Hiding in the pub to cutting the umbilical cord? By Laura King
What did it mean to be a father in 20th-century Britain? Since autumn 2011, I have been collaborating with Babakas, a Birmingham-based theatre company, on this fatherhood theme. Together we developed an innovative and interactive performance entitled Our Fathers. The piece is about creating “an unforgiving tribute to dads everywhere”.
As an historian of fatherhood in modern Britain, I was delighted to work alongside a theatre company that wanted to make a daring leap across time and space. Working in partnership, we have been able to share our research interests and enhance their creative outreach. Funded under a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award held by historians at the University of Warwick, my postdoctoral fellowship gave me valuable time to work with Babakas as part of a wider public engagement project on fatherhood in the past and present.
My scholarly research examines fathers’ roles, relationships and identities throughout the 20th century. One important emerging theme is the stereotyping and minimising of fathers’ involvement with their children in the recent past. Thus key aims of my project are: to reveal the myriad ways in which fathers have, historically, engaged with their children for better or worse; to facilitate discussion of fatherhood practices across different cultures across time and space; and to encourage individuals to reflect on the ways in which their stories, as parents or children, fit in with wider patterns of change and continuity across generations. Working with Babakas as they turned their original ten-minute piece into a full-length show was one innovative way of realising these research goals.
In one of the most poignant moments in Our Fathers, a character called Mike (pictured) realises that the large-scale video projection of his late father at the back of the stage is being captured on his white T-shirt. Moving closer to the projector, he provides a screen for his father’s now small figure on his chest. This symbolic treatment of how our pasts – and our fathers – are inextricably part of us is all the more moving in the context of Mike’s unwillingness for a long time to accept his father’s early death.
The power of this very visual moment is difficult to capture in words, but it demonstrates tangibly the potential offered by a historical collaboration with the arts. As an historian of family life, I can assess history’s impact at individual and collective levels, but creative artists can transmit that impact to diverse audiences, interweaving it with the individual stories which together constitute history.
After two performances of this piece in June 2012 at the Warwick Arts Centre, I chaired panel discussions which explored fatherhood and family life and the importance of personal histories. Witnessing Babakas’s emotional performance led the audience to engage with our academic discussions in more meaningful and interesting ways. The company, too, benefited and adopted this model for their 2013 national tour. They took Our Fathers to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2013. Time Out gave it a four-star rating: “the beauty of this charming piece lies in demonstrating on stage a little of the frustration, love and confusion wound up in having, wanting, or wanting to be, a father”.
A poetry initiative developed in collaboration with local poet Matt Nunn and publisher Nine Arches Press was a notable success. Together, we ran two creative writing workshops in which men were invited to explore and write about their experiences of becoming fathers. Their poems were published and publicly read at the Coventry Mysteries festival. Here, too, an interactive, collaborative approach to public engagement encouraged the men involved to connect with their own histories in new ways, and generated new insights for me as a researcher to understand how individuals relate to history on personal and collective levels.
By engaging with colleagues from the creative industries, historians can facilitate the telling of individual stories and learn more about how people navigate the cultural context in which they live. By interacting with members of the public – in my case, exactly the historical subjects I research – we can open up the process of history writing. These collaborations had important ramifications for my own research and the way I approach themes within it. Moreover, engaging beyond academia can help us improve our published work and become more reflective scholars. As an example, these experiences of arts-engaged research informed an additional outcome of my postdoctoral project, a policy paper challenging the assumption that all men did not engage with their children in the recent past. I was then thrilled to read the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic describe how we had together produced “a deft, emotive meditation on fatherhood – our relationships with our own fathers, and what it means to be a father oneself – from a young, international company with both talent and great ideas”.
Today, public engagement and achieving impact are important parts of what universities do. For all its uncertainties, this is largely a positive development for academics. My own project was not about dissemination, it was about interaction. My project events and activities created space for people to re-examine their ideas and identities. It may be hard to evaluate in a climate where every impact must be quantifiable, but this is powerful stuff. If we can ensure that the ‘impact agenda’ enables innovative collaborations, benefitting researchers, non-academic partners and the public alike, this will be an exciting time to be working in academic life.
Dr Laura King is now working at the University of Leeds, as part of a project called Arts Engaged. She continues to research and publish on the history of fatherhood in modern Britain. Work from her Warwick project (with film of the theatre and poetry events) and her policy paper are online, as is Babakas. Follow Laura on Twitter at @DrLauraKing or email her (email@example.com).