It is a great time to be a fan of Science Fiction. We’re weeks away from the release of a new Blade Runner movie, Channel 4 are about to debut ‘Electric Dreams’ (a new anthology show adapting the short stories of Philip K. Dick), a brand new iteration of Star Trek is about to drop on Netflix and, of course, next week will see the official launch of York St John University’s very own SF project: ‘Terra Two: An Arc(hive) for Off-World Survival.’
The project officially launches on Friday 29 September in Quad South Hall from 6:00 – 7:30 pm.
I started applying to universities several years after finishing my A Levels, and one of the biggest concerns for my friends and family was that I’d be forking out nine grand a year to be here. If I’d gone straight after college, I’d have paid nine grand for the full three years. For many, the stark contrast in what students pay for their tuition has brought into question what exactly it is we’re paying for. Well, I’ll tell you.
I’m currently wrapping up the second year of my English Literature and Creative Writing course, and one of the modules I’m finishing this semester, Publishing, Production and Performance, is exemplary of the practical skills you can gain from a literature degree. As part of one of the module projects, I’ve spent the last couple of months organising the launch of Beyond the Walls, an anthology of York St John University student writing. The event was a success and completely sold out. Everyone on that module now has a book they can slap on the desk of potential employers, while they proudly say “I helped craft and create that product, and I have the skills to do it again”.
It seems to me that the anxieties surrounding arts degrees are the result of a widespread lack of awareness for the diversity of the creative industries. Using Beyond the Walls as an example, the text would not exist if its production relied solely on the efforts of writers. It needed to be curated, edited and designed, and it needed a showcase event to launch it to the public. The event needed planning; it needed live music, food, booze, projections and lighting. All this was done by creative writing students, and none of it had anything to do with writing; it was done for the sake of the writing.
The English Literature and Creative Writing course, shockingly, is not always about writing, and its student body is not made up of dreamers, hoping to become the next J.K. Rowling. We are members of the literary community, we are merchants of culture, and we understand that the best way to learn how to do something is to do it. My colleagues and I now know how to publish a book because we’ve done it, and we look forward to doing it again. I can tell my family and friends to put their anxieties at ease; creative writing is a commodity, and the industry has never been more exciting than it is in this bewildering modern age.
Finality is defined as the ‘impression of being final and irreversible’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). Within today’s society the significance of the final, and transition from the familiar into a world of change, is particularly poignant. The Brexit vote in June, and the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, has instigated an upsurge of hatred, vitriol and prejudice. From the horrifying increase in terror attacks all over the world, to the harrowing treatment of refugees reported in the media of the past year, some of us may feel the world we live in is becoming somewhat unrecognisable, and regressing into a haunting ideology of truly dangerous values.
Whilst the world we once knew is under the thumb of violence the necessity to resist, and challenge, these ideas has never been so important. As postgraduate literature students, we are finishing our education in a deeply troubling time; therefore, the importance of the arts and humanities is greater than ever to encourage resistance through new dialogues, voices and literatures. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950 William Faulkner spoke of the ‘inexhaustible voice’ of man and ‘the writer’s duty to write’. ‘The poet’s voice’ continues Faulkner, ‘need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail’ (Faulkner, 1950) accentuating the powerful, and vital, nature of the written word. The study of literature permeates our barriers, activates a space in which to question, critique, write back and teaches us to never stop asking questions. Such ability to evoke change can, we hope, interrogate the concept of finality and introduce new dialogues as a response to harmful and prejudicial ideas.
We are holding a one-day conference at York St. John University, on June 6th 2017, entitled The Book Closes: Finality in Contemporary Literature in which we aim to reflect on and respond to a number of issues in current literature surrounding finality, addressing and challenging its irreversible quality. Please send abstracts of 200-300 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday 5th of April. Link to CFP: https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/cfp/2017/01/30/the-book-closes-finality-in-contemporary-literature
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.