Saturday, July 25, 2015

Out priced and out classed. Being working-class in academia.

This post is about academic privilege but much of it also applies outside of academia. However the Ivory Tower has a lot to answer for in this area. 

I like to sum it up in this quote from Friends (what life lessons I didn't learn from The X Files, I learned from Friends)

Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.

Money, as I'll talk about is a big player in this. But in academia it's more than that. What we're really talking about is class. Working class academics have a much tougher time of it for more reasons than just money. And it's all something we should be talking about. 

I'm British, by way of explanation and disclaimer. If you're reading this elsewhere in the world the terms and experience will be different but I think broadly speaking here I have something to say. 

Being born into a working class family in the 1980s, Thatcherism at it's height, I think it's fair to say I've never known what it is to be wealthy. In fact at times during my childhood I think to apply the term 'poor' to my family isn't to much of a stretch. The funny thing is, I never felt poor, underprivileged, or even (shock horror) "common" until much later in life, when entering academia. The first in my family to do so by a long shot the world of Higher Education might just as well be another planet to my family.

Despite attending a quite, in the words of a friend at the time 'rah rah' University for Undergrad, I never felt too common.Thanks to the student loans system I felt on a level playing field financially. Ok so I wasn't jetting off to the Maldives or going on the boat at Easter. But we were all pretty much on the same income in term time, so it didn't matter. Basically I passed as middle class like (almost) everyone else. In terms of life experience, I guess I was able to stay 'with my own kind' not taking up any activities that marked me out as different. I also found the subject made a difference in history, the topics covered are so vast, and curriculum at school so limited, very few of us had a wide-ranging knowlege so the playing field felt level, unlike later in English related disciplines. 

Only when I got to Masters level. At, quite frankly the most 'rah rah' of institutions imaginable (I mean, Oxbridge aside I'd wager RADA is as 'rah' as it gets) then I felt it. Both through being poor in London (always a joy) but also having not learnt all the things that nice middle class children learn at School. And it's not just about school, it's about all the things outside that having privilege affords. It's the extra music tuition, it's the sports clubs, it's the trips to museums and theatres. As a working class kid from the dodgy end of Cardiff in the 90s, people like us didn't go to museums and the theatre. It wasn't for people like us (and let's face it we couldn't afford it) My cultural radar was very different. And before anyone cries 'You could have taught yourself, learned things yourself' I did, a hell of a lot. But in the pre-internet days resources were limited, and it's a difficult thing to explain to those who are from that background, but certain cultural 'staples' were just not on my radar. In some ways the cultural experiences related to class are as strong as those by nationality, you can be aware of what other people do, you can want to do it, be interested in it, but it's not native to you. 

So I've felt like I was doing cultural catch-up ever since. I feel like Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' looking at the forks in the fancy restaurant and sending a snail flying across the room. Except the forks are cultural references, and the snail is the reaction to me asking who Alfred Prufrock is. Like Julia Roberts as a prostitute, I was never stupid, but until someone takes you to a world where you need more than one fork for dinner, you're never going to know which fork to use. 

This continued, tenfold, in PhD land. The further up the scale you go, the fewer people like me hang on it appears. Or actually, more accurately, we get better at hiding in plain sight. It feels like to admit you haven't heard of/read/seen the 'key' thing, or that you can't speak Latin, or that you've never been to a certain place, means you are more of a fraud than you naturally (as an academic type) already think you are. Because I grew up in a different culture. It's hard to quantify exactly but a gradual niggling feeling over the years that somehow I had missed out on some fundamental education, because my background wasn't sophisticated enough.  I had always read obsessively since a young child, but with no concept of high/low or good/bad literature. Personally I think this has made me a better, honest and open reader and critic. As the saying goes, I may not know art but I know what I like. Sadly the further up the ladder I got, the more what I liked was irrelevant, and what I should like was the only answer. I constantly felt like I was losing a race I didn't know I was running. And while playing 'cultural catch up' on one hand, on the other, there was a game of 'catch up' I could never win, and that was financial. 

The 'I never think of money as an issue' sums up my PhD experience, from dealing with supervisors/full time academics, to fellow PhDs with scholarships and family backing.  From my trying to explain why I had to hurry up and finish, to why further archival research or conferences weren't on the cards. And now to explaining why barring some kind of divine intervention that chasing an academic career indefinitely, without secure employment, wasn't going to be possible. 

Money. It makes the world go around, and if you have it you don't notice. It is also the biggest gatekeeper to academic success.

As a self-funded PhD student there's the stigma also that it makes me "lesser" somehow. In the same way that I see Independent scholars regarded as "lesser" when in fact those of us somehow supporting ourselves financially whether as students or later as scholars should actually be respected for juggling both finance and a life/job that is outside the academic and still producing our thesis/work. However that isn't the case, we're viewed as the 'not quite good enough' be it for a scholarship or a job. Personally I'd doff my ridiculous graduation hat ten times to all my fellow self funders. At best/worst I juggled teaching and 3 part time jobs. At worst I was getting by on one zero hours, minimum wage job. It impacts everything, not only your research as above but the rest of your life. I turned down social engagements because I was watching every penny, I constantly traded off what I needed-new clothes or one more book? visit friends of stow money for a conference? Friendships suffer for it, relationships suffer (or cease to exist) family relationships are strained. Because you take the most stressful academic endeavour imaginable, and add the stress and strain of money issues. And money issues without a safety net. 

That lack of safety net is the crucial thing for working class students. For others, sure there will be tough financial times, none of us are rich doing a PhD. But for those from better-off backgrounds there is always a safety net of family financial security. I, and many others do not have that. My Mum, already past retirement age was like me working for minimum wage on a zero hours contract during my PhD. Then the company went bust. Just like that, things go from precarious to even worse. And add to this the pressure and the guilt. The guilt that I having worked hard and trained should be helping out my Mum in this situation, not relying on her for a roof over my head. I paid my way, I took that roof over my head yes, but I paid my way, and every step of the way I was racked with guilt that I wasn't providing for my Mum. All the conversations about money were me saying 'I wish I could help more' or 'One day I will help more' There was no question of relying on a fall back at home because one didn't exist. It's a scary place to be balancing without that safety net. And a miserable one when those who are so used to having it fail to understand. And let's face it, self-selection means that those at the top of the pyramid academically also have a high percentile of those with large (parental or partner) income brackets. 

Let me be clear, I resent nobody their success if they work hard and happen to have a helping hand. What I do resent is those who have no concept of the helping hand they've been given in life and fail to see that others don't have that luxury. And I have been called in so many words a failure and a quitter so many times by people I thought were friends, or supportive acquaintances/colleagues. So I'm going to spell it out: not everyone has that. And it's hear that academia also becomes a class issue. It also increasingly is becoming those who have the luxury to stay in it and those who don’t.

I've known people take on extra Masters courses to stay in the country they want to, take on only part time teaching work to develop their research profile, turn down work from establishments they think won't look good enough on a CV. These are all well and good if you are in the position to do so, and the only way you are in a position to do so is this: MONEY. Don't tell me these people don't have family supporting (read: financing) them.  

In what other reality, are these people living in I ask where I should just sit around and wait for a job? This mentality does exist elsewhere it's true, with the rise in unpaid internship after unpaid internship that again shuts those from working class backgrounds out of jobs. And the costs in time and money to keep that toe in the door- all the unpaid work associated with that job, paying out for expensive conferences and library access and academic books that are frankly ridiculously prohibitively expensive even to those in full time jobs. And if you get a full time job to pay for the unpaid work you're viewed as 'giving up'. The only way to sustain this lifestyle, and it is a lifestyle choice, is to have a partner or parents who can support you. Or to do it alongside an unrelated full time job. 

What this means for me is I didn't have options at the end of the PhD, and I don't have options now. I have taken a job in a University, that yes draws on my PhD, but isn't an academic post. Bearing in mind I was working in University Administration before the PhD (and before my PGCE) there is a slight edge of disappointment that I've moved not one inch. And that inch make no mistake is financial. I had to apply for this job, I had to take it. And I'm grateful for it? Hell yes. Do I intend to work bloody hard to keep moving my career forward? Hell yes again. Always have always will. Is it what I worked for? is it my dream? no. And those decisions were financial. Those are decisions that people in other industries make every day also. And its fine, it's all fine. Except when those privileged academics look down their noses at your "lowly" support role, or at your minimal research output, or question your commitment when you don't attend many conferences. 

And it is what it is. The financial climate is awful, jobs scarce. It’s the same across many sectors I know, and in life those of us who can’t be unpaid interns forever make these decisions. 

What is different here to in business is the guilt, dear Lord the guilt. This idea that I should be waiting it out, that it's the right thing to do, that I HAVE to pay out to conference, to publish to keep networking. And I ask on what? I also say there are more important things.

I work hard for the money I earn (ok to quote Friends again, I work for it) and to me, there are more important things. For the cost of a conference I could save up and take my Mum away with me somewhere for the weekend. That academic book? that could keep my poor old doggy in the tablets she needs for a month. We aren't on the breadline, but there are priorities. And 'staying in the game' or actually 'playing the game' isn't one of them right now.

I can defend my knowledge background, attitude and tastes. I'm not ashamed of where I come from. Nor am I ashamed of having different cultural experiences. My background gives me a killer work ethic, and a no nonsense attitude that doesn't suffer fools. All that I could bring to academia and quite frankly academia could do with. I work damn hard, and I bring a slice of diversity that the middle class (cough white, cough male) bastion of academia could do with. At the University I did my PhD at I was incredibly proud to see many working class students come through, and I could identify with their experience, and be empathetic to their life experience. The 'Academy' in all it's ivory tower glory needs people like me. But sadly more and more that tower has a hefty admission price, and leaves me wondering if it's really worth what's inside. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Graduation. Or silly hat day.

Ok firstly I promise I'll get back to some sort of chronological order advice soon...but things keep happening.

This week....graduation! (anyone who listens to Cabin Pressure, I hear that in Martin Crief voice...those who don't look it up and listen)

Yes, finally, finally Graduation. On one hand something I'd daydreamed about off and on for 4 plus years. On the other I very nearly didn't go. The end of the PhD was so horrendous, and seemed to go on for so long I just wanted away from there. However it's the thing you do, so I went.

It's an odd thing on one hand Graduating with a PhD. When you graduate from other degrees you have a class that you're with. Even when for my Undergrad due to an optional year abroad there were significantly less of us, there's still a group. For my MA I distinctly remember making our weirdo actor-ly/theatrical selves known among the more dour politics graduates....But for me I was going to be on my own. Actually it turns out very much on my own because instead of announcing all the PhDs together they spread them over the ceremony, so I ended up both last and with some Welsh PGCE students...but I'll get to that.

I will say it was a good decision to go to my Graduation. It was important, and enjoyable. Also the hat. Frankly it's worth it for that hat.

 I mean look at it right? I mean yes it's a bit Wolf Hall....

 .....but you say that like it's a bad thing? Thomas Cromwell chic is where it's at.

In all seriousness the hat is a big part of it. From going to collect my gowns and the lovely lady from Ede and Ravenscroft being really excited for me, wanting to know all about my PhD, and congratulating me, to the funny looks I got all day. I kept forgetting that I was a) wearing a frankly ridiculous hat and b) wearing even more ridiculous robes that looked different to everyone else, so everyone was looking at me. Before the ceremony just a bit confused, afterwards I heard a few whispered 'She's got a doctorate' So here are the robes in all their Hogwarts glory....

So you're there looking ridiculous, with no classmates, and you go into the hall. Now for me it was particularly pertinent, because of the venue. A local theatre, that shall remain nameless...where I used to work. Followers of the old blog will know that my experience and exit from there weren't exactly a picnic (short version: pick your friends carefully) so I was not only proving something to those at the University who doubted me, but holding my head high at the workplace that had ended so bitterly. Also as a general theatre nerd, getting to walk across that stage in front of an audience would always be a a thrill.

Despite feeling a bit alone with no fellow PhDs that I really knew graduating with me, I did have a wonderful welcome from the colleagues in Registry at my University. I'd worked with several of them during my work as a Support Worker and as an exam invigilator. So seeing them when I got in there really, really made my day (and I think one of them had something to do with my Mum getting a box to herself to watch, which if it was is a lovely gesture for which I'm very grateful, as was Mum who got to pretend she was the Queen....)

The layout of the theatre is such that I was stood directly in front of where the academic procession came through. This was both lovely and awkward. It's awkward for any of us to have to stand with the procession of 'high ups' coming past. But also knowing a fair few of the academics it was a bit awkward, but also lovely, as I got to give a nod hello to them. And see some of the most deliberate looking the other way I've ever seen...But my friend the Reverend doffing his cap to me as he went by was one of the highlights of the ceremony.

I had already realized I was literally the last person to Graduate. For someone a) shy and b) scared of falling on stage as me this was not the most fun I've had. Not least when they accidentally half-announced my PhD at the wrong moment. If I didn't know the registry staff and have complete trust in their organisation I'd have had a heart attack.

Finally I did get to walk across that stage. Waiting to go out I did start to feel a bit emotional. All day it had been too busy to think about it, but there's a little pause as you wait to go on where nothing else is really going on, and then it hit me. I did tell myself not to cry (lord knows I've done enough of that over the last 4 years...) and forced myself to keep smiling and clapping for those PGCE students in front of me. (who frankly were confused by the weirdo in the funny hat following them...)

Everywhere does it a bit different, but we get a short description of our research read out. I had a choice between the director of research and my supervisor, I chose my supervisor because despite our ups and downs, she helped get me there and that felt righto. It is a really satisfying moment to hear a description of your research read out, to acknowledge what you did specifically, not just that you did it. And for the activist in me, having it read aloud that I did this work on AIDS, to have it highlighted as something important that I did, really meant a lot too.

What follows is a bit of a blur, but among shaking hands with the Vice Chancellor and being congratulated by him and turning and taking a bow to the audience (which in that theatre, felt amazing) what I remember most of all is the sound of my former students cheering. The students I taught in their first year graduated with me and as I walked across I heard a massive cheer from the front section where they were sitting. I really didn't expect it, and they had no idea I would be there, but you cannot imagine what that meant to hear them cheer. Not only was I suddenly not alone, I had some people cheering for me. But more so that they wanted to cheer for their teacher from 2 years ago. That made my day. I'd have cried at that point if I hadn't been smiling so much.

I crossed the stage, passed my friend the Reverend who although is (partly) responsible for me getting into this whole PhD mess, also got me to the end of it in more ways than one, and I got my certificate from a dear friend who I've known since my days as the office temp in my University. And that's what made it for me. The people who have meant a lot over the years. As the academic procession of awkwardness went past again on the way out I got congratulated with nods smiles and winks (and a kiss on the cheek) and yes, I felt a little bit special. But if you can't feel a bit special with a silly hat on when can you right?

Afterwards it was nice to connect once more with former colleagues and students and say a thank you to my supervisor.

My name and thesis title in the programme...immortalized forevermore ....

Oh and drink a glass (or two) of wine!

The hat had enough by this point.....

 Proud Mama-Bear. 

What Graduation also did for me was at once draw a line under things, end that chapter. (I have the certificate, you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands before I give it back. And I'll bite) But it also allowed me to leave on happy terms with my University. Already I have been missing it, on moving elsewhere after 7 years. And lord knows there are faults, and I have no rose tinted glasses, but I also have a fondness and appreciation for it that some distance brings.

What the moments with former students, and the immense pride I felt at seeing them, and others I'd worked with in my support worker capacity, showed me is that's where my instincts and passions lie. To sit there and think in the most small way I helped them get there. That is as worthwhile as my own degree. I'll be honest and say it's given me a really sad day today. It's a terrible thing to realise once again that you know what you're really good at, and not be able to do it. Those students made it worth while when I taught them, and that's what I took away from graduation too. It's what you're able to give back in academia that is just as important as you're own work. More so. I'm the academic I am because of the students I taught as much as the work I did. So the come down from Graduation was a little more hard than I thought. I quoted Cabin Pressure at the start of this, and I'm reminded of Martin's speech about flying that I keep pinned next to my desk. In the radio soap opera Martin tries and fails to be a pilot, he's not naturally good, much like me and academia. And he says 'That's why you'd be lucky to employ me, because if you're not naturally good....then you have to be a perfectionist. And that's why, even when you've turned me down, I'm going to keep on applying. Because flying is the perfect job and I won't settle for a life where I don't get to do it.' 

And I made it this far, being 'a Martin' I walked across the stage. I did that hardest thing. And likewise I'll keep on trying. Because I got this far, it can only get better now. Because I got my silly hat.

Afterwards I continued celebrating with Mum, a few more pictures are bellow. And then I went home and watched one of my favourite episodes of 'The X Files' without which I wouldn't have got my silly hat. Where's the link? I'm sure some of you know, but I'll save that for the next blog which is 'So how did I get here?' (and another which I've promised for over a year about how Dana Scully made me the woman I am...)

In the meantime, here's me tired, and happy at the end of the all my fellow PhD's keep going, because if I can get to the silly hat day, you all can too.

Treats for graduation....this EPIC brownie

And an Eyore. Because Eyore is a PhD personified (and me in Disney form)

And finally, for anyone who wants to see the outfit...the SHOES


And the end....

Monday, July 6, 2015

As Is, talking about AIDS theatre and academia

As anyone who follows me on social media knows, I took part in a post-show talk for the play As Is this weekend. I would apologise for the social media bombardment. As is (see what I did there?) I only apologise for the shameless self-promotion, because I’m terribly British and find it embarrassing. That said I do not apologise for the promotion of the play, and will continue to relentlessly promote this fantastic and important piece of theatre, even if I have to drag you all to see it personally. Short version: please see this play if you can, it’s important. It’s in London, it’s inexpensive for a London show, and it has a plethora of informative and exciting post show talks.

My review can be found here: As Is review

And tickets can be bought here: (Runs until 1st August 2015)

That over I wanted to write on this blog about the experience of doing a post-show talk, reflect a bit on how this makes me think both about research going forward and my career.

For me in fact this weekend sums up exactly how I wanted to use my PhD: I want to work with theatres/directors/actors and use my knowledge in a practical sense. I want to continue to be a part of the ‘theatre world’ that I stepped away to some degree to do the PhD, and that in a way academia increasingly fails to understand, we must make research a part of the practice and practice a part of research.

That all sounds very highbrow and, in essence academic. What I’m trying to say is actually being able to go into a theatre and give a post-show talk is actually a dream of mine come true. Overly dramatic? I don’t think so. As I said in my talk the key for me in staging plays like this we generate a conversation, for me writing my PhD was part of that important conversation that we still need to have around AIDS.

I was nervous about going to talk at that theatre. Not least for the factors of it is a play that is important to me, in a theatre that I have an emotional attachment to, directed by a man whose work and career has been an inspiration to me. Taking those in order, the play for me is one that has time and time again rejuvenated my belief in the power of theatre as a tool in fighting AIDS. It is a play of such honesty and hope that every time I revisit it, whether in written form or in finally getting to see it performed, it has always fired me up again. It also, in the 2013 production came to me at a time, a year away from submission of the thesis, that I really, really needed that boost. The theatre it was staged in also has significance to me. I visited there early in my Master’s at RADA. Feeling a bit lost and insecure, and out of step with those on my course, I saw my first Martin Sherman play ‘Bent’ and it had a profound effect on me, as it does many. Theatrically and personally that play affected me, and as Marvin Carlson writes, our theatrical spaces are haunted by what has been there before, and the staging of that play has given me a long running affection for the Trafalgar Studios-I never thought I would get to speak there. And finally a director I admire greatly, what can I say about Andrew Keates? his work keeps getting better and better, and his choices of productions also indicate his taste and vision are impeccable (I simply can find no wrong in someone who chose to bring Dessa Rose to London). Not only that but the way in which he realises these productions (sadly I didn’t get to see his production of Bent) shows what a talent he is. Add that to the work he has done for HIV/AIDS, and with TheatreMAD it’s understandable I was excited and nervous in equal measure. Luckily Andrew is as kind as he is talented and has welcomed a slightly mad academic to come and talk at his show.
But, all that said I was nervous about putting myself back 'out there' in the theatre world. Leaving the academia bubble (academic struggle more like it) to say, 'I can do this too'. Since finishing my PhD, in fact scratch that, since starting it, I've been arguing that in the theatre world we need to do both. And that’s the thing that is lovely, that mad academics can work outside of their boxes, I feel like 4 years of practically screaming at supervisors that as drama academics we need to work with practice not removed from it. Even in this small way felt like a start. The experience also taught me how my work can be valued outside of academia. So while in academia I may be considered a slightly oddball person who thinks about things differently, and heaven forbid wants to talk about a subject that is a bit ‘taboo’ (though it shouldn’t be, but I’ll pause that rant for another day) But in 4 years as an academic I’ve never felt as ‘valued’ as director Andrew Keates made me feel this weekend. I also felt listened to by both Andrew and assistant director Sarah Stephens, and of course the lovely audience.

More importantly the chance to do this talk verified what I’ve been despairing as lost-that I can firstly contribute to making a difference, and that in fact to do that I need to place myself back in the theatre world. Shouting at academics, publishing obscure articles that nobody reads has never felt like progress to me. I got more satisfaction from that short group to a small group of people and the conversations I had afterwards, than I have from any battle with academic publishing I've had to date. For me it's about shouting from the rooftops the topic I'm passionate about. I talked last week about the how, why and wherefore of this for me in my last post here:
But for me it was about the conversations we had in that post-show talk, where we talked about opening up this conversation, about involving people to change things and make a difference. And yes it sounds cliché, yes people will scoff. But if I can with this PhD, with what I try to do with it, if I make a difference to one single person, it's worth it. I didn't pick my thesis topic lightly, I picked it because of long standing passion to get these voices heard, and not to allow these voices to be forgotten. And increasingly I don't think academia is the way to continue that. In academia my voice is drowned out by louder, more intellectual voices, more trendy topics. Or by REF targets and funding calls. The other routes are not easy, it's never going to be easy to make this subject heard but I'm damn well going to keep trying.
On a broader career note, this opportunity was for me also about feeling that the theatre world is not closed to me by taking time out for academia was a relief, even in this tiny step. Firstly that yes, the work I did has significance outside of cobbling together 100, 000 words of a thesis and generally surviving the years of hell that entails. I wrote that thesis because of a passion to make voices around AIDS theatre, and those with HIV/AIDS heard, and I think I’ve now started to take steps towards that. Secondly, that I was welcomed to that talk, and in the discussions I had afterwards made me feel that there is a place for me in the theatre world still.

I think also what I learned in doing this is that my instincts are correct- I belong more on theatre side of the fence than the academic one. That’s not to say that I can’t bring my academic skills and knowledge to the theatre, but theatre ultimately is the language I speak. I think for all of us it’s just something that’s in our blood.
It may have been a small, small thing, one post-show talk but it gave me a glimmer of hope that all was not the waste of time I feared it was. And that also people are actually interested in what I have to say. I feel now I'm able to start chipping away at actually making use of what I've done, making this knowledge a tangible useful thing I can actually use to make even a small difference. And that also that I can be a part of the theatre world again.
So what next? Who knows, but it's a start. In a moment of sheer belligerence (one of many) I once told my skeptical supervisors that to prove to them AIDS in theatre, AIDS dialogue was not and should not be dead that I was going to write the next AIDS play. And you know what, I might well just try doing that for a start....

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Everybody has AIDS" or "You did what for you PhD?"

Forgive the title. For those who don't know it's stolen from this: 

All through my PhD I'd get a reference to that almost weekly. So much so that I pledged to only watch it on the morning of my viva. As it happened I forgot, and watched it the day after.

This post is adapted from a previous one in my old blog, with some updates. I'm posting again for two reasons. Firstly I'm dipping a toe back into the PhD topic to go and give a post-show talk in London this weekend, which I am incredibly excited about, and in essence is why I did what I did for my PhD. So I'm attracting some social media attention about the PhD, which is again great. I also recently started a new job, one where I'm largely expected to be 'normal' (and largely fail in every respect) and one where I find myself  skirting the exact nature of my PhD with some colleagues, and was so happy I could have cried when someone else noted how interesting my PhD topic was. 

Incidentally I've found over the years that my PhD topic is an excellent idiot detector. I can tell from someone's reaction to the topic a great deal about them. It works well as a repellent to idiotic men as well. Repulsed by my PhD? then you don't want to be with me. This could be why I'm still single...

I frequently get asked 'what's your PhD actually on', usually I just reply 'Drama' or 'American drama in Britain.' if pushed, or if it looks like it'll elicit an amusing response I say simply 'AIDS in theatre' sometimes in fact I just say AIDS. Generally I do this if someone looks like they'll have an amusing reaction, or if they're being generally disparaging about the whole PhD endeavor.

The official title of the thesis is (and I always forget exactly, how is that possible?) Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: transposing and reviving deceptions of AIDS to the British Stage in Angels in America and Rent. So far, so theatrical. Two highly significant theatrical productions, important, worthy of analysis. Lord knows there are more obscure PhD topics. But you see there's 4 little letters in there that which cause heckles to rise. AIDS. So often I just say 'American theatre' or 'theatre' 

Why do I avoid this? because it's easier than then having to explain 'but why do you want to research AIDS?' people are happy with the answer 'drama' it's suitably broad and fluffy. It can also be dismissed with a 'oh that's nice' you say AIDS you don't get that response. If I were doing a PhD on cancer, whether scientific, social or cultural I know I'd get a nod and a 'oh that's so good of you, such a worthy cause.' Sadly, still my PhD doesn't elicit such a response. Generally the response is a resounding, if unspoken 'ugh'. There's also an unspoken 'but what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?' which perhaps should one day be the title of my autobiography, but I digress.

The  question that follows, should I bother to explain is 'But why?' again unspoken, why do you, a "normal" looking woman want to do that? (A say, 'normal' that's a relative term, and as I also dare to have short hair combined with the PhD leads to further assumptions about my sexuality. People who research insect larvae and the like don't get assumptions made about their sexuality now do they?) 
 something like that? again if it were cancer, nobody would think twice. Because it's AIDS, I must have some deep dark reason, probably I'm guessing  a lot of them think I have HIV. And you know what, firstly again, what business is it of anyone's? but also I and many others are capable of being passionate about things not personal to us. I make it personal. In the same way you do not have to be a Llama to care about animal rights.  You see the absurdity? I'm not offended by people assuming I'm gay or have HIV, because why would I be offended to be considered either of those things? they aren't things that reflect poorly on someone's character, one is a sexual preference you are born with, one is a viral infection. I don't think badly of heterosexuals or people with the flu, therefore think I'm gay, think I have HIV if that helps.

So following that Larry Kramer-esque rant (google him)  about the assumptions people make, I should answer why, why this? well,  why do any of us who pick our own PhD topics do it? The short version is, I loved the plays. Really for any literature/film/drama based PhD this is a must.

As with everything I do, it was the 'wrong' way to do it. I didn't have any great academic aspirations to consider the American Epic Theatre or any such thing.

The first performance I saw with AIDS in was out of the blue and unexpected, and I blame it for the seed that became this massive part of my life. I saw Hugh Jackman in 'The Boy from Oz' in December 2003. Mum and I were in New York, and at this point tickets were easy to get. It was Hugh Jackman, in a musical, why not? Neither of us knew who Peter Allen, the real life singer-songwriter he portrayed, was or that he died of AIDS related illness. I loved the musical. Love is perhaps too mild a term. I was obsessed. But that, is another blog entirely. The Boy From Oz hasn't made it to the PhD but in some convoluted series of events, it's the start point.

I discovered Angels in America during a grim cold winter in Montreal. Our TV didn't work so we relied on the video store around the corner (remember those kids? this was 2003, before Netflix. Hell it was before Facebook, we were one of the first Unis to get it, anyway I digress) My flatmate and I were scouring the shelves, trying to find an alternative to our one Family Guy box set. She pointed to Angels in America and said 'That's supposed to be good. It's about AIDS' (and so said every description of that play/series ever) I shrugged said ok let's watch it. And we did, and I loved it and bought it and it became one of my favourite series. It became perversely my cheer myself up DVD-having as I do the theory that sometimes watching people worse off than you cheers you up. I fell in love with the actors, and more in love with Emma Thompson.

Around the same time I stumbled across Rent. I'd recently begun to really get into musical theatre, see above, Hugh Jackman again is to blame. And I was also getting involved in a lot of online fandom related to theatre. You can't swing a cyber cat in musical theatre forums and fansites without coming across 'Rent' as a must-have-must-be-a-fan-of. So I found myself  trotting off to a Montreal record store (again remember them?) and buying the Rent cast recording. I tried to listen to it on the bus home, but the ride was too bumpy and my CD kept skipping (again, yup, remember those) I remember listing to 'What you Own' over and over on that bus ride though. I remember standing in our orange kitchen, when everyone was out, listening to 'Will I' over and over. Soon I knew every word of the whole thing. Except the phone numbers, I still can't remember those.

Later that year, I saw Rent, finally, on Broadway. It's a cliche but it was at that point the most moving evening in the theatre I'd ever had. Still over 10 (gulp) years later I can count on one hand the number of performances that match it for emotional impact. It's hard to explain, particularly to those who don't like musical theatre. But it felt like being hit by a truck, in a good way. Midway through I just felt a wave of emotion that told me, yes this is something, yes this is going to last. There is something about Rent, if it's a musical for you that just grabs a hold of you and refuses to let go. Even now, though I see it's flaws, though I see it inside out and back to front, it still has an emotional hold. For Rent it's also about finding it at the right moment. I found it when I was a bit lost, living in a foreign country, old enough at 19 to get it, not so old to be cynical about it. And over the years it's been a part of me. It's part of the reason I got more into musical theatre, that I engaged online about musical theatre. Rent became a big part of my theatre education. Rent, its cliche, to say became a part of my growing up, because that year was really important for me.

I always say, in describing these plays, both personally and professionally, that Angels is the head and Rent is the heart. Angels is an engaging artistic political declaration of so many things. It's intellectual, it's critical, it's artistic. There is still so much heart in it, but it gets to your heart through the mind. Rent on the other hand is raw, visceral, it hits straight to the heart. It's still got so many things to say, to teach, and Larson was oh so 
clever too. Just a different clever. Angels will cause you to start a political revolution and quietly tug at your heart while you do so. Rent will rip out your heart and put it back together and let you go thinking about revolution (while singing obviously, hell if it's good enough for Les Mis). Angels is poetry, and a well structured argument and delicate beautiful words. Rent is rough around the edges, a hard musical beat and a mash up of conflicting styles.  I cannot separate them or judge which one is 'better' because they serve the same aims in such different ways. And both have become a part of my personal, artistic and intellectual identity. I speak their lines without noticing, I hear character inflections in my mind, and I adopt their philosophies.

Both plays became influential. I'm a fangirl at heart and when I fall I fall hard. So I followed various cast member's careers. Devoured everything I could on the writers, directors, anyone associated with it. I bought albums and films and books. These plays became part of my world, and they spun out into other plays, musicals, films and books. And so on, as is the fannish life. I used Rent in my Undergrad dissertation, in the impeccably titled 'The Serious Side of the American Musical' original, really original. Then as luck would have it Angels in America was revived in London as I did my Masters, so I wrote my dissertation on that. Both had been cemented into my life. When it came to proposing a PhD it was always the natural progression, I never considered doing anything else. I cannot honestly say why, other than I loved the plays still, and it was an area I was passionate about.

Why so passionate about AIDS? disappointingly perhaps, I have no deep dark story about why. I don't know anyone personally who has AIDS, never have. The best I can do is this: I grew up in the 1980s (I was born in 1984) I have never known a world without AIDS and when I was a child it was one of the most terrifying things in the adult world I could think of. The tombstone adverts on television voiced by John Hurt made it seem like AIDS was about to leap out of an alleyway and kill you. I didn't really know what it was, but I knew I was supposed to be scared, so I was. The time and place I grew up in was also rife with homophobia, if you weren't being a 'bellend' (an insult I'm actually all for, it makes me weirdly nostalgic) then you were 'so gay'. In a rough British Comprehensive school in the 1990s being 'gay' and the added 'you've got AIDS' were commonplace. Being gay wasn't a thing we talked about, and AIDS was this scary thing lurking in the darkness.

That's partly why I think I have become so passionate about the cause. Because I still see areas of society where that's still the case. For every fluffy drama loving, liberal friend I have, there's hundreds of people out there still throwing out those insults I heard as a kid. It's easy to forget sometimes, once you grow up and surround yourself with people who have the same values, what a harsh world it is out there. The reality being that AIDS is still a threat, and being gay is still a threat in itself for those in hostile environments. AIDS charities struggle to raise funds where others wouldn't simply because the stigma still remains. People still fear the condition, people still hold prejudice. There's still not enough research, comparatively for the amount of people diagnosed. And, as we get further from the original epidemic panic, people become complacent and infection rates rise.  Just because AIDS is no longer a death sentence, doesn't mean it's not a threat. And it still needs to be on the agenda for discussion. And that's why these plays are still important, and that's why this PhD feels important. Keeping the discussion going.

That's perhaps why, I wasn't ready for the discussion to be over after two dissertations, so I carried it on. And I believe that these plays still have a lot to say. They might be over twenty years old now, their content may now be historical work, but it is still important, and will carry on being so. Theatre allows for an ongoing updated dialogue in the way that film or literature doesn't in quite the same way. So this PhD is just my bit of the conversation.

So that's the why and wherefore. After 10 years it's become a part of me, as a fan, and through my PhD. And I wouldn't have it any other way. So people may be repulsed, puzzled, a bit scared. But the ones who are interested I've learned are really interesting themselves. You can tell a lot about a person by their PhD, you can also tell a lot about a person by their reaction to your PhD.