Discussing the projects. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley

Performing Commemorations Project: Dramatic Responses to the Legacies of the First World War

On 10 February, Kurt Taroff and Michelle Young from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded “Living Legacies 1914-18” engagement centre, led a full-day workshop in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University Belfast.

The event brought together representatives from community groups from all over the UK to explore how the groups could involve their members and their broader communities in research on the First World War and disseminate this research through performance. The community participants were:

  • Thomas Hopkins from Central Youth Theatre (Wolverhampton)
  • Maureen Ross from the Seaboard Centre (Balintore, Scotland)
  • Shomari Walingamina and Bernard Ntivunwa from Carelink West Midlands
  • Dr Sheree Mack from Beyond the Western Front, Newcastle, GB
  • Nikki Hening from Diseworth Heritage Trust
  • Gertie Whitfied from Whitworks Adventures in Theatre, Sheffield
  • Patricia Connolly from Tonagh Women’s Group, Northern Ireland

The event forms part of the ‘Performing Commemorations’ project, linking three of the WW1 Public engagement centres. We began the day with introductions and the debut of a 20-minute video recapping the crowning achievement of the Medals All Round Research Initiative (MARRI) project, a Living Legacies funded project from 2016. The video captured highlights from an event at the Lyric Theatre Belfast in February 2016 in which each of six groups that MARRI worked with presented their work in the form of performance or film, with each of the groups in attendance sharing their work with each other and with the public for the first time. In addition, the video captured MARRI researchers return to the groups after the event to gather their feelings about their participation in the event and in the project in general. The video is an outstanding advertisement for the type of work MARRI and Living Legacies have achieved, and the type of work we’re hoping might come out of the workshop and our interaction with the groups gathered for the day.

A demonstration of how in-depth research on individual stories from the war could be a catalyst for these types of projects followed the video-screening. Here, local drama facilitators, Chris Grant and Mary McGurk, each playing multiple roles, portrayed the story of Robert McConnell, a Belfast local who attended Campbell College. This story arose from a project called ‘The Men Behind the Glass’, funded by HLF (https://menbehindtheglass.co.uk/our-story), which involves researchers from Living Legacies.

From the ‘Men Behind the Glass’ project a story unfolds, starting in February 1912 when McConnell received his Commission and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant to the 10th Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment in February 1915. He survived the Gallipoli campaign, serving at Sulva Bay until the evacuation. He was then sent to Basra and was attached to the Indian Expeditionary Force for the relief of General Townshend when he was known to have been wounded on the 5th April 1916. McConnell would later be reported as killed in action on 9th April 1916 during the attack on Sanna-i-yat. He is commemorated on the Basra Memorial, Iraq. Chris and Mary performed scenes from Robert’s life, beginning with his life at Campbell (drawing out the similarities with the students’ lives today), continuing through his military experiences, through the arrival of the telegram informing his mother of his death overseas.

Figure 1 Chris Grant and Mary McGurk perform scenes from the life of Robert McConnell. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley
Figure 1 Chris Grant and Mary McGurk perform scenes from the life of Robert McConnell. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley
Figure 2 Chris Grant and Mary McGurk perform scenes from the life of Robert McConnell
Figure 2 Chris Grant and Mary McGurk perform scenes from the life of Robert McConnell. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley

Feeling inspired by the performance, the participants were asked to join themselves, as Michelle lead the group in several ‘image theatre’ exercises, where Michelle would speak a phrase and each participant, when they felt ready, would come onto the stage and pose in a position they felt appropriate. These were ‘War, the maker of heroes’ (Figure 3), followed by ‘War, the taker of lives’ (Figure 4), and finally, ‘In the Trenches’ (Figure 5). These exercises gave participants the opportunity to enter the subjectivity of the soldiers and their families. For the first two exercises, participants were asked to do nothing but take a position and hold it (and for those who came later, to consider the overall picture their addition would create, while for the last ‘In the Trenches’, everyone was asked to speak a single line that captured their characters thoughts at the moment they were capturing. From this small exercise, it was already apparent how a more complex and interactive scene could be built around such moments.

After lunch, in the day’s final participatory exercise, facilitators separated the participants into two groups, each of which was given a box filled with photographs and objects related to the life of a soldier, after which each group produced a short scene based on their interpretation of the material in the boxes.

Discussing the projects via a soldiers memorabilia box. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley
Discussing the projects via a soldiers memorabilia box. Photo courtesy of Keith Lilley

In the day’s final activity, we gathered around a table and each participant described the project that they were hoping to take forward toward a potential HLF bid. In our conversations around an impressive range of ideas and projects, the different groups were able to join the organisers in helping each group to work through possibilities and ways the projects might be more likely to succeed with the HLF and ways we might be able to stay in touch and work together in the future.

The workshop shows how powerful creative practice and dramatic performance is in engaging community groups in exploring stories from a century ago, going ‘beyond the trenches’ in ways that deepen the significance of the war through connecting communities. The workshop provides a model for community-led drama and the potential that exists in combining HLF and AHRC-funded projects to mutual benefit and gain. The day was a great success, as some of the feedback from participants clearly shows:

I have spent a reflective morning creating ideas for the future. Just need to inform my current husband! 

Very good sessions and great atmosphere

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