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Getting Creative in the Archive – University of Bristol Theatre Collection

To celebrate National Storytelling Week 2019, The University of Bristol Theatre Collection ran a creative and free writing workshop for students. Using original artefacts from the archive to prompt stories and conversations, the Theatre Collection stands as a testament to the therapeutic importance of integrating academic research with creative reflection in an informal and friendly environment.

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We congregate in a lovely booked-lined reading room within the Theatre Collection, where the windows are wide and the silence is not stressed, but rather soft and cushioning. “Let’s think of the next few hours as a lab,” we are told by Dr. Jill Sullivan, Assistant Keeper: User Services at the Theatre Collection. I think about that word, “the lab,” and how it is not often used in the context of the Arts and Humanities. We see labs as spaces strictly for Science students; they are the ones we associate with experimentation, practical learning, theory testing, making mistakes but not being afraid to try again.

But I also think about how the Arts could learn from the Sciences, how they could adapt and apply the concept of the lab to their own sphere. Time and again, I sit in seminars of silence, sensing tense bodies with ideas on their lips, but lacking in the confidence to articulate ideas with a fear of ‘Sounding Stupid.’ To remedy this, perhaps we should think more in terms of a lab of literature, a historical playground, a resurrected marketplace of ideas. Thinking in terms of the lab in the Arts may encourage students to be more playful in their imagination; the seminar room can transform into a space of experimentation and risk-taking, not worrying so much if your ideas don’t quite work out the first time around.

So we sit in our archival lab, and we are encouraged to engage in free and creative writing responding to the array of items that Jill has retrieved for us. The room is made up of students from Theatre, Film, History, and Liberal Arts, but around half of us hadn’t ever heard of the Theatre Collection before. This is pretty surprising, seeing as it’s the second largest archive on British Theatre History in the country (after the V&A) and is in the top five worldwide. It’s a thriving treasure trove of resources, and holds regular exhibitions, a rich source of materials for both academic study and creative inspiration, which remains relatively unknown to the wider student consciousness.

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We were able to handle paint palettes, playbills, costume designs, and even a stage gun (but do not try this at home!)

Jill gently leads the group through a number of warm-up activities to get us into the swing of things, asking us to just freely write for a few minutes. At first, I found it hard to allow my brain to float freely from the initial writing prompt; it’s remarkable how, over the four years I have been studying across the Arts and Humanities at this University, there has been such little time reserved for actually writing, for emoting and for being creative during class time.

But after our fingers and thoughts are loosened, looped and working together, we open the first of the carefully arranged boxes to find a chorus of weird and wonderful normal things found under the floorboards of the Bristol Old Vic auditorium in 2011: mounds of dirt, marbles, pork pie wrappers, sweet wrappers, a 200-year-old mountain of debris (I guess all that glitters is not gold). We hold these shards of the past and write stories around them, filling in the gaps of history with imagination; we are completely fascinated by how the ordinary can be rendered extraordinary when framed within the care of archival preservation, the space between an object’s practical existence and how it then comes to be remembered.

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A 19th Century children’s pantomime costume, alongside Laurence Olivier’s stage gloves and Vivien Leigh’s personal clutch bag!

We move on to some larger and more exquisite items from the archive, which leads to stimulating discussions surrounding the role of the archivist in the age of digital media and the mythologies of celebrity. “My favourite item from the workshop was Vivien Leigh’s handbag,” Charlotte tells me, who’s currently in her second year studying History. “It’s a beautiful little handheld handbag, and it has this cigarette stain on it which she actually made herself. It’s just amazing because if we had found this in a charity shop that wouldn’t be particularly unusual, but the provenance behind the bag is so important. It’s amazing that all these items are tangible, we can hold them and it brings everything to life really…especially in this weird digital world that we’re living in.”

In our theatre lab, we are given the space to be critical of the items we handle, exploring the ethics of confronting the past. Theatre & Film student, Perry, was particularly interested in the costume sketches for a production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves at the old Prince’s Theatre (which used to be on Park Row, but was lost in the Second World War). “I just think the drawings are clearly very beautiful and intricate but it’s interesting to see what people’s point of references and impressions of “the orient” and eastern culture was like in those days. We are much more connected now and have much more cultural exchange than they did, so it’s fascinating to see how one person’s artistic impression of a particular culture can become embedded in the public consciousness, how something as creative and almost harmless as a costume design can become quite a political phenomenon.”

This workshop showed the importance of creativity in the academic setting. The workshop made for a wonderful space of experimentation, which we filled with relaxed learning, stimulating conversation and therapeutic creativity. Theatre and Performance Studies student Sally noted that “it brings out teamwork, and it’s really not appreciated enough.” Open workshops like this are so important for student engagement at the University, as they offer an opportunity to meet with, and think with, students from a range of disciplines and departments who you may not have otherwise come into contact with.

“It’s all about unlocking someone’s potential as well” Perry reflected towards the end of the session, “because there are big debates around standardization in education and whether exams are good etc, but creativity allows you to get someone who isn’t really into chemistry or Shakespeare and to unlock their interests and say actually there is something that you can connect to here. And often it’s very one-sided where the teacher is saying here’s what I’ve got to offer and this is what I’m going to tell you, but in this workshop we were all treated as if we were all part of the conversation; it made sure to treat you like an individual with your own ideas.”

Although the Theatre Collection is physically adjoined to the University Theatre Department, the Collection is an invaluable resource for Literature, History and History of Arts students alike. It’s an interdisciplinary space that allows for new connections to be made; they even collaborate with the MA Art History students on their curatorial unit, where items from the archive are curated, presented and brought to life in a public exhibition.

More than simply an extensive resource for academic research, Jill wants the Theatre Collection to be received as a peaceful and mindful space to come to read, work or just to reach outside of the University bubble, a space where you can be surrounded by local artists and community volunteers, books and exhibitions. A few years ago, I myself used to run a play-reading group for students in the reading room every Friday afternoon, which made for an intimate and personable alternative to the sometimes overwhelming rush of the Arts & Social Sciences Library.

I look at the table when our lab is over, now strewn with paper and pencils, thoughts and scribbles: evidence of our living archive. In a world which seems to orbit around the permanence of the keyboard and screen, I find it refreshing to place my pencil back into the pot, and to see how its led has worn down to bluntness: the mark of a mind set free.

Words by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow

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Theatre Collection Website: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/

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