Performing the Archive: Living Narratives and the Politics of Performance
By Paul Dudman (@paul_dudman)

In front of a very receptive, supportive and intimate audience of about 60, Monday night saw the culmination of several months hard work on the part of University of East London (UEL) second year undergraduate performaning arts students in their showcase entitled, `Performing the Archive: Living Narratives and the Politics of Performance’ and included a range of diverse and interested performance pieces.

As part of a year long module investgating themes associated with the Politics of Memory and Performance,’ the students were tasked in the second half of the course to develop their own performance pieces on the theme of ‘Performaing the Archive.’ The concept being that the students would be able to explore archival collections and be encouraged to discover the breadth and range of narratives held within these collections and then to create their own pieces of performance theatre based upon the narratives they had discovered.

The UEL ArchPNJ Posterives have been supportive of this module and have looked at various ways of helping to integrate our archival collections into the learning, teaching and research needs of the University.  With the advent of the University’s internal Civic Engagement Fund, we are able to run a successful archive project in 2015 entitled, `Democtratic Access or Privileged Exclusion: Civic Engagement through the Preservation of and Access to Refugee Archives.’  With this project now complete, we wanted to utilise the next civic engagement call for bids to explore a different area of our collections, and the potential for collaboration with colleagues in Theatre Studies at UEL on a module bringing together performance and archives seemed like a perfect fit.

With a successful civic engagement funding application in place, we were able to work in conjunction with Tom Drayton (Director of Pregnant Fish Theatre) and Dr. Eve Katsouraki, (Senior Lecturer at UEL), with our second year performing arts students to start formulating their performance pieces.  We decided that we would encourage the students to make use of possible narratives from all of our archive collections: including the British Olympic Association Archive; the East London People’s Archive of East London oral histories; the Hackney Empire Theatre Archive; and the Refugee Council Archive.  Students were given two weeks of inductions at both of our archive stores, at both the Docklands and Stratford Campuses.  We are very fortunate to be able to employ Tom Drayton, Director of Pregnant Fish Theatre, as a theatre director to help guide and direct the students, and in Tom’s reflective piece for the programme, he states:

Getting second year students excited about an archive, was the challenge Eve (Katsouraki) and myself thought would be the first hurdle.  Yet, when we let loose with the multitude of boxes available at UEL I found the students immersed themselves for hours on end in the narratives that appeared throughout the archives.

This is true, it was great as an Archivist to be able to see students actively engaging with our archival collections in such a positive way and seemingly be genuinely excited about the narratives they were discovering and right from the inductions, considering how these narratives could be interpretated and adapted into a performance.  As an archivist, it can sometimes be a challenge to try and find new and different ways of encouraging students to engage with archival materials and to reflect on the many and varied narratives contained within.  With the seemingly instant “knowledge” now available at a click of a button or increasingly a swipe of a finger on laptops, tablets and smart phones, trying to highlight the benefits of a bunch of old documents sitting on a shelf can prevent its own challenges.  As Tom poetically reflects:

The process of talking something static, something safely and securely put away, catalogued, labelled and put on shelves; tucked amongst other boxes, hundreds and hundreds of its brother nestled amongst eaxh other, hidden and sheltered, and moulding it into something theatrical, breathing, kinetic and alive – that is what our students have been faced with.

Following the inductions, we encouraged the students to continue to make use of the archives as and when needed, which we were very pleased that they did, and

entrusted them to Tom and Eve to start the journey of development from printed document and oral history, to pieces of performance theatre.  In addition to being able to employ Tom as a theatre director, the civic engagement funding that we received also enabled us to be able to encourage the students through the opportunity to be able to present the work publically at the end of the module and also to be able to facilitate the purchasing of additional props as required and enabled the final showcase to be filmed and recorded professionally.

All of this work over a number of weeks finally resulted in the offical showcase of the student performances on Monday 18th April in a showcase we entitled “Performing the Archive: Living Narratives and the Politics of Performance.”  The students had divded up into groups and the their performances inclouded:

Archive 1: The Gallery, the Story, the Audio Space.  By Daina Badia, Prima Ndawula and Rose Hwakah.

Archive 2: C.A.S.T. By Tiam Parinejad, Ashleigh Davis, Amber Jenkins and Mercedes Kemp.

Archive 3: The Birongana. By Olivia Weeks, Bridget Conteh, Makeda Ellis, Robab Rib, and Zodwa Gregusha.

Archive 4: Untitled.  By Abdul Yoonis.

Archive 5: Ancestory.  By Anouska Ntezimana, Katarina Paulova, and Aga Rollniewicz.

Descriptions of all of these performances by the students in their own words can be found in the accomanying programme which is free to download in PDF format by Clicking on the Following Link:  Download Programme.

We received some very positive feedback on Twitter both before and during the performances and some examples are included here:

It was great to see how all of these performances engaged with issues of archives, storytelling, life histories and narratives and thank you to all of our students to helping contribute to this process.  A big thank you also to Tom Drayton and Dr. Eve Katsouraki for supporting the students during their work and thank you too to Thomas Shaw, Head of Collections and Digital Library, for helping to cooadinate the administration and financing of the civic engagement bid.