Melly Still – From YSJ to the RSC

By George Alexander Moss
@MossRamblings95

In a riveting discussion mediated by York St. John Senior Lecturer in Drama David Richmond, famed artist Melly Still discussed topics from her time at York St John, to her directorial efforts in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, currently playing at the Barbican Theatre, London.

Melly Still is a director, choreographer and designer. She has been nominated for four Olivier awards and six Tony awards, including best director for both. In a career going from strength to strength, Still has developed productions with The National Theatre, Blind Wall Festival Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her work has been recognized on an international scale, influencing theatrical circles in Europe, America, and Asia. Needless to say, Still ranks among York St John’s top alumna.

Still’s rationale for choosing to study at York St John University in the 1980s was that, “at the time, it was the only place in the UK that I could find that did theatre, fine art and dance – all three.” Retrospectively, this education route seems like an exhausting shocker. After all, it is not uncommon to find single honours undergraduates in the library engaging in various activities; working, reading, sleeping, crying. It would certainly be remarkable if Still aced three subjects at once, but as is true for many undergraduates, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Still highlighted many obstacles that came her way during her time at University. She openly admitted that, “I think I displayed lack of confidence by just not giving a damn at the time”, which for the theatrical arts obviously will not fly. In a subject that relies so heavily upon inspiration and creativity, a stunted student will find it difficult to reap the rewards of study and practice. Coupled with a lack of confidence is untapped potential, and that is something Still evidently had much of. Eventually this potential was unleashed, and Still “started to click with some of the work we were doing […] I really loved it at after that, second, third and fourth years. I don’t think I missed anything. Plus I was making work and putting on shows at every opportunity that wasn’t part of the curricular [activities].” It is often said that University is a time to broaden ones prospects, to participate in as much as possible whilst also, creating our own opportunities. Between the endless hours of Netflix and noise, a sense of maturity is eventually unearthed in the first year, and propels each and every student into the productive years that follow. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves at 3am whilst devouring another episode of Luke Cage.

Nevertheless, Still began harnessing her talent through the three headed beast of a course. She described it as “really fascinating work – I remember a lot of the tutors. There was this kind of, strangely enough at the time, everything was very, very compartmentalized. At the time, theatre practice was theatre practice, art was art, and there was never a between, they would never meet ever. There was a lack of cooperation between departments at the time. Which seemed nuts to a lot of the students.” Of course, this has been clearly rectified now, with York St John University breathing as a whole by sharing trips, societies and a great many lectures. However, where the artist is confined it could only ever lead to rebellion. Still reflects that it: “Seemed mad we weren’t being able to do mad things on rooftops, and things like that. It was quite conservative, but it helped, because it meant we could sort of push against it. It’s quite easy to shock people here, which some how I found quite incentivising at the time.” Creativity is at its most vibrant when demolishing boundaries and offering new perspectives on a great many things, changing thoughts and feelings for the better. Of course, clambering onto somebody’s roof is also a stellar method of inciting change: hopefully we can expect someone to be on the roof of The White House one day soon.

Still’s continuing hard work eventually led her to where she is today, directing rarely performed Shakespearean juggernaut Cymbeline. Whilst she contemplates that “the tutors encouraged us to be quite experimental at the time”, she later stated that her artistic nuance came: “very late in my career, finding my voice. But I certainly felt I really want to work in a narratively driven, choreographic work”. In the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline, that voice is on a speaker phone. The play’s pitch is hauntingly that “Britain is in crisis. Alienated, insular and on the brink of disaster. Can it be saved?” Reflecting a vast array of contemporary catastrophes (looking at you brexit), the play has arrived at a time in Earth’s history that is more poignant than ever. This is the crux of what Still is trying to communicate, stating that Cymbeline is “completely about isolationism. England was still struggling with its identity, do we become part of a bigger statehood? Lets reach out to our neighbours. They’re not my words, they’re Shakespeare’s. You can’t help but reach out to those parallels.” It is disheartening to consider whether Britain has come a long enough way in 400 years. Now of course, it is not merely England struggling with a contested identity; America, Germany and a great many other places are facing this question too. It is on this that makes Cymbeline truly vital and Shakespeare a timeless writer.

Ultimately, whether shaking things up at York St John or on a global stage, it is unquestionable that Melly Still makes our world immeasurably bigger.

 

Graham Rawle – Unconventional Appearences

By George Alexander Moss
@MossRamblings95

Excitement once again swept through York St John University, as famed author, artist, designer and illustrator Graham Rawle stopped by to deliver an enthralling lecture.

Rawle opened up the talk by confessing that his “background is as an illustrator and designer” and that he “doesn’t have a literary background.” This does not at all infringe on his capability as a writer, however. He has developed regular series for major broadsheets: The Observer, The Times and The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. For The Guardian he concocted the famed ‘Lost Consonants’, collections of panel artistry that depict comedic outcomes when a sentence loses a crucial consonant. Beyond this, Rawle has written several well received novels, such as The Card, Lying Doggo, The Wonder Book of Fun and the core text of his talk: Woman’s World. In addition to all of this, he is a tutor for the University of Brighton’s MA in Arts and Design by Independent Project, and seems to be admirably living several lives simultaneously.

Grahamrawle - collage artwork
 Previously published in The Guardian, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Rawle’s talk focused first on story structure. He explained that a story can be found anywhere so long as it accords with specific sets of rules, giving varied examples such as, “comedians, how they construct a joke, how they can construct a whole act around a joke or series of jokes. I might be looking at exhibition design, and how you navigate a crowd through a space. How to make that feel like a journey, feel like a story. Or the beginning and middle and end of a magic act […]

For Rawle, behind every solid story is strong structure. His claim is that all of these examples, “have a strong three act structure to them […] This patterned three act structure is detectable in lots of areas”.  The basic sequence of the Three Act Structure (exposition, climax, and resolution) determines “How people orchestrate things like a firework display […] It’s the sequence in the way you put these things that deliver the most effective show you can”.

 

“I write fiction, but the books I write have a visual element to them that hopes to carry an additional narrative layer”

 

Rawle suggested that he approached storytelling as someone with a design background, explaining that designers study the fundamentals of something, respecting existing approaches, and then afterward craft something new. This mindset can be seen in his 2005 novel Woman’s World, in which Rawle to put his own spin on the literary. Spelling out his aims in writing such novels he stated, “I write fiction, but the books I write have a visual element to them that hopes to carry an additional narrative layer”. In keeping with the theme of ‘stories to be found everywhere’, Rawle crafted the critically acclaimed Woman’s World (2005), as a bombastic collage novel. Constructed solely by reassembling text snippets from 1960’s women magazines, the novel has been appropriately described by The Times as, “a work of genius […] the most wildly original novel produced in this country in the past decade”.

The unconventional collage construction of Woman’s World complements the journey of its protagonist, cross-dressing man Norma Fontaine. The women’s magazines of the 1960’s translated the ‘woman’s world’ to him, informing Norma how he can best become a woman. Using the collage, Rawle aimed to convey a sense of desperation: “The desperation was about becoming this ‘ideal woman’ […] the idea of a cross-dressing man in 1962, trying to be a woman, to learn how to be a woman, with only his mother who he can’t ask and not being able to go out anywhere, you look back at the magazines through that viewpoint, and it tells you everything you need to do”. The magazines offered a unique window into gender performance, and Woman’s World achieves part of that effect not just through narrative, but through the collage. Powerful and moving, it is a text that transcends time.

The innovation doesn’t stop in his books either. Rawle is taking Woman’s World to film, and stated that “I’m going to collage the whole film, exactly as I collaged the book. So replacing the story with fan clips to try and retell the story of Norma Fontaine.” Of course, the danger with adapting a collage is the danger of not being able to recapture the magic the collage effect had. No matter how well the story itself is adapted, part of the magic comes through the specific mode of imagery. Nonetheless, at the prospect of a film, movie stars came sniffing, such as Tom Hardy and James Franco. Though the two are no longer involved, one thing is clear: that Woman’s World is as adaptable as any of Graham Rawle’s many talents.

The unconventional appearance of Woman’s World, whether on page or screen, is a step toward true originality. To piece together a story through another’s words, to read what the characters themselves could have read, or to even hold a book similar to what the character could have owned, is an enchanting feeling. Ultimately, Graham Rawle pondered that, “the design of a book has been around for such a long time […] It is really interesting that nobody said to Mary Shelley then ‘what do you think a books going to look like in 200 years?’ It’s unlikely she would have said, ‘I expect it will look exactly the same’. It’s really odd!”

In retrospect, we should have asked Mr. Rawle the very same thing.

 

A Question of Conscience: York Big City Read 2016 Lecture

By Nicoletta Peddis

@MissNicolettaP

 

Dr Alexandra Medcalfe, “Archives and Memory: Conscientious Objection in York during World War One”. York Explore Library, 18 October 2016

This year’s York Big City Read is Pat Barker’s best seller Regeneration. 2016 is an important year in terms of the centenary of the First World War and Regeneration has been chosen as a book that explores the impact of war on ordinary people’s lives.

On Tuesday 18 October, Dr. Alexandra Medcalfe from the Borthwick Institute gave a fascinating lecture at York Explore Library. Dr Alexandra Medcalfe specializes in history of York during the 19th century with a focus on history of mental health. On Tuesday, her lecture used a variety of yellowed archival sources to guide the audience through a discussion of conscientious objection during WWI.

The documents examined showed how in York, a military city with a strong religious identity and a politically active community, a wide debate on conscientious objection was raised as soon as war was declared against Germany. Many of the documents examined related to the figure of Arnold Rowntree, who as a Quaker and Liberal MP for the city championed the cause of the city’s conscientious objectors, young men who refused to take up arms. Dr Medcalfe also introduced newspapers articles and letters to newspapers to demonstrate how the issue of conscientious objection aroused strong and contrasting feelings across the city. One newspaper article from the Yorkshire Herald refers to a Quaker meeting as a hotbed of ‘shirkers and slackers’.

Conscientious objectorsPicture: a CO rally during WWI

 

 

The criticism on newspaper also targeted Mr Rowntree accusing him of not representing his constituency and of being anti-patriotic. As with many other objectors, Arnold Rowntree simply believed that fighting was wrong. He suggested ideas that could provide opportunities for unarmed service because although they did not want to fight, many were willing to do something to show their support. So the Government set up the Non-Combatant Corps to accommodate those whose consciences forbade them from bearing arms, and Arnold was instrumental in forming the Friends Ambulance Unit, a volunteer group to ferry casualties from the front line.

 

FA Unit Western FrontPicture: a Friends Ambulance Unit in action on the Western Front.

The lecture was interesting, and especially lively in discussing contemporary feelings about conscientious objection. For the young men who objected during World War One the experience was difficult and traumatic and, while today conscientious objection is often viewed with more understanding and sympathy, public opinion remains divided. Recruitment techniques and nationalist narratives like those adopted in 1914 are still at use today.

York Big City Read events will take place during all October and November and a full list of upcoming events can be found here: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/introducing-the-big-city-read-programme/. For anyone who is interested in finding out more about conscientious objection in York, on 5 December Clements Hall History Group will host a workshop exploring the impact of WWI conscription at Priory Street Centre in York. More information is available on their website: www.clementshallhistorygroup.wordpress.com.

Visiting speaker: Veronica Barnsley (Sheffield) 16 March

The Literature and Creative Writing programmes’ research series continues with a seminar and lecture by Dr Veronica Barnsley from the University of Sheffield, who will be discussing the status of disaster studies and the concept of the Bildung in postcolonial criticism.

This includes a lecture at 15:30 in De Grey 124, entitled

Chasing the Postcolonial Child: Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People

animal_statue05

Image: Animal by Eleanor Stride http://www.indrasinha.com/books-2/animals-people/animal-by-eleanor-stride/

Undergraduates and postgraduates are particularly welcome to attend. For more information, please contact a.beaumont@yorksj.ac.uk.