Sharing Stories: Performance and Family History, a research project
Guest blog written for us by Kirsty Surgey, WRoCAH PhD Candidate, The University of Sheffield. Visit Kirsty’s website.
In 2015 I started a PhD research project investigating the possibilities of performance for sharing family histories. This is practice-as-research, which means that, as well as watching other people perform, I am experimenting with performance work of my own.
I have been interested in family history for a long time and have done spurts of research over the years. There are some lines that had already been fairly well documented. These are mainly on my mum’s side, which predictably, perversely led me to start with the other side. There was more opportunity here for new discoveries; less risk of trampling over someone else’s expertly manicured pasture.
The possibility of using my family history in performance started when I was working towards a Masters in Theatre and Performance in 2014. For the final practical exam, I chose to explore the story, or rather the lack of a story, about my paternal great-great grandmother Isabella Nichol and her sons, William, Thomas and Joseph.
William, my great grandfather, and Thomas were Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestlers. Tom won the 9 ½ stone championship so many times that they made him a replica of the cup to keep. This cup, along with medals, belts, photographs and even two pairs of hand embroidered wrestling centrepieces – the black pants traditionally worn over a white costume by Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestlers – formed a muddled personal collection, from which Isabella and Joseph were mostly absent. This question of the things that are kept in family archives provided the inspiration for Museum Piece: Isabella. Part museum, part storytelling performance, part wrestling demonstration.
During the PhD I have explored different approaches to family history, experimenting with photographs, slide shows, packs of cards, lists of dates, staircases, ladders and a diary. This is practice-as-research – it doesn’t always go in the direction that you expect!
I thought about having a DNA test and opening it on stage as a part of the final performance. The moment of revelation seeming important and something that could take advantage of the liveness of theatre. This would be a once and only once performance. It might confirm what I thought I knew – my lines lead to Ireland and the northwest of England – or it might provide me with a challenge: an unexpected origin. DNA promised scientific truth and opportunity.
And then I saw Siri at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017. Siri was a solo performance by Laurence Dauphinais, co-written and directed by Maxime Carbonneau. In it they explored what it means to be human in a technologically driven age. They considered the extent to which science can reveal and create identities. The character played by Dauphinais was one of the first children to be conceived by IVF in the 1980s and using a DNA test, which she hopes will identify a general ethnic and geographic origin, she is surprised to discover the precise identity of her biological father.
Emerging from this performance, I looked upon DNA testing in a new light. For the first time, I wondered about the privacy of this data and about its potential for misuse. Technology enables us to imagine new possibilities, but it is unpredictable. The easy availability of tests has undermined the promises of anonymity made to the sperm donors of 30 years ago. If I submit DNA to a testing site, how can I imagine every possible use for that sample in 30 years’ time? DNA sampling is only really helpful if you share the information. It’s through sharing that you find matches. It’s through sharing that the database grows and more accurate comparisons can be made. But when you share, think carefully, do you know who you are sharing with?
Siri helped bring these issues to my attention and I am not saying that I will never take a DNA test for my genealogical research.
I am saying that I still need to know more before I decide to spit in that test tube.
As a result of this debate, the imagery of DNA has become central to my project. Lines And Ladders is the final part of my research project. It’s a performance game and uses the imagery of the double helix as ladders to move players forwards or backwards in their research stories.
Players roll a dice and move across the board. When you reach a double helix, there is an opportunity to tell a story. Sometimes these ladders are climbed upwards – you find a collection of photographs organised in an album with labels and move on with your research. But sometimes the ladders move you downwards – that precious album has no indication of who is in the photographs. It’s a pop-up performance in a public space, a storytelling game, in which all the audience are participants.
The question of the DNA test is on the board twice; it might send you forwards or backwards. It’s always a fascinating discussion.
Last weekend, I played the game in Manchester Central Library as part of the Double Helix Showcase for the Being Human Festival and it was great to be a part of event that was questioning how we understand, investigate and visualise family histories.
This Saturday, I am back in Sheffield at the Tree House Board Game Café. If you like telling stories about family history and are intrigued by the questions of the genealogical game – come along and play!