My name is Ella Hawkins, and I’m currently completing an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. During the course of my studies, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with one of the most important events in the Shakespeare and Renaissance scholarship calendar: I was Chair of BritGrad 2016!
The British Graduate Shakespeare Conference – ‘BritGrad’, for short – has been an annual event at the Shakespeare Institute since 1999. The conference is run by students, for students, and gives postgraduates from all over the world an opportunity to share their research in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Professor John Jowett giving the opening plenary presentation of BritGrad 2016 in the Shakespeare Institute’s lecture hall
This year’s BritGrad took place over three action-packed days. 92 delegates and 8 plenary speakers came together for a programme of 24 student panels and 8 plenary presentations. Some had travelled from China, Italy, the USA, or elsewhere in the UK; others were past or present students at the Shakespeare Institute. A huge range of topics were covered during the course of the conference. We heard about the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in relation to textual editing, queer theory, music, adaptation, stage design, early modern playing places, ecocriticism, rhetoric, and much more. While BritGrad frequently features a diverse and exciting programme, this year was particularly special. 2016 marks a number of significant anniversaries – the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and of the publication of Ben Jonson’s first folio, to name just two – and this was reflected in the content of the conference.
A student panel at BritGrad 2016
The plenary presentations were a real highlight of the conference programme. Eminent academics, early career researchers, and professional theatre practitioners gave us an insight into projects and debates they’re currently involved with, and fascinating conversations emerged from the Q&A sections of each session. This year’s lineup of plenary speakers was Prof. John Jowett (Shakespeare Institute), Dr Eoin Price (Swansea University), Dr Sarah Dustagheer (University of Kent), Dr Emma Whipday (Kings College London), Dr Stephen Purcell (University of Warwick), Ms Erica Whyman OBE (Royal Shakespeare Company), Dr Patrick Gray (Durham University), and Dr Harry Newman (Royal Holloway, University of London).
A coffee break in the conservatory
Ideas were exchanged over lunch and coffee, and the conference included a programme of social events in Stratford-upon-Avon. Delegates attended Hamlet at the RSC (directed by Simon Godwin and starring Paapa Essiedu), a party at the RSC’s newly-opened Other Place studio theatre, and closing drinks at the same venue. Inflatable selfie props and a live folk band provided the perfect opportunity for party-goers to let their hair down mid-way through the event!
BritGrad’s Secretary, Chair (me!), and IT volunteer enjoying the party at The Other Place
Between November 2015 and June 2016, I worked with a committee of ten fabulous fellow Shakespeare Institute students to organise this international event. It took a lot of planning! We met regularly and worked through a long list of tasks. Who would we invite to be plenary speakers? How would we advertise the event, and which papers should we accept to be presented at the conference? What should we do about catering for the event, how could we sort 72 papers into an interesting and well-organised programme, and – very importantly – where would the party take place? Spreadsheets, to-do lists, and Google Drive quickly became our close friends.
(Most of) the 2016 BritGrad Committee posing with a lot of RSC tickets!
During the conference itself, committee-members all had specific tasks to complete. We chaired student panels and plenary sessions, collected food from our catering supplier, live-tweeted, provided tech support, managed the registration desk, and more. Some of us even presented papers of our own! A team of extra volunteers helped the event run as smoothly as possible, and a colour-coded committee schedule made sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time.
The committee schedule for one of the three days of the conference. Who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet?
Organising and attending BritGrad has been a real highlight of my time at the Shakespeare Institute so far. It’s been wonderful to work alongside such a fantastic team; planning an event of this scale with them has been a hugely rewarding experience. I’ve had the opportunity to meet like-minded people at various stages of their academic career, to learn all about the exciting research currently under way in my field, and to be a part of such a well-loved fixture of the Shakespeare Institute and the wider academic community beyond.
Ella Hawkins is a full-time student in the MA Shakespeare and Theatre at the Shakespeare Institute.