Peopling the Palace (s) 2016 Festival Preview

Take part in a festival of groundbreaking experimental theatre, music and dance, as well as book launches and events at Peopling the Palace (s) from 7-19 June 2016.

Here’s some of the things you can experience at the festival:

  • Watch a celluloid tribute to what it’s like to study Drama at QMUL on Wednesday 8 June. Book a free ticket here
  • Delve into the ‘Generation Rent’ mystery of Sh!t Theatre‘s Letters to Windsor House on Friday 10 June.
  • Debate the role of shit as both a metaphor and a material reality in our daily London lives at Life is Shit (Shit is Life) on Friday 10 June.
  • Watch Lindsay Goss and Nicholas Ridout‘s new performance about ‘trying to be serious when it’s better to be cool’ on Friday 10 & Saturday 11 June.
  • Raise a glass to the launch of Professor Lois Weaver‘s alter-ego Tammy WhyNot’s Youtube Channel on Tuesday 14 June. No booking required.
  • Discover recent final year students’ work at First Flights on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 June.
  • A double bill of participatory performance by dyspraxic artists including Daniel Oliver’s Weird Seance (pictured below, middle) on Saturday 11 June.
  • Listen to the loud homage to the alternative theatre scene in the 1970s and 80s by a Lesbian punk band Siren on Sunday 19 June (pictured below top).

See the full programme here including times and locations

Find out more about the Drama Department, in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London here

peoplingthepalace

Top: Siren Band Middle: Daniel Oliver Weird Seance Bottom: Jen Pearce

Jellyfish Returns for London-wide Student Theatre Festival

jellyfish

In a land where dinosaurs still roam the Earth, where the nights are stormy and the 3G slow, a grandson stays up with his grandfather as the old man prepares to pass on to the next life. Except this isn’t your usual grandparent/grandchild relationship. Throw in an immortality myth, some psychological bullying and the grotesque treatment of a pickled egg and you’ll start to get a bit closer to the twisted world of Jellyfish. Written by Drama finalist and Royal Court writing programme alumnus Reece Connolly, the play will be heading to the London Student Drama Festival (LSDF) on 5th March.

Reece is a prolific playwright within the QM community, having put on five plays since starting his degree in 2013, including selling out multiple nights at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with QMTC venture A Fistful of Hunny. Emily Collins (English and Drama finalist and Associate Director at Theatre N16) directs, following on from successes at The Old Red Lion, Theatre N16 and Camden Fringe. With stellar performances from Jack Ridley and Sam Woodyatt, and technical and production help from Patrick Balcombe and Georgia Moorhouse, this strong team are hoping to triumph at this year’s LSDF.

Founded in 2013, LSDF is an annual event that brings together student plays from across London’s universities and aims to shed light on the wealth of theatrical talent amongst students in the capital. Jellyfish will be representing Queen Mary at this year’s event, competing for the chance of being invited to perform at The Pleasance a week later. Various prizes will be up for grabs, with the winners decided by the theatre professionals that make up the judging panel.

According to Reece, Jellyfish is the ideal representative of QM theatre to take to LSDF. ‘It’s classic QMTC in a miniature, crystallised form – darkly comic, traditional yet subversive, a little daring, a bit sweaty, and a lot sweary.’

‘I think its strength lies in its subtlety – it’s a real time straight-through locked room piece about two people talking, elevated by great performances and inspired direction, so it’s giving us a real chance to shine, gimmick-free.’

After a sellout preview in the Pinter Studio, the team would love to get the same strong support as they move away from QM turf. Follow the link below to grab tickets and make sure you book for the Saturday. The Jellyfish returns. You don’t want to miss it.

https://www.studentcentral.london/activities/londonstudentdramafestival/

Take the Initiative and Hit Re: Play

Put together by a collection of QM finalists, Re: Play showed off the promising work being created by students studying in the drama department. With two of the three performances initially created as part of taught practical modules, it proved the scope and quality of student work at Queen Mary is not meant for good grades but bigger things. Although tonight’s performance was firmly on QM turf in the Pinter, it could form a foundation for external showings of work in the future. Using the scratch performance development technique used by organisations such as Battersea Arts Centre, the aim of the night was to collect feedback for the ongoing development of each work. This proactive and practical approach to the development of a piece is key for many professional theatre companies, so getting started whilst still at university with all the resources that come with it is a potentially massive boost for the creative process.

replayOpening the evening were Theatre Counterpoint with Don’t Turn The Lights On, a piece exploring adolescence and gender norms through a combination of games and repetition performed by Jay Walker and QMTC production manager Mira Yonder, and directed by Dadiow Lin. Claiming to use ‘analysis of musical structure as dramaturgy for the composition of devised theatre’, Theatre Counterpoint’s rhythmic musicality proves promising and it will be interesting to see how the piece develops in the future. There are some really lovely moments aesthetically, with clever use of repeated movement, light and projection. Their message can be a little heavy handed in some of the dialogue, however with a little refining this should be a really exciting piece deserving of many a Fringe stage.

Next up was Box by Keita Ikeda, originally devised as part of the Beyond Acting final year module. Keita’s technological wonder Boxy may just be a cardboard box with an expression projected onto it, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling a bit devastated when it gets ripped into tiny pieces. ‘He can’t feel anything, he’s just a box’ says Keita as he stabs him repeatedly with a knife, but oddly enough we the audience feel something. A clever exploration of sentience and the portrayal of emotions onstage, Box has got some serious legs.

Closing the night were former GPP group FeminArt with their piece Kitchen Art. Martha Rumney, Olga Kravchenko and Mira Yonder’s grotesquely sexual housewives compete to be the most domestic and seductive. It’s comic and somewhat unsettling, their forced smiles burning into your retinas as the sexy domestic goddess stereotype becomes subversively obscene. It doesn’t seem to have changed hugely since they performed it as part of GPP last year, but it is undoubtedly strong so it will be interesting to see how they will expand upon next.

A fantastic way to show and develop creative work away from the classroom setting, Re: Play proves itself to be a great example for other student performance makers at QMUL to follow. It just goes to show, if you’ve got a piece that you’ve created within or outside of class it doesn’t have to be doomed to live on only through your grade transcript. Take the initiative and hit replay.

“Womanhood in all its forms was flaunted”: An Evening of Feminist Performance

Upon entering the endearingly dilapidated Limehouse Town Hall there’s already a buzz of anticipation in the air. QM finalists Pussy Patrons have attracted quite the crowd for their specially curated evening of Feminist performance, a Cabaret of Cunts involving puppetry, spoken word, music and of course, the Pussy Patrons themselves.

Originally coming together as part of GPP (Group Practical Project) in second year, Pussy Patrons have continued to develop their work as a performance troupe, refining and expanding upon the Cabaret’s original form. Compered by Elyssa Livergant’s glamorous alter ego Polly Parton (sister to Dolly), the night wasn’t just about the performances on show. A series of speakers talked about the work of Irish abortion rights collective Speaking for I.M.E.L.D.A., QM graduate Emer Morris’ upcoming verbatim performance about the Focus E15 Mothers, and the activist group Sisters Uncut. All were inspiring and empowering causes, adding to the melee of brilliant women coming together to make it an evening to remember.

Kicking off the first half was poet Leanne Moden, with her witty, touching poems about sex, the female body and opportunity setting the tone for an inspiring evening of women being brilliant. Next up, Bristol’s Tight Theatre performed an excerpt of their Edinburgh Fringe piece PUSSY, exploring sexuality and sexualisation in a whimsical physical theatre style that is distinctly their own. They engage with topics of masturbation and shaming as well as with Beyonce’s more problematic lyrical past with a deftness and comic timing that didn’t compromise the sincerity of the issues they were tackling. I would definitely recommend checking them out when they next visit London. Folk duo Molly and Jess ended the first half with hauntingly beautiful harmonies and forthright lyrics about the historical oppression of women, and Kate James Moore of Commedia Puppets brought a touch of playfulness to her feminist puppetry reworking of Hamlet, Ophelia’s Garden for those who ventured downstairs during the interval.

With a focus on the female body in all its glorious messiness (fortunately they put down a tarpaulin first), Pussy Patrons took to the stage in the second half for a glorious and at times downright disgusting show of feeling like a woman. With a little help from their old friend Shania Twain and a whole host of other pop culture references, body shaming and objectification were exposed, pubes celebrated and pussies proudly patroned. Comedy, spoken word, dance, song, the Cabaret of Cunts has it all, tied up nicely with an emotive core proving why we still need feminism today. The audience reaction said it all, with half the audience giving them a standing ovation before the performance had even finished.

The night ended with a party, reinforcing the celebratory nature of the Cabaret of Cunts. Yes serious issues were tackled, but more than that, womanhood in all its forms was flaunted in a fiesta of femininity. It wasn’t just about the Pussy Patrons, it was for patrons of pussies everywhere.

The Henry Crabb Robinson Project

To explore the new Project website, please click here.

For much of the nineteenth century, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was a ubiquitous figure in London literary life. Sociable Sunday breakfasts at his home in Russell Square were famous, as readers of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession know. The evening might find the bachelor Robinson at his club, the Athenaeum in Pall Mall. He would often take a very long walk to call on an old friend, such as the novelist Mary Hays in Greenwich. As he walked, he read. And whatever his destination, Robinson talked. Staples of his conversation were the rights of religious dissenters, the abolition of slavery, the genius of Wordsworth and Goethe – and the inability of these two great poets to understand each other. He had many personal memories to recount. If he was less inclined to discuss the provincial, dissenting education he had ‘suffered’ in Bury St Edmunds and Colchester, he would linger on his trip to Germany in 1800-1805. There he had studied at the University of Jena, rapidly becoming the foremost British mediator of the Kantian revolution in German philosophy. In 1804 he had given private lectures on this topic to Madame de Staël in Weimar – now rediscovered and published after 200 years. Then, as the first foreign correspondent of The Times, Robinson had reported on the Spanish Peninsular War from Altona. Travelling under a false German passport as ‘Heinrich Robinson’, he narrowly escaped capture by Napoleon’s troops. He published translations and articles, aspiring to success as a ‘literator’. It was as a solicitor, however, that he made a comfortable living, and gained the social status that enabled him to promote the foundation of the University of London. And almost every night, the indefatigable Robinson described and reflected on his experiences in his diary. Robinson took great care of his own manuscripts, leaving them to Dr Williams’s Library, of which he was a trustee.

The Henry Crabb Robinson Project will publish Robinson’s most important manuscript works with Oxford University Press, both in hardback and on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. The series editors are Timothy Whelan (Georgia Southern) and James Vigus (QMUL). The Reminiscences, one of the great nineteenth-century autobiographies, is uniquely self-effacing: Robinson arranges the account of his life around his descriptions of the people he encountered and befriended. The enormous Diary (from 1811), including the travel diaries, will be edited in subsequent phases of the Project. The OUP edition will replace all previous editions, which were radically selective. The Early Diaries (pre-1811) are being edited by Philipp Hunnekuhl (Hamburg). A team of special subject area editors, assembled to reflect Robinson’s polymathic interests, will contribute to an edited collection entitled ‘All Our Knowledge is Reminiscence’: Essays on the Reminiscences of Henry Crabb Robinson. Editing and reflecting on Robinson’s prolific manuscript writing is necessarily a team effort.

Friends often upbraided Robinson for his excessive modesty. He spoke out on behalf of many writers and their works, but too rarely for his own. Sara Coleridge, daughter of Robinson’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and one of his many female correspondents, remarked to her diary on his ‘talent and quickness’. My own path has distantly echoed that of Robinson: I worked for three years at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, and have settled in London. This experience has given me a first-hand opportunity to admire Robinson’s achievements as a polylingual producer of ‘informal’ texts. No-one better absorbed, adapted to and embodied the spirit of his age. This unobtrusively brilliant writer has left his 21st-century editors with a challenge, in the best sense.  

From January 2016, the Project will be affiliated with the new Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English.

James Vigus, j.vigus@qmul.ac.uk

QM Students taking part in the ‘Calm Down, Dear’ Festival

Technically underway (though with most of the shows starting this coming week) is the Calm Down, Dear festival at Camden People’s Theatre. Why is this exciting? Apart from it being an awesome-looking collection of feminist theatre work it also features some students from our very own Queen Mary!

Are You Ready for Your Close Up is a piece exploring sexism in the film industry, focusing on the experiences of female actors, and will be on during the festival at 9pm on the 6th of October. While I must point out that I am perhaps a little biased, being friends with Queen’s Others as the group are known, Are You Ready for Your Close Up is all set to be a wonderful piece of immersive theatre.

In the supportive spirit of QM Drama, I sat down with Queen’s Others to chat about the show and help get people interested!

Get tickets here!

Official statement about the piece: ‘Queen’s Others is a contemporary theatre company comprised of Queen Mary University students. As part of our professional debut, we have created an immersive theatre piece exploring the relationships of women and film. We were inspired by George Kuchar’s I, An Actress, both by content and aesthetic.’

 

Humans of the SED: Bridget Escolme, Part I – Authenticity in Early Modern Drama

I am constantly surprised at how old-fashioned some newspaper reviewers are. I’ve done a few cuts of Shakespeare texts, as a dramaturg, and with Hamlet it’s great because there are different versions of it printed in Shakespeare’s time, so you can use 400 year old editions of the play to help you cut it. One of Hamlet’s soliloquies is only there in one text, and because the director I was working with wanted a shorter version, that was one of the easy ones to cut. The Daily Telegraph reviewer was outraged! But given one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought it was all right one soliloquy down, I thought we could cut it if we liked! (And Shakespeare’s dead, so he won’t know…)

Bridget Escolme

Quite a lot of reviewers have a strictly realist idea of what theatre should be like. The idea that you can’t have in early modern performances people of different racial backgrounds, different ages, different sexes, seems daft to me. If you want to be really literal, you’d have to have to cast Measure for Measure with Viennese actors only. Those plays were made for an all male company, and no one cried: “What’s that young man doing playing that young woman?”. The actors told the story; women weren’t allowed on stage, so you told the story using men. Each casting is going to produce different meanings, and that’s fascinating.

The only claim for authenticity that I would make for cross-casting is that the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were created for what we might now think of as highly meta-theatrical spaces. They weren’t made for theatres in which you sat in the dark and shut up apart from the odd laugh, and peered into a space that was pretending to be real. These were spaces where everyone could see each other, whether by daylight or candlelight, and the actor could just turn around and talk to the audience. So the idea that somehow the actor would erase his presence as an actor is quite silly; at the Globe reconstruction today, too, if an actor were to talk to him or herself for too long, it would seem odd and dull – , because the audience are palpably there.

1984 (the play) Review: Adapting Other Art Forms into Theatre

Thoughtcrime, Minilove and Big Brother all got the West End treatment with Headlong’s stage adaption of 1984, but why was making the show different from the book important? Well, because theatre… that’s why.

Video description: ‘Making an epic adaptation of something isn’t easy, but knowing how two art forms are different from each other sure helps. Also yes, this was the best title I could think of.’

Head to my channel to check out my other videos and find my social links: DaniSurname.

Humans of the SED: Martha (BA Drama), Part 2

Humans of the SED (HotSED) is our new series of interviews with the School’s students, alums, and staff. Here’s part two of our interview with BA Drama finalist, Martha.  Click here to read part one.

Best in Bow

It’s really clichéd, but having the wealth of stuff and people and culture at my fingertips has been really valuable. But also I honestly feel like I’ve grown up so much since coming to uni, thanks to being in London.

Roman Road is my all-time favourite place in the world. I don’t think I’ll ever leave Bow. I think I’ve found my place to live now. I actually love it. It’s at the start of its regeneration process, but it’s still really, really rough and ready.

There’s a lot of locals, and a lot of OAPs, which is actually really refreshing to see, and they’re just going about their daily lives. But then you can be sitting in a nice coffee shop eating non-gluten cake on your Mac, and you look outside and there’s local people going about their daily life, which is really nice. I don’t think you get that in London any more. I feel I live in a real place. And whenever I walk down Roman Road, there’s a real sense of community, because people have lived there all their lives.

I don’t want to move from there, but it’s only going to get more expensive.

I think Bow could have a more village-y vibe than Dalston. There’s a lot of cafes popping up, and funny little gift shops. Which I’m a little bit opposed to, but I also shop in them, so I can’t be that opposed to them.

Martha RumneyFuture

I’m definitely going to do a Masters. It was last year, I just realised – as soon as we had a break, like Christmas or Summer – I realised that I feel a bit lost without academia. I just quite like learning.

I don’t know if I’d do a Masters in Drama; I’m thinking I might do a Masters in Anthropology, like Social Anthropology. Because I think people are really interesting.

I’d love to do work in the theatrical environment, but with communities that are underprivileged. I want to make theatre a little more accessible, which sounds like a really huge aim, but I think by taking theatre out into communities and not branding it so much as ‘theatre’, we can do a lot. And by doing a Social Anthropology Masters I feel like I’d be more well-rounded to do that.

If I do a Masters or a PhD, I’d be interested in going to Goldsmiths, or maybe a different uni, to get a different identity. Because I think if you stay at the same university forever, you become a Queen Mary person, or you become a wherever person.

I do love it here; I’d either do my Masters here, then do a PhD somewhere else, or do a Masters somewhere else then come back here.

Employment

I have a real issue with the gender pay gap, which actually started in a module at uni, with Julia Bardsley – I did research into the pay gaps in lots of different industries, and also in university environments, especially the University of London, which was very eye-opening.

I think the main thing for me, as I’m on the cusp of going into the real world: the thought of not being paid as much because I’m a woman when I’m doing the same job as someone else makes me really, really angry. I think that’s such an injustice, and one that’s incredibly current.

Of course, women’s rights have really improved, but it’s one thing letting women have careers, but it’s another thing not paying them enough to support their families and to be able to live the same life as a man. I don’t understand how it’s okay.

In theory, I wouldn’t work for an employer who paid women less than men. But in practice, how do you find that out? Because wages are confidential. But if I did find out, I’d certainly have something to say about it.

Humans of the SED: Martha (BA Drama), Part I

Humans of the SED (HotSED) is our new series of interviews with the School’s students, alums, and staff. First up BA Drama finalist, Martha.  

First memories of QM

Probably arriving into Albert Stern, which is where I lived in first year, and it was a massive house. It’s really different from every other hall, and just the sheer amount of people that would say hi to you.

You’d get the same three questions every time: “Hi, what’s your name?, what do you study?, and where do you come from?” it was really boring. And by the end of it, do you know what, I was making things up.

I loved Albert Stern. All my best friends are from there now, loved it.

Dogs of War Theatre Company

I founded – with David Loumgair – the Dogs of War Theatre Company. It’s going really well. We did an Othello adaptation called Not What I Am: Iago was a woman. Then we did a community thing in Stanley Halls in Croydon, where we got verbatim bits from the community.

We set it up so we could have more vocational skills that we developed ourselves, and because I’m interested in providing opportunities for young people.

It is a massive challenge. Because we do all the logistical stuff ourselves, which you don’t learn at uni.

Now we’ve been R&D-ing our new show, pencilled in with VAULT in November. We recently applied to Arts Council England, but unfortunately didn’t get the money; but we’ve given ourselves enough time to reapply. We’ve had some fantastic advice from the Arts Council: we’ve found them so, so helpful.

We had a rehearsed reading two nights ago, and one of the girls who was reading for a part met a very famous scientologist who’s friends with Tom Cruise. And he said “Do you want a sponsor?” ‘Cos their billionaires. So we’re like “Yes”.

We may be converted to scientology. Is it worth it for my craft?
Martha (BA Drama)

Sunglasses

I always wear sunglasses on my head, and people always say it’s really stupid. It also helps push my hair back, but I argue it’s only just September, and everyone’s saying we’re going to have an Indian Summer, so basically, I’m being prepared. For life.

I’m not a fashionista. Definitely not. Absolutely no. I’ve been asked this recently by someone.  I’m not anything. I’m definitely not a hipster. I think I’m just…I don’t know. Does one have to put a label on oneself?

Everyman Review: Theatre that’s Relevant to Now

Cocaine, glitter and vaguely Shrek-looking masks definitely outlined the National Theatre’s production of Everyman as being vastly different from the original, but in this video I discuss how these choices made the play relatable to the kind of people we are today, while still remaining true to its original purpose.

Video description on YouTube: ‘To a society that praises individualism, NT’s adaption made Everyman as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages. Let me know your thoughts on Everyman, adaptions or how society’s changed, in the comment section!

Head to my channel to check out my other videos and find my social links: DaniSurname.

England and the Continent: Reflecting on National Boundaries

At the moment I’m working out how many double chocolate cookies to order for a symposium I’m organizing this month called National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies. The event will gather early career researchers from across the UK, France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Croatia to make new friends and talk about how we all might work better together. Planning and participating in the symposium is helping me to think more about what it means to do ‘English’.

The Renaissance was a multilingual place, but we often study the period one language at a time. As a graduate student I ran into a problem that people studying pre-modern English literature often face: that in general the writers we’re reading had language skills that are much better than ours.

In sixteenth- and seventeeth-century England any boy who went to grammar school, or girl who was privately tutored, would study Latin intensively and might also have picked up some Greek, or learned other vernacular languages through phrase books and foreign travel. Latin and French were international languages. English, which pretty much no-one on the Continent spoke, was not.

When I chose to study French and German to A-Level, and then picked English for an undergraduate degree, I sort of knew that studying languages alongside English made a useful combination (e.g. for learning grammar). But I hadn’t realized how foreign languages could expand my sense of what studying English is.

I ended up writing a doctoral thesis on British responses to a sixteenth-century French poet called Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas. Now my research has developed to the point where I routinely work on Scottish, French and Latin sources, and need to seek out advice and discussion from people with different expertise. So there’s a real practical value in being able to chat with colleagues from a range of different disciplines and backgrounds over cookies.

The British Academy, who have provided generous funding for September’s symposium, have been running a languages programme to promote the value of language skills for the humanities and social sciences. Queen Mary’s English department is a natural home for multilingual English studies since there are several research groups that are demonstrating how knowing a language, any language, besides English is a valuable asset for studying English.

There’s the team at Global Shakespeare who are examining the Bard as a global cultural phenomenon whose plays and poems have been translated into every major language and performed and adapted in many theatrical traditions. The Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News and Networks investigates international communication networks in early modern Europe. And the department has numerous members working on postcolonial studies and world literatures who are examining how English culture became a global culture as it came into contact with other languages.

Thinking about England’s cultural relationship with the Continent is especially timely as the debate intensifies ahead of the coming referendum about whether we should draw a thicker national boundary between Britain and the European Union. One job for English studies is to improve our understanding of how far and in what ways this island’s cultures have, for better and worse reasons, intermixed with other cultures. Reading across languages helps us hear the voices that went into making our language and literature in the present.

Grace in Literatures in English: Conference Report

On Friday, 19 June, delegates from the UK, from Switzerland, and from Portugal arrived at Queen Mary to explore different forms and concepts of grace from the early modern period to contemporary literatures. The idea for a conference on Grace in Literatures in English was sparked during the planning stages of the 2014/15 Postgraduate Research Seminar Series. The intellectually highly stimulating discussion was ample reward for many months of preparation, endless e-mail threads, and some last minute panic.

Panels included papers on theoretical conceptions of grace, amongst them Kleist’s and Schiller’s, as well as on grace in Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, J. M. Coetzee, and Geoffrey Hill. Our two keynote speakers, Ita Mac Carthy from the University of Birmingham and Susan Jones from the University of Oxford, offered perspectives on the notion of grace in Italian renaissance culture and on how grace was rewritten, or rechoreographed, in the twentieth century.

The range of papers showed that grace is a term, notion, or concept that means diversely different things in different periods and genres as well as for different writers and critics. This made for a fruitful exchange, during which explorations of forms of monarchical address in the Early Modern period entered into conversation with eighties dance videos. It became apparent throughout the day that the discussion of grace cannot be contained within one art form but that grace needs exploration as much in the symmetry of prose, as in geometrical shapes, the dance of people, puppets, and even machines.

At the end of the day we had perhaps not found grace but are confident that there is much room and enthusiasm for further exploration of this multivalent term.

Tweets from the day can be found under #GraceinLits. A programme for the day can be found here.

My trip to the ‘Zoo (or: how to get the most out of an international conference)

On Wednesday 13th May, I trundled off to Heathrow airport for my first ever trip to America and my first ever trip to an International Conference, where I would be both presenting and chairing. The International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is the biggest medieval conference on the annual calendar. It takes place somewhere called Kalamazoo (‘Zoo, for short) which no one but medievalists and my Granny has ever heard of – it apparently features in a Glenn Miller song, (I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo, which she sang down the phone to me before I left for my travels. 3,000 scholars descend on this small town every year – even the security guards at the airport knew about us – and the congress features over 550 sessions of papers, panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and performances, as well as a really amazing exhibit hall full to the brim with books. For a PhD student with little experience of such a big conference the prospect was more than a little daunting. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on what (not) to do to get the most out of an international conference.

Be organised!

Okay, something of an obvious one to start, but by far the most important lesson I learned from my K’zoo experience was to plan ahead, both socially and academically. All your bibliography gathered in one place is an excellent opportunity to meet your academic heroes. But when you’re at one of the biggest conferences in your field, don’t just assume you’ll be able to get chatting with them and then go for a spontaneous coffee. I found that most people had been booked up by other interested parties weeks, even months in advance. So if there’s someone you really want to speak with then drop them an email before the conference to make sure you can secure some time with them!

Similarly, don’t be that person frantically trying to print off your paper moments before you’re due to deliver it. Even if the conference venue is geared up for these last minute panics, things can still go wrong and the unnecessary stress might overshadow the moment you’ve travelled all that way for: to present your research to people from all over the world, who are interested in the same thing! If you have your paper ready to go before the conference begins then you can spend your time enjoying the talks, rather than skipping that really useful panel in order to make last minute changes or finish writing your conclusion.

Know where you’re going

The Western Michigan campus, where the conference was being held, was absolutely huge – so big that shuttle buses had been organised to take participants between various buildings. I must have got lost at least three times and going to the room where I would be presenting the day before was a small step that made the talk itself less stressful. No one wants to arrive two minutes before, flustered and hot brandishing a memory stick wildly only to find out there isn’t actually a projector in the room.

Be genuine

Everyone talks about ‘networking’ when you go to a big conference. Regardless of one’s opinion on the concept it goes without saying that these events are a great place to meet like-minded people, to find out who is working in a similar area to you and to have a fangirl/boy moment when you run into the professor who has written your favourite academic book. All over the conference postgrad students were launching themselves at more established academics, proffering business cards (I didn’t have any of these, a decision I’m very comfortable with). With this in mind, I decided it was best to only approach people if I had actually read and engaged with their work (not just because they were a ‘big name’) or if I wanted to talk to them about their paper. People could sense who was being genuine and who was just ticking names off a list – taking this approach might mean fewer conversations, but hopefully longer and more meaningful ones!

Socialise

After a very tedious journey to the conference (including a missed connection and an unexpected night in Chicago) all I wanted to do was curl up in my room and watch Grey’s Anatomy. But some of the best connections I made at the conference were in the cafeteria, at conference dinners, or wine hours. I can’t pretend that I had any intellectual conversations at the infamous K’zoo ‘dance’ but watching a bunch of medievalists doing the YMCA and then getting down to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was not to be missed.

Embrace Social Media

Twitter and Facebook aren’t for everyone, but an international conference is one place where I think they’re genuinely useful. I could avoid a huge phone bill texting people by checking Twitter and Facebook to find out where everyone was meeting/to hear more about the social and academic events going on through live tweeting. On a less serious note it also became a useful outlet for expressing opinions on the dismal, monastic dormitories us students were all staying in, rooms which would not have been out of place in a prison drama. Next time I’m taking a sleeping bag…

 

“The moves may change, but the groove remains”: Old Men Grooving and the Joy of Dance

I seem to exist in two utterly different worlds. My name is Bret Jones. I am a PhD student in the Drama Department at Queen Mary. I am also a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent with the dance group Old Men Grooving (OMG), a group of older guys who are reclaiming dance and getting back our groove. This was not a designed career move. We had been put together for an internet commercial for Christmas jumpers for a national retailer. The next thing I knew, the video had gone viral. Something about the incongruity of older guys – ‘dads’ – doing a form of Hip Hop seemed to have resonated. The decision to go on Britain’s Got Talent was unexpected. One of the original guys became injured, and we got a new member who was a friend of one of the existing group. We all had some kind of dance background, in clubs, or competitions, or a bit of performing. Some of the group danced in Hip Hop clubs in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the moves you see in these young dance crews were invented and developed. What is often missing is what we can bring – the ‘feel’, the ‘groove’. We dance because the music tells us to. The groove is who we are.

Of course, Britain’s Got Talent plunges us into the very depths of popular culture, but what is clear is just how complex and rich this culture – musically, kinaesthetically, and emotionally – actually is. It has been three weeks since our audition was broadcast, and the YouTube video has reached over 15 million hits:

We’ve had to jump on board the Facebook wagon to help spread the word. After all, Britain’s Got Talent does require audience support. The ‘feel good’ factor that seems to be very much a part of the response is actually a connection to something very profound within people. The younger audiences seem to like ‘Dad dancing’ done by guys who actually can dance and know how to express our own groove. The older audiences seem to identify with that love of dance that they once had, but that never really died. It’s still there. We’ve even created a little ‘Dad Dance’ that people can learn and join in with us:

The Anglo-American culture seems to relegate dance to the young, but this is not true in other cultures. We, in OMG, remember what it was like to dance in clubs and what that dancing meant to us as individuals, but also to the larger community. Dancing can help bond us, as well as be a means of personal expression. We have at times been humbled by the responses. We recently had a comment by a woman who lives in chronic pain, but who said that we had helped to lift her spirits. Yes, we are out there to have fun, but to have our dancing touch people in profound ways has been very moving.

My own dance background is in older forms like American rhythm tap and Lindy Hop, Swing, etc. However, this is directly related to later forms of African American dance, such as Hip Hop. Still, it has been a learning curve as a dancer. As hard as that has been, it has also been a joy. That, I think, lies at the heart of it. We are reclaiming dance as part of who we were and as part of who we still are. The moves may change over time, but the groove remains. We feel as young as ever when we dance, and so do the people who watch us. Unlike some of the young dance crews, we don’t dance at the audience. We share our joy with them; and they share their surprise and joy with us. We are both equally validated. This has engaged both body and soul, and although the body may ache at times, the soul is soaring. We need the support of all people, young and old, so that we can continue to reclaim dance for everyone, to make dancing part of our own continuing development as human beings, to embody and to share joy. In the end, it’s about joy.