A first attempt to become a proper academic

When I came back from my first international conference as a PhD student, I was feeling good. There had been a lot of interest in my Fronteiras Explorers project and the research that would ensue and I enjoyed talking about it all academically. This motivated me to apply to deliver a short series of lectures to college students through a research lectures prize promoted by the University of St Andrews, the institution which validates my degree (yes, that’s right, peasants – I am a St Andrews postgraduate student). Granted, it may have been a bit bold for someone who had been a doctoral candidate for a few months to apply to this and – spoiler alert! –  I didn’t get it.

I have recently written about boldness for the PhD Women Scotland blog, which you can read here, but I have come to realise that my own blog is largely about the rejections I’ve faced in the past few years and looking back to that first attempt at applying for an academic job might be useful just now. As I said above, I wasn’t too far into my PhD so I had to look back to my journey and propose to lecture about things that I already knew instead of the things I was yet to discover. So here’s the full pitch:

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Theme: A step beyond transculturalism: syncretic theatre/performance

Lecture 1: From multiculturalism to syncretism

An introductory lecture analysing the development of the concepts of multiculturalism, transculturalism, and syncretism applied to theatre/performance throughout the 20th century to the present day within the respective postcolonial contexts.

Aims: to gain understanding of how the different concepts of fusion in theatrical performance have evolved together with changes in the political context of the world; to identify the differences between multiculturalism, transculturalism, and syncretism.

Lecture 2: Three case studies

Looking at previous research and two practical projects undertaken by the lecturer as foundations for the current investigation into syncretic theatre, a discussion about potential strategies and threats found in this kind of work. The case studies to be analysed are:

  • The Kuarup funeral ritual of the Kamayura tribe of Brazil: religion or performance?
  • Fronteiras Explorers – a three-week artistic residency in South America
  • La Niña Barro – a devised physical theatre piece based on a collection of poems by a Spanish writer, using folk music from Zimbabwe

Aims: to discuss the points of intersection between ritual and performance in a non-European culture; to look at and challenge concrete examples of fused theatrical cultures and techniques.

Lecture 3: Afro/Scottish theatre

Presentation and discussion of a survey of Scottish theatre productions with a connection to African culture staged since 1999.

Aims: to contextualise the object of the research and its relevance in contemporary Scotland.

Statement:

The proposed series of lectures will further the mission of St Leonard’s College by contributing some new research pieces to Arts and Anthropology scholarship, fostering students’ creativity by encouraging them to draw inspiration for their artistic endeavours from a wide range of sources, and inciting discovery by bringing all this information together in a way that enables them to view their own context from a new perspective.

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If you’re still reading, thank you for staying. I don’t think this was too bad a first attempt to put a wee series of lectures together and I only got generic feedback on the rejection – the usual, “there were too many applicants, the level was very high, etc., etc.”. My research has taken a slightly different turn since and I though I would still like to do it at some point, I have never concluded my survey of Afro-Scottish theatre (which was highly motivated by working with the wonderful Mara Menzies). In any case, the ideas are here now and if anyone reading this is interested, I am more than happy to revisit and negotiate a fee with you. 😉

 

 

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Nothing useful

3 months into my PhD, I got the chance to attend my first conference as a doctoral student, TransCultural Exchange in Boston. Though my paper had been accepted almost a year prior, I was chuffed to have received support from the RCS to help with my travel expenses. Getting funding and presenting a paper at an international conference made me feel like this whole PhD thing was actually not a bad idea. I had sorted out my USA visa before moving back to Scotland, I had my accommodation sorted (staying with a good friend, US citizen, and a letter from her to prove it), I had a letter from the conference organisers to show at immigration. More importantly, I had a UK visa to allow me to come back. As always, I took care to book my connecting flights via somewhere in continental Europe, avoiding Heathrow like the Plague. The fear was there, though. This was months before Donald Trump got elected, but it’s not like the USA ever had a reputation for being nice to Latin Americans arriving at their shores. Additionally, this Latin American in particular had been refused visas to the UK and been branded for at least the next decade. The trauma has spread across my group of friends in Edinburgh, too – I can feel them holding their breath every time I leave the country. But a successful academic career hangs on going to conferences and disseminating research, so I had to brave it.

I flew from Edinburgh to Paris, and from there to Boston. It was February and I’d been checking the weather reports telling me to expect temperatures as low as -20°C! I packed my thickest winter clothes and set off.

It’s a good thing that I don’t actually remember much about going through immigration in Boston. What I do remember is the officer asking me what me PhD was on, and my reply being an apologetic and giggly “nothing useful”. Unmoved by the joke, he stamped my passport and let me through the gates. I collected my suitcase and made my way to meet my friend. It was snowing.

In hindsight, I get angry at myself for that reply. It just gets drilled into us that the arts aren’t useful, and although almost all of my peers will disagree with that, I often wonder whether they have to be. Surely they are valuable in many aspects, but do they have to be useful? It reminds me of a cartoon I saw doing the rounds on the interwebz some time ago (I am not entirely sure about its origin, but it has been attributed to the College of Humanities of the University of Utah):

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I have seen some scientist blogs being offended by this, but my own bias quite likes it. Perhaps this is where the utility (if we must) of the arts lies, in complementing the sciences in a fun and humane way. Of course, I wouldn’t have time to have this discussion with an immigration officer, and although I understand that my reply was also charged with feelings brought about by immigration policies not putting the arts in a place of usefulness or value in society, that conversation would be less to do with arts vs sciences and more to with arts vs business (mainly in the US and the UK).

It’s also good that the immigration officer didn’t have the time or inclination to ask me what my paper was about. I can’t imagine that a chat about a site-specific theatre piece exploring ideas of borders in South America with a multicultural cast would have gone down very well.

I had a lovely week in Boston, a city I had never visited before. It was great to visit such iconic institutions as Harvard University and the MIT and to meet interesting new people. It was also fab to catch up with my friend and collaborator Sophie, a talented musician and puppeteer that I had met and worked together with in Edinburgh.

My first post-visa nightmare entrance back to Scotland was smooth. The immigration officers at Edinburgh airport were kind as they always have been with me, but my possession of a Tier 4 visa card still raised the question on arrival: “what are you studying?”. I always feel like I have to crack a joke in these situations, but this time, I proudly said “I’m doing a PhD in theatre at the RCS. Formerly known as the RSAMD, as taxi drivers in Glasgow will never let you forget”. The officer giggled, stamped my passport, wished me all the best, and let me through.

P.S. In addition to the link posted above to a summarised version of the paper, I did a video interview about my project for Black Sheep talks when I was in Boston, which you can watch here.

 

Re-entering the industry

I had been ‘in exile’ for three years, between September 2012 and November 2015. That may not seem like a lot, but when you work at such small-scale in such a closed industry like theatre and performance, it feels like a huge gap in your career. I tried to keep developing professionally as best as possible during that period, attending workshops and residencies that were within my reach and organising my own projects to keep being seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Within a couple of months of arriving back in Porto Alegre, I organised an intervention for the International Migrants Day. In early 2013, I managed to get a grant from Creative Scotland to run a residency in my hometown. In 2014, I created La Niña Barro, working for 6 months over skype with the performers in Spain, and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it had a nightmare run, but it went on to tour Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, and the USA, winning an award in Miami just after I moved back to Edinburgh. I mean, I tried to keep myself in the loop, relevant, and in people’s minds. It’s hard enough when you are in the same city, let alone in a different continent. But now I was back and to make the most of the 3 years ahead, I had to re-enter the Scottish theatre industry.

For the first couple of months back, I signed up to everything I could. I needed to show face, catch up with people. I attended an excellent two-day seminar in Glasgow organised by Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, including a one-to-one appointment with a producer facilitated by the Federation of Scottish Theatre. I went to a launch event for a network of artists of colour. I attended the recently-formed EPAD networking events. I turned up at Creative Salon meet-ups. And I went to the theatre furiously. I went to see lots and lots of plays – granted, mostly at our main stages.

All the networking amounts to nothing if you don’t have much to talk about, though. OK, I had my PhD to talk about, but I needed to start making theatre again. I hadn’t flexed my directing muscles since La Niña Barro, which had been over a year before. Understandably, I was a bit aprehensive about getting back into a rehearsal room with some actors, so my first project after coming back was a low-risk, yet stimulating one: I volunteered as a director for a 24-hour play event at the RCS. Led by some of the MACCT students, the event involved all levels of courses at the institution. We all met at the RCS on the evening of 1st February, 2015 and each director was paired with a playwright and then we got to choose 4 or 5 actors. The actors were sent home and the director/playwright pairs convened in one of MA students’ flat to write a 10-minute script overnight. We gathered back with the actors at the RCS the next morning and rehearsed during the day. In the evening, we showed our pieces to a sold out house. The slightly annoying thing about it was that years ago, back in 2009 or 2010, my friend/long-term collaborator/other side of my brain Jen McGregor and I had tried to run a similar project in Edinburgh, specifically themed for Halloween. We simply could not find a venue that would take us (Summerhall didn’t exist yet, they might have gone for it) and had to abandon the idea. I licked my wounds and got on with it, and I’m glad I did. I got to work with a bunch of fun, talented new people and got to experiment a little with my cultural fusion thing. I had a cast of British, Czech, and Portuguese actors with a Singaporean writer and was allowed to use some Indonesian gamelan instruments. It actually turned out quite beautifully. One of the organisers said he welled up during our tech run.

It was a great challenge and an excellent way to worm my way back into directing without risking my sanity so soon. It was also a way of getting more involved with life at the RCS, as I would have to start honing my academic skills pretty sharply as well. It didn’t actually mean re-entering the industry per se, as it was a student project, but it gave me that little confidence boost that was necessary to pursue bigger things, and something to talk about at networking events.

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La Niña Barro in Riveramento

After crowdfunding through the 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon, we managed to fund our mini tour of La Niña Barro to Brazil and Uruguay. As a thank you to the community of my hometowns of Rivera and Santana do Livramento, we did one free performance of the show at the old Livramento railway station, no longer used.

The railway station building dates from 1910 and is a gorgeous example of the architecture of that period. The station was an important link along the international railway connecting Sao Paulo to Montevideo and Buenos Aires between 1943 and 1954, but as a result of the Brazilian railway crisis in the 1980s, the station was one of many being deactivated.  The derelict building was restored in 2012 and re-opened as a cultural centre, hosting films, exhibitions, and music gigs, but it had to be closed again at the end of 2014 due to water damage. The roof was being re-done while we were there and the top floor wasn’t the safest space to be with a large group of people, but the council agreed to let us use the main hall for the performance.

They were also kind enough to let us rehearse at the station during the week and lend us lights and ladders. Throughout the week, in-between rehearsals, we were going to TV and radio interviews on both sides of the border to promote the show. I got increasingly excited and anxious as the week progressed, as this was going to be the first time my family and my birthplace saw a piece that I directed. I mean, we had done Fronteiras Explorers two years before, but that was a different kind of project.

The day of the performance arrived and we were good to go. I was really unsure what to expect… we had a list of confirmed guests put together via facebook, but I wasn’t convinced everyone would turn up. It was a rather chilly night and we didn’t have a foyer/waiting area, so we closed all doors and as Alex and Eli used the last half an hour before the show to get ready and focus, I went outside to wait for the audience. The first person to arrive, very early for our relaxed standards, was this sweet elderly man. He travelled there by taxi and I helped him get out of the cab when I noticed he had a zimmer frame. He was alone and I couldn’t possibly leave him outside waiting in the cold, so I explained that the house was not open just yet, but he was welcome to sit in the security guard’s office near the heater. Other people began to arrive in their own cars, and following the true tradition of the border, when instructed to wait until we could let them in, remained in their cars drinking their mate and chatting to their friends. A nice long queue began to form, and before long, it was clear that we would have a full house.

We opened the doors to an audience of around 80 people, some of whom had to stand in the back or sides, as we didn’t have enough seats. We did not turn anyone down at the doors, but once we closed them and started the performance, there was a handful of latecomers that could not come in. If I had known that the event would be so popular, I would have considered doing two nights.

The number of people attending wasn’t my only pleasant surprise. The reaction was actually incredibly positive. I wasn’t sure how this audience of non-theatregoers would receive a piece which had been censored in Edinburgh and was very different from everything they were used to. I heard complete silence during the piece and saw many tearful eyes at the end. We offered a post-show discussion and were there for another hour. It was so refreshing to have a mature audience (I reckon the average age was later 30s to mid 40s) of regular punters – apart from a couple of arts teachers and local theatremakers, the majority of the people there were not involved in the industry. There was a blind woman who was very touched by the performance, as well as a lovely girl with Down’s Syndrome who told us during the post-show discussion how much she’d enjoyed it. My siblings and my mother were there and were also moved. But the one unforgettable comment, of all the comments and questions we had, was of that sweet elderly man who’d arrived before everyone else and stayed until the very end. He approached me and said he had followed the 24-hour poetry marathon on the radio, as he did not leave the house much due to his mobility problems. When he heard that we had managed to bring the show, though, he said he knew he simply could not miss it and found a way of getting down to the station to watch it.

These are the moments that will always serve as anchors for me to keep doing what I do. It is hard, it is incredibly frustrating at times, but then something like this happens and it suddenly makes everything worthwhile. Thank you Riveramento for this experience.