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Reading Researchers share their research at “Performing the Archives” Conference, July 2015, National University of Ireland, Galway.

January 5, 2016

During the summer, five researchers from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, drawn from both the Department’s lecturing and postgraduate research community, participated in the international conference, ‘Performing the Archive’ held at the National University of Ireland, Galway (22-24 July). The conference gathered together over eighty speakers, including academics, researchers, artists, archivists and librarians from thirteen countries who are all engaged in working with archival materials on research and performance projects, in order to explore the uses and possibilities of the archive today from theoretical and methodological perspectives.

Archival materials offer fascinating glimpses into the past, and how the past continues to inform the present. The University of Reading holds a number of outstanding and diverse archival collections, including the Beckett Collection, established in 1971, now the world’s largest collection of resources relating to the writer Samuel Beckett, the archives of Reading-based biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers, and the Evacuee Archive, containing written memoirs, oral history interviews and other research resources relating to former evacuees and war children gathered by the University’s Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies. In recognition of these remarkable archival collections, the University actively promotes Collections-Based research and has established a Collections-Based doctoral training programme (see http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/DoctoralTrainingProgramme/cbr-dtp.aspx).

 

The panels at Performing the Archives featuring FTT staff and current or recent postgraduate students, presented research using these unique archival materials from the collections at the University of Reading.

 

Dr. Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), along with Dr. James Rattee (Visiting Lecturer in Film, University of Reading,) and Sonya Chenery (PhD student in Theatre & Film, conducting a collections-based PhD in collaboration with MERL [Museum of English Rural Life], University of Reading), presented on a panel entitled, ‘The Matter of War’, and engaged with the themes of conflict, memory, and trauma in relation to archival materials in/as performance.

 

Over the last two years, these researchers have worked on several connected archive-based projects. Dr. Teresa Murjas’s paper, entitled ‘Surviving Objects’, focused on three practice-led projects connected to her research and teaching on conflict and representation, as she considered the process of generating these projects, their relationship to each other, and how they have been shaped and conceptualized through engagement with object/paper-based archives and collections, museums and galleries. Teresa’s projects have in common their focus on war-related matter, their use of artifacts/ephemera and close-up imagery filmed with a macro-lens, and an interest in fragmented narrative style, using recorded storytelling voices and typographical on-screen text.

 

The first, Surviving Objects, is a cross-medial performance combining video projection with live performance, and it draws on auto/biographical models of practice and a small personal archive belonging to a WW2 child refugee. The performance was staged in the Minghella Building, Reading, in 2013.

 

Based on this work, Teresa was invited by MERL (Museum of English Rural Life) and Reading Museum to develop two Arts Council of England (ACE) funded projects as part of an over-arching collaboration entitled Reading at War. The first, The War in Biscuits, was inspired by a collection of WW1 ration biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmers, a Quaker enterprise, and one of the country’s largest and most prestigious biscuit manufacturers. Today, Reading Museum and MERL hold the Huntley & Palmers Archive, which includes materials relating to the company’s role during the First World War.

 

The objects that form the centre of The War in Biscuits installation are a set of 100-year-old Huntley & Palmers ration biscuits – a staple of the British Army’s diet. The objects have survived partly because soldiers customized them and mailed them back to their families. Some were inscribed with political statements, others with humorous comments mocking the taste of the biscuits themselves, and many were mailed home to loved ones. These objects therefore hold interest on multiple levels: they highlight the experiences of individual soldiers as well as revealing some of the wider industrial processes at work during the war. Our mixed-media installation was mounted at Reading Museum in 2014 before moving, in a reconfigured form, to the Minories Gallery, Colchester (May 2015). Both James and Sonya assisted with this project.

 

The second ACE funded project, the Evacuee Archive project, is currently under completion and explores the archive’s origins through conversations with its founder Dr. Martin Parsons. The archive is the largest holding of WW2 evacuee-related material outside London’s Imperial War Museum. This project takes multiple forms, including an on-line presence, telling the story of the archive’s origins through focus on a selected number of objects, and using formal elements key to the previous projects within a digital space. Sonya’s practice-led PhD also falls within this strand of the work. Building on Teresa’s introduction, James and Sonya examined diverse aspects of each of these ACE projects.

 

Dr. James Rattee’s paper, ‘Reading the Biscuit Town’, examined the process of creating the museum and art-based installation The War in Biscuits, a project conceived in response to material stored in the Huntley & Palmers collection at Reading Museum and MERL.  James’s paper explored some of the key developments in the staging of this installation by looking at how an archive can be opened up through digital and multimedia-based practice.

 

James considered how, in its combination of three inter-linking films, text and audio content, The War in Biscuits seeks to explore a number of perspectives on these objects, including highlighting the biscuits’ material qualities, as well as engaging with paper-based items such as photographs, recipe and leger books, letters, documents and marketing imagery.

 

James reflected upon some of the key creative decisions involved in animating the collection in this way. He also considered how the installation was conceived in order to engage audiences in two very different spatial contexts at the same time as reflecting on how the project was developed through building collaborations between different institutions, as well as between historians, academics and museum and art professionals.

 

Sonya Chenery’s paper was titled ‘Remediating Traces’. Her PhD research is conducted within the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading and she works on the Collections-based Doctoral Training Programme coordinated by MERL, benefitting from access to primary sources, material culture, and the associated professional expertise of a university museum.

 

Her practice-as-research PhD concerns MERL’s Evacuee Archive, the largest of its kind outside London’s IWM. The project was developed in the wake of Teresa’s performance, Surviving Objects. It is distinct from, though in dialogue with, the work that her Reading colleagues are conducting on the evolution of the Evacuee Archive.

 

During her ongoing training in collections-based research and engagement with the Evacuee Archive, Sonya has encountered a range of primary sources concerning the experiences of individuals during WW2. She has become very aware of the dynamic between those archival and published documents in which memories of experience are retold after many years, and other documents such as letters, diaries, and drawings that were created at the time when the experiences took place.

 

Sonya’s paper referred to examples of material from the archive, particularly to reminiscences written later in life by former evacuees, and considered the ways in which these are informed, corroborated or contradicted by earlier letters and diaries, and other material traces of these individuals’ wartime experience. She also draws on her contextual research into stage and screen practices that have engaged with related archival holdings of documents that describe personal experiences and memories, and were produced during times of conflict.

 

 

Research into Samuel Beckett’s drama for stage and screen, drawing on the University’s rich Beckett Collection and other related collections, is an important feature of FTT’s research profile and both Professor Jonathan Bignell and Professor Anna McMullan have led funded research projects in this area: Bignell led a Leverhulme project with artist Bill Prosser on Beckett’s Doodles (2006-9): http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-BeckettPhenomenology.aspx and McMullan led the AHRC funded Staging Beckett: http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-staging-beckett.aspx which has compiled a searchable database of professional productions of Beckett’s plays in the UK and Ireland.

 

Two of FTT’s postgraduate students, Matthew McFrederick, the PH.D. student working on Staging Beckett, who was also awarded an AHRC international placement to the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas in 2014, and Niamh Bowe, part of the University’s Collections Based training programme, presented papers on Beckett at the Galway conference, drawing on archival materials.

 

To coincide with the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s British and English language premiere at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955, directed by Peter Hall, Matthew McFrederick presented a paper on that production entitled “Staging Waiting for Godot at 60: The Arts Theatre and the archive”.  The paper drew upon extensive archival research from several major UK and international repositories including the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center and the Victoria Albert Museum Collections, as well as Reading’s own Beckett Collections.

 

Matthew redressed several lesser known histories relating to this production, starting with the correspondence prior to the play’s performance between the play’s producers, Donald Albery and Peter Glenville, and Beckett, which reveals the obstacles Beckett’s drama faced as it emerged in the UK with censorship and casting issues. It continued by discussing under-utilized archival testimony from the play’s performers, including Paul Daneman and Peter Woodthorpe; cited interviews and memoirs that offer a unique perspective into how Godot was staged, interpreted and received in its first English language performance; and contextualized this production in relation to British theatre during the 1950s. Finally, as previous performance histories of this premiere have tended to neglect this production’s visual elements, Matthew focused on photographs and set designs by Peter Snow, in an examination of this early scenographic interpretation of Godot, a history that began the long and varied association between Beckett’s drama and British and Irish theatres.

 

Matthew’s paper also coincided with the AHRC Staging Beckett Exhibition, “Waiting for Godot at 60”, which he co-curated with Professor Anna McMullan and Dr Mark Nixon for the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, following the conference.

 

Niamh Bowe drew on Trinity College Dublin’s Beckett holdings in her paper on ‘Performing trauma and Samuel Beckett’s Kilcool manuscript’. The Kilcool manuscript is an early version of Beckett’s play Not I (1972), one of Samuel Beckett’s most minimal plays. The play features Mouth, a spot-lit mouth speaking a monologue on stage while vehemently refusing to give up the third person, and the Auditor, a silent cowled figure. In Woman and Ireland as Beckett’s Lost Others: Beyond Mourning and Melacholia (2010) Rina Kim notes the importance placed on physical place, gender and the depiction of suffering in the manuscript.  Stanley Gontarski describes Beckett’s method in his movement from ‘Kilcool’ to Not I as an act of abstraction in order to gain acceptable artistic distance. However, Niamh argued with reference to the ‘Kilcool’ manuscript and the drafts of the Not I manuscripts, that the evolution of the performative gestures of the avante-texte presents a rich focus for analysis as a process of ‘distillation’ rather than abstraction, in relation to the concept of trauma.

 

Various elements of Not I such as the fractured non-linear narrative, the depiction of the fragmented body and the refusal to accept subjectivity all accord with what Doris Laub and Shosana Felman describe in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992) as the act of ‘witnessing’: the retelling of a traumatic event through dynamic interplay of speaker and listener. ‘Kilcool’, in comparison, also contains these key details with more expansive stage directions and contextualisation. The recent publication by David Houston Jones Samuel Beckett and Testimony (2011) discusses the issue of trauma and witnessing in Beckett’s work, though he focuses mainly on Beckett’s prose. Performance and trauma, in comparison, have not been substantially discussed in regard to Beckett’s later theatre. Niamh argued that the issue of trauma as performative gesture through both the content and the stage directions of ‘Kilcool’ does not begin at theatre rehearsals, it begins at conception in Beckett’s work which fundamentally links archive and performance.

 

In its emphasis on bringing together international scholars with practitioners working in archives and museums, the Performing the Archives conference offered a critically exciting and diverse environment for the exploration of ideas at every level of development. Galway’s internationally renowned arts and performance festival was also in full swing, yielding numerous opportunities for experiencing both new and established work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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