means confined to productions in the Sam Wanamaker, however, and particularly in the new year, many of our tasks related to productions on the Globe stage during the upcoming summer season. This meant we got a great opportunity to get a sense of the different demands and considerations for the two stages: anyone interested in the day-to-day running of a theatre as well as in early modern research would enjoy the experience as thoroughly as I did.

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Globe Education Placement 2014/15

TNashhis post was contributed by Nash Trevelyan, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. As part of her course, Nash completed a research placement at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and here she shares her experiences.

Studying early modern theatre has been the perfect cover, allowing me to veil my questionable taste for the sensational and the lowbrow under the guise of Serious Literature Student. So when it was announced that the opening season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a production promising ‘[d]ead hands, macabre wax figures [and] a poisoned Bible’, I felt I’d hit the jackpot. It was fantastic to see the playhouse put through its paces in its opening season; many of the production choices were an intriguing balance between innovation and tradition and the possibilities for future productions were becoming apparent.

The SWP consolidated the first season with a compelling series of Research in Action workshops exploring the versatility and limitations of the playhouse, which would be endlessly useful for my forthcoming incarnation as a part-time graduate student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. The prevailing theme of the workshops was the experimental nature of the playhouse, and as such attendees were encouraged to move around the theatre, investigating sightlines and acoustics, to broaden our understanding of the space. I learned something important about indoor playing every time I visited, so when Birkbeck offered me the opportunity, alongside PhD candidate Jennifer Reid, to partake in a research placement at the SWP, I was thrilled and excited at the prospect of gaining an additional perspective on the theatre that was fast becoming intrinsic to my research interests.

Dr Will Tosh, Post-doctoral Research Fellow with Globe Education, gave Jenny and me the warmest of welcomes. We were stationed in the Globe’s Library and Archive with the research team, which consisted of postgraduate researchers from a wide range of institutions. Research requests would come in from a variety of sources, though they most often came from the director of an imminent production as part of the pre-production process. Tasks were prioritised and delegated by the Research Coordinator. Using the in-house style guide, Jenny and I contributed to documents on an array of subjects including early modern understandings of biology, sexuality, madness, racism and otherness – all themes that related either to the current season at the SWP or the forthcoming season at the Globe – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Changeling and The Merchant of Venice. It was imperative that our research employ reliable resources and as such we made good use of the Globe’s onsite library, as well as online databases such as EEBO and JSTOR, as well as the Wellcome, British Library and V&A sites for images. We were given the opportunity to attend Globe Education’s many lectures and events that shared themes with the current production run, which again proved useful to the research we were undertaking. We also conducted audience interviews as part of ongoing research on how the new space is perceived, which is indicative to how playhouse response is such a fundamental concern within the Globe’s ethos.

Life in the archive could be surreal at times: I researched frost fairs while overlooking the Thames from the window, while the sound of musicians rehearsing floated over from the Globe. We even took tea breaks in the green room with the actors (a 17th-century nobleman with an electric kettle is an arresting sight). The area is so steeped in history that the whole experience was immersive. My relationship with the playhouse in the months preceding my placement informed and inspired my research; visualising the ways in which it may be used was a useful tool, particularly when time is of the essence as part of a research team with a vast amount of information to collate and examine.

Entering the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and watching my own research in action during performance was something I could never have imagined when I first stepped inside the playhouse just nine months before. It was also a huge privilege to be named in the programmes for the duration of the season, alongside actors, creatives and academics that we have admired for many years. I gained valuable insight into the ways research is used and presented by an institution with the size and reputation of Shakespeare’s Globe, particularly at such a significant moment in its history – and I have certainly become a better researcher for it.

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Editing the Mechanics’ Institute Review 11

This post was contributed by Kieran Falconer, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing and an editor of The Mechanics’ Institute Review 11You can follow the MIR editors on Facebook and Twitter.

MIR11 coverLast week saw the publication of Issue 11 of The Mechanics’ Institute Review (MIR), an anthology of short stories showcasing the best work from Birkbeck’s creative writing students. Teeming with life and energy, this collection offers a remarkable range of styles, themes and settings. But as one of the co-editors, I’m often asked, how does it come about?

At the beginning of the academic year – for the past 11 years – there has been a call for short story submissions from students on Birkbeck’s BA and MA in Creative Writing or alumni. Once all the stories are in – usually numbering around 100 – a group of students who have volunteered to be editors are locked in a room and forced to choose the best stories. The hundred stories are whittled down to a manageable collection of around 20 over a six-week period of meetings. This year’s editors are Alison Hitchcock, Rebekah Lin, Luke Terry, Heidi Midtun Larsen, Erica Duggan, Kate Ellis and myself.

As in any collection of short stories, the first consideration is what the vision or manifesto for the volume should be. Discussions on “What do we want to say about contemporary short fiction?” or “Are we reflecting what’s out there or should we reflect the diversity and liveliness of Birkbeck?” might seem on the surface liberal copy for Pseud’s Corner, but for many who read fiction seriously, avidly and regularly the question is always, “what are the stories that are appropriate for our time and all time?”

On subsequent sessions we had to shed a lot of stories which were written by good friends of ours. It was a fairly brutal experience because friendship borne out of university, particularly at Birkbeck, has a special familial feel to it. Going to the George Bar after these sessions and then meeting up with the bright-eyed writers we’d just culled was particularly draining.

As the choice of stories narrowed so the decisions became harder. There was no crockery thrown but you had to stand up for a story that you believed in, with reasons, invoking style, characterisation and topicality. Diamonds in the rough that could be improved by editing needed more justification.

While this culling went on, other considerations had to be taken into account. MIR is a proper book, it’s professionally copy-edited and proofread, professionally typeset and printed and is on sale on Amazon and in bookshops. A whole raft of bureaucratic paperwork ensues, the ISBN is registered for both book and ebook, forms to be filled for wholesalers so that books can appear on screen in bookshops, and of course there’s the cover!

People do choose books by the cover, that’s why designers, artists and publishers spend so much time mulling over them, and writers spend so much time moaning about them. So we spent a lot of time deliberating over ours. In the past there have been some hugely evocative covers, both colourful and emotive, but after ten years of publication, the MIR cover needed refreshing. So it was down to our co-editor Kate Ellis to come up with a new concept and after a few attempts our brilliant typesetter Raffaele Teo refined it into a winning, bold cover that both looked back at our roots but also forward to current design. The Mechanics’ Institute was the first name given to Birkbeck back in 1823 when it was dedicated to the education of working people, so our new cover shows a period printing press with a very contemporary slash of blood red.

Once the design has been set and the lucky authors have been told who they are, and the unlucky authors are commiserated with (usually in the George Bar), there comes the process of editing the short stories. This might surprise people not used to the fiction process but any story, novel or poetry is apt to be edited, rearranged, the ending tinkered with, the value of a character questioned, until it is finished to the editors’ and authors’ satisfaction. Even for students used to a workshop setting – stories presented and critiqued by the class – this can be quite an intimidating experience but good writers are often both humble and confident, and ours got on with the job in hand.

Each of the seven co-editors was assigned a handful of stories to edit, working closely with the authors in several one-to-one sessions over the course of a few weeks. Some needed cosmetic touches, others needed a small transplant – importantly they all had the promise to begin with that made all the editors agree they were worth editing and worth being in the collection. A professional copy-edit by Sue Tyley, to polish the text before it was sent to the typesetter, was followed by a final proofread before it was sent to the printer.

Launch party large

Kate Smalley Ellis, Alison Hitchcock, Julia Bell, Julia Gray at the launch party


Antonia Reed, Angela Shoosmith, Dave Wakely

But this isn’t all there is to the anthology. Rather excitingly, well-known writers join the anthology to complete the real experience of publication. Secret soundings are taken from the scented rolodexes of our lecturers and every year a couple of famous eagles join the fledgling chicks. In the past these have included David Foster Wallace, Ali Smith, Rose Tremain, Evie Wyld and Joyce Carol Oates, and this year is no exception, with award-winning writers Hari Kunzru and Alex Preston joining the collection. (You can see interviews with both Hari and Alex on the Writers’ Hub.)

The overall process, guided by project director (and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck) Julia Bell (who started the publication 11 years ago), is also overseen by Sue Tyley (an excellent editor, who we came to regard with increasing fondness as the mother hen gathering the chicks of grammar and meaning into neat coops).

In her introduction, Julia Bell celebrates the protean wildness of the short story and its ability to conjure lived existence, to stir, affect and challenge. The Birkbeck mission statement hopes “that all may develop to their full potential” and these stories from writers starting out on a career, struggling, like many of us, to find the right words to talk about their experience today, are part of that journey to “full potential”. We hope you enjoy the book!

If you want to hear some of our authors reading their work from the anthology there is a Hubbub reading on Monday 13 October at 7:30 for 8pm in the basement of The Harrison (28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, WC1h 8JF)

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World Teachers’ Day and thinking through the benefits of teaching teenagers

This post was contributed by Emily Williams, a PhD student studying Humanities and Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Emily Williams

Yesterday was World Teachers’ Day and this annual celebration of such an important profession has made me reflect on my own teaching experiences. This spring I gave six 40-minute tutorials to two groups of six Year 9 and 10 pupils (aged 14 and 15) from Eastbury Comprehensive School in east London. The placement was arranged by The Brilliant Club – an award-winning non-profit organisation that exists to widen access to top universities for outstanding pupils from non-selective state schools.

Teaching my first lesson about propaganda posters in Mao Zedong’s China was a daunting experience. I had planned a relatively complex discussion of the term ‘propaganda’ and had no idea what to expect from the students. Would they pay attention? Would they participate? Thankfully, they were switched on and engaged, making thoughtful comments and participating eagerly. I think they particularly enjoyed the anti-Nazi Disney film we watched, featuring Donald Duck in Nazi Germany!

In subsequent lessons we moved on to looking at Maoist China, and while I know they found this section difficult, I was impressed with how quickly they grasped the major historical events that we covered. Where they really started to shine, however, was when we moved on to visual analysis of the posters. One of my major aims was to teach them that there isn’t a right answer for everything. So often, our education system seems to focus on exam preparation, with its attendant narrow conceptions of knowledge. With visual analysis, there was no right answer – I was genuinely interested in how they saw the posters. Some students couldn’t shake themselves out of their normal learning patterns and just wrote what they thought I wanted to read, but a few students really got creative, and came up with some really interesting observations, looking at gender positioning in the posters, or rhetorical strategies for dealing with enemies.

The course was seriously challenging – forcing pupils to think critically about the concept of propaganda, develop an understanding of the history of Mao’s China, and carry out visual analysis on so-called propaganda posters. On top of that, they also had to grapple with a tailor-made online platform, which gave each pupil their own space to gather research in preparation for their final assignment.

Most of my students were already planning on going to university, but I hope my course gave them a further glimpse of both their own potential and the sorts of learning and research they can undertake.  At our Brilliant Club graduation ceremony in Oxford, it was clear that the students were proud of their work, and I hope many of them gained in confidence as a result.

I think working with young people is really important for academics. My personal research looks at China, a country often misunderstood and misconstrued in the media and popular culture. While what can be accomplished in six short lessons is limited, I hope that I have raised their interest in China, and also helped them think more critically about how information is communicated and perceptions are shaped. We were looking at posters from Mao’s China, but the lessons about rhetoric and persuasion apply just as much to understanding advertising and the media today. I think academics can also benefit from this sort of work, both from having to learn to communicate our research more clearly and simply, but also from the insights young people can provide. A colleague of mine told me the whole frame of his thesis came into focus based on one observation by a student.

Working with Brilliant Club was time-consuming, but I think also has a lot of benefits. For many PhD students, this will be our only chance to design a course, and this (I hope!) will help us in job applications in the future. It’s also a chance to remember why we’re in education in the first place: the production of knowledge is our central concern, but for me, the opportunity to communicate this knowledge to new audiences is just as important.

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