Artist-in-Residence Placement: an introduction to the project & a working relationship with the archive as a resource

Hello, my name is Bobby and I’m a third year joint honours student in the Department of Theatre and Performance, and the Department of Film and TV here at the University of Bristol. As a part of my final semester with the University, I have chosen to work on a unit called ‘professional development in theatre and performance’; a unit that is designed for students to connect with organisations outside of the academic context of the course, and to learn to develop soft skills relevant to working in industry as an artist and creative. After conversing with the brilliant staff at the Theatre Collection, I chose to work as a Artist-in-Residence with them. The project aims to create a performative installation work at the end of an archive-based research and experimentation period.

As a third year Theatre and Film student, I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to the archive in previous units and have gained an understanding for both how their systems work, but also the process of thought required to interrogate material and to carefully piece together the histories of productions, projects and people. A previous project titled ‘Awaiting its Fate’ was performed last year at the Bristol Old Vic and was designed by myself. Aimed at blurring the history of the theatre into the buildings’ foundations, I worked closely with archival materials to inform a soundscape of an auction for the building in 1942 and the final performance allowed audiences to imagine that they were listening through the walls of the BOV at events that happened in the 40s. It was the first time where I had found the value and interest of the cross section between archival materials and technology; the blurred lines and creative possibilities that it holds as a way of reinvigorating once forgotten material, but also showcasing to others the capabilities that the archive itself holds.

Production image of Awaiting its Fate. Image Credit: Bobby Joynes

My own passion in theatre is rooted in set and AV design. I have experimented with technologically mediated spaces and performances that utilised elements like projection and three dimensional audial soundscapes as a way of world building but also informing creative choices to highlights relationships, themes and motifs. I strongly feel that a playful perspective on bringing technology into performance is a brilliantly versatile way of doing this, while also allowing that traditional ‘magic’ held at the theatre to continue.

Before I pursue a postgraduate degree in performance design, I’m taking time to broaden my understanding of how we can use the past as a way of informing our future artistic expressions, and how archives such as the theatre collection aren’t just valuable for researchers, but also for active and freelance artists. During the first few months on my placement, I have taken time to dig deep into materials otherwise unknown to me.

Beginning with an interest and past experience in analogue photography, I began there, exploring key individuals that may have led lives as photographers. This is where I discovered John Vickers, an experimentalist photographer right from the age of 12 when he picked up his first ever camera at a church jumble sale.


John Vickers, self-portrait. Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection (JV/1/6/2/127)

The life and work of Vickers is extensive, and the Theatre Collection’s archive of his prints and negatives drew a kind of curiosity out of me, and led to my choice to centre my installation around his work. Namely, there is a fascinating collection of glass print negatives from early in his life that left me speechless when they were uncovered. Described in the Theatre Collection catalogue as 27 monochromatic exposures, what I discovered was something far more amazing. As I begin my experimentation process with these prints, I’m excited to not be able to see what unique twists and turns are in my creation process. It’s a brilliant example as to why rabbit holes in the archive aren’t so bad after all, in fact they can sometimes be quite the opposite and find you somewhere you would never expect.

Keep checking the Theatre Collection’s blog page for updates about this exciting project!


Artist-in-Residence Placement: Learning from Letters

It’s been nearly two months since my last blog post, and during my hiatus, my designated placement time with the Theatre Collection has been spent developing my research skills, as well as learning more about archiving and museum curatorial practices with Jill Sullivan (Assistant Keeper: User Services) and Athene Bain (Archives Assistant). These conversations have brought up some important context and theory behind archiving, as well as thought-provoking considerations about the preservation and access strategies of archives and museums. Furthermore, my gained understanding has supported my artistic process as I’ve begun to synthesise connections between particular archive items of interest, leading towards the creative conceptualisation and design of my performance.

My research has been guided by my exploration into the presentations of memory in theatre, either in the content of the play itself or discovered within the memories of the people who made and enjoyed theatre. I’ve paid particular attention to the visual materials such as photographs of actors, costume designs and set models, but I’ve unexpectedly been thoroughly engaged –and at several moments, entertained– by the written archives, more specifically letters.

I was helpfully directed to the Jessie & Annie Bourke Collection of correspondence (Reference: BTC80), five boxes of letters detailing the professional careers and later lives of Jessie, her sister Annie, and their cousin Eva Watson, actresses of the 1860s and 1870s. In this unique collection, I found a single telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke to be particularly intriguing. Characteristically short, I spent quite some time trying to decipher this cryptic message, and its greater meaning between the lines of the faintly penciled cursive.

An uncatalogued item in BTC80 Box 1: a telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke that reads ‘Don’t come, I have to go away’

My mind instantly wandered; I began to wonder whether this message was a simple warning that Annie would be met with disappointment at a previously agreed upon meeting spot? Or was this note emotionally charged, with unwritten but potentially weighty cause behind the sender’s impulse that they had no other option than ‘to go away’? Alongside the manifold number of long letters addressed to Annie – some even addressed to the name of the character she was playing on stage at the time – these letters allude to the intense adoration male audience members had for their favourite actors and the discomforting tension between declarations of admiration and harassment. Did Annie keep the reason for this telegraph in her memory? Did she remember the letters from her many admirers? Did she have favourites? Were there admirers whom she genuinely admired back, or whom she charmed for her own pleasure as the subject of adoration? Without her own responses, documented in the letters she did or did not send, we can never know. Moreover, I had found this moment of wonder to be incredibly formative for the devising process of my performance.

In addition to the sector knowledge and skills I have acquired, I have also learnt a hard lesson that any researcher must accept: unfortunately, it is impossible to see or research everything. Whilst I allowed myself time to explore tangential archive items, given the time constraints of the duration of my placement and my own time management between my final year units, I had to decide what leads I wanted to pursue and which I regrettably had to leave behind.

My direction of research has not been linear these last few months, but despite the twists and turns, the journey has been productive and, most notably of all, joyfully absorbing. Supported by Jill’s knowledgeable suggestions, I feel I have a solid foundation of research to begin to build the design conceptualisation of my performance, which I will share with you in my next post.


Artist-in-Residence Placement: Introduction

Hello, my name is Violet, and I’m a third year student in the Theatre and Performance Department here at Bristol. One of the final year units is ‘Professional Development in Theatre and Performance’, for which students work in partnership with a professional or community organisation to develop their professional skills on a specific project. I chose to work with the Theatre Collection, as an Artist-in-Residence, to create a performance piece based on archives and archival research.

As a third-year Theatre & English student, I’ve been lucky enough to take several units that utilised the archives and knowledge of the Theatre Collections staff. During my degree course, I have looked into the set design for productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard in ‘Performance Histories’, statoscopes in ‘Immersive and Site-Specific Theatre’ and even a clown costume, believed to be worn by Harry Payne, in ‘Clowning through History’. I was mesmerised by the physical fragments from the past, and the exciting process of research-informed investigation into the greater context of the item and its relation to theatre. These items preserved the liveness and creativity of performance, which is inextricably linked to the theatre makers and the projects they were produced for. This sparked my interest in contacting the Theatre Collection to ask if I could have my placement with the team to learn about archiving, freelancing as an artist and exploring what creative and performative ideas could be inspired by materials in the Collection.

My own interest in theatre is rooted in design. I have experimented with designing set, costume, prop and makeup in theatre units, student productions and my own performance as a drag artist. Most of my previous work revolves around creating dynamic and intriguing performance spaces, experimenting with the bounds of absurdity and authenticity in costume and makeup artistry, and exploring the tension between exaggerated scale and practicality in props.

Photographer: Yamuna Shukla
Photographer: Charley Williams
Photo by Moonshine Photographer

Before I pursue a postgraduate degree in performance design, I’m taking time to explore various avenues of artistry. As my interest was piqued by my previous encounters with the Collection’s archival materials, so I was intrigued to develop my own artistic practice, informed by researching designers and live art practitioners.

During the first month of my placement, I have taken my time to grasp the historical and contemporary works of live art, such as the work of Ian Smith, Nan Hoover and Crystal Theatre of the Saint. By investigating their creative process, promotional material, and recordings of their performances – with the support of the Theatre Collection team – I have built a foundation of archive research skills to begin my own process of producing a live art performance in early May. Please do look out for updates, as I will be posting regular blogs to show what archive items and artist influences have inspired me, the progression of my creative process and reflections on my placement with the Theatre Collection.