We asked Dr Naomi Paxton to reflect on the success of her public engagement project: A particular theatre - Shakespeare, suffragists and soldiers.

Naomi is Associate Fellow at the School of Advanced Study and Research Assistant on the UK Parliament Vote 100 project, which is creating an exhibition and programme of events celebrating the centenary of the granting of the limited franchise to women in 1918.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your current role, and your research?

I’m currently working at Parliament on a project called ‘What Difference Did the War Make? Votes for Women and World War One’, which is collaboration between the University of Lincoln, the University of Plymouth, and UK Parliament Vote 100. My research has been predominantly about the contribution of theatre professionals to the suffrage campaign, and feminist and suffragist networks within early twentieth century theatre.

 

What subject areas did you want to cover, what audience did you want to engage with, and what did you want to achieve?

My event for the 2016 Being Human Festival was a living literature walk entitled ‘A Particular Theatre – Shakespeare, suffragists and soldiers’. The theme of the walk was the Shakespeare Hut, which was built by the YMCA in Bloomsbury in 1916 on land owned by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee. Intended to be the site of a monument to celebrate Shakespeare’s tercentenary and eventually to be the location of a new National Theatre, the land was offered to the YMCA as a contribution to the war effort and the Hut, which was unique in having a dedicated theatre space, was built for the use of ANZAC soldiers on leave in London. Working in collaboration with Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson from the University of Brighton, an expert on the Hut, and the feminist production hub Scary Little Girls, of which I am an associate artist, we created an interactive performance walk around the site and broader area.

Audience groups of no more than fifteen at a time met at Senate House, were briefed and given their written guides, and then left to self-guide, as a group, along the route. They encountered performers and performances throughout the walk – including pieces we know were performed at the Hut, and a monologue commissioned especially and based on our research. We also tried to give a glimpse into other factors affecting the lives of performers in wartime – particularly for those interested in spiritual groups and practices like Theosophy or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. We therefore set one piece in a bookshop that specialises in magic, esotericism and the occult. The written guide was an attempt to combat the ephemeral nature of the walk, and featured two short essays introducing the research context, something for audience members to keep and refer to throughout and after.

 

How did you go about promoting your event to your intended audience?

The promotion of the walk was targeted at specialist and non-specialist audiences, and particularly those who we thought would be interested in Shakespeare, expat ANZACs, theatre history, London history, and women’s history. BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ programme included an interview with myself and Ailsa near the site of the Hut as part of their coverage of the Festival, and we used social media to share information about the devising process throughout. In the week leading up to the walk, Scary Little Girls tweeted a line from each piece as a daily teaser.

 

How did the event go on the day? How many people did you reach and what sort of reaction did you get?

The walks were very popular and well attended, and the feedback very positive, particularly around the quality of the performances, the locations, and the historical detail.

The playful elements that involved the audience worked well – for example, one actor was embedded with each group for the start of the walk, someone in each audience group was given a letter that would later be needed in a scene, and someone a key, to be used to access the final location. At the end of the walk we provided hot cups of Gunfire tea, a mix of rum and black tea that was familiar to British and ANZAC armies during WW1, and something that was very welcome in chilly November! Audience groups were then given the opportunity to ask Ailsa and I any questions they might have about the Hut, and to reflect on the experience.   

 

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event? What, if anything, you would do differently next time?

What worked well was the range of voices and spaces. In making living literature walks, rather than focus on individuals over a period of time, we focus on themes, and then people the themes with individuals. These individuals become the subjects of microhistories themselves, offering connections with verbatim testimonies or contemporary playtexts, and creating deliberately interactive and constructed encounters that happen in the moment, and not on the page. The audience feedback was excellent both for the performances and the format, and many stated their intention to walk the route again with the written guide. We were really pleased at the age range of the audiences, and their different perspectives on the experience.

 

What were the main outcomes for you? Has this led to any further projects or new directions in your research?

I am delighted to be making a new walk, based on the work of suffragist women in WW1, for the 2017 Being Human Festival, and am very aware of issues around representation, diversity, intersectionality, interdisciplinarity, and historiography. This year we are developing strategies around the accessibility and legacy of the project, perhaps through the creation of additional online content, live streaming and the sharing of newly commissioned material.

We are also going to start earlier in the afternoon – one of the takeaways from ‘A Particular Theatre…’ was that the November nights drew in earlier than we thought, making it hard for the last audience groups to actually read the guide!

 

What three top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

My top tips would be: be bold and creative in looking and asking for space, make the event truly interactive, and surprise the audience.