#Weare50: Place, space and belonging

The more observant amongst you may have twigged, by dint of the occasional message or several, that we (the University of Salford) are fifty this year. To mark the occasion, there is a whole host of activities and celebratory shenanigans, stretching throughout the year. These range from, stories, to days in the life entries from staff, students and alumni, to gala events, to showcases, to University Day, to creative events, to some fantastic networking meetings across the globe, which have brought together students, staff, alumni and our other partners. Granted, some of these things are part of our ‘normal’ calendar, which have been given an additional celebratory lift, but there’s also many events which are here once and gone forever, arriving and departing the way that birthdays tend to.

Although it hasn’t always been made explicit, I’ve noticed the idea of place, of us belonging somewhere in the world running through all of our celebrations. As someone who has now been at Salford for three years, (actually three years last week, dontchaknow) I was struck from my first day, and continue to be struck, at how grounded and rooted in a keen sense of its immediate environment Salford is, whilst at the same time, readily acknowledging, capitalising and drawing upon a myriad of global connections. It’s a porous place, not a house on the hill, or an ivory tower of old – it’s a place in conversation with itself and its immediate community and context. And what is a university if not its people? Sure, this sense of place, space and belonging is partly contained within the buildings, but even these are changing – the campus landscape has shifted beyond previous recognition even in the short time I’ve been here – no, its much more a felt sense; perhaps something which can’t adequately be captured in words, but is a shared sense, resting in the hive-mind of our staff and students, a resonance that some how one keys into and recognises as a place where one belongs.

One beautiful, and unexpected, instance of this came recently when I was fortunate enough to attend a book launch in our theatre space in our New Adelphi building. The book is called The City Of: A Salford Collection. It’s a retrospective on 50 years of life in Salford City; a collection of poetry and photographs and personal accounts and stories from Salford residents, staff and students. There’s even a brand new poem in there from our Chancellor Jackie Kay  (I’m looking forward to sharing Graduation with Jackie later in the year).

The book launch started with a presentation of a devised piece of theatre from our undergraduate performing arts students – about 50 of them (coincidence?) by my reckoning. This performance dramatised the developments of the last 50 years, picking out landmark events and translating them through a local echo. There was movement and music and dance and words all coming together in beautifully colourful ensemble action. What was striking however, was the cultural resonances the performers managed to hit. On a couple of moments all the elements of performance and the subject matter met perfectly with my own recollections of the times being dramatised and I was left thinking; how can minds and hearts and bodies who were not even born in the years they were conveying, capture something beyond their years so accurately; resonances of place and space lifting all to become more than the sum of their parts, like they were carrying powerful echoes of something they could only be aware of second hand. Fantastic to see…

And then it continued inside the theatre. And the book was duly launched in a crowd of people including staff and students and members of our local community. And then came the surprising bit: I was presented with the first copy of the first imprint of a brand new text. Wow. As an academic I count books amongst my most treasured of possessions. Folks, this one is sitting right up there at the top of the pile; a wholly unexpected and generous gift.

And, as I’m writing this now, leafing through the pages of the book, and thinking of the community inside the theatre, and thinking of our students’ performance and thinking of that tangible sense of reflection coupled with an idea of arriving that inevitably accompanies a landmark birthday year, there’s the clear chords of a shared endeavour and a understanding of place; a sense of grounded belonging ringing out loud and clear. And above everything, a real sense of pride in what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and where we’re going to go. Affirmation and excitement, certainty and uncertainty all in one go. Not bad at all.

#WeAre50.

#Watchthisspace.

See you next week.

Shameless Plugging: Waiting Room

I have a friend called Dave. He is a playwright. A little while ago I had the seed of an idea for a play, but unlike Dave, I lack the requisite skills in the creative structured translation of thought to page. So, having wanted to collaborate with each other for a while on a creative project, together we mulled over the emerging essence of the idea on a long walk around the Goyt Valley early in 2016. I do find that after about two hours on a walk, my mind really gets to work on the knotty problem of the day, sometimes without my knowing. I’m sure it has something to do with the space, and the quiet padding of forwards motion – personal horizons, literal and perceptual are expanded. I’ve reflected upon this in a previous post, bringing Czikszentmihalyi’s notion of optimal experience, known as flow, into the discussion….

Anyway, digressions, digressions. The result of the walk and then Dave’s talent at translating and expanding upon our joint, amble-centric thinking was a brand new piece of writing: Waiting Room. For reasons which will shortly become apparent, I won’t go into too much detail about the play here and now. However, in the manner of what is hopefully a tempting teaser (again for reasons which will shortly become apparent – stay with me folks) I can tell you that the play is a monologue and is set on a train platform. The circumstances of the central character – Thomas, are frighteningly similar to some of my own personal details. And that’s all you’re getting for now. Unfair? Yes. Necessary? Of course – nothing is done without reason…

So, the Waiting Room was, with a shockingly small rehearsal period (2 days in my dining room), then taken to the Buxton Fringe in 2016. (incidentally, its apparently the 3rd largest Fringe in the UK after Edinburgh and Brighton) The piece was premiered for a short run in a lovely little performance space in the top room of the Green Man Gallery and played to sold-out houses (very small houses – maisonettes, really) on each performance. And, despite my occasional departures from the exact words of the script, (causing Dave to have kittens as he was operating the sound) it went well; 5 star reviews; yours truly was nominated in the Fringe awards for Best Actor, and the piece itself won Best Theatre Production. Which was nice, because Dave and I were just testing it out. You can see a review from the 2016 Buxton Fringe performances here.

So then we thought about putting it on again, just to see if the friendly Buxton audience were simply being nice. (Buxton is a nice place). We took it for two nights to the Kings Arms at Salford – a fantastically active and welcoming fringe venue (with good ale, which is always a bonus). Again, a good reception and some more positive reviews. I actually stuck to the script most of the time (Dave no longer had kittens midway through the performance) and said efforts were rewarded; a nomination for Best Performer in a Fringe Show in the 2017 Manchester Theatre Awards. I have to go to Home in March for a spangly do. I expect there may be canapés and fizzy stuff. I’m genuinely chuffed.

But wait, there’s yet more, folks; the piece has been a welcome opportunity for me to get back to performance and to practice as research. After I finished the PhD (2014) the thought of writing, or researching anything was a feeling akin to having nails dragged down a blackboard, or being tied to a chair and being made to watch the Sound of Music twice; essentially unpalatable. However, after a couple of obligatory articles/ pieces from my PhD, this work has facilitated a return to research. It’s been such fun. And here comes the reason for the prior holding back of detail – Waiting Room is now scheduled for a single night of performance at the University of Salford’s very own New Adelphi Theatre on March 2nd 2017. Yippee and Hurrah.

This performance will be the icing on the cake for me. It’s the proverbial icing for several reasons; it allows me, as a senior leader of the university, to present my research as practice to colleagues and students and do so in a manner that runs the risk of me going wrong in public – keeping me on my toes (no pressure Sam – even though at the time of writing it’s a month away, the sense of personal/ reputational risk is already a palpable presence in my stomach when I think about it). It also allows me to share a different side of my working practice with interested parties at our university, and finally and best of all, I get to a chance to personally contribute to embedding research within student learning journeys – something I’m wanting academic colleagues to routinely do as part of our ‘ICZ ready’ curriculum; In the case of Waiting Room there’s a post show talk for students, and the performance has been woven into the curriculum diet of some undergraduate performance programmes as well as having given rise to a small number of live briefs.

After this, I’ll be working with students to turn it into a radio play and a film, (more live briefs) then there’s a bit of research which, bouncing off themes explored in my PhD, reflects on the nature of optimal states of being for the performer across all three mediums.

Anyhow… In the meantime, I’m excited about March 2nd. And it would be fantastic to see lots of you there, you lovely readers, you. So here’s the shameless plug; Waiting Room March 2nd, New Adelphi Theatre, University of Salford. MIMO. It lasts about an hour, meaning you can fit in a glass of wine and also be home at a respectable time on a School Night. Best of all, you can get your tickets here.

See you next week.