Our research collaboration with the RSC

The collaboration has brought academic criticism and scholarship together with creative experiment, and opened up fresh possibilities for both theatre-making and academic research.

Royal Shakespeare Company performance

Research is at the heart of our collaboration with Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).  Each year, students and academic staff join RSC artists in creative and critical discourse. Ever since the collaboration launched in 2016, it has provided artists and scholars with a platform to work together in experiments that aim to benefit the theatre, the University and society at large.

Examples of collaborative research projects include:

Birnam Oak

Toria Johnson at the Shakespeare Institute

At more than 500 years old, the Birnam Oak is the oldest living tree of the Birnam Wood that appears at the climax of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – and the focal point of Dr Toria Johnson’s ambitious, IAA-funded research that began in November 2023.

Working with the Dunkeld Community Archive and Chapter House Museum, Birnam Arts and a range of community partners in Perthshire, Dr Johnson is working to co-create a dedicated Macbeth and Birnam Oak heritage trail in Dunkeld and Birnam, along the banks of the River Tay. In May 2024, she’ll return to Birnam with theatre and education practitioners to run workshops at the Living History Festival.

As part of the project, Dr Johnson has also secured funding to cultivate seedlings from the acorns of the Birnam Oak, which she then plans to give to arts, environmental, educational and community groups across the UK to plant, ensuring the future legacy of the famous tree through a new, 21st-century movement of the Birnam Wood. She has been interviewed about the project on BBC Radio Scotland, and will be at the Birnam Book Festival in October 2024 to deliver a public lecture: The Tayside Shakespeare: Uncovering Macbeth’s Scotland.

“In research terms I’m interested in the Birnam Oak as a cultural symbol that has captured the imagination of local and global communities alike. This site really invites us to consider how, through the country’s extensive network of Macbeth sites, Shakespeare might be seen to have a role in shaping Scotland’s national identity,” says Dr Johnson. “But the seedlings project has turned me into a self-confessed tree obsessive! Given the recent felling of the iconic tree at Sycamore Gap, there’s never been a more pressing time to confront the precarity – and centrality – of trees in our culture and identity.”

Signing Shakespeare

Signing Shakespeare is a project designed to support deaf young people in their study and enjoyment of Shakespeare. There are around 52,000 deaf children in the UK, many of whom are disadvantaged in the classroom. 

Recent figures produced by the National Deaf Children’s Society show that British deaf students achieve, on average, a grade lower than their hearing peers at GCSE level. Attainment gaps in English and Maths are particularly stark with around 37.7% of deaf children achieving a grade 5 in both subjects compared with 51.9% of all children.

Shakespeare is a compulsory element of the National Curriculum in England, yet many deaf young people struggle to access his work. There are very few resources available to help teachers to support their deaf students. As a result, some deaf students are excluded from the Shakespeare classroom, and hence from the study of GCSE English.

This project, developed by University of Birmingham academics with the RSC, aims to tackle this problem by:

  • Increasing deaf awareness and appreciation of how sign language can bring new ideas and interpretations to working with Shakespeare for all
  • Offering role models for deaf young people
  • Creating enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s text
  • Developing pro-social, collaborative skills
  • Supporting social and emotional development
  • Building understanding of literary terms including iambic pentameter, antithesis, soliloquy

Since it began in 2000, Signing Shakespeare has evolved into a programme of active, rehearsal room-based resources for the study of Shakespeare’s plays, supported by image-rich presentations. So far, we have completed a scheme of work for Macbeth, which is the most widely taught of Shakespeare’s plays.

All the resources are built around a series of films – key scenes from the play – performed by deaf actors in British Sign Language (BSL), Sign Supported English, and sometimes Visual Vernacular. The films add clarity to vital moments of the plot and inspire students to perform their own versions. With a generous donation from the Billy Rose Foundation in New York, we made the films for Macbeth in American Sign Language – making them accessible to the estimated 308,648 deaf or hard-of-hearing children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the US.

We trialled these resources in schools for the deaf and with teachers in a range of educational settings, and the response has been extremely positive. At Braidwood Trust School for the Deaf, the Head of English said: “Pupils were all highly engaged. I was amazed with how much they remembered of the story.” Another teacher, working at a deaf unit in a London school, described the resources as “absolutely vital”, adding that they could make a real difference to his students’ educational experience.

Having worked on Macbeth, we now hope to continue our work to produce resources for the other most frequently studied Shakespeare plays – Romeo and JulietA Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Indeed, work is already well underway to create similar resources for the latter in collaboration with the Birmingham Rep, where a special BSL performance of The Tempest will be performed in the summer of 2024.

With the introduction of the BSL Act of 2022, British Sign Language has been recognised by law as a language of the UK and the government has committed to its promotion and facilitation. Our hope is, that, as a compulsory element of the UK education syllabus, Shakespeare will become fully accessible to users of BSL and other sign languages.

PhD research project: New Work at the RSC

Mary Davis was awarded the RSC/UoB The Other Place PhD Scholarship and pursued her research on new work at the RSC

The Other Place student perspective: Mary Davies

Her title was ‘What are the Royal Shakespeare Company’s intentions in developing new work, and how does their collaboration with the University of Birmingham contribute to their aims for radical innovation?’ and was jointly supervised between members of the University of Birmingham and the RSC.

Her project explored the intentions behind the collaboration between the RSC and the University in developing new work. The project considered the objectives for creating radical work that provoke new theatre makers and what it meant to be ‘radical’ in terms of developing new work today. She highlighted the relationship between research and artistic practice in order to develop new work, and demonstrated how the reciprocity of this relationship between academia and contemporary practice is mutually beneficial to creative staff at the RSC and to students and academics at the University.

Mary has made a creative contribution to the collaboration in terms of developing and advancing its intellectual agenda and bringing it to wider attention in diverse academic and artistic communities. She has benefited from close involvement in the cross-institutional research culture involving the RSC, the University of Birmingham and its Shakespeare Institute.

PhD research project: Cutting Shakespeare

Juliano Zaffino was awarded an M3C Collaborative Doctoral Award in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’.

Juliano ZaffinoDue for submission in 2024, Juliano’s thesis examines the RSC’s promptbooks from 1961 to 2021 held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, looking for patterns and trends in how and why different plays by Shakespeare were cut for performance. He found many changes were made to accommodate the sensibilities and needs of modern audiences, from the removal of obscure or even offensive language to the shortening of running times to some of the longer plays.

“Many cuts to Shakespeare’s comedies, for instance, are made to make them funnier, yet less problematic,” says Juliano. “I also noticed directors are very aware of how long some of the plays actually are if they're left uncut – and no one wants a four-hour Hamlet!”

Our partnership with the RSC has provided Juliano numerous opportunities, in addition to the access to archives and co-supervision by a member of the RSC’s Education team. He was also supported by the RSC in convening workshops with RSC associates and conducting first-hand interviews with directors, including former Artistic Director of the RSC, Gregory Doran.

“The collaborative nature of my project has been very enriching and has added a livelier dimension to my research, which really helps when writing about live performance,” says Juliano. “I hope my thesis will invigorate interest in an under-explored area of Shakespearean study, and may also lead directors at the RSC – and beyond! – to rethink the way they approach the cutting process.”

PhD research project: The influence of The Other Place

Rachel Heyburn began working on her thesis part-time in 2022, juggling her academic work with her professional job as an Associate Director on successful plays, such as Fatal Attraction and most recently The Full Monty UK Tour.

Rachel HeyburnTitled ‘How Has the RSC's The Other Place Influenced Emerging Director's From 1974 - 2009?’, Rachel’s research begins with the theatre’s first female artistic director, the legendary Buzz Goodbody.

“Through a variety of opportunities and support, The Other Place had a pivotal role in the development of emerging directors,” says Rachel. “It has developed some of our greatest theatre directors and the influence of The Other Place can be seen throughout their careers.”

As well as giving access to the RSC’s extensive archives, our partnership with the RSC has also helped Rachel secure several interviews with current and prominent directors, such as Ken Daniels, Lucy Bailey and Bill Alexander.

“My thesis aims to not only accurately identify how notable current directors have been developed and how their work has been shaped by The Other Place, but to use this information to recognise gaps in the creative development process during this period,” says Rachel. “This research could result in developing further positive working practices in which future emerging theatre directors can thrive.”

Rachel adds that the Shakespeare Institute has also given her “incredible support, guidance, and unparalleled knowledge about the history of the RSC, fantastic supervisors, and resources.”

Radical Mischief conference

On 20 and 21 July 2018, the University of Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) co-hosted an international conference, ‘Radical Mischief: A Conference Inviting Experiment in Theatre, Thought and Politics’.

Radical MischiefThe rationale for this unique event, attended by over 200 members of the cultural and higher education sectors, was that genuinely innovative theatre and academic debate have the potential to model change, thoughtfulness, and even a new democracy within our wider political culture.

‘Radical Mischief’ invited participants to come together and address the most important issues of our time in inter-disciplinary and sector-crossing conversation, experimenting with the traditional conference form in order to facilitate and maximise conferring. The conference featured no uninterrupted, pre-written papers. Instead, each day, it hosted a provocative plenary conversation between high-profile figures with challenging views.

The conference then curated a series of focused conversations in different formats, led by artists and scholars. The provocations for these conversations broached a range of subjects, which included: race, religion, institutions, art, form, gender, violence, democracy, and difficulty and the public sphere. Each day finished with an Open Space session, in which delegates were able to propose conversation topics of their own. 

Hosted by Erica Whyman (Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Ewan Fernie (Chair, Professor and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute), ‘Radical Mischief’ featured an exciting mix of scholars, artists and journalists, in addition to the keynote speakers: 

  • Professor Jonathan Dollimore (Philosopher and social theorist)
  • Emma Rice (Artistic Director for Wise Children)
  • Professor Dympna Callaghan (William Safire Professor of Modern Letters, Syracuse University)
  • Juliet Gilkes Romero (Journalist and Playwright)
  • Charlotte Josephine (Actor and Playwright)
  • Professor Sir Roger Scruton (Writer and Philosopher).

It also provided the opportunity to showcase the University of Birmingham/RSC collaboration and encourage similar forms of collaboration between academics and artists.

Feedback from attendees:

I feel unbelievably inspired and courageous after that conference - I felt throughout that I already knew everything I was hearing (i.e. the information, the facts), but somehow the space you [Ewan Fernie] and Erica managed to carve out made me feel compelled to digest that information differently and allow it to transform my thinking and my practice (like any great performance art!). It was exactly what was needed here in Stratford, so thanks for all of your hard work!

Thank you for the best conference experience I have yet had. This conference has the potential to truly be radical, to uproot the current status of Shakespeare conferences and to blend the academic with practice in a way which, I believe, both crave, and which will ultimately benefit both fields.

If it’s true that the best conversations at conferences happen in the coffee breaks, then Radical Mischief was one long coffee break. The atmosphere was one of creativity and collegiality. The open space forum was embraced fully and an exciting agenda emerged which, rather unusually, focused on tangible, real-world outcomes.