Friday, 10 October 2014

Jean Valjen and Twitter (or how social media saved my PhD and my sanity)

Social media and online interaction have been a massive part of my PhD experience, and  my life experience over the last five years or so. There's been some really negative consequences, but many many more posative ones. To the point I think some days I might have given up if I was doing all this before social media. It's also been a fantastic tool, both for general knowledge gains and for networking, again in a way pre-social media I wouldn't have had. So I decided a blog was needed.

The reason this came to my mind again was yesterday I experienced one of the best kinds of social media storms, and it also made my day so much better in ways those involved couldn't have known. Short version, I was sitting on my sofa allegedly writing a job application and I'd put on the Les Mis 25th Anniversary concert in the background. In reality I was feeling like ten kinds of hell having been to the hospital that morning for a particularly unpleasant procedure, and hadn't eaten for a day and a half before that (I'm fine, nothing to worry about) It's not been the best few weeks in general so I was feeling decidedly sulky. While watching I tweeted the following:



A fairly innocuous tweet. The kind of fannish nonsense I tweet regularly. What happened next was brilliant. Over 50 tweets and replies from friends and acquaintances, in which the merits of characters were discussed, to different casts, to...slightly questionable scenarios where Javert and Valjen have a very different kind of relationship possibly involving the boys from 'Supernatural' (when I say 'questionable' I mean 'glorious' and someone owes me that fanficiton NOW) The point being that over the course of a hour or so, several people-some groups who knew each other, some eavesdropping on the conversation, and some who just wanted to comment as I continued to live tweet my Les Mis watch with gems like these:


Demonstrating the, yes silly, but also uplifting afternoon that I had via social media. I might add that 90% of these participants are academics. And this is a glorious thing.

As a fan social media is really important also. Firstly I find out useful information from show creators, actors and fan accounts about all manner of things connected to my fannish intersts. I also get to interact with other fans. I can tweet about a theatre performance, or respond to someone else's and have a dialgoue I wouldn't get to have in person. Social media has been invaluable in connecting fans, and it's something I wouldn't want to be without. I'm a heavy twitter user for fannish things, and it allows me to connect quickly with people who share my own interests. It's also something I've written academic work on. In my work on the BBC's Sherlock, specifically fan following of filming through 'Setlock' that relied on social media engagement, to my work on theatre from The Drowned Man and it's Facebook community and twitter interaction, back to Rent and the early eras of online fan interaction.

Because of course as a fan it goes beyond twitter or Facebook, and often my fan-based discussions and frienships have begun elsewhere. On message boards, on Tumblr and slowly those streams have begun to merge and cross. I'm still quite particular about who I let into what. About 80% of my Facebook friends (by definition more of my 'real life' friends) would have to walk over my dead body to get my Tumblr URL. But increasingly, my twitter friends, my 'online' friends and Tumblr followers have made it onto my Facebook. The analysis of which is both several therapy sessions  and an academic paper. But in the past few years through meeting more 'geek' or 'nerd' or 'fan' friends, I've become more open in general about my fannish idenity. And while my online idenity in other platforms has always been fan-based, these naturally, as social media peremates our lives, creeps into the other aspects. And this is no bad thing. While there are particular aspects of fan engagement I'd rather keep in the 'fan space' of Tumblr, or message boards, I have no problem sharing other aspects of my fan idientiy. In a kind of definant 'I am what I am' moment I don't mind my 'real life' friends seeing that.

And actually, with social media the line between 'real life' and 'internet' friends is blurred. I defy anyone to tell me you can't have a meaningful relationship with someone online. And I will provide you several case in point examples to prove it. Which brings me back to my original point. The past five years (through PGCE and PhD) have been hard. Really hard. They've also been isolating. I've either jumped from one job to another, where there has been little interaction or relationship building with colleagues, or I've worked in isolation. My social life has taken one hell of a beating. So I've spent a lot of time interacting online. It's not that I haven't been seeing people in person, but in long long days working on the thesis, the chance to interact online with people has been a godsend.

Sometimes this is through 'official' or 'mediated' channels-such as the #PhDChat on twitter. Which connects postgraduates and offers a chance to ask quesitons of those in a similar situation. Sometimes this has been an offshoot of Facebook groups connected with academia, or again interests of mine. Sometimes it's been random connections-replying to a tweet, commenting on someone's Facebook post or blog. Sometimes it's been through my own twitter. I've also lost count of the times I've been 'introduced' to someone online, once it was through having a shared hairsytle with a friend of a friend. That friend and I communicate often ourselves now and even met at the theatre reccently. The organic development of relationships across platforms-from Tumblr and message boards to twitter or Facebook has been fascinating and invaluable.

The thing is, all this has saved me I don't know how many times. I can't actually put into coherent words how much it means to put a post on twitter or tumblr that says in essence 'I can't do it, I give up,  X and Y and Z has happened and it's too much' and to have people reply. Not even to be a cheerleader (though I'm privileged to have many of them) but to say 'I understand I'm there too' or simply 'that sounds utter shite, go and have a cup of tea' or to distract me with pictures of bunnies, or whatever, to simply be heard. My PhD expereince has been an isolating one. The only person in my discipline, and for a while the only one in my department. Isolated from supervisors it's been incredibly difficult. So I built my own community online. I have a small but dedicated band of fellow PhD students, fellow academics who support each other and more importantly talk to each other online. Some of these just the odd message here and there. Some, I talk to more in depth. But it's having people out there who understand. And as they are often also working in isolation, they are also relying on virtual communication.

On the other side of this, there's also the benefit of networking. On behalf of introverts everywhere I say God Bless The Internet. I once saw (and bad academic here no source) Twitter described as networking for introverts and it's so right. It's so much easier to build up a relationship via social media. Simply to take the sting out of first contact, walking up to somone at a conference, and saying 'hey I follow you on twitter I enjoyed your livetweeting xx conference last month' or the reverse tweeting someone saying 'Hey I see you're going to xx conference me too, looking forward to meeting you' is a brilliant way to break the ice and give someone like me confidence going in. And also, let's not forget the shameless self promotion of conferencing, publications and job searches it providdes. Building up a network online also allows quick access to expertise. Nobody can read all the relevant journals and books in a field, nobody knows all the resources for various things. But a quick bit of crowdsourcing from your academic friends can often yield great results.

Two years ago I was told my Twitter account was still public and this was a problem. I dug my heels in and said it was public, would remain public. And I'm so glad I did. Social networking and online resrouces have without doubt been intrinsic in getting me through my PhD. Without the people I turn to online I'd have been lost.

There has been a dark side. I've had numerous issues relating to social media use. I maintain, and will be more open in future that I've yet to say anything outright 'wrong' yes at times I may have been more tactful, but it was always entierly without malice and bourne of sheer frustration. There is a difference between venting about a fear of something, or the amount of upset that something is causing you (admittedly occasionally without thought, but such is the nature of being upset and being human) versus deliberatly being malicous, libelous or even, bullying. I have of course as in 'real life' (such as it is) opened my virtual mouth without thinking. However, as in life, there is very little I do or say with real malice or intent to hurt. The amount of times I've worried about posts I've written or comments I've left being take the wrong way by people I do not even know indicate that.

For all the trouble I've had however, the virtual world of my time in PhD land has been so valuable. I have people I consider true friends. I have people I talk to almost every day who I would not have known had it not been for this strange online life the PhD gave me. As a result also, I have learned much, through the work of the people I know and interact with, through the real life oppotunities these have given me. More than all this though it's the feeling of being cared about by people who are in the traditional sense 'strangers' to me. I value them so much (and I hope those reading this know who they are)

As a final aside, they also of course provide me with endless entertainment. Through funny tweets, posts and the endless pictures of cute animals or Benedict Cumberbatch they share. These online friends however cannot be forgiven for one thing: this week after years of (virtual) peer pressure, I started watching 'Supernatural' as a result I anticipating losing the next few months of my life to watching it and finally getting a lot of memes...I hate (love) you all.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Being bored and being a fangirl: towards the end of the PhD

As I've resolved to write about different stages of the PhD I thought it was time to blog about the most recent stages. At the very least to have a record for the farce-play that I will eventually write (reasons why will become apparent)

Admittedly this post comes weeks after I submitted. Partly due to sheer laziness, or a kind of denial in not wanting to think about the damn beast any more.

Anyway, firstly the weeks leading up to submission. This I can characterise in one word: Boring. For the weeks leading up to submission I had this monologue from John Finnemore's 'Cabin Pressure' in my head (imagine it in Roger Allam's dulcet tones)

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re now about halfway through our flight from Hong Kong to Limerick, and I just thought I’d let you know that I … am … bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored … bored.... So, if anyone on board knows any card tricks, ghost stories, or would like to have some sex, please do make your way to the flight deck. Thank you. "

Sadly, nobody, not least Allam's character, or his hapless pilot friend offered to help me out with my boredom (ahem) so it was just me and my thesis. To put this in context, I'm sure whatever anyone reading this does for a living, they've had to proof read or format the odd document. I was proof reading and formatting 100, 000 words. That I'd written, and edited to death. Four years in I'm out of fresh ideas, and frankly out of enthusiasm for altering it. But it still needed checking, tweaking, editing. And that is boring. 

Of course alongside the crushing boredom there is the crippling fear and anxiety that it's all  wrong. Suddenly four years in you realise it's all very very wrong. Or not original. Or badly written. Not referenced. Not interesting to anyone in any shape or form. You've missed vital reading and research. Anyone mentions an academic even outside of your field and you should have quoted them. You picked the wrong plays. The wrong subject. The wrong life. It's just wrong. But you're too scared to change it too much, because it's wrong, and you'll just be wrong again. 

Bored and wrong. If I had to pick two words for the last two months those would be the most accurate. And frustrated. Annoyingly my final months had (finally) fallen over the summer. So trying to get information out of anyone was like shouting into a black hole. Without external examiner, without a real idea of submission date, and having nobody to ask because it was the summer was the most frustrating experience. Again added the worry of my anxiety and frustration being misconstrued as 'rudeness' or 'inappropriate' I felt like I was treading on eggshells, but at the same time, I needed to submit by the end of September for my own sanity (and bank balance) luckily, overall this element went smoothly if slowly. 

Of course the actual submission wasn't without it's problem. It's me after all and this section will feature heavily in the farce play I'm sure this will one day become. I submitted, there was much rejoicing. (Well, I went for a smoothie with my Mum and spent the evening seeing off the best part of a bottle of wine while watching 'The X Files') at midnight, when I should have fallen into a wine-induced coma I realsied something: the damn thing had no page numbers. Frantically I emailed registry, praying this wouldn't be the first time in the history o f all Universities that something had been efficiently dealt with the day it was submitted (it wasn't of course) and spent the best part of the next day re-submitting the damn thing. On one hand I got congratulated twice by the lovely people in registry (and the copy shop) on the other I didn't really need the additional mini-heart attacks that those 24 hours caused me. Still, I had an excuse to drink further wine the following night. For my nerves. 

And then it was done. I wish I could say I've blissfully relaxed since enjoying my new found freedom. Or that all my woes are over now the damn thing is submitted. No such luck. 

On the positive side I had a conference paper to write for the Fan Studies Network conference, which as the previous blog detailed was frankly the best conference I've been to.(http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/did-captain-kirk-just-call-me-butthole.html)  I'm also glad of the enjoyable distraction it caused. Although for anyone in a similar position I don't recommend the three weeks following PhD submission as the best time to try and write a conference paper. 

That aside I've been in job-hunt mode. It's so difficult, with the viva looming to plan when to apply for jobs, or which you can. Moving away beforehand isn't really an option, but I don't want to miss out on good jobs either. It's also exhausting, the constant cycle of job applications. But I'm also being more discerning with what I apply for, although I need a job, and though no perfect job exists, I also don't want to find myself stuck in something I hate once again-that's where I was for several years before the PhD and having gone through all this I'm not willing to take that step back. 

It's been a rocky few months in other respects. Some other work elements that I can't talk about a present, but led me to the above conclusion. I've always had as my mantra 'If I quit now they win' (geek points for knowing the source) but now I've finally switched to 'It's not worth it' and 'There's so much more I have to do with my life' (further geek points there...oh I'm not even trying now am I?) And actually to quote last night's Doctor Who, "Never finish with someone when they can still make you angry...when you're calm that's when you walk away" I'm calm now, and very soon I'll be walking away. A slightly (necessarily) obtuse paragraph there, but I think the general idea is clear. 

So now I'm in limbo, it's almost over but not quite. So it's back to boredom and panic. But so almost very nearly there. 

I'd like to end with an upbeat story, I put this on Tumblr the night I submitted (well...the first time...) a short version of 'how I got here' 

In 2002 I went to see a play called 'What the Night is For' at the Comedy theatre in London. I'd never been the theatre before really. I think I went to see a pantomime a couple of times, but that was about it. Theatre just wasn't a part of my life. But as a teenager I was a big X Files fan (perhaps the understatement of the year) and Gillian Anderson was doing a play in London. So I begged (no really that is accurate) and Mum and I went down for a matinee. Now there'a a lot to be said for my fangirl life in terms of what sitting three rows away from Gillian Anderson felt like, or what meeting her afterwards felt like or meant. But what that day really meant was falling in love with theatre. It wasn't a big flashy play, it was two people in a hotel bedroom talking (well, and some other stuff, I'm not willing to speculate on the affect Roger Allam's bare behind had on teenage me) but to me it was wonderful. I spent a good deal of the next day writing notes all over my copy of the play to try and record everything as fully as I could (my near photographic memory finding a use for the first time there too). Most of all I was enchanted and enthralled by theatre, and the first steps made towards where I ended up. 

I've written before about my motivation for this particular topic, (http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/whats-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-phd.html)  but that day was the first step towards where I've ended up. Of course a million other decisions and moments also led to here (I blame Hugh Jackman for my love of musical theatre which led me to Rent for example) but I knew from that day that theatre was important. The week before I submitted, my laptop desktop background was the poster for that play. Because no matter what the twists and turns along the way, that moment led me to this one. 

If there's a moral to that story it's you never know where your fannish inclinations will lead you. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

My Night With Reg

Advanced warning this isn't really a review. The play has closed anyway, and I'm not able to be really objective enough about this to say much in the way of critical content. So let's agree to disagree and call it a reflection.

My Night With Reg is known by me, and possibly by many others as "The British AIDS play" it's not the only play to address the issue but it is by far the most focused on it as a single issue, although it never actually mentions it by name (more on that later). It is also the most British of British plays. And I adored it.

My Night with Reg centres on a group of friends, all gay men, ranging from 18 to mid-40s over three separate meetings at Guy's house. In the first gathering Daniel talks of his new love 'Reg' as the play continues it transpires he isn't the only one to have had an encounter with Reg. John in particular is in love with Reg also, having been with him the night before Guy's gathering. In scene 2 Reg has died, from AIDS related illness (again although it's never named) leaving John distraught but unable to confess to his friend Daniel why. In scene 3 Guy, the most 'safety conscious' of their group has also died, leaving his flat to John, who he had been in love with since University.

In terms of plot, to quote Sondheim, there's not an awful lot. But I like that about it. In terms of politics, again there's not a lot (generous in terms of capitol P politics there's none) but that doesn't mean it doesn't make a statement about AIDS. What I love about 'Reg' is it's ability to engage and move without being plot-politics heavy.

Perhaps it works only in context of the other AIDS plays. We need the others, we need angry vitriol of The Normal Heart, we need the sweeping world changing politics of Angels in America and we need the grass roots determination of Rent. All of these were and are important but there is also something wonderful about the approach Kevin Elyot takes in 'Reg'.

Michael Billington wrote about Angels in America that it finally took American drama out of the living room. In Reg the AIDS drama firmly returns to the living room. And alongside those big political texts that had been imported that works so well. In Reg the men involved aren't (as far as we know at least) involved in the political fights of the era, they are just trying to live their lives, gather in living rooms and drink Blue Nun. They are also older men, and later in the AIDS crisis, in their 30s and 40s when Elyot writes in 1994. But that doesn't make it less affecting.

It is however so wonderfully British. Which I think for me personally, spending far too many years studying plays on this topic, is refreshing. Although the American plays are brilliant, affecting and rallying cries. There is something wonderful about something which speaks your own language. In this case a language of camp humour and almost militant avoidance of the topics that should be discussed, making them louder than ever. Firstly the humour, in a hark back to that over used phrase 'Blitz spirit' there is a sense of a Britain under the AIDS crisis just getting on with it. All these men are more than aware of what is happening but they get on with their lives. In a sense this is highly realistic. Not everyone was Larry Kramer and despite the pervasive nature of the crisis, lives still had to be lived, jobs gone to, houses cleaned meals cooked. And 'Reg' shows this. I also love that Elyot includes in his mash up of men working class people. I'm always an advocate of seeing some working class people on stage, and not just in an Artful Dodger manner. In 'Reg' Benny is a bus driver, and AIDS crisis or no, he must carry on (also a gay working class man in the theatre, surely not?!) the point being life very much goes on, even as the play later unravels in the face of death.

These characters aren't particularly philosophical about it either. They talk of love and missing in a very honest way. When John, distraught at the loss of Reg-the lover he can't admit to in front of several friends-his finding comfort in a passionate kiss, and exit with Benny, is both emotionally charged and incredibly real. When people experience loss, even in the midst of a crisis that is inherently political, they don't always respond by rallying at the barricades, they express grief privately, they also do things like take a friend home to bed instead of dealing with the grief. And for this, Elyot's play is incredibly real, and moving. The kiss between John and Benny, or the final exchange between John and Daniel, loaded with everything they haven't said, is incredibly moving.

But against these moments, it's hilarious, truly laugh out loud funny. yes it's camp, yes there could (and have) been levied accusations of gay stereotypes. But to that I say, I give Elyot as a gay man writing about gay issues, the benefit of the doubt. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and I'd lay money on each of the characters being based on someone Elyot knew. There's also the importance of this now being a historical text, and what was the cultural norm for some gay men in 19994 may well be different now, but that doesn't mean it's offensive. Also, have I mentioned, it's bloody funny? And perhaps forgive me for a moment of theatre nationalism, but it's a kind of combined black humour and camp humour (and don't those go together so well?) that only a British play could achieve in talking about AIDS. It is possible, even productive to laugh in the face of the darkest times and Elyot's play managed that skillfully with emotionally charged moments.

The play stands up well to revival. It feels like a period piece and that's fine. It also reminds us, perhaps unintentionally that we are again deliberately not talking about AIDS, even though it still exists. And perhaps that was Reg's strongest enduring message.

As for me, it was a poignant moment at which to see this. Weeks after submitting the theisis I actually felt like I had enough distance to reflect on this. And, if I had my time again one of the (many) things I'd do differently is include this play. It's so important, and it's such a strong British voice showing there is more than one way to respond to a crisis.

It's a great tragedy that Kevin Elyot died within weeks of this revival, I have a feeling he'd have been incredibly proud at how his play stands up, and how it was received.

Oh and as a less sophisticated footnote, being a Downton Abbey fan was slightly awkward this Sunday having just seen a lot more of one of Lady Mary's suitors than anticipated. Temptation to shout at the TV "You don't know what you're missing Mary"...tone suitably lowered I'll be on my way...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Did Captain Kirk just call me a butthole?" Fans, academics and the Fan Studies Network Conference

This weekend I attended the Fan Studies Network Conference at Regent's University. After having to pull out at the last minute last year (curse upon you old car!) I was really excited to finally get to attend this conference, and I wasn't disappointed. I think actually the best way to summerise it was what I in my tired state put on Facebook when I got home:

"The Fan Studies conference was the best conference I've attended. Great discussion, great ideas and debate and fantastic keynotes. Most importantly it was one of the most welcoming academic environments I have been in."

Fan Studies was in fact, everything I'd want in a conference; a truly interdisciplinary environment in which ideas were received, shared and debated in a supportive academic manner, while also being friendly and welcoming to all those in attendance, regardless of where they are in their academic career-and even more importantly to those outside of academia who wanted to come and share ideas.

First some highlights of the conference. The first keynote from Paul Booth, disscusing how we can integrate Fan Studies into the classroom in Higher Education. This informative and reflective talk both energised and set the tone for the conference- tackling some interesting academic questions with enthusiasm, and an enviable energy for first thing in the morning. More importantly Paul speaks with humour, taking on his own fannish identity and integrating it into his work. While also not being afraid to laugh at himself, as we all often do in relation to fannish pursuits. Extra mention to Paul's powerpoint which demonstrated best use of photoshop to make a point all weekend. I say it in a light hearted way, but actually the presence and use of a sense of humour, particularly for a keynote shouldn't be underrated, the idea that we all must be deadly serious about everything we consider in order to make it 'worthy' is a misguided one, which Paul's talk showed.

This set the tone for other papers across the weekend, which were delivered with passion, energy and often a great sense of humour. In Fan Studies we are talking about things people love, and while we can (and must) acknowledge the serious, and darker side of thing, we are also talking about fun things, and it's great to see academics bringing the sense of fun from fannish activity.

The range of topics and approaches to Fan Studies across the weekend demonstrated what a diverse area of study it is. Particularly interesting for me were the works on Transcultural Fandom, an area I knew little about. Hearing from Lori Morimoto on Contact Zones in transcultural fandom, or the differences in selling fanworks in Japan by Nele Noppe for example gave a great insight into transcultural fandom.

There were far too many excellent papers to do justice to here. I very much enjoyed chairing the 'Online Fandom' panel hearing from Ruth Deller on fan responses to the 'Sims 4' and the idea of 'unticipation' alongside this papers from Nistasha Perez and Eva Hayles Gledhill explored how official accounts and fans use Tumblr.  Eva Hayles Gledhill's paper reminded us that the collector aspect that Tumblr and Pintrest offer isn't new, making comparisons with the 19th Century Commonplace book. Alongside these Hannah Ellison illustrated how fans use online resources to make their own images of representation, looking at the abridging of Lesbian story lines via Youtube videos. In just one panel it became clear that the approaches to various aspects of online fandom were being considered in a variety of fascinating ways.

In my own panel, on spaces of fandom, I felt there was a great balance of similarity and difference in how the papers, and the fan activity they discussed, approached spaces and locations in fandom. From Ross Garner's discussion of music fans and ideas of 'authenticity' in relation to Nirvana fans to two papers that considered television and film locations and fans. Katherine Larsen and Abby Waysdorf discussing Harry Potter and Game of Thrones locations respectively, considered how different fans interact with these locations and spaces. I really enjoyed being able to bring theatre fans into this collection of papers talking about Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man'. As the only person from a theatre background at the conference, I was nervous about how my paper would be received, and even how I had delivered it (being a dramatic type, old habits die hard and I favour the more improvisational approach to delivery rather than reading, therefore am never quite sure what I've just said ) I was really blown away by the reception, I had several questions following the paper and so many people came up to me and not only said they enjoyed the paper but wanted to discuss it further.

This meant a lot, not only as everyone obviously likes to feel their paper was something people wanted to listen to, but also because I am passionate about widening interdisciplinary discussion of theatre, and in particular theatre fans. To have such an engaged reception was better than I could have hoped. I think the follow up discussions really showed there is both an interest (aside from myself) in theatre fans, and that the interdisciplinary links between elements of theatre and other media studies are being made and is something that can be built on. For me this was another strength of Fan Studies, the interdisciplinary and collaborative thinking that was taking place.

In terms of collaboration, the virtual keynote from Orlando Jones illustrated exciting new directions of collaboration that Fan Studies can take us in, and that the conference was facilitating. Skyping into the conference (though he would have attended in person if schedules had allowed) Orlando Jones, star of 'Sleepy Hollow' and my personal favourite ridiculous comedy film 'Evolution' is known equally for his interactions with fans and interest in fan studies. Drawing on his own experience as a fan Jones has since the success of Sleepy Hollow frequently engaged with fans online and is interested in the dynamics between fans and producers. Veering from the humourous "Did Captain Kirk just call me a butthole?" and "This is like some kind of AA meeting" to more serious discussion around the fact that producers are often ignorant of fans, Jones provided a fascinating and entertaining keynote. Having Jones a part of the conference also illustrated the benefits of collaborating with those outside of academia, and the benefits to both sides this can have. I also urge anyone interested in this sort of thing to look up Orlando Jones on twitter, Facebook or Tumblr to see the way in which this actor engages with both fans and ideas of fan studies. Oh and his Snapchat, because he's determined that is the next big social media platform (who knew? I just thought it was for teenagers to share rude pictures)

Across the weekend many similar discussions seemed to be taking place, with people bringing their own experience and expertise to discuss and build on papers or simply ideas that had been sparked. No better illustration than this was the 'Speed Geeking' event. A fantastic event in which the 'Geekers' have 7 minutes to talk to a table about a project idea, at whatever stage it is at, and gain ideas and insight from a table of people, probably from a range of backgrounds. This is a fantastic idea that I'd urge other conferences to consider. It was both engaging and energizing for those of us not presenting, to think about and discuss a range of topics over a short period. For those presenting, they reported getting a wide range of suggestions that they'd never have thought of, or getting reassurance about their project, both equally important. This event also provides an excellent forum for less experienced, or less confident researchers. If I'd had the opportunity to do this, either as my first conference as a PhD student, I'd have jumped at the chance. A great alternative to the frankly dull poster presentations that are often offered as an alternative to papers, speed geeking allowed active participation for people with projects not quite ready to present yet, as well as a supportive environment for less experienced academics to engage. Not only that, it was a really enjoyable experience.

Which brings me to my final point: enjoyment. I enjoyed my weekend at Fans Studies more than any conference I have attended to date. I'm an introvert, I'm shy, conferences are in short usually my worst nightmare. I'm happy to stand up and present (again, performance training habits die hard) but put my in a room with teas and coffees and ask me to make small talk and I'd rather hide in the toilets until the next panel. Add into that mix a fair few conferences that have been less that friendly there have been times where I've given my paper and disappeared. At Fan Studies it was the opposite, I loved the opportunity to mix with other attendees during the breaks, and felt that I could walk up to anyone and begin a discussion, whether it was about the papers we'd seen, London, or the biscuits on offer. As a result I had many interesting discussions over coffee and feel like I've made some genuinely great professional connections and friendships. It's also worth noting the mix of people at the conference, there were independent scholars, Masters students and Undergraduates, people who work in industry mixing with more 'traditional' blend of PhD students and full-time academics. Never in any discussions did I feel divisions between these people, everyone was listened to in panels and in social discussions the diverse backgrounds were viewed as interesting and positive rather than divisive. More importantly, perhaps united by our own fannish tendencies we all felt perhaps a common affinity. The fact that a One Direction Fan and fans of heavy metal could share fan-based academic discussions over coffee I think shows that it's what makes us a fan rather than what we are a fan of that brings us together. And that was a wonderful thing to see.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The internet? TV? Joan Rivers? Exploding Daleks? Feminism.


The internet. It's a funny old thing. I have a blog post to write about how the internet (and internet friends) not only kept me sane but helped my PhD to be written. But that's another day. This week I've been tearing my hair out and asking 'Why?' a lot.

Why you ask? Well in the course of a week I've been accused of being a troll, being trans-phobic, being homophobic, and being anti feminist. If you've met me please let those sink in and reconcile that with who I am personally and what I do professionally. But I'll come back to that. First a detour to Joan Rivers, which if you bear with me, illustrates my point.

Joan Rivers sadly died last night. Personally I found her to be a smart, sharp funny woman. I also have a great deal of respect for a woman who paved the way in an notoriously misogynistic industry and did well. Without Joan Rivers we wouldn't have the female comedians we have today. We wouldn't have a lot of women in entertainment today. And that woman worked hard. 81 years old and until recently still working. If nothing else acknowledge a hard working woman as well.

I recognised that she said some problematic things in her time. Show me a comedian who hasn't, I'm not excusing that, but putting it into perspective. Hell, one of my favourite comedians, Adam Hills has a famous rant where he lays into Rivers for her comments on Adele, and rightly so (google it it's worth a look). Yes last night Hills joined in the condolences for Joan Rivers. It's about perspective. There is nobody in the public eye who has never said anything wrong, particularly comedians who yes, sometimes make their living sometimes off the misfortune of others. It's a rare comedian who hasn't been nasty about someone at some point. It's a rare human. I think Michael Palin, nicest man on the planet is the only one. And I'm not sure he's human, he's a teddy bear.

Immediately after the news broke I had to get off twitter because someone I follow was tweeting all the hate about Joan Rivers he could find. And I get it, you might not like her. But a woman just died. Call me old fashioned but I like to think keeping any hatred you had for her to yourself for the moment is respectful. I also think that telling people they shouldn't like or express sympathy for her passing is also wrong. I liked the woman, I had respect for her, and I am sad for her family that they've lost her. There is nothing wrong with that.


But this is the particularly nasty end of a long internet stick. A stick that's used to beat people for liking the 'wrong' things.Or for not engaging with them in the 'right' way.

Now to one degree I get that. I'm an academic after all. I live to analyse. My last review of 'The Crucible' talks about not being able to turn my brain off and just see the emotional story. However the accusation that I'm 'not interested' in aspects of representation (of queer people, and of women specifically) would be laughable if it weren't so insulting.

Perhaps I need to state, for the record as it were, that I am a feminist. I am a scary loud proud feminist. Being a feminist is complex. There are many feminists that will tell you 'how' to be a Feminist. What you should and shouldn't do. I've gotten to the point (old and grumpy as I am) where I will no longer be told how to be a feminist. In the words of Caitlin Moran, I have a vagina and I want to be in charge of it. Therefore I am a feminist. But then I can already hear the cries of 'You can't like Moran for x y or z reason because she did or said x y or z' and therein is our problem dear internet. I'm not telling anyone to like Moran. I'm again not saying she's perfect. I'm saying that what she says there is a succinct and fitting definition of Feminism in my eyes. I can't reconcile any Feminism with telling women what they must think or do, surely that, albeit from men, is in part what Feminism is designed to fight.

Likewise I cannot reconcile being told liking or not liking something as indicative or my stance on women's issues gay issues etc etc. Here I'd like to reference my friend who at a recent conference spoke on 'being a fan of problematic things' and discussed how we can both learn from problematic television, film, theatre and that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it. I agree 100% with this stance. There's also the side that you are occasionally allowed to turn your brain off and enjoy it for the sake of it. I refer to this as 'The Gossip Girl' argument. My oh my how I loved that show. I was addicted. I know it's awful. I know it has problematic depictions of anything you like to mention. But I enjoyed watching over dramatic pretty people in pretty clothes for 45 minutes a week. So sue me.

Part of the accusations I got this week stemmed from 'Teen Wolf' a show I have never seen. I'm good but I find it hard to formulate an opinion on something I haven't' seen. But if I'm pushed, what I've seen from the internet it seems to be about two gay teen wolves. Which logic tells me probably isn't the actual show. I'm sure it's a great show. Maybe it isn't. I have no opinion as I haven't seen it. There's a lot of internet bullying (and I don't use that lightly either it's nasty out there) to hate Doctor Who too, as it's anti Feminist, because Steven Moffat is the spawn of all evil etc etc. First of all, I do like Steven Moffat. He's got issues, no doubt about that. But he's also got talent. And I'm very interested in having those discussions. What I'm not interested in is discussion that is 'Steven Moffat is evil, all the female portrayals are problematic and that's all there is' So I have these discussions privately, with people I know will have constructive things to say, even when we don't agree. But also people who respect and often share the belief that we can discuss such things, and still enjoy a good old fashioned Dalek exploding. Similarly it's about perspective, and picking your battles. It doesn't make me less of a Feminist, less interested in those issues, it just means we all draw our own lines in the sand.

And the ironic thing in all this? TV and fandom taught me to be a feminist. I have no problem saying that being an X Files fan was formative in my Feminist point of view. You don't spend your teenage years wanting to be Dana Scully and not learn a thing or two about Feminism. And I see the Feminism I have in everything Dana Scully is. She's a clever, strong independent woman. She is a Doctor who made it through the FBI academy. She's not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, or to kick some serious butt. She can stand up for herself and hold her own in a debate with her male partner. But she can also let him hold the door open for him without it invalidating the above. She has fabulous hair, but she's not afraid to get her hands dirty or literally fight. She won't let her partner get away with anything, but she loves him (and falls in love with him) she's a fighter and a mother. And oh so clever. These are the things I want when I want feminism to be all these things and more at once. And these are the values I've had, from television since I was 13 years old. So don't tell me I don't think about feminism on television, and don't tell me I don't engage with it. It has in part made me the Feminist I am. (And Things I learned from Dana Scully is now a new blog post of its own!)


So if I learned feminism through television, how can I not be interested in how television depicts women and their issues? And if I spent 4 years writing a PhD about how theatre responded to the AIDS crisis, how am I not interested in culture and Queer issues? I think the issue here is I'm not being interested in it in the 'right' way. And that's my problem with how things are 'policed' I can't be passionate about every single cause, every single representation, every single remark. There are too many of everything to do that. It doesn't mean I don't care.

It's also about how these things are talked about. There is a problem with people being so insularly caught up in their internet discussions about things that they forget that the rest of the world doesn't think or talk that way. People who spend a lot of their time discussing people online (and lets face it arguing online) forget that the way they talk online doesn't always translate to the real world. Because not everyone is versed in internet speak. This used to be a pet peeve of some friends in Uni who would say things like "oh noes" and "teh"out loud in conversation. Because I wasn't part of that kind of internet world (mainly live journal I think) where those phrases and memes came from I was left out of "real life"encounters. I see it now on Tumblr too when social justice type arguments flare up there's a certain way of talking sometimes, use of certain phrases where I think "you may be right but you couldn't t have that argument in that way in real life, because people outside of certain internet bubbles don;t use that language that approach to this discussion, its the same as having an in-joke and being offended when someone doesn't get it, if they aren't part of the group they won't? What I mean is a lot of the words, and lets face it accusations, thrown around online, all the nuanced definitions or labels or ways you are allowed to talk about things don't exist outside of certain bubbles. This makes for a frustrating argument. And it's about realising your audience doesn't always speak the same language. It's also about realising that not every person in the world can afford to be concerned with such debates. People have multitudes of problems of their own and just because they cant be a campaigner for your particular issue, or they have a slightly different take on it doesn't mean they are attacking your issue, or that they aren't basically a good person.

All of which is lost on the kind of people arguing this. But I felt for the record I needed to get this out. Because to say these things, that I'm not interested in depictions within film, television, theatre or culture not only insults me personally, but it insults my professional work too. And I'm frustrated, so frustrated with being told how to be a fan, how to be a Feminist, how I must or mustn't support queer rights or any other rights. As I say above, we all have our own line in the sand. I will shout from the rooftops about how important 'The Normal Heart' was. I will analyse to death the theatre I saw (and just take a look, 2 reviews that include big feminist arguments) but at the same time, I'm happy to look at how pretty Gillian Anderson and Richard Armitage are. One doesn't invalidate the other. And neither makes me a bad person. We all have our own line in the sand, we all have our 'Gossip Girl'. Now excuse me I have some exploding Daleks to re-watch.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: The Crucible



Then how did he die?

They press him John.

Press?

Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead ay or nay. They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.

I could actually quote that entire scene (I looked it up only to check I'd gotten the wording right) verbatim, without checking. I have, if memory serves played both Proctors at some point, and I have clearly had the play etched into my brain via GCSE drama and other delightful studies. Add to that a specialism in Cold War History (more on that shortly) and 20th Century drama, it's possible to get a little Crucible-ed out. However in all that I've never actually seen the damn thing performed live. So with the Old Vic doing a production, while I was in London, and with Richard Armitage in the role of Proctor, I decided to finally see it.

Despite knowing the play so well, I found this production to be engaging and almost thriller like in it's pacing. I had been concerned given reports of its length, but it felt well paced and never seemed to drag or as long as it actually was. Yes the lengthy scene changes which were carefully choreographed moving of the minimal set on an off stage, did add time to the already substantial length. However they added atmosphere and allowed for transitions between scenes that actually at times added to the story.

The staging itself worked really well. Staged in the Old Vic's new 'in the round' set up, it helped bring the action in closer to the audience and added a sense of claustrophobia that fits with the premise of the play. Much like 'Other Desert Cities' before it, the intimacy between actors, set and audience helps to draw into the play, making it more intimate than I'd ever imagined it as.

I have a difficult time with The Crucible as a play generally. Having studied it to death for a start, makes it difficult to disconnect and get lost in the performance. But the performances, the staging and the atmosphere created here was enough to draw me in and keep me locked in the story for much of the time. I do find it difficult to completely  lose myself in the story though, my historians brain gets in the way, and the metaphor gets a little lost on me. My brain always resets to the contemporary setting that Miller was writing about with The Crucible (the 'witch hunt' of his era, the Army-McCarthy hearings) and as any historian will tell you there's such a thing as knowing too much when it comes to fiction. In the case of this play I know too much about the fictionalised Salem version and the present day that Miller was writing to. So for me it's a true testament to this play that I did find myself lost in the story and at times even though I knew all to well what was next, waiting in anticipation for it. The other aspect is just how terrifying the group of young girls is. I don't mean in their witchy personas but actually the deeper point about mass hysteria or mob mentality that Miller was making. Anyone who has had any association with teenage girls knows en masse they are a scary lot, but I found myself making allusions to Mamet's Oleanna in which people in authority are brought down by in that case a young woman, but in the case of the Crucible, a group of women. I'm sure there's a more detailed analysis there, and I may be off track entirely but it's a thought that occurred. What also occurred to me which my 1990s education certainly didn't touch on was the inherent sexism of the play, all women are mad, the idea of women as a righteous man like John Proctor's downfall. However, Miller is not exactly known for being devoid of sexist content. And that is a lengthy essay for another day. As it is I can accept The Crucible more than his other plays in terms of sexism as he was drawing on the historical tales of Salem. And well, if I wasn't able to turn off my sexism radar and enjoy a play for what it is now and then I'd have major issues going to the theatre. And this production also doesn't overplay or make worse the inherent negative images of women, if anything they became more rounded, more real women. They are still a terrifying force, and a problematic one in some respects, but I also understood them more as individuals, even when acting a scary 'coven'.

For many of these reasons, overall 'The Crucible' doesn't make me emotional in the way 'Streetcar' did the night before. In some ways its the way I engage with the playwrights, for me Williams speaks poetically and to the heart, particularly in Streetcar. Miller on the other hand speaks to my head, which I can't turn off. That isn't to say I wasn't moved, when finally in the scene I quoted at the start, Protor and his Elizabeth are together. In fact the two scenes they share alone across the play were both incredibly moving. And both Armitage and Anna Madely give stand out performances.

And though it's being sold as Armitage's play (well if you can put him on a poster why wouldn't you?) and though Proctor is a character who binds the piece it's real strength is its ensemble piece. And the ensemble for this production is incredibly strong. From the group of girls who at time scarily move and seem to think as one, to the supporting group of male village elders-particularly Adrian Schiller and Michael Thomas as reverends Hale and Parris respectively, are all standout performances of their own. Armitage is excellent as Proctor, his booming voice and physical stature dominate the early scenes making it all the more affecting when, in the final scene he is broken down, his voice and stature reflecting this. There is no doubt in his abilities and he brings the ensemble together effectively but there is no doubt this production is a team effort.

Despite my doubts, and my inability to turn off my brain usually, I felt myself sucked in and taken on a thrilling engaging ride by The Crucible. Armitage is a stand out performer and it is impossible to take your eyes off him (well ok it is, but why would you want to?) within a strong, well directed piece of classic theatre. More than enough to blow off the cobwebs of GCSE drama.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

"I have always relied on the kindness of strangers"
"Well that's a stupid thing to do"

.....or so goes the famous line in my head. I blame Tony Kushner who appropriates Tennessee Williams' most famous play twice in his own most famous play. And that's the trouble with famous plays, we all think we know how it goes. We all have our own version of them in our minds. Whether it's the film version or Marge Simpson appearing as Blanche. However actually this production made me think about how well I really knew the play, which is always a good thing.

As a side note, for me it was particularly interesting, having spent far too many years looking at Kushner, to return to Williams. Kushner talks often of his love and influence by Williams and I would even say that I see Kushner as one of Williams' worthy successors in American drama. Seeing Williams performed after spending so long with Kushner then I could see the influences on his drama. Oddly in knowing the playwright he influenced so much so well, made me appreciate the smaller nuances of Williams' drama more. And has made me love Williams' work more also.

Overall this is an excellent production. The acting talent in the central trio alone would take even a dire production to new heights. Even though I have some issues with the production, it's anything but dire but the three central actors take it to another level.

Firstly the set. Yes this will go down in theatre lore I think as the spinning Streetcar. The set, an open rectangular kitchen/bathroom/living room of the Kowlaski house is on an almost permanent revolve. I'll be honest, I wasn't keen. Firstly the advantage of the Young Vic's in the round (or technically octagonal) space gives an intimate setting regardless of how you stage it. This strangely shaped rectangular room seemed to needlessly restrict space for the performance. The rotation, which I can see the motivation behind, it gives alternative views on each scene dependent on where you are situated and the revolve was put to great use in emphasizing Blanche's state of mind. It is a clever, interesting theatrical device and I appreciated what it was being used for, and to some extent what it achieved. The idea that some parts of the performance were hidden from, and in turn revealed to different sections of audience is an interesting way to play it. The idea that the revolving direction and speed are linked to Blanche likewise clever and interesting. However, these clever and interesting elements negate the fact that a constantly spinning set is a little irritating (not to mention as Les Mis proved to me, sea sickness inducing) I was glad to have a seat upstairs as my view was largely uninhibited up there. Overall though not a set or design choice that appealed.

However the modernised set, to reflect the contemporary setting of the piece did work for me. I've seen reviews and comments that as a result certain lines in the play, or certain aspects of it no longer work. To an extent yes, certain references may not stand up to scrutiny in the contemporary setting. However this is an issue with playwright copyright and what is permitted to change. I'm fairly ambivalent and lenient with such things anyway. In watching it what actually struck me is, in the second half when we realise how judged Blanche is for her behaviour with men, is just how shockingly contemporary that still feels. We still hold women up to such standards, and women still understandably unravel under that pressure. For me the contemporary setting worked then and the world of Blanche, Stella and Stanley doesn't seem that far removed from our own. Even the military references obviously more indicative of Williams' time, don't seem in a re-militarized America of today that much of a stretch (really, has America ever been anything other than militarized?) And though some might find Blanche's 'Southern Belle' routine 'dated' and not in fitting with today, I'd disagree, I could envisage someone of her circumstance falling back on such cultural models or moulds. In fact once she starts to truly unravel in the second half the slightly incongruous nature of that 'act' makes the disintegration all the more tragic.

Overall then I loved the direction, the staging though problematic for me, I could see motivations for, and the updating worked. I had some issues with pacing. The first act rockets by and this works quite well, feeling like these characters are sort of crashing into each other and the world being turned on its head a bit. In the second half I could have done with a bit of slowing down a lot earlier. Things grind to a devastating halt in the final scene where the moments are finally given space to breathe and to great affect. Before that there are scenes I wanted to slow down, to allow the characters and the audience to catch up a bit. Lord knows nobody wants to make this play any longer but there is something to be said about taking your time in some scenes- 'moments' as one of my favourite acting teachers was fond of. And though there are substantial moments that make you pause as an audience and catch your breath at times the careering pace felt a bit much to allow audience and characters to really be present. That said, when it does stop it's devastatingly effective.

As costume is one of my personal obsessions and bugbears simultaneously, I couldn't let this production go by without mentioning costumes. Costume is obviously a big part of Blanche's character and much is made of her outfits in the text. This production I felt got this pitch perfect. From her neat suit at the start echoed in the final scene, to her outlandish dresses. The moment she changes into a Southern Belle-esque ballgown is a brilliant piece of costuming that gets a laugh but is also heartbreaking. Even her 'exotic' coloured dressing gown is pitch perfect. My favourite clothing elements were however the shoes. Not just because, well they are a mighty fine collection of shoes. Constantly Blanche is in huge heels, like Dolly Parton is rumoured to, she steps from bed or bath directly into fabulous heels. Practically this of course helps the tiny Gillian Anderson gain a few inches, but in terms of character I thought this was a wonderful touch. Blanche is so obsessed with appearances, of being put together and right, that having her never take off those heels unless she was unseen behind the shower curtain-the only time she is un-heeled, was to me a marvelous touch to the character. If I'd taken notes I'm sure I could have read something into each shoe choice-certainly the sparkly shoes are saved for dramatic purpose. But the outfits for Blanche were so meticulously constructed, including and especially the shoes, they might just be my favourite part of this production.

Overall it's the performances that make this play. Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby make a strong Kowalski duo. Stella in this production is as strong and important a character as Blanche, Kirby not overshadowed by Gillian Anderson's Blanche. In fact Kirby's performance is that strong, that engaging I found myself wanting more of Stella than Williams' play gives us. Of course the evening belongs to Gillian Anderson. As much as I can be objective about the production, I find it difficult to be objective about her in most instances. However, I don't think I need to be in this particular instance. Her Blanche is nuanced and despite her exaggerated character feels very real. She's so very controlled in the role, bringing a slick, quite barbed but quick-witted Blanche to life in the first part of the play. When her cracks begin to show although the character unravels Anderson is an actress in complete control of the nuances of the character. I saw things in Blanche I'd never considered across the performance and there's an emotional centre to it from the moment she steps on stage. When she breaks down a little to Mitch there is a sense of what is further to come at the end of the play but she knows how to measure it out, to return a little to the earlier character before the final scenes. When the play finally reaches its climax it is truly devastating.  If you don't know the play, through the realisation of what has been happening in the final scene. When the famous line is delivered it has stopped being the line we all know, and becomes about this Blanche in this moment. And if nothing else that's when you know a revival has worked, when those famous lines take on their own life again. And if that fails to move, Anderson's slow final walk around the set, looking into the eyes of audience members as a broken lost Blanche is truly a devastating end to an emotional production.

On a personal note, seeing Gillian Anderson on stage again was a magical experience. I've said above that I find it hard to be objective, and I think I've been fair in my review here, my thoughts echoed by the press and other audience members. There are very few actors I love I'm quite so enamored with though, I suppose 20 years of fangirling will do that to someone. What I do realise is that I am still hopelessly in love with her as an actress (and a person) and I'm kind of ok with that. I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my Birthday.