A journey of a PhD student: The Conference by Grit Eckert

I have been a student at Bristol since 2014, starting as an M(Phil) and becoming a PhD candidate in 2018. Yes, you might have guessed, I am a part-time student and I have been working alongside this journey as a professional scenic artist and teacher. My research is multi-disciplinary and I straddle two departments within the University: Theatre and Art History. Over the years I have learnt a lot, and there are many subjects I could write about here! For the purpose of this blog, I will focus on my recent experience of sharing ideas by presenting at an academic conference.

Throughout my time at Bristol, I have given a few talks and have been to a few conferences. I found that attending conferences early on in my studies allowed me to understand the latest research developments. Also, I found conferences are great places to meet other researchers, exchange ideas or – if you feel a bit stuck in your writing cave – can just be a much-needed change of scene. At this point in my PhD study, I was after a conference where I could also present some of my research. At the end of last year, I saw a call for papers for a three-day conference with the title Victorian and Edwardian Theatre in Performance, to be held at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in Newcastle the following September. The conference caught my interest because it would bring together a variety of people with backgrounds and interest in theatre, including historians, theatre architects, curators, theatre professionals, and conservators. To name but a few. To me, this rich tapestry of people creates varied conversations – which was important to me. At my next supervision I spoke this through with my supervisor and she thought it was an excellent idea. She also suggested that I should keep the proposal open, yet closely aligned with the material I had been working on for my thesis. In my case this conference took place on the last leg of my studies and was an opportunity to come out of my writing cave. So, I sent off my proposal – thinking I would have no chance!

You are On!

A few months passed and in February an email landed in my inbox from the conference assistant letting me know that my paper had been chosen for presentation – gosh that was exciting. A few days later I received the list of speakers and my heart filled with even more excitement, yet also with a little bit of dread. The list included the names of people I had been following for some time, including an expert from America who I had been trying to catch for the last four years and a scholar who I would love to be my PhD examiner. Well, I think I have painted the picture and you can see that attending THIS conference mattered to me. So rather than dreading it -I just flipped it and I kept telling myself that this is a lovely opportunity.

The Preparation

Preparation is very important to me- in my professional work as a scenic artist I might spent a considerable amount of time thinking, planning and testing. No one sees this, but it is there and helps with the running off (execution) of the project. This is the same with research, so starting early is key. I spoke my proposal through with my supervisor early on, as I find it hard doing things last minute. I love the ease that comes with experience, not mine but my supervisor’s. She knew exactly how many words would fit into twenty minutes. She also knew, when you present you need to slow down and leave some room as you may want to include some free speech, or insert responses that you may have picked up from other papers before yours. Unless of course your paper is right at the beginning, as then you have an opportunity to set the tone. The papers for this conference were twenty minutes long- that equals roughly 1,200 words in total, so by the time you split this into the sections, it becomes very manageable to structure and write. Hearing those words was very encouraging for me.

A few months passed, and around June I actually started on the paper. I had my abstract and some visual images that I wanted to include. Visual images are very important to me, so I went between planning the structure and selecting images that I wanted to include. Together these allowed my paper to evolve. I knew that I would want to limit myself to no more than 20 slides max. with maybe very small amounts of text on them. Here I can highly recommend the sessions the Bristol Doctoral College offers, which deal with presentation skills. These sessions can be very helpful, and I would always walk away with one or two good tips from each training session. For me, this is time well spent. On top of that, you are likely to meet like-minded people who can offer some support.

The other bit of preparation that I felt was helpful, was to see how my paper would fit in with the rest of the panel. So I contacted the Research Assistant of the conference to gather the other abstracts in my section. By doing that I wanted to see if how my talk could complement other contributions. The abstract I had submitted was fairly loose, with two main themes – networks and environments. After my first newspaper archive search – I felt I had enough material – to make a case for a local artist case study. I went through about seven paper drafts – and continued to work through the text and visual images at the same time. My key question was what do I want my audience to take away from this? In the end I landed at around 1800 words more than I wanted! But when I rehearsed it out loud it seemed to work out fine and it would take around 17 min. Reading out loud is a good technique as it allows you to hear/see more easily sections that aren’t as smooth or need more work. I repeated that process of reading out loud around a further 10 times.

The Conference

This is now the part that I referred to earlier on as running off or the execution stage- which means you have done the thinking, planning and testing- you are now running it off.

The day to travel to Newcastle came. I stopped on the way in Leeds for a few hours to see a theatre that had been on my list for a while. When I arrived in Newcastle I checked into the hotel and went for a walk. I had not been to Newcastle before and because my paper covered some of the local places within the city I wanted to go and see them in person, rather than on Google maps! That evening I ran through my paper once more and then left it mostly alone apart from the odd note referring to other papers: my paper was on the last day so I wanted to respond to some ideas that had emerged alongside what I was talking about.

The great thing about a conference lasting a few days is that you can really spend some time with the other speakers. I was particularly looking forward to a continuous dialogue with the American scholar who I have been wanting to meet for a long time. Equally, I had to make sure not to be too overbearing, as other people are busy and surely have (other) people they want to catch up with too.


The sweeping up after the conference is also an important part and might get forgotten about as you have done it and are now off to new adventures! I made sure that I allowed for some time afterwards and didn’t plan anything too heavy in the days after the conference to give me time to reflect. Also, there is always a bit of admin and tidying up of notes, and there were a few people I wanted to follow up with as they had expertise in early silent film.

My big takeaways were:

  • Try and present your research! In a small or big setting, it doesn’t matter. Saying things out loud and testing your ideas in front of others is not only a great way of getting feedback, but also it clarifies issues in your head.
  • Stick to your time! This conference set a limit of twenty minute per paper, and this really made me think it through. What are the key points I want my audience to take away?
  • The in person-dialogue with others. Yes you can have a dialogue via authors’ written work, which I’m not negating, but there is something about seeing and experiencing someone’s thinking and ideas out loud.

Last but not least keep enjoying the research journey!



The Iphigenia Project


Portrait of Jane Fitzalan, Lady Lumley, by Steven van der Meulen, 1563

This academic year the Department of Theatre at the University of Bristol celebrates its 75th anniversary. The founder of our Department, Glynne Wickham, regularly utilised practice-as-research methodologies to stage rarely performed early modern plays.  The Iphigenia Project aims to honour his legacy, celebrating the unique role that the University of Bristol has played in establishing Drama as an academic discipline.

Believed to have been written in 1554, Lumley’s Iphigenia is the first translation of Euripides’s play into English and the oldest surviving work of English drama by a woman. It’s a really important part of our theatre history, but has tended to be neglected in performance.  We’re excited to bring Lumley’s work to the stage as one of many activities celebrating the Department’s 75th anniversary this year.

As part of the project, we will be staging two public performances, one in January and one in March. In preparation for these performances we have been running a series of workshops, designed to equip students with a range of skills in staging classical texts. We’ve welcomed students from the Departments of Film, English, and Classics to these sessions, as well as those studying in Theatre.

In January, students will collaborate with professional actors on a script-in-hand performance of Lumley’s text, supported by the Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition. This staged reading will provide an opportunity to explore the dramaturgical significance of the chorus in Lumley’s work.  It’s a rare chance to engage with this important piece of theatre history in performance.

In March, students and staff in the Department will collaborate on a creative response to Lumley’s Iphigenia. Building on the staged reading, this performance will interrogate the relevance and theatrical value of the play from the perspective of contemporary theatre-makers.

We’ll share regular updates on our work as it progresses, as well as invitations to the public performances.  In the meantime, if you’re a student who would like to participate in the January performance you can find out more and register your interest here.

“Mrs Yates’s Indisposition” by Professor Elaine McGirr

“Mrs Yates is too grateful for the generous partiality with which she has long been honoured by the public, not to be under the greatest concern for the disappointment the audience met with on Saturday last, by the omission of the Epilogue to Braganza. Mrs Yates was really extremely ill, and the fatigue of having performed for ten nights almost without intermission, with the very great exertion necessary in the last scene, rendered her totally incapable.”[i]

So begins Mary Ann Yates’s letter to the public on the 6th March, 1775.  In it, Yates neatly defuses a brewing public relations disaster for having left the theatre early, explaining that the mental and physical labour of acting to the level the public deserved was so draining that she was physically incapable of also speaking the comic epilogue, a task, she stresses, that had not been advertised and one that she was not contracted to undertake that night.

In this and similar public letters, Yates not only makes the case for the labour of acting,[ii] but also deploys or performs exhaustion strategically to resist overwork and unremunerated labour: her letters are less about educating the public than about getting it onside in her ongoing labour disputes with theatrical management. Her exhaustion is a badge of professionalism, but also a line that cannot be crossed. In her public letters, Yates outlines a position we’ve come to know as ASOS (Action Short Of a Strike) or working to contract.

For instance, in November 1776 she publishes a letter she wrote to her manager R.B. Sheridan reminding him of his contractual obligation to give her 24 hours’ notice of all new roles or changes to programming so that she has time to “think on the part [she] was to play.”[iii]

As it my first wish, whilst I have the honour to appear before the Public, to do all in my power to merit their approbation, I took care to have it stipulated in my articles, that I should always have twenty-four hours notice of the Character the Managers wished I should appear in; I insured myself this little notice, in order to have time to think on the part I was to play; and hoped in some sort to be the better enabled to justify the partiality that Public has honoured me with.[iv]

This letter is a response to the escalation of hostilities between Yates and the management of Drury Lane Theatre. The previous night, Sheridan had  taken the unusual step of announcing to the public that Yates had refused to perform for them and was sulking instead of acting. Sheridan’s strategy in going public was to attempt to attempt to transform a dispute between theatre management and its staff into one between Yates and her audience. Yates was having none of it. Sheridan’s public appeal licensed her public response, and she not only firmly placed the blame for her non-appearance on Sheridan, who, she explained, was trebly at fault for failing to programme efficiently, failing to manage rehearsal schedules, and failing to give due notice to actors to ensure word-perfect performances. Yates then ups the ante, arguing that Sheridan’s slap-dash planning and rehearsal practices are the real insult to audiences and show a lack of respect not just to the actors he is attempting to bully, but also to the audiences who pay for the best theatre and deserve the benefit of better planning, rehearsal strategies and actors who have been given the materials to succeed. Yates reminds the public that her working conditions dictate both the pleasure and the value of their play-going experiences.

In the 1776 letters, as in 1775, Yates emphasises the work of acting; while it is received as a pleasure by audiences, creating that experience is hard, exhausting work.  Yates stresses the physical and emotional toll of performing tragedy night after night. It is “a very great exertion” and causes “fatigue.” She reminds Sheridan of this in 1776, complaining that his last-minute rehearsal changes are impossible to accommodate because they don’t take necessary rest periods into account: ‘I am not sufficiently perfect to play without a rehearsal; and the only one called, was the morning after I had played Medea, when it was highly improbable I should be able to come out; and when as all my family knows, I actually kept my bed that whole day.’[i] Yates’s performances were known for the power of her voice, which soared and screamed with rage, terror and despair. Such performances were physically as well as emotionally taxing and her vocal cords needed time to recover.

Yates’s letter to the public, which frames the publication of her letter to Sheridan, goes on to stress that her work schedule includes regular periods of rest to allow her to study and to recover – the art of acting, her letters make clear, is not just her time on stage, but the time spent preparing roles and recovering from the exertions of performance. Her absence is not evidence that she’s the kind of diva who needs to be bribed to even get out of bed, but proof of how hard she has been working: it is evidence not of laziness or diminishing powers but proof of her whole body-mind commitment to excellence. Thus, her exhaustion is not a liability, but a powerful tool of resisting managerial overreach and the expectation that she perform gratitude rather than professionalism. Yates further reminds us that contractual obligations cut both ways: they not only delineate a worker’s duties, but also management’s duty to provide the time, tools and remuneration necessary to perform those duties. Yates’s successful campaigning and weaponizing of her “indisposition” led to tense relationships with a series of successive theatre managers, but not with her public, who appreciated her efforts, respected her need for rest and followed her whenever her disputes with theatrical management led her to take up a position on a new stage. Mary Ann Yates is an inspiration for us all.




[i] ibid.

[i] “News.” Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 6 Mar. 1775. Emphases mine.

[ii] See L. Ritchie, David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity pp. 106-7.

[iii] “News.” Morning Post, 9 Nov. 1776.

[iv] Ibid.


by Gareth Osborne

I’m a children’s author, teacher and second-year postgraduate researcher here in the Department of Theatre, co-supervised at Cardiff and Bath Spa. I’d like to share with you how my creative repurposing of a Himalayan salt lamp ended up being archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats collection.

My research looks at how reading and theatre engagement can be blended in immersive storytelling experiences for children to give them more voice in their fictions. As a writer of children’s books, a teacher of twenty years classroom experience, and father of two daughters I have seen how children’s books can give young people the power to guide their own formative experiences. I wondered how this mentorship that children’s books provide might be harnessed to drive more participative social experiences, in which children could become active cocreators of their fictions, rather than silently imagining into the words of an adult author.

I was in this happy state of academic pottering when the Covid-19 crisis hit. Suddenly children were isolated at home, struggling for the attention of remote-working parents, cut off from their usual adult mentors of teachers and arts practitioners as schools, theatres and libraries closed.

I realised, with no little horror, that my research might be relevant to this situation. How might a story in children’s private sphere be harnessed to reconstruct some of their social experiences again? How much of the mentorship role that teachers and arts practitioners played could the developing narrative itself assume?

Out of this thinking, emerged the idea for Storyhaven, an immersive storytelling experience for children that blends group roleplaying, lone reading experiences and sessions of immersive theatre with an actor. It centres on the town of Storyhaven, deep in Earth’s next ice-age, where stories have become the fuel for life.

Front cover of Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne.

Now this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town´s stories. Deprived of their fuel the town’s fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last roll of the dice, the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town´s tales before they can disappear.

Storyhaven’s main engagement is driven by a reading and roleplaying game that can be played by schoolchildren in virtual or real classrooms. The children design their own characters, then navigate their way through episodes of a branching narrative in teams, talking decisions over together in a way that fosters compromise and social wellbeing.

Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustrations from Storyhaven, Episode 1
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne

Opportunities for children to cocreate the narrative are woven into the storyline through them having to rewrite the stories they save, so that they can send them back to the present through the shaman´s time portal. This device sets up the two immersive theatre sessions, delivered via Zoom, in which the children perform their stories to an actor playing the character of the town shaman, bringing the children’s roleplaying to life as their performances stoke the town´s fablehearths and fight back the encroaching ice. This was where Himalayan salt lamp came in: as the children performed their stories to the shaman he secretly turned up its dimmer switch to simulate them recharging the town’s crystals.

Illustration from Storyhaven
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination.
Images of children involved in roleplaying of Storyhaven characters
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination

With university outreach funding from the Bristol Temple Quarter Engagement fund I assembled a creative team to deliver a pilot of Storyhaven over two months at a Bristol primary school, firstly in the socially distanced classroom, then transitioning to virtual classrooms and Zoom breakout rooms during the January 2020 UK lockdown.

Images of Storyhaven creative team
© individual practitioners with permission obtained to use in research dissemination.

Inviting other practitioners into my research has enabled me to explore my research questions in ways that respond to current creative industry and public sector demands and has led to further opportunities with The Egg Assembly at Theatre Royal Bath and Seven Stories, the National Centre for children’s books. Storyhaven was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize 2020 and archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats Collection.

After ethics review, the data from the pilot has been recorded via practitioner interviews and the children’s own creativity as they experimented with how to blend reading and theatre themselves as immersed research participants.