Reflections on four decades

The Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne recently hosted an Alumni Symposium celebrating ‘Four Decades of Theatre Studies 1975-2015‘.

The main focus of the symposium was on Theatre Studies as it existed in and around the University of Melbourne specifically but, in doing so, it also considered Theatre Studies as an academic discipline more broadly.

In her introduction to the symposium Prof Rachel Fensham (Head, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne) noted that the history being told was not always (or not only) linear but might instead be seen as a series of episodes.

Nonetheless, the Symposium program itself was presented as linear and included a series of panels each focused on a particular episode or moment in that history.

The panels:

  • 1975 From Comparative Drama to Theatre as a Practice
  • 1985 The Theory Moment
  • 1995 The Creative Arts
  • 2005 The Research Enterprise

I was an undergraduate student during the ‘Creative Arts’ moment when Theatre Studies was taught under the banner of the Victorian College of the Arts  on the University of Melbourne campus. Although many of the other alumni participating in the symposium had continued on with Honours and Higher Degrees by Research within the Creative Arts program (or what it later became), I had not. In addition, many were still based in and around Melbourne (or seemed to have been for some time after graduation) and I was not. What I was, I thought, was an informed outsider at this event. Or, less kindly perhaps, a failed insider.

Look out, I’m looking in

During the symposium I scribbled notes and doodled, enjoying very much taking in others’ insights and recollections and not feeling any pressure to speak or have anything to share myself. It was the first weekend away in a long time where I didn’t take my laptop with me nor any expectation that I was going to get anything ‘done’. This was despite being (perhaps because of being) at what felt like pretty close to rock-bottom in terms of my PhD.

It had been a long descent; I had been slowing sinking over the course of many months and had finally reached a point where nothing was working. I could hardly read: words swam and my head ached. I couldn’t write. Deadlines didn’t help. Trying to write just anything didn’t work. Forcing myself to sit at the computer for hour after unproductive hour didn’t work. I felt as though I had no insight into my project anymore and even telling myself that my job right now was just to gather and present the insights already expressed by the research participants didn’t work.

Trying to write a blog post about a play I’d seen and loved didn’t work. I fretted and fussed over writing even a few words to accompany a link I thought was interesting. Failed even to come up with “Hey, check this out. It’s interesting”.

Trying to write something completely fictional, nonsensical and of no importance in terms of my PhD didn’t work.

Trying to just describe my day, diary-like, didn’t work.

Sleeping on it didn’t work. Watching TV didn’t work. Eating chocolate and drinking tea didn’t work. Talking to friends/other candidates/strangers about it didn’t work (although it was very much appreciated). Visiting The Thesis Whisperer didn’t work. Online shopping didn’t work.

Nothing. Worked.

That was me a few days before the symposium.

I should say that my supervisors knew I was/had been struggling this year and that they had been doing everything they could to give me support and/or space as I tried to deal with the various work commitments, life changes and PhD challenges I was faciing. I had met with my primary supervisor a week or so prior to the symposium and things had reached the point where I said:

“I’m either going to be able to get my head together in the next couple of weeks or I’m not. And if I don’t … I don’t know what happens then.”

I felt like I was out of options.

Finding the story

So, at this point you see that I’m not going to tell you much about what was actually said at the symposium. Sorry about that.

I had decided to go to the symposium for a few reasons:

  • I really liked the staff who had taught in Creative Arts;
  • I thought some people I had lost touch with might be there;
  • I thought it might reignite a commitment to being/becoming a theatre/arts/something-maker;
  • I wanted to check out the airport lounge that I now had access to (as a result of all the work and study-related travel over the past 12 months).

I saw the staff speak and they were as smart and engaged as I remembered. I checked out the lounge and it had an auto-magic pancake making machine. I also did some other nice things in Melbourne, including seeing some friends and family (and binge-listening to the entirety of Serial Season One). But the rest of my hoped for dot-points? Not so much.

Two days before the symposium I met with my primary supervisor again and I had reached the “I don’t know what happens next” point that followed on from my not having successfully gotten my head together since my last supervision meeting. I’d managed to produce something (a Table of Contents for the thesis, broken down into sub-sections with titles and all) but the amount of time and emotional and mental effort that it had taken me to just do that (and only that) felt ridiculous.

But, rather than confirming I’d reached some point of no return, my supervisor instead told me a story about what was happening to my PhD right now. In short, he said things along the lines of:

“Yep. Your PhD is dead. It died. But that’s a good thing because now it’s going to be reborn and it’s going to be better. All of your assumptions have died. Everything you thought you had worked out has died. Now it’s all going to come back stronger and new and free from the ideas you had about what you thought it was going to be when you started. This is a good thing.”

By giving me a story that I could tell (myself, and others) which re-framed my experience as a positive (but without downplaying or dismissing how significant or painful it is either) my supervisor both acknowledged my pain and gave me permission to be a bit kinder to myself: to see that I had ‘failed’ and to be okay with that. It was like being given a little extension bridge to lay down in front of my feet when I had reached the end of my path.

In addition to this ‘phoenix rising’ story he also reminded me that, although I certainly have my own contributing personal circumstances to manage, this experience is not unique or special. He talked about a time in his own candidature when his PhD died. He told me I just needed to find the story of my PhD again (I understood this as possibly re-finding the story I’d lost but through fresh eyes or finding something new). As we talked and after I left I was very taken by the idea that the PhD was not something separate from the candidate and that the story of the PhD would also be the story of the candidate. That is, that I could (should!) actually find a story that was helpful and meaningful to me personally. That maybe there was a link between my research problem and the problems facing me personally.

Maybe this sounds obvious. Maybe it is obvious. Maybe it was even something that I had known previously. In any case, it was a little thought-worm of light and possibility that took up residence in my brain over the next few days. I realised I had lost the story of my PhD  because I had lost the story of me.

The story of me

Actually, it’s more accurate to say that, earlier in the year, I had decided I needed to change the story of me. And, being a (not always conscious) believer in needing to be outside the current frame in order to see what else might be possible, I had jumped. Leapt. Plummeted. That is, I had made some  significant life decisions and changes and, as perhaps tends to be the case, a bunch of other things not under my control had jumped on the coat-tails of those changes and were shifting themselves about as well. Consequently, I felt as I suddenly had no foundation, no certainty, no picture of the medium or long-term future, no job or home security, and no story of me. If I was going to have any kind of anchor or gravity to support me through the next few years / decades I was going to have to create it myself.

Making memories

I love the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus. Despite being a mess of construction and demolition at the moment it still has the charm of a place that feels both full of history and full of life. The campus was quiet (being both a weekend and a non core teaching period) but there was also a graduation ceremony on that day so there were people there in their ceremonial gowns, taking photographs with their friends and family. I thought how wonderful it might be to be walking about that campus, past those vine-covered buildings, day in day out.

But, I also remembered that when I had first visited the University of Tasmania’s Sandy Bay campus I had been charmed by its contrast to Melbourne. I remember thinking it felt relaxed, earthy and close to the bush. I don’t see the Sandy Bay campus in that way anymore. That may be because it’s so familiar now or because there is a lot less bush and a lot more concrete and gravel.

In any case, I was feeling pretty nostalgic as I made my way to the symposium. It was a curious kind of nostalgia though. Somehow both past and future directed. Can you be nostalgic for the future? Or an idea of the future?

The symposium was in the Old Arts building which I’m fairly sure I had never visited before. I also discovered the wonders of ‘The System Garden‘ on campus that day (another point of interest I had been oblivious to during my three years on that campus). It is a curious and lovely thing to go somewhere so familiar and yet to find so much that is new to you. [That discovery was a result of A True Garden by Eddie Paterson and Lara Stevens – which you can experience yourself here.]

During the symposium Prof Gillian Russell commented that [my apologies that I may be paraphrasing poorly here] the speed of life today has meant that we are losing/have lost institutional memory and that events such as this symposium are important because they are one of the ways we can do the “work” of producing this memory. I had a feeling then that attending that symposium and reflecting on my own journey then and in this post was a way in which I was doing some of that “work” myself.

I scribbled in my notebook in the lunch-break, marveling at how sometimes the exact things you need will be offered up at exactly the right time. I realised I had never really thought about how I, and my contemporary interests, may have been shaped by my experiences in Creative Arts and by the debates and concerns shaping Theatre Studies at the time of my studies. I had been both attracted to and shaped by those experiences and I thought it was possible that there would be some clue there about what my story now was (or could be).

Question time

Towards the end of the symposium and after the panel devoted to ‘my’ episode in the mid’90’s I felt the rosy nostalgia start to dissipate. I didn’t feel the powerful resonance I had hoped for. I didn’t feel a ‘I belong here’ click-into-place fit. I hadn’t, in a bolt of shocking, clarifying lightning, found the answer.

Except, maybe I had. Maybe this feeling was my answer, my question: where do I fit?

When I’d first enrolled in Creative Arts I had enjoyed writing but, in my heart of hearts, had wanted to be an actor. I loved playing and pretending and rollicking about on stage and behind the wings. I loved the effort involved in being quiet and ready and waiting for your cue. I loved the anticipation and then the strange, delirium-like feeling state of actually being on stage where things just ‘happened’.

But, listening to other graduates from Creative Arts speak about their experience and how it fed into who they were now I realised that I hadn’t followed the same path and wasn’t part of that crowd. And so, here I was, wondering about how to articulate to myself what my value was, what my contribution was, in relation to these ‘makers’.

So, if that was the question I was struggling with, at the symposium and in terms of my ongoing quest to figure out what on earth to do with myself post-PhD then perhaps that’s the question I would also be drawn to explore in my research.

What the audience is doing and why it matters

In my research I am looking at the audiences (and fans and ‘superfans’) of the New York production of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. It is such a rich case study that it would, I believe, reward exploration from just about any angle you might choose. Which is a blessing and a curse. I started out thinking that I was most interested in the show itself – what it was doing that meant that its audiences were engaging with the show in particular ways. However, over time that has shifted and I realise now that, although I remain intrigued by the show itself, what I’m actually researching is what it is the audience is doing and why I think what they’re (we’re?) doing matters.

In retrospect, looking at the data I’ve collected this probably shouldn’t be such a revelation to me. And, again, it may be something that I used to know but had ‘lost’. In any case, it gives me a foundation from which to push forwards again – that I would like, when it comes time to reflect on five decades or six decades or more, to be able to articulate (at least to myself) what it is I am doing there in the audience, how I am doing it and what I believe its value is.


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