Cultural Institute intern Steph Bennett interviews Leeds Creative Labs participant Lou Harvey

“In a second!” enthuses Dr Lou Harvey, after I asked her whether she would recommend participating in Leeds Creative Labs to other academics. Speaking to Lou, Lecturer in Language Education, about her collaboration with theatre company Cap-a-Pie in 2015 highlighted the incredible value of the DARE partnership.

Lou was matched with the organisation through Leeds Creative Labs, an initiative that sparks partnerships between academics and performing arts organisations, leading the way for new ideas and practices. Established by the Cultural Institute, Leeds Creative Labs is an imaginative environment where professionals and researchers can explore without the pressure of producing an output. DARE, the innovative partnership between Opera North and the University of Leeds, acted as a broker to bring on board Newcastle-based participatory theatre company Cap-a-Pie.

Lou was incredibly enthusiastic about the whole process and her vibrant relationship with Cap-a-Pie’s artistic director Brad McCormick and producer Katy Vanden. “It was brilliant because it’s so dynamic, and a lovely working environment. It was exploratory. You didn’t have to make a final product as we do in Higher Education.”

It was creative inquiry at its finest, really welcoming and not imposing.

I asked Lou whether it was difficult to transition from an academic perspective to working with creative professionals. She was quick to respond: “We had a really good working relationship, we communicated well and we all wanted an end goal. Everyone was patient and understanding.”

Lou viewed the experimental collaboration as “a form of research, knowledge through practice”, explaining that the process was almost easy. “The process was fairly quick. We spent a morning trying to drill down into the core themes of my research. There was a willingness to get there. Everyone was engaged and Brad and Katy were very interested in it.”

Based on her doctoral research, the collaborators tapped into her research process to extract themes, concepts and characters. The result was a participatory piece which explores the struggles of the unknown when attempting to communicate in a different country. “It’s a feeling that everyone has experienced at some point or other. The anxiety of not understanding what’s going on is universal. But for those who have little grasp of English like migrants, the stakes are higher and there is a permanency to their uncertainty.”

Much of Lou’s research was working with international students, researching how they adapted to living in a new environment where the culture is completely different from their norm, even though they speak English well. Lou’s findings, particularly the sense of demotivation after people expect to be able to understand and can’t, were crucial to The Translator.  “ “We wanted to give the audience that experience of expecting to know what’s going on, and then realising that actually you don’t understand what’s going on around you. The performance aimed to make people think about how they contribute to communication and how they accommodate people.”

The collaboration produced a performance piece called Up Up and Towards before expanding the production into The Translator after initial successes. “It involved a wider creative team and we hired two actors for it. We incorporated the voices of my research participation and also of the actors, and the audience responded positively to it in the feedback session after the performance had finished. The production wasn’t necessarily comfortable to watch, but it was based on a series of scenarios about different aspects of communication and was deliberately funny or dark to confuse the audience.” The Translator was hosted by Slung Low in Holbeck, south Leeds, and was performed to an audience of 109 over two nights in June 2017.

“It’s taken my research in a whole new direction, it’s opened a vista of potential for where I could go next.”

Based on The Translator’s success, I asked Lou what she, Brad and Katy intended to do next? “We’re hoping to develop this as a piece of research and to tour the production around Yorkshire and the north east. I’ve an article under review for a peer-reviewed journal, which details my work with Cap-a-Pie. The article will be the foundation for applying for further grants.”

I hope that Lou’s funding bids will be successful, and am interested to discover where Lou will take her research, and her incredible experience in the Leeds Creative Labs, next.



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