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Eleanor Chadwick

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Eleanor Chadwick is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the Performing Arts degree programmes at Plymouth Marjon University, and also runs the Sleight of Hand Theatre company.

Eleanor Chadwick lives and breathes for the performing arts – and has an incredible CV to match.

She is a postdoctoral researcher, lecturer and experimental theatre-maker with a background in Shakespearean theatre, having completed an MA in Staging Shakespeare at Exeter University in 2012.

Eleanor previously taught theatre studies at the University of Warwick – where she completed her PhD in 2017 – and has held research fellowships at the University of Bristol and Shanghai Theatre Academy.

She also has a BA (Hons) degree in English from Bristol, and since August 2021 has worked at Plymouth Marjon University as a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the Performing Arts degree programmes.

If that weren’t enough, Eleanor also runs the Sleight of Hand Theatre company, which specialises in multi-sensory and digitally-enhanced theatrical experiences, working across disciplines and with communities local, national, and international.

So, where does she find the inspiration – and time! – to juggle all those creative roles?

“Talking to a range of people,” she says. “I love working on truly co-creative and collaborative processes, involving cross-disciplinary teams from different backgrounds or community groups with interesting stories to tell.

“My work with Sleight of Hand is all about facilitating these kinds of processes where diverse groups of people can get involved with creating brand new work about themes that resonate with them.

“In my teaching at Marjon and elsewhere, I have always endeavoured to promote dialogue with my students whereby they are encouraged to take ownership of their learning and training, getting really stuck in with their artistic processes, becoming confident with making critical enquiries, and growing into truly well-rounded creatives.

“Throughout my PhD research, my core interest was in actor training techniques and approaches, developing practical techniques based on my research ideas and exploring new directions in psychophysical actor-training, based in historically-responsive approaches.

“I looked at things that were a given in early theatre but are seen as a bit experimental now, like archetype and non-linear structures, experiences of liminal and hierophanic (sacred) space in the theatre, participatory/immersive practice, metatheatre and malleable actor/audience relationships.

“In more recent work, I have focused on audiences and their responses to immersive and digitally-enhanced theatre – primarily online experiences in digital space during the pandemic – and how various approaches impact upon community cohesion (see this link for more info about my work in this area, or have a listen to this).

“This also ties in with my practice which often experiments with multi-sensory technologies like binaural sound, haptic tech, and projection mapping.

“All of this then also feeds into my work at Marjon, where I aim to inspire our students to both forge and interrogate connections between research, critical thinking, and their practice, with a focus both on industry and community.”

Alongside her day-to-day responsibilities, Eleanor is currently working on a number of exciting projects.

She explains: “Research-wise, I am currently turning my thesis into a monograph for publication with Routledge. The monograph explores my concept of ‘historically-responsive’ theatre practice and how contemporary experimental theatre links with early forms of communal and ritual theatre.

“I also have an edited collection in the early stages (Performing Medievalism: Tricks, Tips and Tropes from Early Artistic Practice for the Modern-Day Performer), and am working on a research project focused on digital audiences and integrated data-gathering in audience research for immersive and participatory theatre.

“In terms of my work as a practitioner, I am currently leading on a project called Trace of Us, which is an ongoing and evolving response to the work of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. The project brings together an international collective of women artists and began online during the first lockdowns.

“We have some upcoming events in London at the Tate Modern and in Bristol at the Watershed, and have recently launched a piece that combines art, natural materials, text and digital aspects and arrives in the post.”

You can find out more here: www.traceofus.co.uk/about

The Acting and Musical Theatre BA programmes at Marjon attract a lot of students who hail from Plymouth and the surrounding area.

These students train in the performing arts under the auspices of the Actors Wheel company, and often go on to launch and run their own professional and community endeavours in the South West.

Eleanor admits: “Making a difference is at the heart of Marjon University’s values and I aim for the courses I lead on to not only provide degree programmes that prepare young people for entry into the industry, wherever that may take them, but also nurture South West-based talent and promote community connections.

“From contributing to local festivals, to running outreach workshops for schools, to launching entrepreneurial endeavours and their own companies, the students have the chance to really put down and build on local roots and enhance what’s on offer on the Plymouth arts scene.

“Plymouth is a really exciting city to be based in. It has a thriving cultural scene with a variety of venues from (both touring and producing) theatres like Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Barbican, to spaces, galleries, and museums of the future like The Box and KARST.

“Marjon itself has the Quad Theatre which not only hosts our Actors Wheel productions but also various high-profile touring companies, musicians, and comedians. More and more film and TV crews are also being attracted to the city, with Plymouth being dubbed the ‘new Hollywood’ due to its array of amazing locations. I am excited to see what the future holds for this vibrant and diverse city!

“I highly recommend checking out what our students are up to at Marjon!” she adds. “They are all working hard now to prepare for exciting performances at the end of semester.”

It’s been a long journey to get to this point in her career, and Eleanor is quick to acknowledge those who have helped her along the way.

She explains: “While I was doing my Masters (Staging Shakespeare at Exeter University), I directed/produced a couple of immersive and site-responsive Shakespeare festivals for the National Trust’s Buckland Abbey – an historic venue just outside the city of Plymouth.

“Organising these expansive festivals – which attracted large crowds of visitors and took place across several days involving re-enactment, theatrical performance, games, music, dancing and crafts – was a crucial part of my becoming interested in theatrical experiences that exist outside traditional venues and which are widely accessible and immerse audiences in the action of the storyline in an interesting way.

“Fast-forward a few years, during which I worked between London, Coventry (teaching and studying for my PhD at Warwick), and Bristol, where in 2016 I became a resident artist at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio with my company Sleight of Hand.

“I still work with and at the Studio (most recently on the Ana Mendieta / Trace of Us project, which they helped to fund) and it has been absolutely instrumental in supporting my creative practice through networking, advice, production support, funding, and events.

“I’d love to see something like the Pervasive Media Studio be set up in Plymouth. Exeter has Kaleider (a production studio who share their space with other theatre creatives and promote exciting collaboration), Bristol has the Studio at the Watershed, and as another key city of the South West Plymouth should have something like these as well: where artists, technologists and thinkers come together to problem-solve, create, and collaborate in exciting and boundary-breaking new ways.

“Plymouth does have KARST, an experimental and collaborative space for curators and visual artists, but there’s a gap in the market for something similar that includes academics, theatre practitioners, technologists, and makers. Who knows, perhaps Marjon could help to pioneer something like this in collaboration with other institutions and venues across the city? Food for thought!”

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have affected the way in which many of us live and work. And it’s no different for the performing arts.

Eleanor recalls:When the pandemic hit, I was due to bring a version of an experimental production called Ergo Sum (originally developed in London at Theatre Deli and the Barbican Pit) to Bristol Old Vic for their Ferment Festival. The production immersed audience members in the experiences of characters with mental and neurological health conditions – who experience the world in various different ways – by using a combination of live performance and digital technologies including immersive binaural sound and projection mapping.

“In early 2020, I had just been given an Expanded Performance Fellowship at Bristol University to work on gathering data on this production, to examine how it affected audiences’ empathy and sense of community. All of a sudden, like so many people, I found that both my professional practice and my research – hinging on the ability to gather people together in groups – were thrown up in the air with the first lockdown and I had to rethink my approaches completely. 

“Since the show wasn’t possible to share with audiences in its original state, I redeveloped sections for experiencing online in an interactive experience designed to be used with one of the BBC’s R&D tools StoryFormer, and redirected my research questions into how digitally-enhanced theatrical immersion affects us emotionally and physiologically, by focusing on digital theatrical experiences online.

“This opened up loads of new avenues for exploration that I would never have thought about or discovered had I not been forced to change my plans.

“Another project I worked on during lockdown was the R&D process for the Ana Mendieta project (mentioned above) with an international collective of women artists. It was supported by the Pervasive Media Studio’s Future Themes fund and explored the future of theatre while developing a new piece about the life and work of artist Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American artist whose provocative work utilised her own body, natural materials, photography and film.

“Her creation of art outside traditional venues and her use of film/photography took on new relevance during social distancing, in terms of how to create meaningful collective artistic experiences without physical access to traditional arts venues.

“Our project similarly explored how we might feel connected via a coming together of nature and technology; physical body and screen image; ancient ritual and modern media. It lives on in the multi-layered, ever-evolving, hybrid in-person/digital Trace of Us project.

“The lockdowns have definitely forced my practice (and my research) into new directions, necessitating creative thinking and new processes and approaches. These processes have improved accessibility of my work with online offerings, art-by-post, and varied in-person and hybrid events, as well as opening up opportunities for me to connect online with a wider network of international creatives.

“This has also allowed me to think in new ways about facilitating processes – both creative processes with professionals, and learning/training processes with my students at Marjon – in more flexible and inclusive ways.

Eleanor has some advice for any creatives who are emerging from lockdown…

Through the challenges of lockdown, there have been some silver linings which we can carry forward in future creative practice,” she says. “A huge amount of valuable learning has been gathered around accessibility, resilience, hybrid modes, and thinking outside the box in terms of designing experiences for audiences and finding new ways of working.

“I would advise all creatives to notice new opportunities for things like cross-cultural collaboration, deepening communal links and support, upending traditional hierarchies, practicing radical kindness in their work and promoting new levels of inclusion via more flexible approaches and hybrid digital/in-person forms.

“Lockdown showed us just how resilient and inventive the theatrical world can be, particularly at the grassroots level, and there’s lots still to discover and try out!”

Looking to the future, Eleanor wants to keep pursuing new research into digital audiences and immersive theatre.

She explains: “Reliance on and fascination with the digital isn’t going away anytime soon and I think it’s really important to enhance understanding around how technologies provide the theatre world with both potential pitfalls and challenges, and potential enhancements to experience and accessibility, and find new ways to navigate digital space.

“Immersive theatre itself is also an ever-expanding field, and one which has potential benefits for promoting community cohesion and collective wellbeing in a post-pandemic world that seems more fragmented and more in need of solidarity and shared joy than ever.

“I will also be working to further expand the provision for performing arts at Marjon University, by helping support the development of new postgraduate programmes, and continuing to hone the undergraduate degrees: setting up further industry connections both in Plymouth and further afield, and giving our students access to academic and practitioner expertise both local and national/international.

“I also aim to continue with my own practice: facilitating collaboration and creating new work. And maybe someday setting up that Plymouth-based experimental studio. I hope to continue seeing grassroots companies growing and flourishing in the city with more spaces opened up to them and further support and partnerships.

“There have been a few really exciting and fun ventures lately which bring communities of Plymouth together – like the magical launch of the Hatchling, Trigger’s giant dragon puppet-kite as part of a two-day theatrical performance last August.

“I think that Plymouth as a city has huge potential for more immersive and site-responsive takeovers of venues and outdoor space. There are some long-forgotten areas and abandoned pockets full of local history that just cry out to be brought back to life with performance and community projects.

“There’s certainly plenty of room for more hybrid and accessible theatre, more arts events focused on collective cohesion and wellbeing, and more dragons!”

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Eleanor Chadwick lives and breathes for the performing arts. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than her passion and enthusiasm for theatre is her incredible CV!
Eleanor Chadwick lives and breathes for the performing arts. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than her passion and enthusiasm for theatre is her incredible CV!

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