All posts by m.reason

Inspiring Stories

On the drama and dance courses at York St John we often talk to our students about impact their work will have politically and socially. How theatre and the arts are a vehicle for social justice. We are consequently always really proud when our amazing students go on and work in areas of social justice.

Here we profile three amazing female students and the impact they have had on making the changes they would like to see in the world around them.

Holly Sloan – My Converge Story

“Converge is a unique, award-winning partnership between York St John University and mental health service providers, offering educational opportunities for people in the local community who access mental health services. I was first welcomed to Converge nearly 4 years ago when I joined the Introduction to Theatre Course as a Student Volunteer.

I still remember how it felt the first time I stepped into that group. I was terrified. Eighteen-year-old me was only a few months into University life, still feeling homesick, and didn’t truly understand what mental health was. Yet there I was, stood in a circle of people more diverse than I’d ever been in before, about to participate in a session on the one thing I did understand; theatre.

Two hours later, I went home feeling totally awestruck. We had shared, laughed, and worked together. Despite our mix in ages and life experiences, our combined love of theatre brought us together and quickly dissolved my nerves. Thursday evenings became my favourite night of the week.

Volunteering with Converge shaped my three years as a student, and I completed my Drama: Education and Community degree with a performance lecture disseminating research around why Converge Students engage with theatre. I adored the co-production in Converge. As a York St John Student, I formed close bonds with the Converge Students I worked with because, in the space, we were equals. We supported and learned from each other.

After I finished my degree, I was successful in applying for the Converge Graduate Intern role, which I began in October 2018. This led to a more permanent role as an Administrator and Volunteers Coordinator. I love how varied my work is, from looking after the social media pages to organising events, being a website contributor, supporting the office coordinator, administrating The Discovery Hub and recruiting York St John Student Volunteers to participate in our courses.

Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to do something that felt meaningful. For me, working for Converge goes beyond that. Every day, I am inspired by my colleagues, by the tutors, and by the students. One year after finishing University, I feel so lucky to be at the beginning of a career I love. For me, this will never be ‘just a job’.”

Lydia Crosland – Sparking New Opportunities

“I completed my Undergraduate degree at York St John in English Literature and History which I absolutely loved. By the third year I was spending more time devising plays, acting in productions and working as a Youth Theatre Assistant at York Theatre Royal. I knew then where my passion was moving forward.

In September 2018 I started a Graduate Internship coordinating Platform: YSJ Spark Community Theatre; a partnership between York St John’s School of Performance and Media Production and Spark:York.

Platform: YSJ Spark Community Theatre is driven by a desire to provide quality theatre and arts that are accessible for all. I’m so proud of the work we’ve been able to develop in collaboration and offer because of the rich resource of talent in the student, staff and graduate community at York St John.

Spark is a vibrant location in the city centre drawing social entrepreneurs and emerging northern artists together. We’ve hosted live performances, soirees, open mic nights, exhibitions and student and community events. All have brought different people and communities together – engaging in creativity for social change.

As a young northern woman, I have been supported and given the confidence by the Drama and Theatre Department to develop and platform my creativity beyond the campus walls, push forward my deep desire for the arts to be accessible for all and to make a contribution to YSJ’s social justice mission. My next step is to start the Applied Theatre Masters at YSJ and continue to be an advocate for socially conscious and politically engaged arts practice for YSJ and the city beyond.”

Jessica Robson – When Creativity Promotes Social Change

“For the past 5 years, I‘ve had the opportunity to work on an innovative YSJU social justice project, the York St John University Prison Partnership Project run by Rachel Conlon in the Drama and Dance department. The Project is a partnership between York St John University, HMP New Hall and HMP Askham Grange; it brings together female prisoners and students, two different communities coming together to inspire creativity and promote social change.

I started my journey as an undergraduate Theatre student on the project in my third year where I formed Through the Gap Theatre Company with four other female theatre students. We co-ran theatre and singing workshops on a weekly basis on the project in prison. This is where I began to shape what my professional theatre practice is today.

As a student, I was intrigued by this world of theatre in prisons – a new and unknown creative territory to me. I was drawn to making work with women as collaborators in prison where they were the experts of their own powerful and hard-hitting stories and we were emerging as experts in theatre-making. Together we united to form two performances, one for a mainstream theatre audience that challenged the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding women in the criminal justice system and a performance where we performed alongside the women we had worked with, where they were granted ‘release on temporary license’ to leave the prison which enabled them to perform on campus to a university audience. This moment was powerful and life-affirming, it solidified the journey I would undertake as a theatre maker and drama facilitator. The ability to enable women to be creative and make discoveries and re-imagine new identities and talents beyond prison release in a creative process together. This felt empowering for both me as a student and for the women.

Upon completing my undergraduate course, I immediately started a master’s in Applied Theatre to enable me to further my work on the York St John University Prison Partnership Project. This created many real-world, professional opportunities for me where I was able to experience on the ground workings of a prison context and work alongside world-leading creative industry professionals. Upon completing my master’s programme I was successful in being appointed to the graduate internship for the project, which led to me being employed as a practitioner.

I am now employed as a drama practitioner by the York St John University Prison Partnership Project where I run weekly drama groups in prison and in the community. Here, I share my theatre skills and learning of the criminal justice system with new YSJU students who come onto the project as part of their work placement on the degree course. It is fantastic to feel that I can now impart my learning and knowledge to other students as they embark on their degrees here at YSJU.

The journey I have undergone with the women, prison and theatre staff has been life changing and opened my mind to wider possibilities which has exceeded the initial expectations I had when I first started as a student at university. I am clear about my career moving forward, excited by the possibilities ahead and social justice will be forevermore at the heart of my theatre-making.”

The Pink Ladies and our Sanitary Streamer!

According to BBC’s tampon tax calculator, being 21 and having started my period at around 12, I have so far spent approximately £387.39 on tampons of which £18.45 is Value Added Tax (VAT). A first glance perhaps this doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you remember that this tax is the result of sanitary products being classed as a ‘luxury’ then it starts to feel very different. As Natasha Preskey writes in the Independent:

The average woman buys, uses and throws away 11,000 tampons during her lifetime. In my local Tesco, a box of 20 regular Tampax costs £3.14. This means that someone earning minimum wage must work approximately 38 full working days to pay for her lifetime’s supply.

Across my own lifetime the BBC calculate estimates I’ll spend £1,510.81 on tampons; £71.94 of which will be taxed as a ‘luxury’.

These were the two big issues The Pink Ladies (myself, along with Jo-Jo Hall, Maisie Hayward, Marcia Sanderson, Rebecca Sheard, Lorna McCullough and Courtney Uddoh Mitchell) wanted to investigate and perhaps even tackle through our arts activist project as part of the second year Politically Engaged Practice module. We wanted to raise awareness of the tax which is placed upon sanitary items because the government have deemed them a luxury. You might be interested to know that helicopters, for example, aren’t taxed in the same way because they, of course, aren’t a luxury and are a daily necessity in people’s lives. In contrast children’s car seats are taxed…

We also wanted to emphasise the fact that whilst the luxury tax on top of the already ridiculous price of tampons was clearly absurd, we were fortunate enough to be able to afford them but know that there are thousands of women who cannot and who have to make choices between feeding their family, paying the rent and purchasing sanitary products. This is what sparked our group into action.

We launched our own arts activist project in the form of a tampon/pad making workshop. We were situated in the student’s union and invited people who passed through to come and have a go at making these sanitary products from cost effective craft items – items which would cost less than a box of tampons. We did this to show that if students could find a way to make a tampon for less than 2p (albeit not entirely safe to use, this was art not science) then why couldn’t the Government try to find a solution too? We also wanted an intriguing project to attract people’s attention and open a conversation about period poverty.

Overall the event felt like a success, with feedback being positive and our bunting full with sanitary products. However it did feel a little odd to just stop once the module had finished: we’d all chosen this project because it was something we felt strongly about, it was more than or bigger than simply something we did for assessment. So we were delighted when we were approached by Anne-Marie Evans (Senior Lecturer in English Literature at YSJ) asking if we would like to restage the event as part of a period poverty workshop in Beyond the Vote – a festival celebrating the centenary of women gaining the vote in 1918.

It was perfect! We’d found with the first event that though we’d had conversations with the students about period poverty and the ridiculousness of the tax, it hadn’t been as in-depth as we’d have hoped. The Beyond the Vote workshop allowed us to do this, as well as show that conversations around periods and the things we use for them didn’t need to be taboo subjects anymore. Every woman should be able to talk about it, and every woman should be entitled to the products they need for it. We had an older lady present at the workshop who was relieved that conversations were finally happening around periods and the prices of sanitary products. Later a male student approached, initially wary about taking part because of the stereotype of women blaming men for their struggles; by the end of the workshop he said he realised we weren’t looking to blame but instead just wanted things to change.

By Anne-Marie Chave

Arts Activism

Political Engaged Practice is a year-long strand within level two of the Drama and Theatre programme, delivered for the first time this academic year. In semester 1 students are introduced to concepts and examples of political art and performance; after Christmas they form groups to work on their own politically engaged action.

‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ Bertolt Brecht.

The module is interested in how art can use aesthetic and dialogical qualities to intervene into political debates, to encourage people to pause and take notice, to make us view the world differently.

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For the module students initiated and carried out activist projects looking at themes such as lad culture on the university campus; body image; nuclear disarmament; homelessness; and equality of educational opportunities. Their projects included offering free cakes in the main university reception area; drawing people’s nuclear shadows; posing as mannequins in shop windows.

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Students prompted their projects through social media, with the Be Your Own Mannequin project being picked up by Yahoo, who ran a story about project on the news section of their website.

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All the project involved staging interventions in public places, removing both art and politics from specialist or detached environment such as theatre, galleries or parliament and bringing them closer to everyday life. A number of the projects were framed as ‘dialogical’, in that they sought to construct opportunities for conversation about political issues. As one participant commented on the Nuclear Shadows project: ‘I think this piece has started a conversation that needs to be carried on’.

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As one student observed, the module highlighted the particular strengths of theatre at York St John, which include a focus on creativity and a socially engaged ethos:

‘The first thing that springs to mind when thinking about arts activism is being actively involved with something that I care about whilst being as creative as possible, which is pretty much why I’m doing this degree. It is about thinking of ways that we can make a difference by using the strength of a social movement.’

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MA Away Weekend

Students from Masters programmes in Applied Theatre, Music Composition and Theatre & Performance spent the weekend of the 21st and 22nd Sept in the Yorkshire Dales on the 4th MA Away Weekend.

The weekends are a chance for postgraduate students from different disciplines to meet and work together in the barn, field and hillside and away from studio or seminar room. We engaged in long walks, hard thoughts, endless conversation and good food.