If you were one of the many wonderful amateur theatre-makers who attended our event, ‘Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research’ held at Royal Holloway on the 17th September, you may have noticed a small exhibition scattered around the event space. The exhibition was put together by myself (Cara Gray) and Sarah Penny, both PhD students on the project. We decided that we wanted to show our project’s collective research in a different way, through the vibrant material that we had collected over the years of researching amateur theatre. Before the event, Sarah and I set to work busily collecting photographs, books, videos and programmes from the rest of the team, whilst sifting through our own material. We chose the themes, ‘Heritage’, ‘Archive’, ‘Creative Spaces’, ‘Place-making’ and ‘Amateur-Professional Collaboration’ to frame each space.
Jeni's Desk was a way of demonstrating the theme of the ‘Creative Spaces’ of the amateur theatre-maker and was actually inspired by the real life work desk of costumer, Jennifer Gosling. I met Jeni through my research with the Settlement Players of Letchworth Garden City, of which she is a member. Jeni's Desk was based on a photograph that Jeni had sent me a couple of years ago after I had asked her in an email: ‘where do you make and alter costumes?’. She explained to me that in the weeks leading up to a performance, she carries out most of her costuming work at home, ‘only the bedroom and bathroom are safe, apart from them, a production can take over my whole house’. This is due to the lack of suitable space or equipment to work with at the Settlement. Jeni attached a photograph showing a desk (set up in her back bedroom) covered with ring bound notebooks, loose papers, piled up reference books, academic journals and folders and files bursting full of documents. Marking the desk as a space of academic work - a space of thinking, reading and writing (Jeni is a lecturer and researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). However, nestled in amongst the tools of an academic sat a sewing machine and peddle, she explained:
On my desk I have my mother's old sewing machine...not quite a treadle machine, but a pretty old vintage! And I've found that it's much more useful to have it out permanently, rather than keep taking it out of its bag when I need it, so that sits permanently on my desk upstairs. I pull it forward when I need it and push it to the back when I do my academic work… I like it, it's a reminder that there is more to me than research and teaching, like colour and ribbon and fabric! And potential. I think I'm a frustrated dressmaker and the costumes give me an outlet for that. I usually have various projects on the go in between productions.
I wanted Jeni's Desk to illustrate the temporal qualities of the amateur theatre-makers’ workspace. Often crafted out of necessity in amongst the everyday, domestic spaces of the home. For Jeni, in the moments when her work desk temporarily transforms into a creative workspace - through the tools and the processes of her craft - she is allowed to perform her identity as a costumer, a Settlement Player and an amateur theatre-maker.
It was so great to have Jeni there on the day to see Jeni's Desk (though she pointed out that it was much too tidy to be hers). It was also so lovely to hear from other amateur theatre-makers, who attended the ‘Stories from objects, places and theatres’ workshop, talk about their own creative spaces (but another blog post on that will be up soon).
If you've read this post and you have any thoughts or reflections that you want to share - please do get in touch.