By Daisy Black, PhD student, University of Manchester.
Beginning the Journey
I have been involved in producing community theatre events for the past few years, but it was not until hearing about the Afterlife of Heritage Research project that I really started thinking about the ways in which my PhD research on the medieval mystery plays might be used as a public engagement exercise. My thesis, which examines late medieval mystery drama, is concerned with what happens when biblical narratives are performed in a medieval space – particularly in examining the ways in which the plays’ biblical narratives tend to ‘absorb’ elements of their medieval social and historical playing space. I therefore felt that drama would be an appropriate medium with which to engage the public with my work – a project about drama, communicated by drama.
This was not my first foray into adapting medieval drama for a modern audience. Before beginning my PhD I worked in theatre production, and throughout my course I have used findings from my research to put on small-scale public performances of multicultural versions of the Towneley manuscript’s Second Shepherd’s Play; the Chester Massacre of the Innocents and a travelling Passion Play. However, these performances were designed for a specific audience and, as such, did not reach broader, non-academic, non-religious audiences. I was also aware that Manchester already has its own folk heritage – particularly concerning dance and music – and that any transposition of a medieval drama to a modern, Mancunian context would need to take this heritage into account. The question was how to successfully engage with these wider community participants and audiences?
This was where the Afterlife of Heritage Research project came in. I attended two workshops prior to submitting my funding application: the first focused on public engagement; the second on working with cultural partners. The first of these workshops was particularly helpful in expanding my understanding of public engagement. I realised that there were many ways of engaging with the public in a way that would expand my project’s impact beyond the audience physically attending the event. Because of this, I planned to make a filmed version of the play available on YouTube, as well as setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts so that others could follow the play’s progress through the community rehearsals to performance. I also decided to write a programme explaining some of the play’s history, which would be available to both the audience on the day and accompanying the film version online (it was here that the course’s focus on the avoidance of jargon and writing for a non-academic public was crucial)
Finding a cultural partner for this event was an interesting challenge. Street theatre, by its nature, has an uncomfortable propensity to fall ‘between the gaps’ of the different remits of various cultural bodies. It is not a fixed-place activity, such as a museum or gallery exhibition, but it also does not take place within a specially-designated performance environment. Street theatre also tends to have a somewhat anarchic aura about it – it moves beyond the socially-constructed spaces within which we expect to encounter theatre culture, and instead brings its message into the commercial and social spaces of the public. Any kind of street performance is guaranteed an audience if it is done in a busy area – but the producer has very little prior knowledge over who that audience will be, or what its needs are. In this, street theatre is an excellent, if somewhat daunting method for bringing ‘Research to Public’. It also poses a challenge for cultural partnership.
I first approached one of Manchester’s main theatres, the Royal Exchange, which has an excellent record of public engagement with its theatre in education programme. While they were very supportive and happy to give me advice, they were unable to work in partnership with me as their public engagement work takes place within the (indoor) spaces of their theatre. However, they did suggest that I contact Manchester Histories Festival. This proved to be an excellent suggestion, as the Festival supports a diverse range of events and activities, including public lectures, art tours, heritage walks, drama and music at many of Manchester’s museums, galleries and cultural centres. I met with Claire Turner, the director of the Festival, at the second Afterlife workshop, and she agreed to be my cultural partner for this bid. She also agreed to give my project a performance spot in Albert Square on the 29th March 2014.
During the next couple of months, I made further partnerships with communities who would be involved directly in the production and performance of the play. Hoping to involve a number of different groups in the making of the play, I asked St Peter’s Chaplaincy if they would jointly sponsor the event, whilst providing links with a community who would provide the play’s chief performers. I was also keen to engage Manchester’s rich folk scene with the project, and so invited Manchester Morris Men to provide dance interludes during the play and engaged some of Manchester and Stockport’s folk musicians to provide music.
Submitting the Proposal
My second proposal submission, informed by the Afterlife of Heritage workshops as well as my discussions with the external bodies mentioned above, required several changes to be made to my original plan. First, I decided that the play would no longer being a travelling drama, but would rather a static, fixed-place performance. This was in order to make Public Liability Insurance for the event viable, as well as avoiding any road closures, which would not be possible on our performance budget. I also moved the date of the proposed project to March 2014 in order that it might be performed as part of the Histories Festival.
Since having my application accepted, I found that there was no space for the Histories Festival to offer an educational drama workshop before the performance, as originally intended, so I will have to work on alternative ways of getting the public engaged with the play as well as merely being audience members. Hence my producing a filmed version to be released on networking sites. There are also plans to release other performance materials – rehearsal diaries, pictures, and articles – via the Festival’s website.