History / Memory / Performance

Minghella Studios is home to Peeling Onions with Granny, an artists’ collective exploring the inter-generational impact of Soviet deportations from within Eastern and Central Europe to Siberia and Kazakhstan during the Second World War. 

Dr Teresa Murjas, an Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance here at Reading, and Simon Purins, a London-based artist and filmmaker, started the project in 2016. They have since been joined by Elina Kalnina, a freelance heritage interpreter and creative facilitator based in Cesis, Latvia, Chris Dobrowolski and Nicky Werenowska, an artist and a playwright, both based in Colchester, and Adrian Palka, a Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts at Coventry University. All the members have been personally affected by Soviet deportations, a subject they explore according to Marianne Hirsch’s concept of post-memory.

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Peeling Onions With Granny (photo: Essex Book Festival)

The bunker

Peeling Onions first showed its creative work together as part of a dedicated symposium in Minghella Studios in December 2016 – and it continues to seek out new opportunities for exploring memory and performance. In March this year, the group was invited by Essex Book Festival to present work at a rather unusual venue, Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker. This was the Government’s Cold War ‘hideaway’ from 1952 right through to 1994, and is now a fascinating underground museum open to all. Essex Book Festival worked with a whole array of partners, authors, organisations and individuals to present an exciting programme inspired by the Bunker’s history, its ‘raison d’etre’ and the thoughts and feelings the place provokes. Events took place throughout disused rooms, stairways and corridors, from the Canteen Common Room to the Bunker Plant Room, through to the Prime Minister’s Bedroom. This short film gives a great overview of the event, as does this gallery of images.

The creative work was rich and varied; interactive poetry, a walking tour, live performance, film installation, silent disco, talks, panel discussions and a writer’s workshop. As well as Peeling Onions with Granny, participants included poet Agnieszka Studzinska (whose debut collection Snow Falling was shortlisted for the London Festival New Poetry award in 2010), award-winning Estonian author Paavo Matsin (winner of the European Union prize for Literature in 2016 with his novel Gogol’s Silent Disco) and author Tony Peake, who – like the main character in his novel North Facing – grew up in South Africa at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As night fell, the bunker metamorphosed into The Nuclear Option, a labyrinth of ‘unearthly delights’.

Surviving Objects

Installing work in a functioning museum is an exciting but demanding challenge, not least when the project involves film installations, live performances and interactive sculptures. Teresa worked with FTT’s PhD alumnus James Rattee to install Surviving Objects, a version of her mother’s living room, into the bunker’s austere and murky surroundings. It was situated in one of the venue’s more intimate spaces, and was presented complete with an array of sculptural houseplants (some of which Teresa is still trying to revive in her work office).

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Peeling Onions With Granny (photo: Essex Book Festival)

Surviving Objects concerns the experiences of Teresa’s mother, and her six years as a child living in a British-run refugee camp in Zambia (then in so-called Rhodesia). Visitors accessed the project’s video and audio material on ipads, whilst seated in the ‘living room’ surrounded by the “objects” of the work’s title (which were originally located in her mother’s actual living room in Derby) and wearing headphones. The sight of an evocatively lit fin-de-siecle themed living room, from which the sound of Henryk Wieniawski’s chamber music wound its way tentatively down the bunker’s murky and austere corridors, was certainly unexpected.

The Peeling Onions collective left the bunker after midnight, following much trucking of set and technical equipment up the dusty sloped entrance corridor, reaching the safety of the woods, and more importantly, fresh air, as the moon was high in the heavens.

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Peeling Onions With Granny (photo: Essex Book Festival)

Coming up…

In November 2018 Minghella Studios will host the Arts Council funded touring production of Silence by Nicky Werenowska of Peeling Onions with Granny. Nicky’s play has emerged through a Research and Development Grant from the Arts Council, and focuses on the significance of deportation stories and how they are told – or how their telling is avoided – by three generations of women in one particular family. More information about the event and how to book will soon follow.

If you have any questions, please contact Teresa Murjas on t.s.murjas@reading.ac.uk