Opera cinema: the overture

Joseph Attard, a PhD candidate with the department of Film Studies at King’s, reflects on the first few months of his Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Royal Opera House.

After a short foray into the world of online media, I’ve returned to haunt the corridors of the Strand Campus once again.

My first few weeks back at King’s were actually fairly akin to my old work schedule. Before even officially commencing my PhD, I was hauled up before nine senior members of the Royal Opera House and compelled to give an hour-long spiel about my research. Despite an overlong and slightly flustered presentation, my audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic. Subsequent follow-up meetings with each of the attendees (in addition to short presentations to the company staff and board of directors) kept me coming and going via Covent Garden on a daily basis, bracketed by bouts of amassing ammunition for my literature review.

Once these meetings had wound up, I relaxed into the stereotypical, bookish isolation of the PhD student for the remainder of November. The aforementioned literature review now stands at about one-third complete, but at 15,000 words, it may need some pruning.

I have also been intermittently involved with the college’s social science training centre (KISS-DTC), attending a series of workshops on project design and archival research, with another on qualitative data analysis due next semester. As a committee member for the Language, Media and Culture theme, I boast partial responsibility for our £1000 annual budget. A workshop on interview technique and a symposium on audiences have been discussed, but as they’re still at formative stages, I’ll hold off on disclosing any more details until my next post.

Model for Andrea Chénier

Model for Andrea Chénier

This period of relative calm is finally beginning to ebb. Starting 12 December I have been observing the rehearsal process for Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano’s biographical opera of the eponymous French poet, who was beheaded during reign of terror. I’ve already attended the model showing, which (if you aren’t of the theatrical persuasion) is exactly what it sounds like. The stage directors, costumers, principal cast and I were shown exquisite, detailed miniatures of the stage set (one of which I almost inadvertently destroyed on the way out). The director, David McVicar, kindly gave his leave for me to sit in the rehearsal process, despite his personal distaste for cinema relays.

I have also had several meetings with my co-supervisors at the Royal Opera House: Associate Director, John Fulljames and Managing Director of Enterprises, Alastair Roberts. Happily for me, they broached the subject of free access to performances, meaning I can enjoy unlimited access the finest opera in the world – it’s a hard gig sometimes… A guest pass also gives me the run of the Royal Opera House building (a labyrinthine monstrosity so architecturally sadistic its corridors have to be colour-coded.)

joe-roh-accessFinally, I am in the process of designing a pilot project at the Royal Opera House, in which a pool of uninitiated respondents will lose their operatic virginity both in the auditorium and at the cinema. John and Alastair (ever conscious of audience development) seem keen on the idea, which I am hoping to put into practice sometime in the spring semester. Hopefully, this will also provide some much-needed fodder for my upgrade from MPhil to full PhD status in June.

I must say, I hadn’t thought of this term as especially hectic until I was asked to summarise its contents in 500 words. Despite the rather breathless tenor of this post, the title feels like an overstatement. Forget the overture; I’ve barely started tuning up!

The long and bumpy road

Maria Vaccarella, academic lead on Staging Transitions, a collaborative project with inclusive theatre company FaceFront and the Cultural Institute at King’s, reflects on her progress in bringing a new, inclusive theatre performance to the stage.

A big red cardboard bus carries the characters in It’s My Move! from one scene to the other: it’s a vivid metaphor of the ‘bumpy ride’ towards adulthood for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD). Rather than being an ordinary, everyday event, jumping on a London bus on his own was the immediate, tangible sign of independence for one LDD teenager we interviewed for Staging Transitions.

What became clear in our preparatory interviews with LDD teenagers in transition was that, despite a widespread call for transition planning to be ‘person-centred’, young people feel disempowered – faced with overwhelming, often rushed, information sessions and overprotective parents, teachers and carers. The play we’re developing thematises all these issues: its very title – the exclamatory ‘It’s my move!’ – emblematically focuses on the need to acknowledge the budding independence of young LDD people, as they prepare to leave special schools and children’s services. In order to ensure the play is a genuine and useful reflection of the transition to adulthood, LDD artists were extensively involved in the creation of the play, from the original soundtrack to set design, script writing to choreography.

FaceFront Theatre

FaceFront Theatre

Over the last few months, FaceFront facilitators and artists have brought the play to special schools and involved pupils by means of improvisation exercises to practice their self-advocacy skills. Our interventions were in line with Davis and Behm’s definition of creative drama intervention as ‘an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact, and reflect upon human experience’.1 We hosted one of these research and development exercises at King’s last month, bringing together colleagues from across departments, transition professionals and arts practitioners to witness the lively interaction between FaceFront artists and LDD pupils from Samuel Rhodes School in Islington.

Coming from a medical humanities background, I’m aware of the successful inclusion of performance studies in medical education, but what our project demonstrates is the potential to use performance in patient education as well, and not only in a strictly clinical or medicalised environment. It’s My Move! explores LDD people’s hopes and fears around their transition into adulthood by setting up a creative arena that by definition will yield much more nuanced responses than any ordinary research questionnaire. Inclusive theatre projects are also a great way of exploring what disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson calls ‘the giftedness of disability.’2 Opening up to LDD people’s non-normative approaches to reality and moving away from normalising aesthetic tendencies could also enrich current theatrical practice, as well as expand our notion of what constitutes a successful performance on stage and beyond.

Staging Transitions is looking at new ways to help young people with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD) handle the transition to adulthood.

1Davis, J. H., & Behm, T. (1987). “Appendix 1: Terminology of drama/theatre with and for children: A redefinition”. In J. H. Davis & M. J. Evans (Eds.), Theatre, Children and Youth (pp. 265–269). New Orleans, LA: Anchorage, p. 262.

2Garland-Thomson, R. (2012). “The case for conserving disability”. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 9(3), 339-355: 354.

Immersive Revelations

Leanne Hammacott, programming manager for the Cultural Institute, reflects on the current exhibition by visual artist Michael Takeo Magruder who spent a year-long residency (supported by the Leverhulme Trust) with the Department of Theology & Religious Studies, collaborating with an array of academics, designers, technicians and a curator to contextualise and produce the show.

When you enter the Inigo Rooms today, gone are the striking images of Beryl Bainbridge’s family and evocative re-creation of her London home; instead, for our current exhibition, De/coding the Apocalypse, you are greeted with an eerie whirring noise and an invitation to take an interactive, post-apocalyptic journey through the Book of Revelation.

Image by Jana Chiellino

Image by Jana Chiellino

Five rooms each play host to a different installation inviting the audience to reflect on and explore the ancient text in new ways using new technology – from computers and mobile devices to code systems, live data, 3D printing and virtual reality.

Playing the Apocalypse presents you with scenes of apocalyptic landscapes and recorded in-game footage from the sci-fi shooter Gears of War which seems to prompt a different reaction each time you look; in A New Jerusalem you can choose to wear the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and be transported into a three-dimensional metropolis where your physical and virtual movements blend and sway into one (we quickly realised we needed to provide a chair for those who discover motion sickness).

The Horse as Technology is housed in our largest space which has been transformed into a laboratory for digital production including 3D scanning and printing and motion-sensing technology enabling you to move, rotate and explore the displayed horse skull graphics without actually touching anything. Our team has become quite adept at firing up the 3D printer every morning and we have been rewarded with a new mini horse skull each day so quite a collection has been growing.

We’re interested in who this exhibition will bring in, particularly as it feels so different to what’s gone before. The cutting edge technology and inspirational content might just appeal to younger generations with an interest in art, technology or theology and we’ve been working with local schools to encourage them to come down. As Rev Dr Michael Banner in his ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4 last week mused, ‘The Book of Revelation is filled with plagues, strange beasts and noisy spiritual warfare – it’s about the closest you’ll get to car chase anywhere in the Bible’.

Image by Jana Chiellino

Image by Jana Chiellino

As larger galleries like the Tate are finding, technology is an increasingly important way to attract the whole family – demonstrated most recently when it teamed up with Minecraft’s best known mapmakers in Tate Worlds, an interactive exhibition which allows players to explore its collection and create their own experiences.

But 3D printing and virtual reality are just the beginning. Here at the Cultural Institute at King’s we are working with partners across the university and in the sector to explore how we might further enhance the audience experience – pooling academic research with sector know-how and understanding – so watch this space.

De/coding the Apocalypse runs until 19 December.

Image by Jana Chiellino